There are only two poems in a ‘traditional’ form in my first collection, and both are in the sequence. The first is this one, a sestina. I read somewhere that for a sestina to truly work, it must be about something that obsesses you, that you cannot stop thinking of, that goes round and round in your head. As soon as I read this, I knew I could try and write one.
The words at the end of each line repeat in a set pattern, and then all six words must be used in the last three lines in a specific order. To me then, those words then, are like the key in a piece of music. They set the atmosphere or the tone of the poem. The words I chose, stone, bird, moon, dark are important and recurring images in the sequence. But so is ‘it’ the idea of something that is nameless, that cannot be spoken, and so is the concept of asking, and the idea of questioning which is maybe the energy that drives this sequence. Stone means stone, but it also means danger. It also means the part of you that gives up, the part of you that hardens, the part of you that cannot speak. The part of you that is a victim but also the part that fights back, that becomes stone instead of nothing. And bird means bird, but it also means being transformed, being acted upon. But it also means flight and freedom. And dark means dark, but it also means danger, it also means hiding, it also means not seeing. And the moon is the moon but it also means the things that carry on anyway, it means indifference, it means listening but it also means witness.
I started this poem in Clare’s workshop as well, although the first draft of it had no intention of being a sestina. The next week, I was running a workshop session on form with my young writers, and after talking about why you would want to write a sestina (something that obsesses you, something you can’t stop thinking about) I had a go at writing one along with them. It felt like following a thread of language, with the words squatting at the end of the line, unchangeable and insistent.
I’m writing this whilst tutoring on a residential course, the Poetry Carousel in Grange-Over-Sands. Finishing off these blog posts during this weekend has made me realise how much my teaching is bound up with my writing. I wrote many of these poems during workshops on residentials, writing along with the participants, who over the course of time have become friends, colleagues, even a large, dysfunctional and a geographically distant family.
I read from the sequence as a sequence for the first time on a residential course, and had to run into the sea afterwards to get rid of the tension that was running through me.
It has been cathartic, thought-provoking, sad, anger-inducing process to revisit some of these poems as part of the 16 Days of Action. I also feel proud, of how far I’ve moved from them and beyond them, that the pain I was writing about is no longer the same pain. Time, and poetry really does make things better.
The last poem in the sequence is a sonnet, but I won’t be posting it here. I wanted to write that poem as a sonnet, because it is the most closed, most self-contained form. The way a sonnet functions like a box, the way it snaps shut at the end made me hopeful that if I finished the sequence with it, it would stop the poems continuing. I could stop writing about it, stop thinking about it. That was possibly naïve however. The ‘you’ at the beginning of the sestina is Clare Shaw, the speech taken from a conversation we had about writing about trauma. She didn’t meant it in the way I heard it back then. In fact this is a mishearing, a misremembering of what Clare said. Luckily she is a generous enough person not to mind. I misheard what I needed to hear, which was permission to write about it.
The writing I’m doing now are looking at what makes it possible for things like domestic violence to take place, what are the conditions in our society that mean some men become perpetrators and some women become victims/survivors/resisters or just lucky (if they don’t experience it)
If you would like to read the last poem in the sequence, you can buy a copy of The Art of Falling here
Thank you all for your reading, and your supportive comments, and messages. I really appreciate them all.
How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping
What happened sits in my heart like a stone.
You told me I’d be writing about it
all my life, when I asked
how to stop saying these things to the moon.
I told you how writing it makes the dark
lift and then settle again like a flock of birds.
You said that thinking of the past like birds
who circle each year will make the stone
in my chest heavy, that the dark
that settles inside me will pass. You say it
is over, you say that even the moon
can’t know all of what happened that to ask
to forget is to miss the point. I should ask
to remember. I should open myself to the birds
who sing for their lives. I should tell the moon
how his skin was like smoke, his hand a stone
that fell from a great height. It
was not what I deserved. The year was dark
because he was there and my eyes were dark
and I fell to not speaking. If I asked
him to leave he would smile. Nothing in it
was sacred. And I didn’t look up. The birds
could have fallen from the sky like stones
and I wouldn’t have noticed. The moon
was there that night in the snow. The moon
was waiting the day the dark
crept into my mouth and left me stone
silent, stone dumb, when all I could ask
was for him to stop, please stop. The birds
fled to the trees and stayed there. It
wasn’t their fault. It was nobody’s fault. It
happened because I was still. The moon
sung something he couldn’t hear. The bird
in my heart silent for a year in the dark.
This is the way it is now, asking
for nothing but to forget his name, a stone
that I carry. It cools in my mouth in the dark
and the moon sails on overhead. You ask
about birds, but all I can talk of is stones.