Poetry Classroom: Sestina for Brood XIII

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels and Simple Weight. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Tania and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Sestina for Brood XIII

Five billion nymphs have tunneled from the earth,
slipped out of their ghostly skins
and adorned the trees with their red-laced wings.
A bevy of blenders. Motorboats. Buzz saws,
the articles warned. But from a distance,
their mournful chorus, like a cloud of flutes, rises

beyond the old-growth oaks, rises
to the atmosphere’s last hold on the earth.
I drove my daughters some distance
to find them. They collected the skins
from the grass by the pail-full until they saw
the first blood-drop eyes, the first flickering wings.

Gentle, I admonished them. Their wings
can dissolve in your hands. They raised
the cicadas to their eyes like prisms, saw
the seventeen-year handiwork of the earth
for one moment resting on their skin.
I told them how the nymphs suckle roots at a distance

of nine feet underground, their bodies distant
particles in the soil. The hope of wings,
the slow, invisible weaving of their skins
lie forgotten as a human generation is raised
in the whir and clamor above the earth:
Blenders. Motorboats. Buzz saws.

When I was thirteen, bored with the universe, I saw
Haley’s Comet, a dull milky smudge in the distance.
My parents reminded me of my rare chances on earth
to see great things: Columbia’s mighty wings
on its maiden takeoff, the Olympic flag rising
in our hometown, King Tutankhamun’s gilded skin.

I wanted nothing but to inspect my skin
in the mirror. Who cared what else I saw?
Not you, daughters. I know next summer the same sun will rise,
and these cicadas will have flown the distance
of your memory. Their eggs and broken wings
will have completed their lonely burrows into the earth.

But remember, each shed skin is a quarter-distance
of your life. You saw, and a part of you rode away on those wings,
rising and falling beyond the reach of the earth.

For more on the Sestina form, see Write Your First Sestina: It’s a Matter of Pride

Photo by KellBailey, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels


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  1. says

    Beautifully written sestina, a form I came to like a lot after I’d written my first one. This one seems so effortless. It’s rooted in nature and the natural life cyce and yet speaks to mystery. Wonderful images.

  2. says

    This is so beautiful. I love the part where it moves from the skin of the cicadas to the poet’s skin when she was 13, then back to her daughters. My daughter’s bug days are gone, replaced by makeup and earrings.

  3. says

    Of course I want to talk about the poem, and will, but I keep looking back at the photograph, too, and seeing open mouths, like guppies, like something gasping for air. Like the cicadas. It’s amazing to me (shouldn’t be–we’re all artists. I understand it’s more than luck and inspiration, smoke and mirrors) how well Tweetspeak pairs the lovely photos so aptly with the poems they help illustrate. As much as I want to read the poem again and again, it’s the photo I keep coming back to.

    Of course, I have Tania’s books, and can hold them in my hand. The photo is new!

    • says

      I’ve just thought of what they remind me of. I knew it was fish, but I was groping…

      I kind of collect wind-up toys. I love them. But somebody gave me a little fishin’ whole wind up thing, where the fish open and close their mouths (and spin, I think?). There’s a little metal plate in their bellies. You hold a fishing pole with a little magnet on the end and try to catch the fish and pull them out of the pond.

      This may be a ridiculous tangent (hee!) but a relief to connect the image–my mind today is like a magnet, fishing.

      Not random, though. My mind is delighting in imagery and word play. The unconscious plays. The conscious mind is reluctant. How lovely to be drawn in!

  4. says

    As to sestinas: I must write my first. I understand it’s a matter of pride. 😉

    I’ve done very little with formal poetry of any kind. Perhaps because of my fiction background–or maybe obviously because of it– my poetry was mostly narrative. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve experimented more with stanzas and grouping lines into couplets and tercets and such. I’ve taught formal poetry, of course, “forced” students to write sonnets, as I really do believe it’s the best way for them to learn and understand sonnets. The vast majority of them resist and hate it (I’m talking comp students, in writing about literature), but invariably, the vast majority of THOSE students wind up loving the process and even loving their poems.

    Shall I confess I could not even remember what a sestina was? I’m so grateful for the link, which I’ve scanned through once and will read through more closely later. Perhaps I should add writing a sestina to my 30-30’s next month.

  5. says

    Megan and Paula, thank you, as well, for “diving” in! Yes, sestinas are crazy. I still think sonnets are harder, or at least it always takes me much more time to compose one!

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