Aimlessly browsing along a shelf in a bookcase, I had nothing special in mind as I pulled the books out one-by-one; but I stopped short when a thin volume in a black dust cover appeared: “A Poem by James Cummings” was printed on the book’s spine. The red title on black was barely readable in the dim light: The Whole Truth.
Opening the thin volume, I discover the bookseller’s notes in pencil: First Edition, $11.95. That was lined out; replaced by $5.95. I recalled buying the book at a bookstore near where I worked in Menlo Park, California. That must have been 20 years ago, perhaps in 1988 or 1989.
The sad truth about books of poetry is that they are often found on remainder tables in bookstores. For many poets the first edition of a work is the only edition—that is the case for The Whole Truth.
The Whole Truth is a poem, or, more accurately, 24 poems on a common theme: Perry Mason, the fictional detective created by Erle Stanley Gardner. While I read the poems, I remembered that these poems were unusual in that they are sestinas—an unrhymed poetic form in which the end words of the first stanza are repeated as end words throughout the poem.
Poem 9 in the book is typical of the sestina style:
A silent Perry remembered how it used to be: look
Hard at all the faces, figure out who’s the killer.
Consider the money, that was always the best clue—
The only way you got the older ones into the game.
But, of course, money was never the real question.
The read question was, does it all end in silence?
He’d been very good at cracking someone’s silence—
Watching the eyes, the critical moment when a look
Betrayed the fear he would ask the fatal question.
And he would ask…
The poet’s rules for a sestina are simple (but difficult to do well): the last word of each of the lines of each stanza must appear in the next stanza, but the words appear in a different order.
The last word of the last line in the stanza above, silence, is repeated as the last word of the first line of the next stanza. The last word of the first line, look, is repeated as the last word of the second line of the next stanza, etc. Then come the other words: question, killer, game and clue, etc.
A three-line coda concludes the poem with end words: silence, killer and game. The three remaining end-words (look, clue and question) appear in the text of the last stanza.
(Note: Because the book is out of print; I have copied the complete poem to my Poems page.)
Well, sestina is one of those games that poets play (for their own amusement, I suspect), and they are welcome to their little pleasures. Being a poet cannot be easy.
The 24 poems of this volume are witty and cleverly written; clearly, meant to be read aloud and enjoyed. Some of them are courtroom drama; others show the Perry Mason characters offstage, interacting with one another. These latter poems can be sexy, erotic, sometime shocking, but always in good humor—I enjoyed the reading.
I had watched Ramon Burr as Perry Mason while in college in the late 50s and remembered the series, but who writes poems about TV characters? To answer that question I looked on the web for some information about the poet and his work.
James Cummins is curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection at the University of Cincinnati, where he also teaches. The Whole Truth, became known throughout much of the poetry world as the “Perry Mason sestinas” is his first book of poems. His second book, Portrait in a Spoon, won the James Dickey Prize Contemporary Poetry Series.
The Elliston Poetry Collection is another good story: it is located on the 6th floor of Langsam Library at the University of Cincinnati. The collection was made possible through the gift of the poet George Elliston, a Cincinnati newswoman who also founded a chair of poetry at the University of Cincinnati.
An example of George Elliston’s poetry (from Changing Moods, 1922) is follows:
Whirlwind they come and go
These changing moods of ours.
Mysterious ebb and flow—
Today, weighed down with grief,
Is swept with pain and woe
Passing faith or belief-
Tomorrow, love will live
Again, the soul take hope
In what its heaven may give.
Like phantom figures on
A screen, these changing moods
Here for a breath—and gone.
The 24th sestina in The Whole Truth is the title poem. It begins:
As he walked into the courtroom, Perry Mason
Was looking hard for a needle in a haystack
Mason’s client, the famous Air Force pilot,
To entice Jethro Wyatt’s daughter to submit
To his charms, had rented a plane and a long
Banner that read SPREAD ‘EM! Unfortunately,
The plane turned upside down. Fortunately–
The coda is:
“Unfortunately, I submit,” said Della. “How long
Did we have the wrong haystack?” “The pile: it
Contained her gold ring,” grinned Perry Mason.
Although the book is out of print, used copies can be found for about a $1 on Alibris or on Amazon. A bargain read if there ever was one for fans of poetry or Perry Mason. Of course, Perry wins the Case of the 24th Sestina–who could doubt it.
Day 70: The Whole Truth, James Cummins (1986).