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Old 05-14-2018, 06:31 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,668
Default Towards a gun

Stumbling towards a gun

Once I was troubled in traffic, chauffeured by my psychosis,
and was witnessed by strangers to be behaving strangely,
so that inevitably telephone calls were made to the police,
who, as is the custom in my country, did not have guns,
and so did not shoot me when I failed to do as I was told,
though the handcuffs, when they came, burned my white skin.

Forgive me if in this photograph I do not see a man with black skin,
so much as another man who went out walking with his psychosis.
I know that there are other ways his story can be told,
but all of them will be set in a country where acting strangely
can cause your psychosis to stumble towards a gun.
Do I need to say that in this story he was shot dead by police?

In a land where anyone may have a gun, the police
carry guns, and though their sights may be skewed by skin
colour or madness, every bullet they fire comes out of a gun.
Could failing to notice this be a kind of psychosis?
Or is mentioning it a sort of behaving strangely?
It never seems to be how the story is told.

Sometimes I try to imagine how my story might be told
if I had lost my way, triggered in a land of armed police.
In a stand-off, would I have acted less strangely?
Or would a mind defective in fact-checking consider all skin
bullet-proof? Would fear have flattened my psychosis –
or fuelled it? For who, after all, is made calmer by guns?

The police said what the man held in his hand looked like a gun.
When you think yourself at risk of being shot, I am told,
many things do; it’s a remarkably common form of psychosis.
And replaying the video, I could see it like the police:
it did look like a gun. And notwithstanding the colour of his skin,
I could see how it did not help that he was acting strangely.

In the end it doesn’t really matter why you behave strangely:
it’s the strangeness and the inability to obey that unnerves the guns.
Once I read about a car crash survivor who, with scorched red skin,
his clothes burned off, did not stop when he was told,
but stumbled forward, dazed, towards the guns of the police.
Shock, anger, autism, dementia, deafness, it’s not just psychosis.

The next person is already wandering strangely – with their psychosis
or without it – towards the story of how their skin is perforated by police
whose guns insist that those who cannot, must do what they are told.

S7L3, inserted "must" after "cannot"

Last edited by Matt Q; 05-15-2018 at 04:29 PM.
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Old 05-14-2018, 07:43 PM
Woody Long's Avatar
Woody Long Woody Long is offline
Join Date: Jul 2013
Location: Arlington, Virginia
Posts: 1,370

Matt —

On first read:

Thoughtful, and well worth rereading for the thought.

The poem reads smoothly. My only snag was the last line, which requires some readers (e.g. me) to retrace to the first part of the line to get the meaning. Maybe:

whose guns insist that those who cannot, must do what they are told.

where the word must emphasizes the contradiction of requiring the unable to do something and alerts the reader that some kind of compulsion is about to follow.

psychosis - This word makes me itch. It seems too clinical & pop psychology for me. Wouldn't something more plain English do? Like madness? (I would guess there are other possibilities too.) madness has poetic oomph, psychosis practically none.

— Woody

P.S. On rereading I see that you do use madness in the poem already. That might be tweaked.

— W.

Last edited by Woody Long; 05-14-2018 at 07:49 PM. Reason: added the postscript: madness is already in the poem
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Old 05-14-2018, 07:56 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,184

Hi Matt,

I like the idea of doing an American sestina series. I don't think this one's quite there yet, or as Talleyrand used to say, "Ce n'est pas cela." But I think it will be.

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Old 05-15-2018, 07:46 AM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 1,615

Impressively envisioned, Matt. The first stanza is pitch perfect to my ear and could stand alone very well.

So much more to pour over with this one. I was distracted a bit by the questioning in the middle but I may warm to it on further reading.

In a time when so many buzz words are flying around, I hesitate to use one to describe the N's attitude, but "empathic" seems apt. We all need it.
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Old 05-15-2018, 04:28 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,668

Woody, John, Jim,

Thanks for your comments. I posted this with some trepidation realising that I might be stepping into some politics and that I was writing about a country I don't know much about, barring the reports of the shootings of people with mental illness that I read about.


