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Thoughts on Poetry, Books, and Life

Poetry Friday: A Sestina

I pulled a notebook from the shelf and discovered a 3 year old collection of assignments for an online poetry course I took.

As I scanned the pages (I meticulously printed each assignment, my homework, the quiz for each lesson and the final exam) I was amused to see how my incorrect answers were often more of a difference of opinion than an error.

For example, “What is the first thing you need to do before you write a poem?” I would love to hear all of my Poetry Friday friends answer that question, so please offer your insight in the comments.

The “correct” answer is “Establish a realistic writing schedule.”

If we’re waiting on THAT to happen I’ll never write a poem again, I fear.

I also found this poem, a sestina, that I don’t recall writing but as I have the handwritten draft, it must be so. I fear it’s not uplifting, so I apologize for that. But frankly, I never dreamed I’d write a sestina so I wanted to record it for posterity!

Message in a Bottle

By Keri Collins Lewis

Before she left home for the last time,
she sat on a weathered bench beside the ocean,
her hair whipped by the wind,
her eyes fixed on the billowing waves,
her thoughts jumbled and wild,
her mind a broken shell.
She used to spend hours at the shore, searching for shells,
the sun tracing hours across the sky, treasured time
surveying surfers who craved the wild,
testing their sills against wily Neptune’s ocean,
watching and waiting, measuring waves,
seagulls taunting overhead, pleasure-sailing on the wind.
No one believed her when she told of voices in the wind.
No one listened to her chat with a mermaid in the shell.
No one saw her slipping beneath Alzheimer’s tugging waves.
They made excuses, said it was stress, give her time
to grieve, to mourn her dead son, to weep an ocean.
How could they not see the storm approaching, wild?
How could a woman – for decades so mild – become, in the end, so wild?
She slipped out of her house at all hours, like the wind,
invisible, stealthy, unnoticed until she roared like the ocean,
until she was tossed on the beach of their reality, like a shell
hollowed out by meals never eaten, pounds shed over time,
hunger forgotten as scattered memories broke on her in waves.
Doctors poked and prodded, tested her brain waves.
Frantic calls between distant siblings swelled into a wild
debate about who was best suited for caregiving, who had time
to research solutions, to dole out medication, to chase the wind.
Where was their real mother, locked in this impersonator’s shell?
Unanswerable questions tugged, relentless as the ocean.
In her new home, far from her beloved ocean,
she listens to a CD of whales singing to the music of the waves.
On her dresser sits the now-silent mermaid’s shell,
and a dish of chocolates to eat when she’s feeling wild.
Outside her window, a chime moves in the wind
and sounds like her father’s clock, tolling the time.
They cremated her shell, an ending fiery and wild,
her ashes scattered on the ocean, to float on the waves
and be born on the wind, like the birds, like time.

Kiesha is hosting Poetry Friday at Whispers from the Ridge.

26 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: A Sestina”

  1. Oh, my. What a beautiful and sad story. Alzheimer’s tugging waves.Wow. Bravo to you for trying a Sestina! That is a form that eludes me still.

    I laughed at your question: What is the first thing you need to do before you write a poem? I wish it weren’t true. But, I turn on the computer and peek at social media and move back and forth between screens as I write. I can only seem to handle a few intense sentences at a time. Setting a writing schedule sounds good and sterile and text-booky. Kinda funny that anyone would even ask that of poets!

  2. HA! Oh my goodness, that absolutely wouldn’t have been my first thought at all! I wish I could set a consistent writing schedule, but as a hobby poet I have to fit in writing around work, family, and the rest of my life – let me tell you, the laundry doesn’t just do itself, no matter what my writing schedule! 🙂

    1. Keri says:

      You & I are in the same boat! I read about Mary Oliver walking daily for years, all day, & the townspeople know it’s working bc she stops & scribbles in her notebook! Sometimes I think if not for Poetry Friday I would let Poetry slip out of my life. I’m so grateful for all of you! (Or “all y’all” as we say here in the South!)

  3. Tabatha says:

    That’s sad and wonderful, Keri. A lot of compassion in that sestina.

    It would be hard to get the answers “right” if that’s the kind of answer they expect. I remember when I was in graduate school, one of my professors said that writing poetry worked out for women’s schedules because you could fit it in while you were doing other things.

    1. Keri says:

      It’s a good thing I had already swallowed my coffee or there would have been an incident when I read your comment! Yikes! I think I’m glad my class was online — I’d find it difficult to maintain a good attitude towards your professor!

      1. Tabatha says:

        My professor was an African American woman who was referring to how women weren’t given a lot of time to work on their art because they had so much to do, so poetry was a good outlet.

