On Johnson’s Creek: A Sestina by Mindy Watson

On Johnson’s Creek: A Sestina

Mid 80’s, late Wisconsin summer day.
You’re male; just one of many crayfish lured
Innately to this shallow, turbid creek.
July’s sweet warmth assures you that you’ll not
Find only sanctuary, but a mate.
And at a human hand-span’s length from tail

To telsun, you’re a splendid prospect: tail
Aloft and eyestalks staunch, you greet the day.
With fierce claws brandished, you await your mate
In burrow’s dark. And nothing could have lured
You from your would-be breeding quarters –not
Until a stealthy stick from o’er the creek

Despoils your warren’s sanctity. The creek,
Its tacit bounty, spurs your nerve. Your tail
Aflutter, claws outstretched, you’re not
Alarmed –you clamp the twig and seize the day.
But then the surreptitious branch that lured
You wrests you from the stream, reveals its mate

Above—a boy who thwarts your quest for mate.
His form obstructs the sun and dwarfs the creek
Below the wooden pier. It seems he’s lured
You here for idle sport; he grips your tail
And flings you hard against the planks. While day
Retreats, light’s sudden ebb arises not

From cosmic cause. The sneering boy (who’s not
Alone –a girl shrinks near her preening mate)
Uplifts his foot and renders blissful day
Brutality. Impassively, the creek
Laps on. Your once resplendent olive tail
Is tattered, shattered by the boy who lured

You, crushed your stately carapace. Though lured
From neural ruination’s throes, you’re not
Yet blind; you see his female friend turn tail.
And I, the girl that boy deems doting mate,
For whom you’re executed by the creek –
I know what cruel conceit is that day.

From where once lured, you sink, potential mate
Undone. Not waiting, brethren flee the creek,
Tails undulating. Silence veils the day.

by Mindy Watson

Editor’s Note: This sestina handles the required repetition with skillful craft, leading the reader from innocence into grim knowledge by the closing tercet.

From the archives – O Clouds Unfold by Peg Duthie

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O Clouds Unfold

for Marissa Lingen and Elise Matthesen

The month has started under water —
too much to shove at, too much to swallow:
sprawling projects, tax returns …
To wield a spear like an Amazon,
to hammer fears into a gleaming bow —
these aren’t skills I list on my present

résumé, but what the present
needs is something like. From the water,
hauling my soggy rear back into the bow,
gasping out what I couldn’t help but swallow —
it isn’t pretty, training to be an Amazon.
I’m told such pangs will yield happy returns

but some days I think of all the sad returns
during my warehouse days — this unwanted present,
that unhelped self. My wishlist at Amazon
changes by the week, like flavors of water
nestled in a sales rep’s cooler. Swallow
this magic pill; now make your bow

in the Wonderland court. Tied up with a bow,
neatly wrapped — low risk, low returns.
I know that, but the truth’s still tough to swallow
when long-steeped weariness outweighs the present.
I have to remember how petrels pierce the water,
scaring off sharks with the skill of an Amazon.

I’ve never longed to sail down the Amazon
but then I never expected each night to bow
my head with such thanks for running water,
schooled by floods and droughts. The returns
of every field, I now regard as a present.
I’ve watched dying people, how they can’t even swallow

the thinnest dribble of water. Oh, when the swallow
nests again by the bell, will we see the Amazon
gliding into harbor as well? Will it present
a dazzlement of gems — the gold-bright bow,
a garnet-studded scabbard? What returns
isn’t always what was cast upon the water —

when I dream, men in swallow-tails
bow to Amazons as their equals. But waking
returns me back to the present — to the water.

from Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY, February 23, 2015 — by Peg Duthie

Photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

Maple Lake: A Sestina by Caroline Johnson

Maple Lake: A Sestina

Walking on frosted landscape, we hike alone.
The crisp January air melts our bones
as we make our descent to Maple Lake
with sunshine and tracks in the snow.
Slowly we reach the river of ice
now covering a home of native fish.

Even in winter men search here for fish.
Despite storms, they are not alone,
drilling holes and auguring through ice,
huddling in small shacks to warm their bones.
They sit and smoke and watch the snow
softly stroke its print onto the lake.

I follow you out onto the lake,
thinking of how young boys catch fish
here in May and June, and how the snow
keeps falling, each flake wet and alone.
I wonder if bluegill have cold bones
as they swim below the ice.

I take a step onto the ice
now covering frozen Maple Lake;
the wind seeps through my bones.
I think of what happens to the fish
when winter comes and water alone
is not enough to fight the snow.

You begin to skate on top of the snow
and leave your skid marks on the ice.
I turn north and leave you alone,
looking out upon the frozen lake,
a deserted moonscape except for the fish
which turn inward, embracing their bones.

Who knows how deeply it goes to the bones,
when skin starts to wrinkle and hair to snow,
and men grow wisdom as they begin to fish,
balancing each moment on bright skim ice,
hovering between reality and myth, the lake
a reminder of each lifetime alone.

Yet we are not alone; nature calls our bones
back from the lake; we listen to the snow
and petrified ice. Beneath us swim the fish.

by Caroline Johnson, first published in The Chicago Tribune, August 10, 2012.

Editor’s Note: The repetition of the sestina form is well-served by the description of a winter walk and the narrator’s relationship with a companion. The last sentences closes the story with ongoing movement (such is life).

O Clouds Unfold by Peg Duthie

O Clouds Unfold

for Marissa Lingen and Elise Matthesen

The month has started under water —
too much to shove at, too much to swallow:
sprawling projects, tax returns …
To wield a spear like an Amazon,
to hammer fears into a gleaming bow —
these aren’t skills I list on my present

résumé, but what the present
needs is something like. From the water,
hauling my soggy rear back into the bow,
gasping out what I couldn’t help but swallow —
it isn’t pretty, training to be an Amazon.
I’m told such pangs will yield happy returns

but some days I think of all the sad returns
during my warehouse days — this unwanted present,
that unhelped self. My wishlist at Amazon
changes by the week, like flavors of water
nestled in a sales rep’s cooler. Swallow
this magic pill; now make your bow

in the Wonderland court. Tied up with a bow,
neatly wrapped — low risk, low returns.
I know that, but the truth’s still tough to swallow
when long-steeped weariness outweighs the present.
I have to remember how petrels pierce the water,
scaring off sharks with the skill of an Amazon.

I’ve never longed to sail down the Amazon
but then I never expected each night to bow
my head with such thanks for running water,
schooled by floods and droughts. The returns
of every field, I now regard as a present.
I’ve watched dying people, how they can’t even swallow

the thinnest dribble of water. Oh, when the swallow
nests again by the bell, will we see the Amazon
gliding into harbor as well? Will it present
a dazzlement of gems — the gold-bright bow,
a garnet-studded scabbard? What returns
isn’t always what was cast upon the water —

when I dream, men in swallow-tails
bow to Amazons as their equals. But waking
returns me back to the present — to the water.

by Peg Duthie

Editor’s Note: The first line of this poem convinced me to read it, and then the sestina form drew me into the narrative. The poem skillfully presents multiple possibilities with one voice and only six words: Amazon, water, bow, present, swallow, returns.