Poetry

Susan E. Gunter: “Sestina for Esther”

 

Sestina for Esther

The first thing that I remember is a house.
Curved sunbursts circled the long porch
and lilacs shaded the sweet gnarled garden.
At night the house set free its ghosts,
so I hid beneath the covers, keeping still.
They breathed so hard I thought they were in pain.

The old ones in the rooms knew about pain.
They said, in the end, it came to every house.
They said I’d learn someday, but still
I wouldn’t believe them. I read on the porch,
fairy stories whose endings were free of ghosts
and whose journeys took me to a far enchanted garden.

At twilight, catching fireflies in the garden,
I’d put them in a jar. Was there pain
for them, or were they invincible as ghosts?
After the stars came out I went into the house,
leaving the mayonnaise jar on the porch.
In the morning all the fireflies were still.

Mason jars lined the cellar shelves, distilled
brandy, cherries, spiced peaches from the garden.
Against the stone wall the striped canvas porch
swing rested from summer storms. Discarded pain
remedies were thrown beneath the stairs. The house
swayed above those restless moaning ghosts.

I wish I’d stop dreaming about those ghosts.
I wish that my mother were still
in the kitchen, baking bread in the house
and canning the wealth of her late summer’s garden.
I wish she had withstood the pain
that made her jump from a beam on the porch.

All their warnings came true on the porch.
Then I knew what the old ones meant. The ghosts
had condemned her to a twilight world of pain.
After she jumped, all their voices were still.
Weeds choked her yellow roses in the garden
and the white paint peeled from the house.

 

First published in Poet Lore and reprinted here with permission of the author.

 

Susan E. Gunter has published poems in the US, Bulgaria, England, Montenegro, and Sweden; her reviews have appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, the Harvard Review, and other journals. She studied poetry with James Dickey and with Jane Shore at Johns Hopkins and in 2020 placed second in the California State Poetry Society’s annual contest. Her new chapbook, Over the Village, will be out with Finishing Line Press and available for preorder later this year at www.finishinglinepress.com. She has published three academic books on Henry and William James, including Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James (University of Nebraska Press 2009), available for order here. Gunter was awarded three Fulbright scholarships which she used to support her mentorship of poets in the Balkans. She is a current member and a former board member of the Marin Poetry Center, Author photo credit: William Gunter. For more information, visit www.susanegunter.com.

 

Poet’s Note

I wrote “Sestina for Esther” in 1986 at a summer seminar at Johns Hopkins, in a class led by Jane Shore. Guest speaker Marvin Bell did a session on the sestina, a form I only knew from reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” one of my favorites. Bell taught us the importance of the sestina’s six key words; they must resonate with the emotional impetus behind the poem. Bishop’s emphasis on the grandmother and the child helped me find my six words, as I grew up in my great-grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania and my grandmother raised us while my mother worked. The house held generations of memories—and ghosts. The sestina’s formal constraints allowed me to express difficult feelings without falling into sentimentality. The poem appeared in 1988 in Poet Lore. Currently, Italian critic and translator Andrea Sirotti is translating it into Italian for a collection of American sestinas that will be featured in a journal there. “Sestina for Esther” will be out in 2022 in my chapbook Over the Village with Finishing Line Press.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

As you can probably tell from previous features, I’m a fan of the sestina form. Maybe it is because I have never been able to write one, daunted by the linguistic gymnastics required to shoehorn in those end words. Or, maybe my obsession has to do with the form’s own programmed-in obsessive qualities. Anyway, I adore sestinas that work, such as in James Cummins’ The Whole Truth (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2003), based on characters from the old Perry Masonseries—these sestinas evoke Shakespeare’s highs and lows, the whole human shebang rendered in sparkling, supple language. Ezra Pound and John Ashbery have written compelling sestinas and two by Elizabeth Bishop, are classics: “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast.” The sestina suits the contemporary taste for repetitions that are subtle but powerful, and the form is popular in poetry today.

A Medieval French form attributed to Arnaut Daniel in the twelfth century, the sestina was used by Dante and by Petrarch, who gave it its name. [The Book of Forms (UPNE 2000), ed. Lewis Turco, p. 251.] It’s a repeating form that follows a line pattern of six six-line stanzas (sestets) plus a final three-line stanza called an envoi, omitted in some versions. The six end words (“teleutons”) are repeated as end words in a particular sequence throughout the remaining sestets before all appear, one last time, in the envoi. The lines may be of any length, but they must follow this pattern:

Stanza 1. ABCDEF
Stanza 2. FAEBDC
Stanza 3. CFDABE
Stanza 4. ECBFAD
Stanza 5. DEACFB
Stanza 6. BDFECA
Stanza 7. ECA or ACE + BDF or ABCDEF in any order

This complex pattern of repetitions engineers the haunting, obsessive quality that so draws me to the form and is also the source of its subtlety. Because the end words do not rhyme, the repetitions are not obvious. A given word, say “porch” in today’s poem, recurs seven times, once in each stanza but always in a different position within each stanza. The mind eventually begins to register a pattern, but because the pattern is complex, it’s almost subliminal. I love a form that does its work without announcing it is a form. I also love getting utterly caught up in a poem and its meaning—and only later realizing that the poem was metrical and rhymed or followed a fixed pattern. When formal devices work in poetry, they work invisibly, and in my opinion, they elevate expression to a plane higher than is possible in the absence of form. I resonate with many poems, but a well-wrought sestina moves me, body and spirit, in ways that few others do.

