Sunday, May 28, 2017


According to the Academy of American Poets site, the sestina is a complex form that achieves its often spectacular effects through intricate repetition. The thirty-nine-line form is attributed to Arnaut Daniel, the Provencal troubadour of the twelfth century. The name “troubadour” likely comes from trobar, which means “to invent or compose verse.” The troubadours sang their verses accompanied by music and were quite competitive, each trying to top the next in wit, as well as complexity and difficulty of style. The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

Strange Relation (2011) is the American poet Rachel Hadas’s account of caring for her husband, the composer and Professor of Music George Edwards, who was diagnosed in 2005 – at the age of sixty-one – with dementia.
In “Mervyn Peake (1911–1968)” she takes as her subject another artist who fell victim to a neurodegenerative disease, Mervyn Peake, best-known for his Gormenghast trilogy (1946–1959). Peake began to exhibit signs of dementia in his mid-fifties. It first showed in his writing and drawing style and then began to affect his memory so that eventually “he could no longer read a story and retain the idea for an illustration long enough to draw it”. By the early 1960s, according to another account, “he was with us only in flashes, and those flashes were often over before we had grasped what he had said, or could reply”.
This poem is a sestina and its flowing, lilting, repetitive form creates a strange, sad but suggestively opaque effect. An Alice in Wonderland. (from TLS)

Mervyn Peake (1911–1968)

He learned the alphabet of arch and aisle
roaming the boundless castle that was home.
Arcades and corridors and battlements
rounded back on themselves, dead-ending, lost.
Unclear if there was anything called sky.
Friendly places – attic, open book –

led nowhere. Or the meaning of the book
burned with the library. Smoke scrolled up the aisle.
The roof came off. Under a changing sky
successive interpretations of home
shimmered into focus, then were lost.
Allegory: what this may have meant.

A girl named for a flower leaned over a battlement.
On a table behind her in the attic, a book
was open to a poem. Then her place was lost.
Ritual processions down an aisle
of venerable observance: this meant home.
She craned to see the color of the sky:

buttresses, but for years there had been no sky.
When the weather broke, it flooded the battlements.
Ways to feel safe in a perilous home:
curl up bodily inside a book;
explore a cave in a confected isle;
wander through a fortress. For all lost

girls’ or boys’ stories trace what they have lost
from toys in the attic to dreams of a carefree sky.
Azure childhood. Royal riddles. I’ll
try to explain what every gargoyle meant,
explicate each bright carving in this book:
weird holidays, the templates of a home.

Does the imagination make its own home?
Can we recognize meaning once it’s lost?
Does life unfold inside or outside the book
whose every page presents a private sky?
You do it too now: scale each battlement
or set the figures marching up the aisle

tangled with isle, home, sky
and what each meant, lost in the labyrinth
of his enormous book.


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