Friday, August 3, 2018

Poetry Friday: What's to Be Done? (A Sestina)

Sestinas are not usually end rhymed. But they can have rhythm--- and when I write one,* I find myself moving into the cadence of spoken language, riffing in jagged jumps of words. I think it's to disguise the fact that I'm supposed to use the same six words, over and over and over, and we're more likely to do that in conversation, right? I also stave off boredom by embellishing the repeating pattern with internal rhyme. Whatever it takes, because this form is six stanzas long, with an additional closing envoi. I don't think I'd attempt one, except...

Tricia made me. And she made each of us throw two words into the "pot" so we'd have a common pool of words to choose from. That helped. Thanks, Tricia! (And thank you, Tanita, for turning me on to this handy Sestina-o-matic, which puts the chosen six words in the correct order.)

Beyond that, I only needed a starting place, and for me, that was one of our words:  Prism. It made me think of Miss Prism,** who is both rigid and pivotal in Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest. And it made me remember the exhibit from WONDER, at the Renwick Gallery.  (Pictured above and left)  And, most of all, it got me thinking that a simple shape like a prism can be a powerful tool to see things in a new way. We all need that from time to time, especially when the world seems stuck in blindness.

What’s To Be Done?

The wildest of plays turns on Miss Prism
splitting folly from farce, her words like a blade
sharpening our ears until we bend
to her tale of a handbag and a baby, the string
of events so earnestly told we beam
at the deception and hastily about face

from laughter to love and on the face
of it, isn’t that, exactly, what prisms
are for? To righteously come abeam
our whitest thoughts; like a climber belayed
with pale rope suddenly seeing it is but string
if split into colored strands, and if history bends

towards justice, it’s like a river at the bend,
hooking an elbow punch to dirt’s face,
breaking time’s hands; if only we could string
together a new day as bright as a prism,
as long on light as a lithe blade,
as sure as feet balanced to a beam

without splintering the past, we'd remove the beam
from our eyes. Refracting is not only the bend
of light, but the shape of shade, like a sheath for a blade;
a polished block of glass has more than one face
we are prism after prism after prism after prism
a mighty hexagonal light-shattering string

of life-changing breaths, as light as silly string,
but together, a bulwark as broad as ark’s beam;
each a camera, each a chance to flip, like a prism,
the image, until by end and by end and by end,
with far folly and fierce farce, we face
what we see; so get out the pen blade

ready both handbag, and baby, and yes, like blade
braided from broad grass, cut deep; like string
on a finger, loop the past so we don’t forget to face
forward, and up to, what lies off beam
of the right course; and if we bend
light, no one will cry praise for our prism

There’s no daring blade; no super hero laser beam;
we are but search string; making maps that will bend
one face to one face, and unlock our prism.

                                               ---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Check out what my poetry sisters have done with their six words:


*I've written only one other sestina. It's chaotic, too.  Here it is.

** Miss Prism spouts judgments like: "I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment's notice. As a man sows so let him reap."

Poetry Friday is hosted today by the amazing Mary Lee of A Year of Reading.


  1. Dazzling. Mind (and light) bending! Abeam and belayed -- my favorite of all the creative moves in this wonder of a poem!

    1. Thanks, Mary Lee. I like the way poetry bends my mind as I write it. :)

  2. "if history bends towards justice" and "hooking an elbow punch to dirt’s face," manages to give some hope for that light. Love how you wove the words into your own personal message.

    1. Thank you. I wasn't sure where I was going with it when I began, but the sestina knew.

  3. Mercy me. Sara, this is just stunning. It doesn't feel chaotic to me, more a searching...a talking yourself through (in gorgeous language) what life is all about. I am amazed by this. (Favorite verse is the one that begins "towards justice," but there are just breath-catching phrases and ideas all throughout! Good for me to read this this morning. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Laura. I often feel poetry is just talking to myself. But...I'm glad you are her to talk WITH instead. I'm always amazed at what I'm willing to leap into with you Poetry Sisters...

  4. I agree with comments above. This is an incredible piece of writing. The imagery of hooking an elbow to dirt's face and the bending of light literally and metaphorically in camera, in breaths, in the past. Brilliant and makes me want to read it again and again.

    1. Thank you, Linda. I'm honored you would read it closely and follow my jumps of thought. I recommend the sestina to anyone who feels they need to sort through their thoughts---the repetition shakes things loose.

  5. Sometimes chaos is confusing or subduing, but this was invigorating and magical. Like a painting that seems abstract until the meaning blossoms in your mind and you realize it was never abstract at all.

  6. Despite you naming it so, I don't think it's chaotic so much as... like a prism itself, unexpected and bending and splintering in new directions. I love the energy and the leaps and the balancing...

    1. I'm going with your interpretation, T. Thanks.

  7. Wow! I find so much to think about from stanza to stanza. It's one to read again and again.

  8. Thanks, Kay. It’s difficult to make each stanza say something new with the same words.

  9. Oh my goodness, I'm so impressed! This is not an easy format to work with, yet you've managed it. And I agree, it's chaotic in the best kind of way, a driving kind of chaos that sweeps the reader along with it.

    1. A driving kind of chaos...I LOVE that. Thank you.


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