Despite taking a fantastic class in graduate school called, simply enough, “Forms,” I don’t write form poetry all that often (well, outside of my daily haiku, but even those aren’t true haiku). Every week we’d focus on a different sort of poem, covering everything from haiku to the sonnet to cinquain to rondeau to villanelle. In other words, we were all over the place. The point, though, was not to merely realize that all of these variations on the poem existed; rather, it was to force us into self-constraint. That is, to make the language conform to the music. It’s a great check, really, because, quite often in a class like this, the writer’s ego goes out the window and the sheer music of poetry is appreciated. Too often I think we feel ourselves (as writers) to be too goddamn important. We think that whatever it is we write carries weight simply because it happened. Well, as my former instructor, incredible poet and Thesis Chair Bill Knott pointed out, if it’s merely anecdotal, who the hell cares?
With that in mind, I present “World Map,” a sestina I wrote in Bill’s Forms class. Wordnik defines a sestina as, “A verse form first used by the Provençal troubadours, consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in varied order as end words in the other stanzas and also recur in the envoy.” That “varied order” is actually a calculated one, as well, in which the end words conform to a predetermined pattern. Most sestinas fail, at least at an amateur level. Still, many great ones have been written. By no means do I mean to imply that mine is great; rather, I’ve always just kind of liked it. And seeing as how it touches on that time near summer’s end when the sun has decimated everything, I thought it appropriate.
Behind my childhood home, in the burnt-grass yard out
back, was a throttled shed — weather worn, rain heavy,
sick with rusted aluminum and stripped-away paint.
My brother and I stored our bikes there with a map
of the whole neighborhood. We drew a bad imitation
of our neighbor’s red brick two-story, the water
tower on the county line, the Kovak’s well whose water
had run dry. Even their kitchen pipes had dried out,
and when they did, their old man became an imitation
of his former self, his overall pockets heavy
with the weight of loss. Poverty put us on the map,
but we didn’t want it that way, outlined in flaking paint.
Because we hardly even owned a single can of paint
to fashion any sort of model, we thinned it with water,
used our index fingers for brushes and tried to map
everything we knew into shapes and dotted lines, out-
lined our house in the center of it all with a black so heavy
its intensity and depth might have been an imitation
of night. All summer we kept ourselves in imitation
of our universe: matchsticks dipped in green paint
to represent the oaks; powerless batteries heavy
enough to build tiny houses on. We used water
stained with awful air to erase our mistakes — to wash out
what we didn’t need. To place the world on a map,
refer to it in terms of landmarks we’d create and map
out ourselves, we thought we could be a foolish imitation
of things we’d only heard of — take truths about ourselves out
of play. We thought the world was a canvas awaiting paint,
a place to keep imagination wet with water
and want. At the end of summer, when evening got heavy
too soon, and the sun packed itself up like a helpless, heavy
baby waiting to dream, we’d return to the map
and renovate the changes — heat that swallowed up the water,
the sun that turned our backyard into an imitation
of death, the shed that so desperately needed a coat of paint.
Anything to keep the coming weeks away and out
of ever happening. We were heavy then, an imitation
of what we are now. We knew a map could never harbor paint
enough to replicate the water we would need. We dried out.