Sestina: The Cleaners

Back when I was writing poetry more or less full-time, I loved to experiment with poetic form, both organic and received. As a boy I once wanted to be an architect (until I realized you had to learn, you know, math). I’ve never lost that interest in structure.

As visual artists are fascinated by the structural intricacies of, say, fractals, I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which language works; how letters represent sounds and join to form words, then larger syntactic elements, then even larger structural constituents until lines, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, and so on create the massive architectural units of a poem and a novel.

As a poet, I found great joy in writing in (and ringing changes on) forms as disparate as sonnets and their minimalist siblings, word sonnets, and their maximalist cousins, sonnet crowns; gloses; ghazals; villanelles; pantuns; and so on.

One of the forms I found especially compelling was the sestina, a form dating from the twelfth century. It’s a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotating in a set pattern. The envoi contains the six line-ending words, often in a proscribed order.

There have been some great sestinas written by poems such as Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney, to name just three.

Besides its elegant complexity, one of the things that fascinated me about the sestina was the almost hypnotic repetition of line-ending words that gave the poem a sense of obsession, even of being trapped.

When I sat down to write my own sestina, I drew on my experience as the manager of a movie theatre in Birmingham, Michigan, many years ago. (The theatre was the Bloomfield, if anybody remembers that; it has sadly morphed into a parking garage underneath a gym.)

Bloomfield Theatre, Birmingham, MI.

Every night, a young married couple came in to clean the place after each day’s showings. It was not a pleasant job, and the young man–Ricky, his name was–seemed perpetually angry; his wife was mostly silent.

I decided to write a sestina in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife. It seemed to me that she was trapped in a bad marriage with a volatile man who didn’t appreciate her, and the sestina with its restricted order of repetition of words would be a good correspondence.

As I started to work with the poem, I quickly saw that the woman was trapped in more than just a bad marriage. I tried to reflect that.

I was chuffed that this poem won the Grand Prize for poetry in a literary contest put on by the Metro Times in 2005. It also appeared in my chapbook, New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Press, 2007).

Sestina: The Cleaners

Every midnight when we leave our small room
in the boarding house basement where we stay
beside the lumberyard in Hazel Park
we drive to Birmingham, to finish
the night inside an empty theatre. We clean.
We pick up what the rich leave behind. 

Stuffing the car’s back seat, behind
Rickie and me, our supplies leave no room
for a passenger. Mops, gallons of Mr. Clean,
Windex, boxes of urinal cakes that stay
in my nose all night, polish for the brass finish
on the front doors — these fill our life. We park 

under the marquee, in the “Do Not Park”
zone, while my Rickie leaves me behind
to unload the car alone. When we finish
our work in the morning, every rest room
will be spotless, the long lobby will stay
as we leave it, sweet smelling and clean 

until those who hire others to clean
their own homes come and treat this like a park
where they can throw trash anywhere and it will stay
where it is until Rickie and me follow behind
to pick up after them. There is no room
to even walk in the auditorium after they finish 

dumping the tubs of popcorn they never finish
while they lounge at the movies. The greasy floor is clean
when Rickie stops mopping, while in the Ladies Room
on my hands and knees I carefully park
the stiff brush against the toilet that some behind
sat on like a throne and hope my dinner can stay 

in my belly, my canned macaroni and cheese will stay
where it is till the tile is scrubbed when I finish.
Now is when I want to scream, now crawl behind
the stall partitions on the floor that is spotlessly clean
and rage against Birmingham and Hazel Park
and curse my life that has so little room, 

curse this narrow stinking room that will finish
my dreams, make me stay on my knees and clean
in an endless “Do Not Park” zone, forever left behind.

©️ Donald Levin 2007