Even poets get to have favorites. For Tania Runyan, author of How to Write a Form Poem, it’s the sestina. She writes, “I’m not even going to try to be unbiased. I adore sestinas. They’re my favorite poetic form, hands down. And they’re kinda nuts.”
Sestinas don’t rhyme — instead, they repeat. The pattern of end-words is a little bonkers, but there is a definite method to the madness. Tania compares the pattern to the spiral staircase in a lighthouse: You wind up, and then you wind down. The steps and words are “never leaving, always changing.” (I really like Tania’s “Seventh Grade Sestina, in chapter 3, because of the way it changes and the way it doesn’t.)
Here is a sestina I wrote in The Joy of Poetry that was entirely built around the word horcrux, of Harry Potter fame. It seemed the only word that could hold the experience of looking in the mirror and seeing my mother in my own face, long after she had passed away. It felt magical, and not in a good way. It deserved nothing less than all 39 lines of a sestina.
Who Am I?
“Let’s go for a walk,”
she’d say, and then my mother
would circle the block. I’d question
why we couldn’t go farther. My body
could handle it. But Merry
Nell’s couldn’t. She needed a horcrux
Or, perhaps, more than one horcrux.
To figure that out, she’d need a longer walk
through the neighborhood. She’d be merry,
as she always was. I am a mother
who likes to push her body.
There’s no question
about it. But every day I question
why I am her horcrux.
Why everybody seems to think I am walking her walk,
that I am mothering like my mother.
It’s true. My name is also Merry,
and I also chose to marry
at 21. That is not the question.
I need to know how to mother
without one. All I have is a horcrux,
one I bring with me each morning I take a walk:
my own body.
But it’s acting strange, my body.
It’s give me signs, as yours did, Merry
Nell. Oh, it can still walk
up actual mountains. But I do question
because it doesn’t feel like mine. It feels like a horcrux.
I feel like I am you, my dear, dead mother.
And I’m not, am I? Holy Mary, Mother
Of God. Pray. You’re not here in body.
Neither is my mom. She’s only a horcrux.
She wasn’t into you, Mary. She didn’t even have a question
about you. Not even when she couldn’t walk.
Like Harry, I am the horcrux. I am not my mother.
I can still walk, and I still dwell in this body.
But I am Merry Megan. No question.
– (Merry) Megan Willome
I’m spending National Poetry Month celebrating Tania’s new book and my old one. To learn how to write a sestina, what Tania’s sestina journey has entailed, and a little bit about lighthouses, pick up a copy of How to Write a Form Poem.