The Exploded Sestina

by John Shea

The problem with a sestina exploding is—well, I don’t have to tell you! You’ve lived it, you’ve gotten down and dirty with its fragments, the one that exploded that other time, when, that is, we first realized the threat inherent in every sestina. So there you were, plucking the words off your sweater—one of those heavy Irish things, I believe, made of white wool, although it may have been a pink cashmere V-neck, I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but when a sestina explodes not ten feet away, strewing lines and words (voluptuary, discretion) and fragments (intransi-, -eeling), sometimes mere letters or pieces of letters (a broken Q, with that deceptively sharp tail, is particularly frightening), you tend to pay more attention to this surprising and not altogether welcome phenomenon rather than to the color of your friend’s sweater. And if you can’t get over that, too bad. But you of all people can sympathize with me, having gone through the experience that has now, in some ineffable way, begun to transform me. I was sitting at my kitchen table, the daily newspaper open to the sports, a half-finished sestina (and thank God for that! Otherwise I might have been blinded by “the cat-smooth curvature of her spine,” which was likely to be the third line of the fourth stanza) lying near my Bic. And then, from out of nowhere but the whereness of my table and my weary brain, the thing shot all over with a hissing and a sharp report, as the old adventure novels used to put it. There were colors, some, at least, in consort with the words in the poem (blue, despair). I ducked as “the brokenness of the book’s spine” flew like a shuriken over my head; I threw myself to the left as “yielding spine” and “mere cohorts of love” and “green” went whistling by. Terror? Not quite. There was some fascination in the mix of my emotions. Some admiration for the self-determinacy of the thing, this exploding sestina, apparently impatient with my lackadaisicalness. But who wouldn’t be?!

And now that the memory of my experience and your close call is clearer, I can say with some confidence that you were wearing your white woolen Irish sweater. Now I distinctly remember how difficult it was to extricate Jezebel from the stitching. You even made some ironic comment about your real-life Jezebel and her clinging ways.

What has become apparent is that the stuffedness of this verse form can be dangerous, even incendiary—too many repeated words at the end of lines, then all six of the key words jammed so closely in the final tercet. It’s almost foolhardy! But we’ve always known that writing a poem takes bravery if not recklessness. Perhaps we—you and I—can attempt a new form, in this day and age when the world (or at least a group of a half dozen respected arbiters) cries out for a new form to rejuvenate and reelectrify. We’ll let our sestinas explode, then gather whatever survives, us included, and link the fragments in a meaningful way. Even looking over the verbal wreckage on my kitchen table, I spotted some possibilities:

the cat-smooth cohorts

yielding to the brokenness of love,

our spines green, like cohorts

of –ing,

always –ing.

See what I mean? Oh, the places it could take us! And then, if we have the courage and the flak jackets, perhaps we could take a closer look at another dangerous form that simmers with tightly packed repetitions, yes, the villanelle.


John Shea may be the only person to have published stories in both Partisan Review and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His story “The Real World” was published in Columbia and was later performed as part of Writing Aloud, a program of InterAct Theatre Company of Philadelphia. His story “The Bus Ride” appeared in Shadow Regions, a horror anthology, in 2006; and he won Honorable Mention in the most recent short-shorts contest run by “Literal Latte,” posted in its Fall (November) 2009 issue. He is an editor and writer at the University of Pennsylvania. His story, "How to Make Something Out of Nothing," appeared in Issue #12 of The Cafe Irreal.