The sestina’s haunting obsessive quality suits itself, naturally, to haunting and obsessive subjects such as memory, and the primary challenge in writing in this form is to avoid tedium, or triviality from reaching for those end words. It has been surprising to me to see how effectively the form can be exploited to comic effect, as in Cummins’ sestinas, or Ted Kooser’s “Weather Central” dryly conveying the dullness of TV weather reports. I recall one sestina brought to a workshop whose dialed-in repetitions managed to capture, hilariously, the lavish excess of Imelda Marcos’s fabled collection of shoes.

Still, the repetition of those six end words can really hobble and ballast the lines. If not carefully controlled, the repetitions can become boring or banal. All of this is by way of saying that one reason I admire “Esther’s Sestina” is its mysterious lucidity. Like all sestinas, it tends towards circularity, and yet it still manages to tell a powerful story. The subject—memories of a golden childhood whose coda was a mother’s suicide—is so powerful, while the approach to telling it is so elliptical that the poem assumes a kind of shimmering quality. It oscillates around its dark subject, delicate and light while still capturing the obsessive, haunting quality I want from a sestina.

Let’s drill down a bit on this form and how it is worked out in “Esther’s Sestina.” Here, the end words are: “house,” “porch,” “garden,” “ghosts,” “still,” and “pain.”

Stanza 1. ABCDEF     house porch garden ghosts still pain
Stanza 2. FAEBDC     pain house still porch ghosts garden
Stanza 3. CFDABE     garden pain ghosts house porch still
Stanza 4. ECBFAD     distilled garden porch pain house ghosts
Stanza 5. DEACFB     ghosts still house garden pain porch
Stanza 6. BDFECA     porch ghosts pain still garden house

Note that if the form is followed faithfully, then the same word—here, it is “house”—will appear as the first and last end words in the poem, bestowing ring construction. “Esther’s Sestina” follows the form but omits the traditional envoi.

Charting Gunter’s end words highlights some sound relationships among them, for example, consonance in porch/pain and in garden/ghosts. I also notice something interesting about the words themselves: their flexibility and resonance. One key to writing sestinas is choosing evocative and supple teleutons—that is, words that are themselves rich in associative meanings and that occur in other forms, such as homonyms. In this poem, for example, Gunter substitutes “distilled” for “still” in stanza 4.

It is also helpful to choose words that occur naturally in variant forms. Here, nearly all of Gunter’s end words can function as verbs as well as nouns (house, garden, ghost, still, and pain), and while that particular mutability is not employed here, these nouns still carry a “verb potential” charging them with an energy that contributes to the poem’s shimmer. As metaphors and symbols, moreover, these words are so resonant that just reading them in the chart above, in any order, begins to construct a narrative about families and houses and suffering that feels universal.

The repetitions of end words in sestinas create a pattern that can do what a formal rhyme scheme does—provide a way to structure a poem. In the chart above, you’ll notice that in each new stanza, the end word of the first line mirrors the end word of the previous stanza’s last line, forging a strong sound link between stanzas. The pattern fills in the rest of the stanza by borrowing end words from the preceding one in ping-pong fashion, starting at each end of that stanza’s teleuton sequence and working its way back towards the middle. The movement is like a pendulum swinging back and forth—or as Annie Finch puts it, like braiding hair—and it is hypnotic. To me, it fashions a fretwork as invisibly complex and rhythmic as the movement of tide or moon.

This makes it the ideal form for “Esther’s Sestina,” an example of what some call “organic form” emerging as a natural extension of a poem’s subject matter. The sestina’s movement is circular and associative, making it not the best for storytelling but ideal for exploring obsessions and memory. In this way, “Ester’s Sestina” harnesses an obsessively repetitive form to express the way we sometimes return to a deep childhood wound, nursing it like a sore tooth and never quite able to access the pain’s source. Here, we not only see and understand the speaker’s grief but powerfully feel its elusiveness—it is almost too painful to confront head-on, and time is making the memory harder to access. The sestina form is perfect for this poem’s subject: a speaker returning to a persistent and painful memory of her mother and her mother’s suicide. The memory at times draws close and at times recedes, but it is always there. It is even there, in the form of “old ones” and “ghosts,” when the speaker tries to access memories of happier times when her mother was still alive.

I also admire the natural unfolding and coherence of the poem’s syntax. That the end words don’t stand out and instead are folded so deftly into the narrative—trust me, that takes some syntactic chops. Many images also stand out: the jars of put-up fruit on the shelves, the fireflies, and more. I enjoyed linguistic sparkles such as the partial rhyme (assonance) in the title and the way “still” can mean two things in the second line of the fifth stanza:

I wish that my mother were still

If you read that line alone, it can mean that the speaker wishes her mother’s ghost was no longer troubling her, and if you continue on to the next line, reading “I wish that my mother were still /in the kitchen,” the word means something else altogether. I also applaud the choice of “porch” as an end word. We do not know why it is so important until reaching the next-to-last stanza, but when we read that the porch was the instrument of the mother’s death, we get it, and it has a big impact.

The poem is accessible and welcomes readers in. Diction is plainspoken, and the meter is mixed iambic pentameter and tetrameter, so it is conversational. These seem to me to be good strategies when using a form that is itself already so complicated. And, making a point I have made before, accessibility is a good thing in poetry so long as the poem still has depth and mystery. Here, those qualities come from the meaning of the words, the story they weave, and also, I think, the magic of a well-executed form. You could call this poem an elegy to a lost mother, but I read it more universally as an elegy to the lost kingdom of childhood, and I was very moved.

 

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