Barbara Sabol is our judge for the Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award for 2021. In responding to my question of how the events of 2020 have impacted the role of the poet, she writes:
The Transformative Power of Poetry in the Year of Covid-19
The best work of poetry is to render the personal universal, creating a tether connecting poet to reader, and beyond: casting outward to a broader literary and human community. This has been especially true during this year of extended isolation―our lives abruptly uncoupled to larger society because of public safety concerns. The ensuing sense of separateness.
Of poetry, William Stafford writes, “. . .It’s a shrine/by the road, it’s a flower in the parking lot. . .” in the aptly titled piece, “Poetry.” A poem can lift us out of isolation by transforming a solitary moment into an illuminating exchange between poem and reader. A lyric poem is an intimate gesture: it may enact grief, loneliness, love, wonder―the full scope of human emotion―and speak directly to a reader’s spirit. Even when a narrative of a poem falls outside one’s ken, the human element embedded in that poem may spark a corresponding response in the reader, slaking that yearning for connection.
I have found myself drawn to poetry even more during this long stretch of seclusion; reading books cover to cover, in keeping with the intended arc, versus a typical gleaning from one section to another. Memorizing certain poems so that they beat with my body’s pulse has been a meditative, stirring practice. Certain books and specially loved poems have become companions these sheltered-in days. Stafford is my current companion, and what soothing company he keeps! Lines of his poem, “Why I Am Happy,” reside now in memory, and smooth the way to a calming breath, or to sleep.
Of course, writing holds its own transformative power. The deep dive through layers of feeling and experience allows us to surface enlightened, and perhaps reoriented to the purpose of poetry in times such as these. For those of us visited by the impulse to write, it is essential that we follow that urge, for our own well-being, and with the belief that, upon reading our work, someone may be eased from hermitage back into community.
Barbara shares this sestina with us:
The Mill Wright
We dine atop the incline plane, suspended
above dormant industrial glory―the obsolete steel
mill, Bethlehem’s iron sprawl―slumber-dragon shackled
to Allegheny Valley’s blue-collar realm; smokestacks
hold their acrid breath. Against sunset, giraffe-neck cranes
bend on rusting joints in the silhouetted rigging.
Thirty-eight years my father labored, a journeyman rigger;
young and agile, he clambered scaffolds, suspended
like a trapeze artist. Balanced atop a latticed crane
he rode the platform’s sway in the wind off the hills, steeled
himself against fear, against weary, against the stack
of woe on the counter. Love kept him there, shackled
to the notion of provision. My father accepted the shackle’s
iron rub, its chafe against his soft nature―beneath the rigors
of winch and rope, torch and flame, his lot was stacked
with home-cooked comfort, arms ’round the neck. Suspended
between college and marriage, he had chosen to steal
my mother’s affection with a steady wage, means to crane
the bricks, shingles, circuitry into place so they might crane
their dreams to children, to ribbons and tinsel, the gentle shackles
of family. As a girl, scant memory of him; the mill would steal
my father’s daylight hours, his vigor. The Corporation, true rigger,
played grime-collar labor for its gain. Workers teetered in suspended
animation between blast furnace and bar. Hope, like dominoes, stacked
to tumble, another double all around. Next day’s shrill whistle, stacks
exhaled the dragon’s toxic breathing. Only the head of the crane’s
main boom above gritted mist: my father, mid-air, suspended
over hot metal cars, coke oven―A Chagall in overalls, unshackled
to the engine room’s black heart. His brand of faith, an invisible rigging,
secured him there―practiced hands, a common knot stronger than steel.
From the balcony we consider our hometown, far below a sky steel
gray as the old mill, monument to its rust belt heyday. Stacked
layer on decadent layer a chocolate torte for our desert; the rigging
of a certain privilege. Look! Leftovers wrapped in the shape of a crane.
A toast to our fathers, who kept this city humming. I am shackled
by the memory of him aged so young; by unspoken thanks suspended
in clouds over the mill. When the plant went under, elegant cranes
poised mid-swing. A final time-clock swipe; just like that, unshackled.
Single-file, workers passed the heavy gate, then into the air, suspended.
—from Imagine a Town, Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2020
Barbara Sabol’s second full-length book, Imagine a Town, was awarded the 2019 Sheila-Na-Gig Editions poetry manuscript prize. She is the author of Solitary Spin and two chapbooks, Original Ruse, and The Distance Between Blues. Her poetry has appeared widely in Journals and anthologies. Barbara conducts community-based poetry workshops. She contributes poetry book reviews for The Ohioana Quarterly. Barbara received an MFA from Spalding University. Her awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. She lives in Akron, OH with her husband and wonder dogs.