I'm glad you found the poem worthy of rereading. And, yes that last line gave me trouble. I kept swithching between what you've suggested and what I ended up with. I guess I'll switch back.

Yes, "madness" probably is more poetic, and also perhaps a more romantic (Romantic?) choice. I'm not sure I want it sound poetic though. I'll give it some thought.


Ha, it's not a series. Just a coincidence that I've posted two American-themed sestinas. I agree the poem's not there yet. I'm pleased you think it will get there. If you've any thoughts on what it needs to do to get there, or where it's currently falling short, I'd love to hear them.


Interesting what you say about the first stanza. The first stanza came easily. The rest of the poem was hard work. And yes, I did think about just stopping there. It does stand alone. Maybe I should have done and saved myself a lot of trouble! The questions in S4 were a spot I struggled with. Maybe there's an alternative.

Thanks again all,

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Old 05-15-2018, 07:03 PM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
Join Date: Oct 2001
Location: Plum Island, MA
Posts: 10,622

I'm afraid this one doesn't work for me, Matt. The mechanics of the sestina have taken over the story, and you're repeating yourself over and over - it's like sitting next to a long-winded uncle at a family reunion.


- You've made a poor choice of end words, because they offer you almost no flexibility. A "good" end word (imao) is one which can be used or spelled in two and preferably three or more different ways; so that you're keeping the repeating rhythm of the sestina - wear, ware, where, beware - ring as a noun or a verb, etc - but also giving yourself more freedom to make the story more interesting. Once you decide what to say, I think that selecting at least a few flexible end words - the more the better - is the key to writing a good sestina. You got around this the first time by using only one end word - and it worked beautifully - but now the Gods of the sestina are looking for their revenge.

- You're also using some relatively unusual and specific end words - psychosis and strangely - which don't work all that well when you hear them seven times in 39 lines.

- As with your previous sestina, the lines are much too long. (I have the impression they're too long because you're struggling to create a line that will work with the end word.) Consequently, you lose the biggest point of the sestina - the repetition of the end words. By the time the bell rings at the end of the line, I'm bored.

Considering how much good stuff you write, I'm not sure this one is worth further effort. You can try to shorten the lines - which helped enormously with you previous sestina - but the larger problem is that the end words (as we say in po-world) suck.

Reading your comments again - I now realize that this was not originally meant to be a sestina. Okay! Now it makes sense. Forget the sestina! Either treat the first stanza as a stand-alone - or possibly add a few more lines, or one more stanza at the most.

Last edited by Michael Cantor; 05-15-2018 at 08:58 PM.
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Old 05-15-2018, 07:13 PM
Andrew Szilvasy Andrew Szilvasy is offline
Join Date: May 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 1,298

For the second straight sestina of yours, I'm going to echo Michael.

I don't think these are ideal end-words for a sestina, and so the poem feel repetitive rather than surprisingly fresh. It's a piece, to me, that feels like it was wrestled down by it's politics. Whereas the Trump sestina wears its politics on its sleeve, it has mastered the form and the politics. Here, the opposite it true to my ear.

I might scrap the sestina form and radically condense.

I might experiment with different end words.

I might consider breaking the stanzas up and treating them like 7 different poems, and so giving the reader more room to breathe between the stanzas.
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Old 05-16-2018, 03:32 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 3,881

Matt, you always provide such helpful and detailed crits and I try, at least always want to try, to return the favor. However, what I perceive as the overriding problem with this poem is obvious, to my way of thinking. I don't know why you wanted to do this in a sestina. For me, and I'm willing to be wrong, the form doesn't serve the theme, and vice versa.

What I mean is the sestina is the wrong tool to use. You're trying to dig a hole with a paintbrush. As I said, I'm willing to be wrong. Perhaps someone with more experience with sestina's can show me how I'm wrong. At this point, in my analysis, you've chosen a hot issue with multiple ramifications and, although the theme of sorts does emerge, and it's inarguable, I don't think the repeat of "psychosis" can end seeming anyway but slightly mocking. I know this isn't the intention. It's just that if you say many words over and over they become silly.

I think you can see this is the first stanza. No one has ever been "chauffeured by my psychosis". One can be driven by a psychosis but not through traffic safely. It sort of like saying my head was groomed by my serial killer. That could work, be funny, one time, in a different sort of poem.

