Acrostic Sestinas

Sestinas are a form that naturally lend themselves to narrative and oral recitation. The intricate pattern (consisting of six, six-line stanzas ending in six carefully-chosen words, followed by a couplet or tercet containing those same six words in no particular order) can be challenging to adhere to, but if the form is followed exactly then the readers will be left with a memorable poem. A long time ago I found this form-key on Wikipedia. I printed it out and for years I carried it around in my wallet. Now, I have memorized the pattern.
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The subject of a poem should always determine the form. The form of the sestina is a spiral, a modified circle. The circle is a sacred shape in most cultures. I have found that mythic or childhood stories (however brutal or simplistic) are expressed well within the bounds of an acrostic sestina. The acrostic itself (which runs down the first letters of the left margin) is used to add another wrinkle, an another (hopefully deeper) layer of complexity to the story the poet is constructing. It is best to plot the acrostic out in advance. Since you know that the acrostic will be either 38 or 39 lines long, you will need to pick a phrase or sentence with a corresponding number of letters. For this sestina, knowing the theme of the poem, I chose, ‘The circle of your life closes around your neck.’

First, I plotted the pattern of the sestina onto two of the pages in my notebook. I am only showing the first page, since that should be enough to give you the gist:

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The numbers running down the right margin indicate the classic sestina pattern. The numbers on the left correspond with the letters of the acrostic that I am about to put into place.

Second, I choose the end-words and plug them in to fit the pattern. I do the same thing with the acrostic running down the left margin:

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Finally, I write the poem, incorporating both acrostic and end-words into the narrative. I would recommend a larger notepad than the one I was using, so that the letters do not become quite so cramped. I would follow my own advice on this point, but since I usually write drafts while using the stepper at my gym, I’ve found that a larger notebook is too awkward to hold while bouncing up and down:

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Here is the finished poem:

Let This Circle Be Broken

The first time we spoke you said that when you were a boy
Her long-nailed hands pushed your drunk body back into the grass,
Extracting your unwilling, still-small penis. Blood
Coursed, drawing your flesh up like a hook-tipped wire.
I didn’t know what sex was, yet, but I recognized this variety of death.
Rape leaves an unmistakable thumbprint. Girls
Can (and do) steal what they want. I was a girl,
Like my rapist. You were a disturbing boy;
Extremely kind, occasionally. Still you brought me dead,
Opened-up kittens, spread their piebald corpses on the grass,
Furtively (hopefully) smiling at me, nervous as a mook wearing a wire.
You presented them to me like a bouquet made of blood.
Of course, I tried to murder you. I drew up the hidden blood
Under your skin, fractured your beautiful cheekbone. Girls
Respond to fear as fiercely as anyone else. Wiry
Little things (like I was then) can overwhelm lost boys.
I left you there, starfished and panting on the grass.
Failure drew away your desire. I might as well have died.
Easier conquests waited in the dead,
Close darkness of the barn. You smelled the bloody
Loins of a new-made woman. Dried grass
Over spilled the fat lips of the cows. The girl
Set herself to milking, pulling those long, pink teats. Boys
Expect more out of life than they are given. Wires
Send signals spiraling through synapses and flesh. Wires
And hoses dangled from the ceiling. Dead
Rage clouded your blue eyes. You were not a boy,
Or innocent. Not anymore. You were a creature of blood
Underneath your patched flesh-mask. This girl
Never stood a chance. You choked her insensate as grass,
Dead-weight. You dragged her through dirt to the pile of grass
You’d prepared earlier. You yanked her like the wires
Ordering the limbs of a marionette. The girl
Understood, later, what you’d done. Death
Reached through your will to claim her bright blood.
No punishment awaited you then, boy.
Eventually, the girl rose, blood dappling her
Cunt, grass standing in her hair like wires.
Keep running, boy. One day history will stop you dead.

Copyright: Bethany W Pope, 2015

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