The sestina is a complicated poetry form, one that gives my bud Muri hives. I don’t blame her. A sestina has six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoi. The same six words are the end words of the lines in each stanza, but they appear in a different order each time, as set forth by the rules of the form. They show up in a prescribed order in the envoi as well. I wrote my first sestina during a poetry workshop. The words (witch, field, guide, fire, violet, and shit-storm) were contributed by the students in the class. How does a person use “shit-storm” seven times in one poem? You’re about to find out. That workshop was five years ago. I’ve kept in touch with the instructor, Dr. Woodward Martin, and recently had the pleasure of hearing him read at a Zoom poetry event.
MEDICS IN TRAINING
Instructing new recruits was a sergeant everyone called The Witch.
She was ill-tempered but would teach us how to survive in the field.
She handed each of us a spiral-bound combat readiness guide.
Being prepared would prevent unfortunate trials by fire.
For instance, CPR was best learned BEFORE your buddy turned violet
and you found yourself in the middle of a shit-storm.
And eventually it was going to happen, the shit-storm.
It was inevitable in the world of combat, said The Witch.
I may have begun hyperventilating, my fingers were turning violet.
She pointed this out, asked what remedy we’d use in the field.
Every pair of eyes looked down, flipping through pages rapid-fire,
searching for redemption in the little spiral-bound guide
Breathing into a paper bag will help, advised the guide.
Rebreathing CO2 should calm the anxious and dizzy shit-storm.
Commit it to memory, she said, many hyperventilate under fire,
and if you don’t have a paper bag, any kind will do. The Witch
reminded us that medical supplies are often lacking in the field.
One has to make do when fingers begin to tingle and turn violet.
I had never before thought of it as an ugly color, violet,
but it usually meant something ominous, according to the guide.
Not like the pretty patches of wildflowers that dotted our field,
but mottling and cyanosis and bruises and dead tissue, a shit-storm
of potentially life-threatening ailments. Just as The Witch
opened her mouth to speak, an alarm rang out – Fire! Fire! Fire!
We made an orderly exit and stood watching as the fire
trucks pulled up, sirens screaming, to investigate the gray-violet
smoke rising from the building. We realized The Witch
had begun to hyperventilate. No one needed to consult the guide.
Armed with our new knowledge, we were ready for the shit-storm.
A recruit pulled a paper lunch bag from the pocket of his field
jacket, delighted that he was properly equipped to field
the emergency. He had her breathe into the bag as the fire
raged on, the flames consuming the roof and sending a shit storm
of ashes swirling through the air. He took her arm to guide
her to a bench, where normal color returned to her once-violet
fingertips. Once she recovered her composure, The Witch
seemed not so much a witch as a human like us, a field
medic and leader and guide. I heard she married one of the fire-
men, named her daughter Violet, and still loves a good shit storm.
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