From: The Whole Truth, James Cummins—

Sestina Nine (9)

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. Without mercy. He was a killer.
He loved the chance to destroy, like flushing game
From the field of a face, each tiny twitch a clue,

Small animals of fear he tracked down, clue by clue,
Suffing them, one by one, into the jury’s silence.
It took brutality to get to this level of the game.
You had to be a hall of mirrors, give bak the look
Of infinite self-loathing that spurs on the killer.
You had to be his conscience, with its one question

Pounding his brain like beaters, until that question
Drove him screaming out into the clearing of a clue,
Blinking frantically in the sun, to face his killer,
As around him the bleak farmland became the silence
Of the courtroom, his fce lit up with the wild look
Of one who has outlived his usefulness in the game…

Perry whispered through the bars of the door, “Game?”
Outside, an intern looked up from his pad, a question
In his eyes. A nurse, marking a chart, saw his look.
“Used to be a lawyer. He’s wanting his game of CLUE.
In a bit. He plays a while, then lapses into silence.
He’s probably hot on the trail of some crazy killer—

You know, up her. “She tapped her head. “A killer?”
She nodded, twirling a finger around her ear. “Game?”
Perry heard himself say, ‘Does it all end in silence?’
“Game?” he repeated slyly, posing that meek question
As if trying to trick some green rookie from the ACLU.
The intern hid behind his magazine. He wouldn’t look.

Questions. Shrewd looks. A fiercely guarded silence.
When it came to playing CLUE, the old bag was a killer.
“Game?” Warily, Perry tossed the dice. “game? Game?”

…p.22, The Whole Truth, James Cummins (1986).

An then, another sestina on a more serious theme:

Elizabeth Bishop – Sestina

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

For more examples: Pound, Asbury, etc. see Poets.org.

James Cummins was curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection at U. Cincinatti. Elliston herself was a notable poet. The following poem is from her first published book: Changing Moods


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.

… Title poem from: Changing Moods, George Elliston (1922).


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