Friday, September 7, 2018

Poetry Friday: Before You (a cento)

The Tattered Cover, Denver, CO

Ever take something that wasn't yours? Did it haunt you?

What about a memory?  Can you borrow another person's eyes and see what they've seen? (Isn't that what fiction does?)

 And how about all the words you've consumed in the course of a reading don't ever give them back, of course, but how many can you reuse in a row without giving the original author credit?

None of these questions are really addressed by this month's challenge, in which the Poetry Sisters "borrow" lines from other poets to make new poems, an art form known as the cento. Still, in creating one, the poet has to decide what the limits of appropriation well as how to make something fresh out of "used" material.

To top it off, there really aren't a lot of rules.

To help with that last point, I threw down two additional guidelines for our centos, mostly to unify them. 

1)  We would each chose a different word from this common stanza to begin:

“This dream of water—what does it harbor?
I see Argentina and Paraguay
under a curfew of glass, their colors
breaking, like oil. The night in Uruguay”
---- "I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror" by Agha Shahid Ali

And then...

2)  Using our chosen word, we would each search the database at for other poems which also had lines containing that word. The lines we found would be the building blocks of our new poems. (All lines are credited to the original poets at the end of our centos.)

I chose the word "see" from Ali's stanza and found it to be the perfect doorway to other poems and poets.  Turns out poets "see" a lot.  Or they think they do.  I could work with that.

Before you

My childhood home I see again, and sadden with the view;
Is this a dream?—I see my grandpa milking,
I see the quilted mountains

I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
Are those my brothers, down there, those I see evacuating?
Because I see a part and not the whole,

I see us everywhere. On occasions of fancyness,
I see the lilacs crackling like static
I see it as music, I hear it as light;

I see how our lives have unfolded:
I see her hitchhiking the stars’ tar road—
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

Speak, and I see the side-lie of a truth:
I see Argentina and Paraguay
I can see the flaws in the glass

I see the whole morning before you.

            ----A Cento, compiled by Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Line Credits:

1) My Childhood Home I See Again by Abraham Lincoln
2) One A.M. by David Young
3) Balance, onslaught by Khadijah Queen
4) The Red Sweater by Joseph O. Legaspi
5) Alamogordo 1945 by Adriano Spatola
6) I Know My Soul by Claude McKay
7) Never Ever by Branda Shaughnessy
8) Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson
9 ) Roads by Amy Lowell
10) White Sands by Arthur Sze
11) The Last Kingdom by Jennifer Foerster
12) My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson
13) Modern Love: XXVI by George Meredith
14)  I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror by Agha Shahid Ali
15) Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood
16) For You by Maureen N. McLane

Please find my Poetry Sisters' links to their centos below.  To a word, they are gorgeous.

Liz (with breaking)
Tanita (with like)
Laura (with glass)
Tricia (with under)

Andi and Kelly are on break.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Beyond LiteracyLink.


  1. Sara, I don't know how you did this, but you have created a love poem to your family and to the world. I know someone asked if this was really writing a poem rather than just arranging one, but I find true poetry in this.

    Is this a dream?—I see my grandpa milking,
    I see the quilted mountains


    On occasions of fancyness,
    I see the lilacs crackling like static
    I see it as music, I hear it as light;

    are my very favorite bits. Beautiful!

    1. Thanks, Laura. I'm not exactly sure how I did it, either, haha.
      (In truth, I'm never quite sure how I write poetry for I feel it carries me where it wants to go.) I will say that choosing to start the poem with a concrete, sort of "plain" line helped me keep the cento from veering into chaos. (Thanks, Lincoln!!) On the other hand, that plain line led me to lilacs crackling like static. And now I want to start referring to various events in my life as "occasions of fancyness. :)

  2. Being an upcycler in other parts of my life, I am rather enamored of the cento. This is beautiful and surprising. Question: does one need to ask permission to use another's line in a cento (if it's to be published)?

    1. I think one line falls under "fair use." I also think citing all the original poems might lead readers to find poets new to them, which is a marvelous outcome. Speaking only for myself, I would be honored if someone used a line from one of my original poems in a cento.

  3. Yours came together so well, I wouldn't have believed they were all from different poems. Well done.

    1. Yes, I think that's it, Brenda...if you work with the lines long enough they become part of something new.

  4. I love that "before you" has such two wildly different meanings in context, and I have read this poem both ways.

    Also, "hitchhiking the stars tar road" is just... an amazing line, well used, on an "occasion of fancyness." We all see the part and not the whole, but you see "the whole of the moon," as the saying goes. Well done.

    1. I agree about the stars' tar road. I found that line and I was: OOOOOOOH! Keep, keep, keep!

  5. Sara, this is a splicing of lines that makes an exquisite love poem. There are some lines that resonate with me:
    "Because I see a part and not the whole,
    I see how our lives have unfolded:
    I can see the flaws in the glass"
    and then the beautiful ending
    "I can see the flaws in the glass."
    After reading three of the centos, I am curious to "see" how I would approach the task.

    1. Thanks, Carol. (And thank you for hosting Poetry Friday. I had trouble commenting at your blog to say so.) Anyway, I'm sure there are as many approaches as centos, so if you do try this, let the Poetry Sisters know. We'll cheer for you!

  6. To All: Thanks for coming by. And just to be clear: There's no reason you have to write a cento around a common word. That was solely my rule in order to have a starting place to look for good lines. You can create a cento around a theme. Or build one out of poem titles. Or simply use lines you find interesting. The trick is to make them into something new.

  7. You are a master cobbler...that's a lot of reading, looking, coupon-clipping and collage making. I'm wowed...more than wowed. I love this challenge and may try it. But, it will take time. Time in a good way. The credits to the other poets is part of the gold. Now, I must go read the rest of them. I do love how these lines came together as if they were meant to be. A gorgeous new work.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I hope you give a cento a try. You sort of have to get past a certain point in the re-arranging before it starts to feel like "yours" so stick with it. If it helps, I chose lines I loved more than lines that seemed useful. Then I was determine to use the beauty!

  8. I love that we've all come up with such different poems. I loved this exercise, even though the repetition of our chosen word in each line was a bit daunting and sometimes hard to make work.

    I love so much about this poem and the way it helps us "see" the world through the poet's eyes. I especially love the line "Because I see a part and not the whole."

    1. We did all come up with different poems! But they are make "new sense" and I learned so much collecting and making mine. Let's keep the cento in rotation, shall we?

  9. wow! You have beautifully crafted the lines you found into something new and original.

  10. Beautiful how alls these lines came together as a whole Sara. I especially like your lines with questions and responses in your first two stanzas, and also your closing line pulls it all together, thanks!


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