with critique by Jendi Reiter
Sparks fall like starlight
And a child runs inside,
Where her mother comforts with a promise.
But the streets have all been stained,
Soaked with tears and washed by blood
And covered over by long hours of winter.
No one knows when the end of winter
Will bring hope among the starlight
And the endless reign of blood
Will creep back to hide inside
A psyche that has been forever stained
By the treason of a shattered promise.
Who can trust a promise?
Time brings unto all things winter
Even after life, sun-stained,
Is soothed by cleansing starlight.
Water flows deep, forgotten inside
For it is far less viscous than blood.
Even so, oil is thicker still than blood
And vastly more powerful than a promise
Negotiated by important men inside
Offices guarded, safely out of winter.
They shake hands before the starlight
But with their blood those hands are stained…
The innocent whose eyes are stained
With visions flowing down like blood
Obscuring gentle shafts of starlight
Thinking wistfully of a promise
Made to a maiden with cheeks of winter
Who will now forever wait inside.
Waiting, hopefully, but slowly dies inside,
Clutching a letter with ink all smeared and tear-stained
Heart freezing slowly into winter
Until it refuses even its own life-blood
Making silently a sacred promise
To gaze into eternal starlight.
But what meaning lies inside a drop of blood
Spilled onto already-stained streets? Hardly a promise
Leftover from winter, cracks illumined by starlight.
Copyright 2005 by Dana Bailey
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, Dana Bailey's "Inspired by Starlight", is an example of one of my favorite poetic forms, the sestina. I love writing sestinas because adherence to a pattern is a great way to discipline a poem, but the sestina's freestyle line length allows for a more contemporary sound than forms requiring rhyme and meter. Forms involving repetition, such as sestinas, rondeaus and villanelles, also help the author stay focused on a particular theme and set of images.
As is evident from the poem above, the sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, plus a three-line "envoi" or final stanza. The word at the end of each line is called a "teleuton". Each stanza uses the same six teleutons in a specific order, and the envoi uses all six words. The rules for writing sestinas can be found at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/sestina.html
The best sestinas take advantage of the repetition to disclose new facets of the original image. This quality attracted me to "Inspired by Starlight", a poignant lament for youthful innocence crushed by a world at war. Though verging on sentimentality, this poem moved me because of its gentle tone and vivid, tangible imagery. The compact lines transition easily from one required end-word to the next without feeling forced.
The writer of a sestina should look for teleutons that are elemental and multivalent enough to generate powerful reactions in more than one context. This poem's key words are starlight, inside, promise, blood, stained, winter. The list by itself already conjures up an intense world of relationships: heat (blood) versus cold (winter), purity (winter, starlight) versus defilement (blood, stained), and intimacy and security (inside, promise) versus the indifferent, violent outside world (starlight, winter, blood). These oppositions generate the poem's central message.
Bailey plays upon the reader's emotions by interleaving moments of tenderness and beauty with scenes of pain and destruction. The radiant opening image, "Sparks fall like starlight," and the instantly sympathetic character of the child invite us into the poem's world. All too soon, the second half of the stanza menaces the little scene to which we have become attached. The sparks that seemed beautiful to an unwitting child may have come from bombs or burning homes.
The need to work in those six words sometimes leads Bailey into thickets of abstraction, where it is unclear who or what is the active subject of the sentence. I encountered this difficulty especially in the last stanza, which begins with the subjectless verbs "Waiting, hopefully, but slowly dies inside". I keep searching for the main character of this stanza till I get to "Heart freezing slowly into winter/ Until it refuses even its own life's blood". The "it" of the fourth line must be the heart, but whose heart? Presumably, whoever was waiting and dying inside, most likely the "maiden with cheeks of winter" from the preceding stanza. A clearer transition would have helped here.
Who is the maiden, and how does she relate to the child in the opening lines? I interpreted both characters as archetypes for the innocent next generation whose springtime has been delayed by an endless winter of war. She thinks wistfully of the promise that the young take for granted, the hope—almost amounting to a sense of entitlement—that justice will prevail and the world will allow you to fulfill your dreams. Still, some things about the plotline of the poem remain vague.
By contrast, the stanza beginning "Even so, oil is thicker..." seamlessly integrates the required end-words while adding another important piece of the narrative puzzle. The broken promise is no longer just a metaphor for loss of innocence, but an actual misdeed by leaders who repudiated their treaties and betrayed their allies because of greed for oil.
This return to concrete events is refreshing, not only because it snaps the poem out of sentimental abstraction, but also because it suggests that the permanent winter is not an unavoidable fact of nature. It suggests, ever so faintly, that human beings making different choices could break the spell that freezes the characters inside their besieged homes and traumatized hearts.
The envoi refuses to confirm this hope. "But what meaning lies inside a drop of blood/ Spilled onto already-stained streets?" The lives that were lost, or never begun, on account of the oppressive conflict – were they just wasted? Would it also be a waste for anyone to martyr himself trying to end the violence? The ambiguous final lines—"Hardly a promise/ Leftover from winter, cracks illumined by starlight"—offer a beautiful glimmer of possibility that melts away like a snowflake when we try to grasp it.
I wasn't sure what "Leftover from winter" meant here. The word "from" implies that winter was the source of the promise, but elsewhere in the poem, winter usually stands for the negative forces opposed to the promise. Also, "Leftover from" sounds as if winter has passed, while the rest of the poem says that there is no end in sight. If my interpretation of the stanza as a whole is what the author intended, "Hardly a promise/ Surviving winter" might convey the meaning more clearly.
For more advice on writing sestinas, see:
Sestinas by Jendi Reiter:
The Apocalypse Supermarket
Other good contemporary examples of the form are Diane Wakoski's "Sestina from the Home Gardener" in her book Emerald Ice and W.H. Auden's "Paysage Moralisé" in his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. Auden was one of the leading practitioners of the form in modern times.
Where could this poem be submitted? These upcoming contests came to mind:
Annie Finch Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Contest named for contemporary formalist poet, offers $300 and publication.
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 16
Prizes up to $2,500 and publication in a leading national magazine for poems 32 lines or less (so no sestinas); accessible yet well-crafted poetry in the style of "Inspired by Starlight" would probably do best here.
American Poet Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Awards $300 and publication; editors seek "strong, fresh imagery, metaphor, and good sound."
Mad Poets Review Competition
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Poets in this annual journal speak directly about universal emotions; free verse predominates, but they are open to formal verse with a contemporary sound; $100 prize.
Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Winning Writers assists this international contest, which is sponsored and judged by John Reid. This is its second year. $2,000 in prizes will be awarded, including a top prize of $1,000, and the winners will be published. Submit poetry in traditional verse forms, such as sonnets, ballads, odes, sestinas, blank verse and haiku.
Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: July 1
The antiwar themes suggested in "Inspired by Starlight" would fit this contest; $1,000 prize.
The Writers Bureau Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
An online writing school in Britain sponsors this contest. The top prize is 1,000 pounds. See past winners on website.
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.