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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | Sensuality of loss

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Oakwood author Betsy Hughes loves poetic forms just as much as many of the other writers so far featured in this column. Says John Drury in “Creating Poetry”: “The problem with many ‘fixed forms’ is that they are so rigid they don’t give the poetic imagination much freedom or provocation. They are more for the puzzle-maker, the ingenious turner of phrases.”

While I concede that Drury’s “problem” is the very reason I mostly eschew forms, I like to keep an open mind and see if poets can work naturally within their chosen forms so that nothing feels stiff or manipulated, the rhymes unpredictable, the whole pleasing and surprising, yielding a complete meal for the mind and senses.

Hughes has published a new collection of mostly sonnets, “The Sixth Sense of Loss & Poems of Restoration.” In the title poem below, Betsy uses terza rima, a rhyming form introduced by 14th century Florence-born poet Dante Alighieri in his narrative poem The Divine Comedy. The terza rima form consists of three-line stanzas called tercets. The last word of the second line in one tercet establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet — aba bcb cdc, etc. The poem ends with a single line or a couplet that repeats the rhyme of the previous tercet’s middle line. It’s a complex form, but Hughes rises to the occasion:

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Your form, familiar, sits upon the chair,
but I’m a fool to think it could be real,
for when I look again you are not there.

I hear Rachmaninoff and can’t conceal
the passion sounding with each decibel
this music’s poignant melodies reveal.

Your shirt still holds its own distinctive smell
of St. Johns Bay Rum aftershave with clove
and eucalyptus aromatic spell.

My recipe for leg of lamb, a trove
of garlic fixed according to your taste,
is souvenir of shared domestic love.

At night I turn in bed where we embraced
and touch the empty sheets’ indifferent cool
reminder that your life has been effaced.

My grief and gratitude together pool;
your absence/presence now together rule.

This beautiful poem, an elegy to her deceased husband, is drenched in the sensual. And as important as sight is to his “absence/presence” (“your form sits upon the chair”), sound and smell are equally so. We hear Rachmaninoff’s “passion sounding with each decibel.” And almost an entire tercet is devoted to the heady scent of “clove and eucalyptus” aftershave, the name of which trips off the tongue in rhythmic monosyllables: “St. Johns Bay Rum.”

Who can resist reading on for more sensory delights? The poem builds to the poignant bedroom finale of “empty sheets’ indifferent cool.” Hughes’ light touch for such deep grief increases the drama, therefore the reader’s empathy, displaying true emotion rather than sentimentality.

Then the surprising yet low-keyed conclusion, where we find the poet’s “grief and gratitude together pool,” making this poem truly restorative rather than a mere explication of grief. For a poem about loss due to death, it’s very much alive.

In a form devoted to end-of-line rhymes, Hughes avoids boring predictability. Sometimes the rhymes are different parts of speech: taste (noun)/embraced (verb). She also uses slant (approximate) rhyme: trove/love. Finally, enjambment (continuing the syntax into the next line) kills the temptation to end the line and sentence simultaneously, with the dull repetition of a falling ax. She smoothly enjambs all but the first and final stanzas.

In the last stanza, I found “effaced” overly formal, too obviously chosen only because it rhymes with “embraced”; however, the poet’s twinning grief/gratitude and absence/presence in the same stanza more than compensated for the oddity. By the end, pain and loss have been transcended by Hughes’ vivid, sensual, living memories, an impressive accomplishment for 17 lines!

I’m also including the poem I received from Larry Hussman since featuring his “Concert for My Mother” in a previous column. Here it is without comment for your enjoyment:

My fog comes in on little fish fins,
a flounder shape that swallows
letters from words, disappears
with them when I close my eyes,
threatens to one day blot out
mountain, river, ocean, all that
matters of the natural world.

No escape from the darkness
that impends, but a smile or two
that breaks the bleak. The day
I came upon an ad that read
“Like new window for sale.”
But my flounder had chewed
the second “n.” and so I read
“Like new widow for sale.”
The missing letter reappeared
Before I could call for details.

Send your poems to Ed Davis at

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