Monday, March 30, 2009

"American Dreams"

Up to now I’ve only posted poems I wrote while living in San Francisco (OK, & one from Idaho), so as a bit of a change I thought I’d post one that’s from my earlier days in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As far as I can recall, this poem was written in 1985—I do recall that the poem was based on a dream; & I should note that “American Dreams” is written in the sestina form. For those who don’t know, a sestina is built on a series of six end words, which then repeat in a pattern. A sestina typically has a three-line coda in which the six words also are repeated in a specific pattern (there are some very good sestinas that don’t include this, however, including one of the best examples of the form I know, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem titled simply “Sestina”). If you follow the pattern, you see that the sixth stanza repeats the cycle of word changes, & if the poem were to continue, the words would return to the pattern of the first stanza. This sequence of repeating words can be expressed numerically as 615243 (i.e. this is how the words are re-arranged starting in the second stanza).

Although I believe my poems from San Francisco are my best work to date (with the possible exception of the half dozen poems I wrote last year), I do still like a number of the Charlottesville poems, & in putting together a manuscript I’ve found that a smattering of them amidst the rather madcap & occasionally disquieting exuberance of the San Francisco poems can provide a welcome textural change. Hope you enjoy this one.

American Dreams

I had to stare at something besides my coffee
something told me. And there was flashing money:
a quarter and a dime left for the waitress
were shining big as planets over Texas
on a napkin. I had to hear this story
she told the truckers, about her penniless father

who'd rented a trailer outside Austin. Her father
migrated south of trees where, black as coffee,
treasures bubbled— or so he'd got the story
on a spree— these lakes of oil, pools of money
under the whole unpromising stretch of Texas.
He'd blown his stake. Then, he married a waitress

who passed this to her daughter, the way this waitress
slid out eggs. She pocketed tips for her father's
marker and mailed change weekly down to Texas.
I had to listen to something besides the coffee
sizzle in its pot or the register ringing money.
Nothing stopped me hearing another story

I told myself. It haunted me like stories
heard when five; that someone was always waiting
in diners, watching me, not plates, his money
dwindling, but still alive. I knew my father
was in that booth. With two men, gulping coffee,
he was hunched. He'd been invited to Texas

by men in bone-white hats who claimed, In Texas
nothing grows but cactus. They're green as stories
your fathers believed, as twenties. He sipped coffee,
rattled tall tales, off the cuff, to the waitress,
and spoke of checks in dry hands. Why was father
talkative in this diner? I fumbled for money,

his wallet I'd picked for years. I held the money,
while men in dazzling boots were offering Texas
and fossils (they didn't promise trees). My father
wanted gold. His knack for telling stories
half-believed, he'd willed to me. Our waitress
filled bottomless cups until they gushed with coffee.

And the old man finished coffee, lost for money,
and swore he'd mail the waitress cash from Texas.
Stories are spent; and what can I lend father?


  1. I really liked this sestina, John. I felt like I was right there in the diner with them. Truly an American feel to it.

    Loved "bone-white hats"!

  2. Hi John. Thanks for following my blog. I've been reading and enjoying your comments on other sites and was glad to discover your work here. I taught the sestina form to a group of children a few years ago and they had great fun with it - it always seems a fun form even when its dealing with serious issues. There's always an element of play. You seem to agree.

  3. Hi Willow & Mairi:

    Willow: Glad you liked it-- if I may say so, I think the "hats" line is one of the better ones-- thanks.

    Mairi: I completely believe that poetry & music-- & no doubt other arts too that I'm much less familiar with involve a lot of play-- one thing I've liked about working in forms like sestinas, villanelles, sonnets, etc. is that they are fun-- of course open forms can be lots of fun, too. As far as music goes-- I always try to remember I'm "playing" an instrument. Interesting to think about teaching sestinas to kids-- kudos to you for doing so.

  4. Whats it about coffee? You must be having an interesting time! Love your American Dream

  5. Hey Rising:

    I do love a cup of Joe-- nice new look over at your place!

  6. Fantastic! Is it just me or do you also see the landscape in your poetry? There's so much Charlottesville in this one. The poems from your San Francisco period are kind of psychedelic, as they would be, written as they were in that crazy city by the Bay.

    What do you think?

  7. Hi Reya:

    Thanks-- I take that as a big compliment because landscape is incredibly important to me in poetry; yes, I always try to enter into a dialogue with my surroundings when poeticizing. So glad you enjoyed this.

  8. Absolutely wonderful! I so envy your facility with these tricky forms. Do you find that you piece the poem together to fit the sestina, or does it just flow easily from the pen?
    I really grapple with these types of rigid constructions, but you seem to have mastered them so well.

    I thought this was terrific!Love the images and the interplay of the coffee and the money. The way you tied it all in at the end and still managed to make it make sense was really impressive. I must try this - if I could just get it started, I think I could do it.


  9. Hi Kat: & thanks. I think writing in forms that involve repetition has come more easily to me than to some folks, but they do require a certain kind of work. I know this isn't how they say to do it, but often I've written formal poems by starting out to write a poem in that form & just staying dogged enough to do it, for better or worse.

    I do think you could find a way to work with these forms-- after all, you have quite a facility for rhyme, which lots of folks use in very ham-fisted ways. As far as sestinas go, I think they work well with narratives, & it's really important to get end words that can be somewhat flexible-- for instance a word that can be either a noun or a verb ("ride" for instance), or a word that has a homonym (like "whole" & "hole"). Anyway, if you ever have questions about any of this stuff, I'd be happy to try to find an answer.

  10. Great tips on the way to formulate these poems. I keep thinking about doing them and then they get "lost in the shuffle". I'll surprise you some day.


  11. Fascinating form. I liked They're green as stories
    your fathers believed, as twenties.

  12. Thanks Sandra-- yes, sestina's are pretty endlessly fascinating to me at least.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.