~This poem first appeared in an issue of Black Warrior Review (2008), as part of a chapbook called Bitch and Brew: Sestinas.
Editor’s Note: Sandra Beasley was on the inaugural Editorial Board of Redux.
Secrets of Small Machines
Dialysis units can taste the blood.
The boy watches as tubes giggle and twitch
in his skin. They are like pretty, cruel girls
who wave from the swing set. They are lean wolves
chasing him through the purifying woods.
Be still. The nurse hands him his Speak & Spell,
then wipes her hands. Spell island, it says. Spell
sandwich. The boy keeps watching as his blood
loops out. He decides to be made of wood,
to be a boat that cannot cry or twitch.
He rides the waves past the jaws of ten wolves,
and the wake from his prow douses the girls.
Be still. He sails to a shore safe from girls
and docks, armed with only the Speak & Spell.
He changes the language setting to “Wolves.”
He joins a pack who love him like he’s blood,
who bed down around him, sighing, twitching
through a common dream. Beyond shore are woods
brambled and poison-ivied. Be still. The woods
teem with mechanized deer. Don’t be a girl,
he thinks. Their rusted breath scares him, the twitch
of each perfect, telescopic eye. (Spell
telescope.) They pulse oil instead of blood
and they’re the only creatures feared by wolves,
who fear nothing. Be still, he begs the wolves,
but they’re out of sandwiches and the woods
hold rabbits. They leave him to chase for blood
and the deer come, their eyes soft as a girl’s,
their teeth sharpened and rotored. Time to spell
run, one says, beginning to spark and twitch.
He was good, says the nurse. Hardly a twitch.
On his sister’s shirt winks a small, stitched wolf.
Her Chrysler sounds just like his Speak & Spell:
Fasten your seatbelt. She pats its fake wood.
The whole way home she’ll ask him about girls.
You’re at that age, she says. Girls in your blood.
It is May, ’83. Spell twitch. Spell would.
The boy knows there’s a deer inside each girl—
and for every spell cast, they’ll need more blood.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
What I love about sestinas is how the opening stanza--which clicked the moment I found that first line--commits to end-words that, as you cycle through the form, shape the plot of the poem. In every sestina one end-word feels like a particular risk, and in this one it is "spell"; it is a flexible word, noun and verb and imperative, but could I really get away with name-dropping a beloved Texas Instruments nerd toy? And, I confess, once realizing that Chrysler had released cars in 1983 that used the same T.I. voice chip, it had to fit into the poem. It was just a matter of how. This poem teeters between imaginative absurdity and genuine terror, which is often the mode in hospital wards where children are dealing with severe illness. Though I don't know much about this boy, he feels like a fully developed character. I am protective of him.
The story of how this and all the sestinas in "Bitch and Brew" came to exist is equally absurd and terrifying. I was sharing a shady but inexpensive hotel room with Jehanne Dubrow (not really relevant, but worth picturing), with whom I'd driven down from DC on the eve of the Sewanee Writer's Conference in Tennessee. I opened up an email inviting me to contribute a chapbook to an upcoming issue of Black Warrior Review. Fabulous! As it turned out, though, I could not include any previously published poems. Problematic. And the deadline was soon. The editor, Whitney Holmes, mentioned having seen a sestina draft on my blog; I promptly bluffed and suggested I had a chapbook's worth. Not so. For the entirety of Sewanee I was a hard-drinking, hard-drafting, late-night sestina fiend. Luckily, I got some good work out of it, including the title poem of my next collection.
ABOUT SANDRA BEASLEY
Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Other honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. Her most recent book is Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She lives in Washington, D.C.