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)
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.


MRS Degree: an honours designation

Only in the last semester of university that just passed did I learn what an ‘Mrs. Degree’ is: the situation where a female attends university with meeting a spouse as a major intention. [Pun intended]

Hallmark sentiments

When I discovered this concept while chatting with some classmates, my immediate reaction was repulsion. How dishonourable, to go to university for something other than intellectual or professional development! lame shame.

Having grown up a little more since then and thought more about it from different angles, I realise that I am at fault for my immediate reaction. While it sounds like someone pursuing an MRS Degree is idolising romance/marriage/men, being repulsed to the degree I was at the time shows evidence of being steeped too far in the opposite direction: idolising intellectual pursuit and independent thinking.

It’s bizarre, because I feel so sad when I see that bent in my professors’ world views, or when class discussions revolve endlessly around how wrong it was that women did not used to be able to pursue independent lives. Many professors’ academic research matters little in light of eternity. I know this and believe it strongly, yet the attitude has permeated. While looking for fun images for this post, I read something on another blog by a Christian high school teacher which I won’t link to, but will quote: “My biggest fear is that many of the young ladies I teach will go off to college in hopes of getting an MRS. degree. Ladies, keep fighting.” Keep fighting what? The godly desire for marriage? I know that Christians complain about how society does not respect ‘family’ anymore, but perhaps Christian society (especially young people like myself) can disrespect it just as much in our attitudes.

Say MRS Degree to a bunch of female honours students who take school seriously and you’ll probably get frowns and rolled eyes. (This hasty generalization is based mostly on an assessment of my reaction in the situation cited above.) It just sounds ridiculous and somehow ‘cheap’. But the truth is, marriage is honourable and worth pursuing. (Unless you are called to be celibate – and not many are.) I don’t feel like researching a bunch of Bible verses for this post because the ones I would quote are well known and easily googleable anyhow. Adam and Eve – not good for man to be alone, Proverbs – he who finds a wife finds a good thing, 1 Corinthians – it is better to marry than to burn with lust… etc.

Thinking about university peers who have married or are getting married after meeting during university, it’s a little ridiculous that a short while ago I would think lowly of MRS Degrees theoretically, because I have always had huge amounts of respect and admiration for the young couples I know, and never thought about the contradiction in my attitude. Now I have gone and given those classmates in the discussion the wrong impression of marriage.

It is one thing to see the wrong in idolizing romance, but depriving the pursuit of marriage of its honour is wrong too.