Thursday, June 30, 2011

After School, In Free Verse

Growing up in a Catholic family can be difficult for a rambunctious and inquisitive little boy. Although God was always a choice in our house growing up; and although my parents were very liberal with their views on religious tolerance; school was a much different story.

My parents did not administer religion with the same enforcement as did the parents of some of my friends and relatives. Religion was ever-present but treated with the same importance as, say, water – you couldn’t live without it, but too much and you’d drown. But, alas, that was at home… we attended Parochial school and regardless of what the views were at home… at school they owned us – and I nearly drowned.

Nuns, priests, and Brothers of the Order were my charges at school. For years I didn’t know a teacher could even be non-clergy. I was a very smart boy who could not seem to avoid trouble. I was constantly being kept after school for something that by most rational standards was not even punishable…

I wrote this poem around the time my daughters started school as I reminisced about my own experiences; but I suspect it has always lived inside me. Ultimately, I suppose, I got a lot out of my years of the uber-disciplinary ways of the cloth as it played a role in making me who I am today; and if nothing else, I mastered the art of selling tootsie-roll tubes and magazine subscriptions door to door in order to finance the church’s new roof – with the unanimous endorsement of all three members of the holy trinity, of course…  I still remember those afternoons after school silently riding home in the back seat staring down at the paste on my hands – formed from chalk residue and tears…

After School
The blackboard glowers upon the wall
Deleted words now clouds and specks
The unclean blank slate thirsts for chalk
Before a crowd of empty desks
A small hand reaches high to scrawl
To one abbess staring – vacant –
Through the window at clouded skies
The child glances; the hand begins
To atone for sins with a hundred lies
“I will not daydream in class again,
I will not daydream in class again...”

I felt the ironies within this poem (the daydreaming abbess, the atonement through sin, etc.) was best revealed within one more irony – the use of free verse to frame something as structured and formal as a Parochial school punishment… hope you enjoyed this one…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Elegy, An Italian Sestina...

One afternoon in college I was sitting in the library on the east side of campus mindlessly flicking through the tissue-thin pages of another Anthology of English Literature, Volume 400-and-something-or-other. Barely minutes before I fell asleep in a puddle of my own drool something caught my eye. It was a poem titled Sestina by Elizabeth Bishop. As I read the words I couldn’t quite understand why it called to me so strongly. When I finished reading the poem, I continued to the footnote positioned just below it near the bottom of the page. The footnote explained that the poem was something called an Italian Sestina. “The Italian Sestina,” it continued, “is regarded as one of, if not, the most difficult poetic form in the English language.” I was hooked; and immediately challenged to write my own Italian sestina.
What makes the Italian Sestina so very difficult (and therefore rare) is the poem’s unique and complicated structure. Called lexical repetition, the Italian Sestina consists of 6 stanzas of 6 lines each (sestet), and an envoy consisting of 3 lines (tercet or couplet). The final word in each line of the first sestet begins with the obvious order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The next sestet rotates the final words from each line of the prior sestet according to a fixed pattern to end each line of the new sestet. The pattern is as follows:
                             (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)                      – End words of lines in first sestet.
                             (6) (1) (5) (2) (4) (3)                      – End words of lines in second sestet.
                             (3) (6) (4) (1) (2) (5)                      – End words of lines in third sestet.
                             (5) (3) (2) (6) (1) (4)                      – End words of lines in fourth sestet.
                             (4) (5) (1) (3) (6) (2)                      – End words of lines in fifth sestet.
                             (2) (4) (6) (5) (3) (1)                      – End words of lines in sixth sestet.

                             (2, 1) (4, 3) (6, 5)                           – Middle and end words of lines in tercet.
                             Or (1, 3, 5)                                      – Or End words as a couplet.

This is a vertical, graphical representation of the rotation of the final words in each sestet (numbered across the top) and the end words denoted vertically:

As you can see this style is very challenging. Since that day in college, I’ve written many poems in the style of the Italian Sestina… here is one that is close to my heart…

It was written in autumn after a visit to my great-grandfather’s grave on a crisp, blustery Ohio day. Leaves blew across the mounds of the graveyard grounds and the wind spoke in whispers…

Over the beauty of the grassy plain
And through the stain of swirled marble
There blows a wind so lovingly sweet
It summons my thoughts and memories
To a time when I thought I’d spend the rest
Of my secrets with you, sweet friend.

Upon these grounds trod many a friend
Whose love and friendship proved so plain
Though to a higher rank obtained, like all the rest
I see your name set down in stony marble.
Carved in grooves within which our memories
Are formed and etched and firmly set so sweet.

And Underneath that cold, lean, sweet
Earth that teams with life my friend
There grow such tailored memories
Of you and me that blow across this plain
They speak out boldly through that marble
Underneath whose voice you rest.

I need not see nor read the rest
Of styled, stony testaments. Not so sweet
As to match your sonant, chiseled words of marble.
Although I know they are, too, a friend
Of friends who stood upon this plain
And who also felt this wind that summons memories.

Now I can feel these memories
Becoming fears and forming seas that come to rest
Upon my cheeks and splash upon this plain.
I never knew that Death could be so bitter sweet
As now as he has thieved from me my friend
Now known to all the world as only sculpted marble

But rest you well, fond friend of stone, marble
Over your Earthly home and in my memories.
For in your grave you remain my friend;
A friendship that will never rest
Never break nor ever wane as long as sweet
I hear your voice upon this plotted plain.

So now repose unto this grassy, marble plain
Here through memories kept so fresh; caress the sweet
Call of old remembrance, and rest, my old friend, rest…

It’s undeniable that the mystique of the Italian Sestina lies in the fact that the same six words end every line of every stanza. I had a lot of fun writing this poem and hope you had the same enjoyment reading it.