  4. Irene Latham says:

    Oh wow, that’s really beautiful, Keri. Yes, sad. But beautiful. Thank you. And that answer kind of cracks me up about what to do before you write a poem… I might say “listen” because it can mean whatever it needs to mean for each individual. Congratulations on your sestina! The form fits you… write some more of them! xo

  5. Linda Baie says:

    Your sestina “discovery” is like finding a treasure, Keri. It is sad but beautifully shows that terrible journey. I love that ending about time, “to float on the waves” As for the “how” of what to do before writing, I keep thinking I should make a schedule, but I don’t. I wrote today about the why of the poem I shared. I was dusting, saw a book I hadn’t read for some time, and wrote.

  6. Donna Smith says:

    Oh, my, Keri! That is gorgeous! Do they have medical poetry books to submit this to?
    Amazing how we can write things we don’t recollect or even think we could! This is a treasure. Glad you found it.

  7. I agree there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the question of what you need to do before you write a poem. Sometimes one just comes to me and I madly scribble. I’ve also been known to grab my phone in the car (not while I’m driving!) and record whatever has popped into my head. If I’m truly working intentionally on a poem, I typically write words or phrases related to the topic and it goes from there.

    While heart-breaking, thank you for your poetic offering.

  8. Beautiful, heartbreaking poem. I’m glad you discovered it and shared it.

    Oh my, I suppose being determined to write might help in beginning a poem, but I’ve never had much luck with setting a schedule. For me, I like to play with words before I begin to write. I also like Irene’s suggestion of listening.

  9. Violet N. says:

    Wow, that’s quite a find. So sad, but with a real story arc. I love how it builds, and how you explored some of your chosen words (like ocean waves becoming brain waves). Don’t lose it again.

  10. Keri, I am truly impressed by your poem. Your character is so at peace at the ocean’s edge that your ending fits so well. She has tasted the bittersweet parts of life and then goes home to where she belongs. How spellbinding. My answer to your question would be to sit and reflect. Let thoughts immerse you before putting pen to paper.

  11. Brenda says:

    I start writing a poem by thinking about the things I can’t get out of my head. I compose in the shower, the car, while trying to sleep and after sneezing. I think in words and images until they sort themselves into order. Or they order me. It’s dancing with epiphanies instead of wolves. Words can eat you alive. Poems can save you. I can’t image how such a beautiful sestina came from a course with such prosaic answers. But I’m not opinionated. Well, hardly ever.

    I might have to listen to whales now.

    1. Keri says:

      Thanks for making me laugh, Brenda! After sneezing is my favorite. 🙂

  12. Here’s to finding hidden treasures in old notebooks! I snorted when you said you couldn’t remember writing it. Glad it’s not just me.

    Before writing poetry? How about listening the the wren sing his morning song?

    I, too, am thankful for Poetry Friday as a way to keep poetry strong in my life (and that of my students). Perhaps that’s another thing to do before writing a poem — write a PF post and read the roundup!

    1. Keri says:

      Excellent advice, Mary Lee! (And yes, I take comfort in the idea that I’m not alone in this forgetting!)

  13. The first thing I need to do before writing a poem? Probably take a nap. 🙂

    Your sestina was heart-tugging indeed, Keri. I knew I was in for it by the 6th line— her mind a broken shell. Interesting that you don’t recall writing it… I would think you would.

    1. Keri says:

      I love your method! I agree — one would think a sestina would stick out in my mind but, I’ve slept since then. 🙂

  14. Keri, it seems that this week a few of us have experienced finding unexpected treasures that have been stored away. I really like your poem. I love the references to the mermaid. Hold on to that notebook!

    1. Keri says:

      Thank you, Kiesha! The notebook also has all my PF poem swap poems I’ve received so I won’t get rid of it any time soon!

  15. You gave us fair warning. Your poem was brilliant in the creation of a story within the confines of this challenging form.
    So the first thing to do before writing a poem is to take a walk, listen, and notice. Like you, if I had to establish a writing routine, I’d never write.

    1. Keri says:

      Yes, NOTICE. The details make the poem sing!

  16. Michelle Kogan says:

    Beautiful and moving poem, the ending brings us back to the beginning and fits so well. I don’t have a writing schedule, though I am writing everyday. Thoughts come, often in the early morning and this can make me almost late for work. Nature and walks are also a constant inspiration.

    1. Keri says:

      Hurray for writing everyday! Way to go, Michelle!

  17. The ‘now-silent mermaid’s shell’ is so sad, but so striking, as are the other images and emotions you have here, Keri.

    Personally, I would say the first thing one needs to do before writing a poem is to determine if the poem wants to be written…which may seem like an odd thing to consider, but it can be very helpful in understanding the poem.

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