I don't understand why the narrator chooses to not see the black skin of the man killed by the police. That is the heart of the problem. I heard someone the other day predict cops will start murdering white people so they won't look like racists. So far, that doesn't seem to be happening. I think it is the cause of not seeing all bullets come from a gun could be psychosis. It clearly is. (The NRA is a psychotic organization. If you don't believe me listen to Ollie North talk for a few minutes.)

I'll stop with that, but the point is trying to deal with such a current topic as devastating as these racial cop killings with a sestina is not, imo, the best decision you could have made. Another example, it's pushing you toward having the people killed moving toward the police. It's pretty clear that few of them were moving on the cops. Several got it in the back.

I didn't mean to go on so long but I wanted to make my point. I certainly respect you and your work. I just think this time an unfortunate decision was made in the beginning.

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Old 05-16-2018, 05:38 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,668

Michael, Andrew and John,

Thanks for your comments here, and for not sugar-coating. That's always appreciated.

Since posting this I've come to the same conclusion as you, John. The problem here is is that the this poem has no reason to be a sestina, and given that it is one, it's not making much use of the form. Which is to agree in general terms with you both, Michael and Andrew, that this isn't really working. Oh well, I'm sure the effort that went in to it will bear fruit at some point. Maybe I can salvage it as a shorter poem.


Yes, some of the end-words weren't great choices. As for variations in end words, it certainly makes sestinas easier to write. Though my favourite sestinas have found ways to make a virtue of the repetition and have no variations, like Bishop's Sestina, and Ashbery's The Painter -- or very little, like Hecht's The Book of Yolek. Anyhow, I am in agreement with you that this one shouldn't have been a sestina in the first place.


Thanks for the suggestions. I think scrapping the sestina form is the way forward.


It's kind of moot now, but I don't see your issue with "chauffeured by my psychosis". I mean, I wouldn't want my psychosis as a chauffeur, sure, it wouldn't be a safe ride, but then that's the point. Plus there's the assonance.

In the title and in S2, I'd meant "stumbling towards" in the sense of being (inexorably) brought into the path off, but thanks for flagging up the potential problems with that. It's a good point.

The poem says: I see the man in the photo as a man with psychosis more than I see a man with black skin. It doesn't say I don't see his black skin, it doesn't say it can't be seen differently. My kinship with this man lies in our psychoses, our common mental illness. I read an article about a black man being shot dead during a bipolar episode. Naturally, I think of my own bipolar episodes and feel empathy, knowing what it's like to be a person wandering around in a psychotic state, how frightening that can be, how vulnerable one is and so on. I'll add that it's very clear that he was shot because he was mentally ill. Yes, his also being black will have made it (statistically) more likely that he'd be shot doing what he was doing. But if he hadn't been psychotic, he just wouldn't have been shot. Period. It's statistically way more dangerous to be psychotic in public in the US than to be black. So I sometimes wish the whole thing wouldn't be reduced to race, though of course, I wouldn't want to make it a competition -- though in retrospect, perhaps in this poem I am at risk of it sounding like that, which is a problem.

I agree that in making this a sestina, the constraints of the form have gotten in the way of the nuances of what I want to say and given that I'm impinging on some very charged issues, that's another reason to abandon the sestina form. So rather than get any more involved in explain those points here (he says deleting another three paragraphs), I'll think about how to write a better in a poem.

Thanks again everyone.


Last edited by Matt Q; 05-16-2018 at 07:09 PM.
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Old 05-16-2018, 08:32 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 3,881

Matt, perhaps I was a bit carried away. We both deal with bipolar and when I think of my most manic times the connotation of the word "chauffeur" is much too experienced behind the wheel. It isn't crazy enough. But I may be wrong. Others may have experiences different than mine.

I guess I was confused about the mental illness vs. race or if not vs. than illness/race. I agree this place is a hellhole if you happen to be mentally ill. Now they're blaming all the mass killings on the mentally ill as a way to divert from gun control.

I apologize for misreading. I am happy you've let the form go. Who knows what you may create without it.

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