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.