You write sestinas because you ask your students to write sestinas. You think about this as the nurse takes a sample of your blood to make sure your white blood cell count is high enough for treatment, and you think about this as she inserts the IV into your arm. You will think about sestinas throughout each round of chemotherapy and during every session of radiation. You will think about sestinas the first time you use the feeding tube for real, not just to try it out, but when you can no longer swallow. You will think about sestinas and writing them along with your students, this complex poetic form from the twelfth century, because writing sestinas reminds you to ask (though you never will) if your oncologists have ever hooked themselves up to an IV drip that sends poison into their veins, poison that kills good and bad cells alike – mostly bad, you hope, they hope, but they don’t know, don’t know what it’s like to sit in an infusion suite with poison coursing through your veins.
And this is why you write sestinas: for your students because you ask them to; for your doctors because they don’t know what this journey is like; for yourself because you don’t ever want to forget being sent home from a place where you did not want to be, then asked to return. Sent away, asked to return, pumped, prodded, stuck with needles, cut with knives, sent home, asked to return, numbed with tranquilizers, shot up with morphine, bombed with radiation, sent home, asked to return, dripped with toxins, told to hope, given reason to dread, asked to accept: the side effects, the cancer, mortality, the virus, the absence of speech, loneliness. Persuaded to participate in a fatigue study that in the end you are too tired to participate in. Persuaded to trust, to have faith, in the doctors, in the treatment, and you do, and that is what poetry also does, asks us to have faith, to trust in the rightness of words chosen to penetrate a mystery that may only exist in one moment, one gesture, one small thing, ordered and arranged by a poet who may be mad tomorrow, but in the act of creation is as clear-sighted as a pathologist staring through a microscope at a sample of malignant cells dividing with a furious need to live and perhaps be loved because everything, after all, wants to be loved.
Part II. The Burdened Sestina
my nerves but allowing my eyes to watch the cold steel of my cell
"Good Form" appears in the Winter 2013 issue of The Massachusetts Review.