Ritual Each night at dinner, in lieu of grace, my mother lit the center candle on the table. We children were allowed two fingers of wine from the icy jug that was kept cold out on the front porch. The seven of us shared bread and casserole on our full plates and the light filled the room with luster. Each of us had a task: clear the dishes, wipe the table, snuff out the half-melted candle, its smoky trail reaching to the ceiling like fingers folding into prayer. When the washer was full, we’d stand by the sink, my mother and I, her hands plunged into the soapy water, mine holding a dish towel, removing the dripping pans from the drainer, and wiping the water away, to expose the shine. We’d stand there in the evening hour quietly perfecting every keepsake minute. Later in life, I stand in class, by the desk in front of students as we discuss short fiction, plunging into emerging themes. A daughter and mother in one story bathe together in a tub infused with herbs and bark. The same characters travel to market to gather bread, butter, and fish to prepare together later. The mother preserves the daughter’s childhood in a trunk: plaid dresses and yellowed blankets, mementos aired out and refolded again. In capital letters, I write ritual, chalk powdering the folds of my slacks. Together we learn that these acts are connective tissue that bind our muscle to bone. Though pages away, miles, or even years, we, as characters break bread, fold hands into each other’s, light the light that will unblind us. from Four Blue Eggs
The poem began as a class exercise. My students were experimenting with fixed and traditional form poems. I gave them the option of trying a villanelle or a sestina. Some had trouble getting started, so I offered a few images that they could pool from. We had discussed the form and how repetition functions differently in each of these forms. The sestina incorporates repeated end words–words at the end of the line–in a pattern of six line stanzas. A “map” or chart is helpful, and I gave them handouts and examples to follow. As they worked, I asked each student for one word–my aim was to use their words, fixed in a pattern of the sestina. I also had in mind a debate about whether or not a pattern can overwhelm a poem and another debate about how meaning functions in the realm of pattern. Big questions for a 75 minute class.
In the end, I had about 20 words, which I wrote down in order, then supplemented to create six word lines which I then formed into six line stanzas. The exercise challenged me to see how word choice leads pretty naturally to syntax and a need to find meaning not only in words, but in phrases. Beyond that, the challenge was to vary the lines enough so that the repetition (already expected in the sestina form) wouldn’t overwhelm or underwhelm the poem. As I wrote, the fun was in rearranging in interesting ways for sound, then meaning. As I read and recorded the poem, the fun was in managing my voice, the cadence, the pronunciation and articulation of each word and each line. This made me think more about punctuation choices as well as line breaks (enjambing and endstopping–or not).
Whether the poem has logic or “meaning” is now up to the listener. For me, I enjoyed the practice, but I mostly enjoyed that the words were given by my students, and in a way, it’s their poem.