Exploring the art of prose


Called Shot: A Prose Sestina by Emma Kaiser

In Emma Kaiser’s flash creative nonfiction piece “Called Shot,” a woman is drawn to seek out a man in a bar, fully aware she’s being reckless. What follows is a tautly suspenseful, carefully choreographed dance of looks and words and actions that is electric with erotic tension. Ticks “sizzle” as the man pinches them, one by one, and sets them on fire. He tells the story of a coworker “electrocuted on a construction job.” Neon beer signs “flicker but never stop burning.” The story that unfolds is balanced between suspense and inevitability. “He thinks he knows where this will end already,” but there may in fact be no closure for what Kaiser describes in her author’s note as a “kind of cyclical memory revisited over and over.”

Adrienne Rich once remarked that traditional forms in her early poetry functioned as “asbestos gloves” that allowed her to “pick up materials” she couldn’t approach “bare handed.” Kaiser’s prose sestina depends on artful repetitions and variations of selected words: burn, death, break, me, body, already. (Readers who want to review the complex form of the poetic sestina can find more at the Poetry Foundation and in the author’s note.) “For subject matter as sensitive and elusive as this,” Kaiser writes in her author’s note, “the form provided me the first words when I’d continually struggled to find the right language.”  —CRAFT

Content Warning—sexual assault


I ignore him as he takes the chair across from mine, though I knew of course that he’d be here—back porch of the local backwoods dive bar, the night cool, the back of my neck burning. It is November in northern Minnesota, the land around us settling into its long annual death. There’s something about him that both awes and frightens me, like a horse you can’t quite break. I keep staring at my book but not reading it; he keeps staring at me. I want to look through his eyes at my body. It is reckless to have come here—I know this to be true already.

He says, enough already. He has come from the woods and kills tick after tick by striking them with a lighter and watching them burn. I watch him pull his sleeves up past his forearms, then the cuffs of his jeans; he says he can feel them all over his body. He pinches them between two fingernails, and I hear a quick sizzle right before they die. Inside, at the pool table, he hands me a cue stick, says tonight you play with me. He lines up the shot like he’s looking through the sight of a loaded rifle, a crack through the room as he breaks.

He thinks he knows what it will take for me to break. He thinks he knows where this will end already. When I sink the corner pocket, I see his thoughts through his face, and they are full of me. I smell the liquor on him, his breath burning. He speaks to me hushed, tells me about a buddy he saw get electrocuted on a construction job, brushed a live power line, now dead. Every trip around the pool table I feel his hand slip like a secret across my body.

I am warm, both pleasantly aware and unconscious of my body. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sings “Fishin’ in the Dark” from the old corner jukebox, and even though he says he doesn’t dance, I ask him, see his stubbornness waver, then break. He spins me between tables and bar stools, a small-town Saturday night, the place uncharacteristically dead. But I can hear the rumors start already. On the wood-paneled walls, the neon of cheap beer signs flicker but never stop burning. The song ends, and he doesn’t quite let go of me.

Stay, he tells me. His voice is like whiskey rolling through my body. He has a hunting trailer parked not far from here, he says, a fire pit and some wood stacked there for burning. I am the girl who should be home and ready for church in the morning, but my resolve is breaking. I follow him outside the bar through the trees—the days are turning shorter and the sky is black and chipped with stars already. It is quiet other than the wake of dry leaves under his boots, the underbrush cracked and dead.

He leads me to the trailer where there are supposed to be matches and beer, but the inside is dark, the batteries dead. I look around and see a door, and behind the door is a bed, and before I can turn away he has pushed me onto it and pinned me. He says, tell me what you want already. I try to think of words but have none, try only to react to the darkness, the weight of him over my body. He has his hand on my neck, and when I continue pulling at his grip, it finally breaks. I do not register feeling afraid, even as the breaths I take next go down burning.

When I am home, my father looks at me like he knows, and I break. I want to know if it shows already, branded somewhere I can’t reach, blistered and burning. I turn away and do not ask, wanting only to sink, unreachable, into the material of myself, left alone with the dead noise of my body.


EMMA KAISER is the winner of the Norton Writers Prize. Her work is featured in River Teeth, Great River Review, Rock & Sling, Stoneboat, and elsewhere, and she is the author of two children’s nonfiction books. She is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.


Featured image by Jakob Kohn courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

This essay was born from a writing exercise—to translate a poetic form into prose. I had never attempted a sestina as a poem before, but I found that the form lent itself remarkably well to nonfiction.

The rules of the sestina transfer fairly simply. Instead of six stanzas and an envoi, you have six paragraphs plus a shorter conclusion. Instead of six lines per stanza, you have six sentences per paragraph, except for the final paragraph (envoi), which has only three. There are six words that repeat in different orders throughout each paragraph, though they always appear as the last word in the sentence. The last word to appear in a paragraph always ends the first sentence of the next paragraph. In the final paragraph, three of the repeated words end the sentences like normal, but the remaining three words are used somewhere in the middle of the sentence.

In sestina poems, the order and coupling of the final repeating words across the final three lines matters, but can also vary. In strict sestinas, line 1 pairs words 2 and 5; line 2 pairs 5 and 3; and line 3 pairs 6 and 1. For the sake of my ending, this is the only order or rule of the form I chose to break.

This essay began by more or less randomly selecting words from a page of already existing text. The six words I chose and that repeat throughout this sestina are burn, death, break, me, body, and already. Sometimes the words change in tense or variation, but they do reoccur in each paragraph. As I began to make connections between the words and map my associations with them, the narrative of the sestina seemed to offer itself up on its own. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever written that did not change significantly from the first draft.

I had tried several times before to write about this experience, but never felt I’d found the right entry point. The beauty of the form is that it offers a container to that which doesn’t quite feel solid—a structure to something that struggles to stand on its own. For subject matter as sensitive and elusive as this, the form provided me the first words when I’d continually struggled to find the right language.

The sestina grounds me in a rhythm I can rely on and return to. It’s less interested in what happened than the way in which it is remembered, a kind of cyclical memory revisited over and over. The form is able to sustain the gaps, the inconclusiveness, the not knowing. It requires you to not only read between lines but between words and pattern, and it’s the pattern that ultimately offers a closure for which there is none, that provides not only a way in but an end.


EMMA KAISER is the winner of the Norton Writers Prize. Her work is featured in River Teeth, Great River Review, Rock & Sling, Stoneboat, and elsewhere, and she is the author of two children’s nonfiction books. She is a creative nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.