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.


Optimist Prime 11

Were the night eternal, no need to wake
Were tears a fount of blessing, abundant blessing I make!
Were pain ever constant, no shocking relapse from peace
Were the world empty, no cause for loss

Were I blind, no sight of the unattainable
Were I deaf, no unbearably painful news to hear
Were I mute, no hard decisions to announce
Were I paralysed, no need to move on now

Were there no memories, no good ones to fade and no bad ones to linger
Were there no exhilaration of joy, no comparative despair of grief

Were I cold and unfeeling, no sorrow ache misery sting dejection agony longing to feel

The Universe, Contracted to a Span

After seeing some astronomy photos today, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for those times when poets who write after the tradition of John Donne compare their object of love with the world or the universe. Quite literally, these pictures of a galaxy and nebula I saw look just like an iris. A pair of them could make eyes you can get lost in. It’s a nice little example of microcosm / macrocosm. Ahh poetry, where I first learned all this.

In The Sun Rising, which I don’t particularly recommend you read as it was written before John Donne converted to Christianity and hence is suggestive and saucy (though I had to read it in high school), Donne writes these lines:

 Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Disregarding the hubris of thinking they are the world, that’s a typically romantic idea, to think of the other as the world or at least to tell them that. I don’t think that’s a particularly helpful or romantic gesture myself, but I do know it’s a common cliché. Rather, this idea is an idolatrous one, beginning with assuming that the world is pre-eminent in importance and the greatest thing existing that one could possess, and transferring that idolatry from world to a person. This of course assumes that they are thinking of possessing the world as possessing its pleasures and riches, not in the sense of… reaching the peoples of the world with the good news of salvation in Christ for the glory of God, say.

I’ve digressed, even if it was fruitful. Here are the two pictures:

The Triangulum Galaxy

The Crab Nebula

In a beautiful pair of eyes, it can seem like the universe is contracted in a span – but this is only a metaphor.

The Pulley (by George Herbert)

With the traffic this post gets, I’ve started to wonder whether readership is from the high school and university academic community trying to write their essays / exams on George Herbert. Well, I hope you find this analysis useful to your understanding, but it’s quite a personal take on the poem.

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which disperséd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness.
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast

First let me add a good diagram I found:

Pulley System

Pulley System

Here’s how I can interpret this poem.

The title: a wheel and cable pulley. The more you pull towards yourself on one side, the further it goes on the other; only let go and…

What is the “Rest” that in the bottom lay? Satisfaction. If you think of rest, you only rest after finishing a piece of work, and you only finish a piece of work when you are satisfied with it. (Supposing you care about this work.)

You can work hard for anything, be it a decent paycheck, good grades, quitting a bad habit, living a good life, or even prominence in ministry. When that happens it is essentially you working – you may not have rest (i.e. be satisfied), but you can have all ‘the rest’ of God’s gifts (beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure). We can do any number of good things, and make any amount of effort aspiring to those things, but this cannot bring us close to God (make us presentable before Him). All that we can aspire for can leave us restless for that which satisfies our souls and puts them to rest – the oxymoronic servant-king that is Christ, who in one death accomplished and finished all that we cannot do in our entire life.

The paradox of salvation in the gospel is that I must admit that no effort of mine in pulling the pulley will bring me the Rest I seek. Christ came to us; we did not merit Him by our efforts. I can pull much yet not have what I need: the grace and mercy of Christ who justifies me by dying the death I should die for my sin and rebellion from God. Rather, when I admit weariness and let go of my progress, however far the pulley has gone in my own strength, that is when I get the satisfaction I tried to work for. It’s a little bit of the puzzle.

“I am weary of not being all I expect myself to be! I cannot pull satisfaction to myself!”

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”  – Romans 8:20-21

“… But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior…” – 2 Tim 1:8-10

[Interesting: Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 discuss “rest”; Sabbath-rest vs. God’s rest. Wonder if Herbert got the idea from here? “That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” 3:10-11]