On Sestinas and “Second Skin”

April 5, 2011

Moulted snake skin

Image via Wikipedia

The poet John R. Keene was tweeting about sestinas on Saturday under the Poetry Foundation’s @harriet_poetry moniker and I sent him one that I tried back in 1994.  It started from an actual scene I witnessed at the time in my garden in Garrison, NY.

According to The Academy of American Poets, “The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction.”

The Academy description lists some tour de force sestinas, including Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” along with “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Paysage Moralise” by W.H. Auden.

Here is my sestina, which pales in comparison like the flaking sloughed-off skin of the snake it describes:

Second Skin

 

In the yard by the barn was a snake

resting on a leaf-pile in the garden,

nearby his old shod skin

limp and lifeless under a noon-day sun.

Abandoned on the blades of grass,

like an untangled filament of memory.

 

The sight of him fired my memory,

which cast a shadow on the snake

(who now slithered away in the grass).

He lent a curious aspect to the garden–

aspect being its relation to the sun

–not unlike his relation to the skin.

 

He seemed to remember the skin.

(Do snakes have that much memory?)

Or was it a trick of the sun

that he mistook for a female snake?

When he made his way out of the garden,

I crept along quietly in the grass.

 

As I followed him there in the grass,

he stretched ever closer to the skin;

his path leading out of the garden,

as if tracing the line of a memory.

How strange, I thought, this snake,

disregarding the late summer sun.

 

Later, over-heated in afternoon sun,

I lay down to rest on the grass.

I watched again as the snake

tried to resuscitate his discarded skin,

perhaps to revive its dead memory

and lure it back home to the garden.

 

Cutting the lawn by the garden,

I must have been dizzy with sun,

or dozing in the haze of a memory.

Translucent flakes feathered the grass:

it was then I remembered the skin;

it was then I remembered the snake.

 

I sat by the garden dropping fresh-cut grass

onto my arm and its sun-baked skin,

clippings of memory snaking through my mind.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson


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