Back at our Massachusetts Poetry Festival reading, the six readers–Ravi Shankar, Michael Costello, Jade Sylvan, Peter Jay Shippy, Lewis Turco, and Victor D. Infante–each contributed an end-word for a “sestina challenge.” Could anyone write a sestina using the words radiate, code, tentacles, multiple, Salem, and word?
We waited. And then this gem from Kolleen Carney, who emailed it to us a couple weeks later.
“This was hard,” she wrote.
Well, we think it’s pretty genius. Her incredible sestina appears below.
All these years I’ve languished here in Salem
haven’t meant anything; I couldn’t find the words
for all the pain I’ve been feeling, there’s been no secret code
for all these hidden vices, addictions, multiple
diagnoses; I’ve juggled all of them at once, their tentacles
strangling me slowly, their hellish heat radiating.
And when I sleep now you tell me I radiate
heat like a furnace, hot dreams like Jerusalem’s
desert stretched out, sun beams like golden tentacles
burning the skin of my back. In the morning I have no words,
I can’t keep track of things, I check multiple
calendars, alarms, mark reminders on my arms like code.
If you examined my skin you could read, in code,
a map of my life, this sort of sequence that radiates
across my bruised body, a main line, a train line with multiple
stops along the way: Boston, LA, ending in Salem,
and all these markings (since, what good are words?),
these razor wire scars around my thighs like tentacles
and lyrics to songs, and numbers. No octopus tentacles
or phoenixes or koi fish, each scale a color code,
their dead eyes unseeing and mouths gaping silent words,
all these marks in permanent ink radiating
my life story onto my body. Like the stone markers in Salem,
each a name, a hanging body, a chest caved in by boulders (multiple).
And how many times have I told you—multiple?—
that your love is creeping up my spine like tentacles
of some horrible thing, that the chill of Salem
has frozen all that was good in me? I tried to arrange the snow in code
but you couldn’t hold onto it, the heat radiated
from your palms, and you melted all my words.
So listen: All I have left are these words.
Burn me in a fire and you’ll see, you can arrange the multiple
letters that will fall from my skin, my mouth, burnt radiation
black—my soul. Reaching out, long tentacles
of smoke that stain your skin and spell out code.
Hang me from the highest branch in Salem
and I will join the multiple ghosts of Salem
and all my ever- words will be your code;
at night, my soul will radiate, my hair will choke your throat like tentacles.