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Formal Feeling

William Coleman

I’ve been mentoring a student in a senior project on poetics. Recently we read this wrenching instance of the sestina, a form that calls for the same six words, in differing orders, to end the lines of six consecutive stanzas, then for the sudden yoking of those words into a three-line envoy.

It’s as old as Gothic architecture, this form; in 1992, Miller Williams (father of the musician Lucinda) took it apart. The risk of deconstruction is leaving the reader cold; Williams’s work is anything but.

The form’s spiraling nature facilitates a descent from philosophical distance, from the realm of self-preserving wit, to the field of harrowing, to the place where “the spirit meets the bone” (as he puts it in another poem, and which his daughter used as the title of a recent album).

The sixth’s stanza’s a punch in the gut, in fact, as the six words he cycled through various contexts in five consecutive stanzas are suddenly distilled, or suddenly rendered to bone, suddenly reveal themselves to be the essential nature of all that has come before. Whatever it is I am saying, the stanza’s words seem to say, I am always saying this.

And then, as my student noted, the speaker attempts recovery from that exposure of self, achieving the safer ground of storytelling once again.

Throughout, form and feeling are one.

The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come–

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark-they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.


Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.