Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Modified Sestina

I first devised the modified sestina in the early '90s when I wrote "Degrees of Hell at Hattiesburg." While the poem retains aspects of the traditional sestina, the idea was to think in terms of word endings as opposed to end words verbatim.  Afterward, with an eye toward further innovations, I wrote additional sestinas, becoming progressively more playful as I developed the form, including "Last of the Rorschachs," my most recent experiment not only with the modified sestina, but also with the tanka chain.


Degrees of Hell at Hattiesburg

pour from a spigot like bad luck. You
drive naked outskirts hard for the freeway
out of a town whose one & only side’s
as wrong as your last right. The dashboard light
blinks low fuel—to say nothing of your ego—
so you stop at a tumbledown station

for a fill-up. Map unfurled, you ask directions.
The towheaded attendant stares past you,
his thoughts drifting like fumes. I don’t think I’d go
anywhere, he muses, & in a way,
you’re grateful. Up ahead flutter the lights
of a very greasy spoon. You decide

on coffee & apple pie with directions on the side.
The oddly pretty waitress’s mission
in life’s simply to treat folks polite.
Yeah, right. I don't see it on the menu,
she cracks, painted nail scrolling for "free whey."
You plunk money on the table & go

blindly down a dead-end street. Years ago,
she might have fallen for you, tossing aside
pencil, pad, & apron, running away
with your licentious imagination.
Now, obese & gray as a cloud, you
wait for the blankity-blank signal light

to turn gangrene. You feel a twinge of delight
cutting carelessly through the escargot
of traffic for a parking space, but you
leave the bar thirsty. You're driving. Besides,
they're closed for quote-unquote renovation.
Well, that's how they turn you away anyway.

You're too gullible. As for the thruway,
take a left at the dogleg after the last light.
A snickering cop gives you a citation
for something termed your failure. Your Yugo
runs hot through bleak countryside,
so you pull off. Your engine dies. You

wave for the moron yelling at you to go
around. Headlights flash. The blonde by his side
frames the gesticulation meant for you.

            *             *              *

Heroic Response

Wrestling with a half-assed crown of sonnets, once more I
let what passes through my noggin become deterred,
not by grackles jabbering in the willows,
but rather by buzz saws chirping through planking,
followed by hammers applying the whammy
& of course, the stream of profanity they incite

from the laborers at the construction site.
If only they’d remove the plank from my eye,
then could I judge this raucous army
who for one purpose have been hired—
that is, in between the mandatory gawking
at the ladies & cooing leering hellos—

to raise a row of homogeneous bungalows
across the way. Until now, an "oversight"
in the Twin Oaks’ charter continued blocking
development on this stretch of woods, "an eye-
sore," according to the decision rendered
by the current charter president, a Mr. Tommy

Peters. "For a little money? Oh, dear me,
no," he protested the protesters. "I’ll make kilos!"
(Peters, gentle reader, as you may have inferred,
blessed as you are with keen insight,
owns the parcel.) To the acts of Charles I—
tyrannical, traitorous, murderous king,

his imperial head severed, with one thwacking,
from the rest of his imperious anatomy—
do I compare such duplicity. Enraged, I
envision the racket outside as Mr. T. Peters’ gallows
being erected upon the selfsame site
which, before this defecation, had inspired

my half-assed crown, which, like the land, now lies stripped & seared.
No more shall I behold wood pussies frolicking—
the chipmunks, the stinkhorns, & the occasional sight
of the doe on account of the bullshit economy
of Mr. T. P., whose cupidity allows
no remorse. "Aye,"

Cromwell declared, wholeheartedly
advancing autonomy,
though to my particular way of thinking it still follows,
"what unsightly vanity doth burn mine eye!"

           *            *            *

Sudden Realization of the Perfect Thing to Have Said

On Washington crossing Delaware St. ,
a vagrant hits me up for a cigarette.
Summer’s peaking, yet he’s wearing what smells like a pea
coat, caked with tobacco spit, Sterno,
Mad Dog 20/20 & other crud. I’m hip,
so I give him one–hell, I give him two–

but now he wants cash. What a plum tomato
from his fragrant perspective must exist
in my stead, sun shining like a chip
on the shoulder of my shirt, fresh from the launderette,
missing nary a button. So when I say no,
he snarls, wielding a salvaged skewer like an epee,

demands my wallet & says to make it snappy.
What to do–except try not to
snicker. Does he think I’m a Tippecanoe
billionaire industrialist turned philanthropist
scoping out suitable locations for the proposed statuette
of me, waves of hair like licorice whips?

I’m a high school senior, hoping to land a scholarship,
I try to explain, but he’s clearly not happy
to hear this. Perhaps he has a history with IVTC-Lafayette.
Perhaps years ago an apathetic instructor failed to
see the significance of one less dental hygienist
in the fold. How can anyone know

the effect he has on others? One domino
falls, then another, a causal relationship
forming with each plunk. The catalyst,
however, for human entropy
is often disguised, traveling incognito
throughout a lifetime, a faded silhouette

in a second-story window. Jabbing the attelet
into my baggy white chino
crotch, the bum snarls his face into
a red ball & having gained a bargaining chip,
swears if I don’t fork it over, he’ll lop off my pea-
shooter with the flick of his wrist.

Not wanting to sing falsetto, I empty my pocket.
The wino bolts down Delaware St., past the porno
shop & tattoo parlor. I yell after him, albeit ex post
facto, "I hope you blow the wad on aromatherapy!"

         *          *          *

Last of the Rorschachs

1) Jane, bending at the waist,
stretches her arms out
in front of her, palms pressed flush
against the double mirror
for support. Moaning,
she cranes her neck, her kinky

curls all wet, achy
to see through the steamy mist
of the shower stall, standing
behind her, about
to come, your next door neighbor
tapping her tight tush

doggy-style. 2) a song thrush,
a nightingale, a turkey,
the NBC peacock, or
Jane, handcuffed to the bedpost,
spreadeagle, the snout
of her dumb grinning

fuck friend probing & sniffing
her neatly trimmed bush.
You note he’s taped her mouth shut,
or you’d hear her panicky
prayers to Holy St.
Ramitinme, God is or-

gasm. 3) Jizz. 4)
In the dark masturbating,
Jane fondles one heaving breast,
then the next, her flesh
docile, moist, milky, silky
as she softly ut-

ters several sporadic gut-
terals. 5) An old horror,
shitfaced on sake,
giving Jane a good spanking
with a wooden brush,
repeatedly thwacks the crest

of her butt, reddening
so it seems to blush. 6) Pissed,
she whacks off your pet monkey.

        *        *       *

"Degrees of Hell in Hattiesburg" (orginally titled "Going Nowhere" prior to publication in New York Quarterly) and "Heroic Response" appear in Nearing Narcoma.

"Sudden Realization of the Perfect Thing to Have Said" first appeared in Barbaric Yawp (2004).  The poem also appears in Walking in Chicago with a Suitcase in My Hand.

"Last of the Rorschachs" first appeared in Rolling Thunder Review.