The Sestina of a Lifetime

If you are not aware of the poetic structure of a sestina, it is a poem of highly structured word repetitions (6 words) following this pattern of retrogradatio cruciata: wherein all six chosen words appear in every end-position possible within 6 stanzas of 6 lines.

Table of sestina end-words (columns for stanzas, rows for lines, order+word listed as number+letter)
OneTwoThrFourFiveSix
1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B
2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D
3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F
4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C 5 E
5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A 6 F 3 C
6 F 3 C 5 E 4 D 2 B 1 A

This is followed by a final 3-line stanza, the envoi, containing the 6 words again in this order: 2-5 / 4-3 / 6-1.

You might surmise by now that a poem with such rigid and repetitive structure that lasts for a significant number of lines (39 in total) is good for expressing something about the more repetitive things in life. I’ve seen good ones about a long train ride with strange people (Sestina of a Train by Al Purdy), and obsessive lovers who can’t stop thinking about each other (The Lover’s Sestina by Bruce Meyer). Both poems capitalised on the repetitive aspect of the sestina form to create that (oppressive) feeling of reading the same words over and over. But I really wanted to try a sestina in which the words clearly repeated without such a heavy feeling of them repeating. For this I had to choose the kind of words that could have varied meanings. I did “cheat” in that I intentionally chose to make one of the six words change throughout the poem, but I decided that before even beginning to write. Besides that disclaimer, I don’t want to over-explain the poem. Here is my attempt:

The Sestina of a Lifetime

9 months she ate the things she craved to eat.
On Monday noon he heard the doctor call,
with trepidation rushed in from the hall,
to see his babe emerge from head to feet,
untangled from the womb to be set free:
To hold her was to see her as The Only.

They sent her off to school when only 5:
a sandwich, fruit, and cookie she would eat,
then play with friends outdoors when time was free.
When bullies nasty names of her did call,
her mother taught her how to turn defeat
into the courage shown in concert halls.

Then, fresh-faced from her graduation hall,
she joined a firm to ‘start her life’. Only,
Monday mornings she would drag her feet
and wonder, “Eat to work or work to eat?”
She’d close her eyes her childhood to recall,
and wonder how she squandered times once free.

When dreamy man her passions did set free,
they tied the knot and filled a banquet hall.
Guests watched as pastor at the altar called
them husband wife – each other: one and only.
They barely sat to celebrate and eat;
their life would start once they had thrown their fête!

But changing diapers proved to be a feat
from which young parents struggled to be free
when seven mouths would cry, “I want to eat!”
Then soon their children passed through college halls,
and once again they were each other’s Only,
except when grown-up children came to call.

On Friday night she got a sudden call:
his heart attack had brought him to his fate,
and once again she lived with herself only,
until her soul fled too. Finally. Free.
Some tears were shed by loved ones in the hall,
then dust to dust and soon the worms would eat.

All counted, would you call your life as “free”?
Which Way goes your feet walking down the hall?
These questions, only, away at you to eat.

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Romans 8:38-39

Reading the August 1st entry from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, I noticed something in these verses that I didn’t before. Read the whole thing first.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [ESV]

What is it that I noticed? Paul is sure that neither death nor life will be able to separate us from the love of God. Life cannot separate us from the love of God. Sometimes I am convinced that things suck and I’m tired of it and wish God would decide that it’s time for me to go. There’s a faint sense, at least in thinking of what I would be like if I were convinced that God loved me much, that I am tired of life because I think God doesn’t love me hence this is what he’s giving me. Conventionally, death sounds something terrible, but sometimes for Christians, life is what conventionally sounds something terrible if, you know, we get to be with God in death and free from this world. I’m not sure this is an orthodox or accurate interpretation of the verse, but to those who think like me at times, here it is: even sucky times of life do not mean we are separated from the love of God.

King Lear and The King of Jews

Prince Edgar speaking about his usurped father, King Lear, from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers suffers most i’ the mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind:
But then the mind much sufferance doth o’er skip,
When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship.
How light and portable my pain seems now,
When that which makes me bend makes the king bow,
He childed as I father’d!

Paul in his Letter to the Philippians about Jesus, also called ‘King of the Jews’.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Since Shakespearean plays were written in a time of ‘Christian culture’ when Biblical discourse was familiar to people in common ideas and phrases, it makes sense to form an analysis of these two passages together. The following are some of the salient ideas I see here:

  • The effect of seeing a great individual suffering
  • Having fellowship in suffering together
  • The significance of a great individual suffering voluntarily for your sake

The Lear passage focuses on the first two points: when we see greater people than ourselves suffering the same things we do, it makes our miseries seem less intimidating (less like our foes/enemies). If you think you are suffering alone, life sucks. But when you suffer grief together with another, you don’t pay so much attention to the fact that you’re suffering. Less pity partying. When you’re in the dumps and you see that someone greater is also in the dumps – ah, well it’s really not that bad.

Paul’s passage more directly addresses us and Jesus, the King. Jesus is in very nature God – clearly someone greater than ourselves – but he made himself ‘nothing’. That is, God became human; and not just any human but a lowly human, a servant. The suffering he endured was not merely misery or grief alone, but also death. And that death referred to is not just an ending of life as biologically understood. Biblically speaking, the concept of ‘death’ is separation from God. (Colossians 2:13) It is the logical conclusion of sin, or non-holiness. But if one were holy and not sinful, death would not be logical or deserved!

“When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.”

“When we Jesus see bearing our sins,
We scarcely think our struggles worthy foes.” — Not great poetry, but interesting anyways.

For me, reading the Shakespeare is more emotionally gripping than Paul’s letter, not because Christ’s death on the cross is not moving, but because the passage about death on the cross is an explanation of a culminating event, whereas the Lear passage is an internal emotional palette. It’s a little like eating sugar or eating carbs – the carbs turn into sugar, but the sugar is already sugar and can give you an immediately energy boost. But in this way, non-Biblical texts can sometimes support the logic of the Bible with the immediacy of emotional trigger.

All this still does not discuss the part where suffering Lear says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” but I’m  not getting into that here. I’ve written another post on King Lear a while ago that focuses on that anyways. See that post here on King Lear and God.

More from Exodus

Done Exodus! Next phase: Judges and James. Here are some notes I quickly typed as I was reading.

Idols: the things you cherish in your heart.

“I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not share your affection with any other god!” -Exodus 20:5 NLT

Let’s throw this thought out there. Replace silver and gold (what you’re not supposed to make idols out of) with ‘things precious to you’ in Exodus 20:23.

Remember, you must not make or worship idols of [things precious to you]. (NLT)

Fear connotates respect; fear is different from being afraid. Being afraid is to do with outlook while fear is to do with attitude.

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” -Exodus 20:20 NIV

Something to think about regarding God’s view of death caused by man: it shows the heart behind Jesus’ explanation in the Gospel of Matthew about God’s commandment against murder. In the law quoted in Exodus, accidental killing that God allows to happen is not punished with death. The intent to injure (and the link to anger as producing that intent) appears important. Think about intent and motivation to end life regarding abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. In particular, this article from the Weekly Standard brings up abortion workers who are beginning to see their work of ending life as “unbearable.”

Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death. (Exodus 21:12-14)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

God is very fair: the rich cannot buy his justice off, and the poor cannot avoid paying their dues either. Exodus 30:15, Galatians 3:28, Romans 10:34

Coming next… a search of “Sabbath” and “rest” in Exodus.