I did not mean to skip last week; I had a poem all picked out and everything and somehow time just got by me. Some of you out there in ether-reading-land enjoy formal poems, so here’s one. I do, too, FYI. Here’s a sestina, do we all remember what a sestina is? I can remember reading my first one. It could have been sophomore year in HS, when we did American lit, but somehow I remember it being senior year with the irrepressibly strange Nancy Baxter. I say strange with love, as you’re all aware. It was an Elizabeth Bishop sestina, but not "One Art." Something about a book, a teakettle, a cabin, and a stove? Engel? Bradshaw? Any help here? I know, I know, I could google it, but that’s no fun.
And I remember in that class, really taking the sestina apart, line by line, and learning the rules for it by looking at how it was put together. They are devilishly hard to write — we then had to try one of our own. And though I didn’t get how the one we were reading made sense, I can tell you my own made even less. Sestinas don’t rhyme, of course, or, I should say, they needn’t rhyme. But they do have tons of internal rhyme because of the form’s dictates. They also have an internal logic, and when done well, an incantatory thematic repetition. Does anyone want to put their inductive reasoning skills to work and suss out the rules of a sestina based on this one example?
Today’s poem is by Raych Jackson, a poet, playwright, and educator in Chicago. She’s apparently big on the live poetry scene; if you’re into more than one medium check out her readings/spoken word at Button Poetry. What I like about the poem below is that, like a great rock ‘n roll album, it impresses as much on side B — possibly more — as on side A. Perhaps that has to do with the accretion of symbolic meaning through repetition of the totem words. I thought she hit her stride in stanza 4 and I was mesmerized from then on. Have a great week! -ed.
A SESTINA FOR A BLACK GIRL WHO DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO BRAID HAIR
Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest.
Don’t sit on my porch while I make myself useful.
Braid secrets in scalps on summer days for my sisters.
Secure every strand of gossip with tight rubber bands of value.
What possessed you to ever grow your nails so long?
How can you have history without braids?
A black girl is happiest when rooted to the scalp are braids.
She dances with them whipping down her back like corn in winds of harvest.
Braiding forces our reunions to be like the shifts your mothers work, long.
I find that being surrounded by only your own is more useful.
Gives our mixed blood more value.
Solidifies your place with your race, with your sisters.
Your block is a layered cake of your sisters.
Force your lips quiet and sweet and they’ll speak when they need to practice braids.
Your hair length is the only part of you that holds value.
The tallest crop is worshipped at harvest.
So many little hands in your head. You are finally useful.
Your hair is yours, your hair is theirs, your hair is, for a black girl, long.
Tender-headed ass won’t last ’round here long.
Cut your nails and use your fists to protect yourself against your sisters.
Somehow mold those hands useful.
You hair won’t get pulled in fights if they are in braids.
Beat out the weak parts of the crops during harvest.
When they are limp and without soul they have value.
If you won’t braid or defend yourself what is your value?
Sitting on the porch until dark sweeps in needing to be invited, you’ll be needing long.
When the crop is already used what is its worth after harvest?
You’ll learn that you can’t ever trust those quick to call themselves your sisters.
They yearn for the gold that is your braids.
You hold on your shoulders a coveted item that is useful.
Your presence will someday become useful.
One day the rest of your body will stagger under the weight of its value.
Until then, sit in silence in the front with your scalp on fire from the braids.
I promise you won’t need anyone too long.
One day you will love yourself on your own, without the validation of sisters.
No longer a stump wailing for affection at harvest.