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Sestina -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem sent in by Mark Penney
(Poem #1799) Sestina
 September rain falls on the house.
 In the failing light, the old grandmother
 sits in the kitchen with the child
 beside the Little Marvel Stove,
 reading the jokes from the almanac,
 laughing and talking to hide her tears.

 She thinks that her equinoctial tears
 and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
 were both foretold by the almanac,
 but only known to the grandmother.
 The iron kettle sings on the stove.
 She cuts some bread and says to the child,

 It’s time for tea now; but the child
 is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
 dance like mad on the hot black stove,
 the way the rain must dance on the house.
 Tidying up, the old grandmother
 hangs up the clever almanac

 on its string.  Birdlike, the almanac
 hovers half open above the child,
 hovers above the old grandmother
 and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
 She shivers and says she thinks the house
 feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

 It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
 I know what I know, says the almanac.
 With crayons the child draws a rigid house
 and a winding pathway.  Then the child
 puts in a man with buttons like tears
 and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

 But secretly, while the grandmother
 busies herself about the stove,
 the little moons fall down like tears
 from between the pages of the almanac
 into the flower bed the child
 has carefully placed in the front of the house.

 Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
 The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
 and the child draws another inscrutable house.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
I was amazed to discover that Minstrels had never run this poem.

Like it says, it’s a sestina; Minstrels has run a couple before, notably the
awesome Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams [Poem #904]. There’s an
explanation of the form there; if that’s not enough for you, you could also
try googling "sestina", which will send you to all kinds of sites that’ll
have you writing them in no time.

I love this one because it uses the form so gloriously.  Look at the six key
words:  house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears.  Five homey,
mundane, comforting, cozy words, and "tears".  That choice right there tells
you that there’s something going on beneath the surface, that not all is
right with the world of grandmother and child and crayons and tea.  After
the second stanza, the tears aren’t even literal, but we’re still seeing
other things (the rain, the tea, the moon figures in the almanac, seeds)
likened to tears.  There’s an all-pervasive sadness there, even though the
surface imagery of the poem is so very cheery and homey.

And the relationship between grandmother and child is captured so
beautifully, too.

Classic Elizabeth Bishop; you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else.


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