Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man by Jim Cummins and David Lehman; Illustrated by Archie Rand. Soft Skull Press, 2006; $14.95; 143 pages
Jim Cummins and I were talking one afternoon about the sestina collection put together by himself and David Lehman. Mr. Cummins was at his desk at the University of Cincinnati where he teaches English and writing. I was at home in California. Mr. Cummins went to the University of Cincinnati as an undergraduate and the Iowa Writers' Workshop for graduate school, where he graduated in 1973. He studied, he said, "principally with Donald Justice, and secondarily, to some extent, Marvin Bell. But mostly Don Justice."
I asked about the new book's title.
"Oh, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man? Well, it's funny, when we first started doing these, David and I were in the midst of a growing friendship. It was fun. When we came to choose a title, the titles we had seemed so, I don't know, pretentious . They had little puns in them, but they weren't, not really. Then David wrote the 'Masked Man' sestina as a response to sestinas that I'd written, he and I being not superheroes but CIA operatives on the poetry front. That opened up the whole thing, and David said, 'Why not use it as a title?'"
"Explain what a sestina is."
Mr. Cummins laughed, something that he would often do in the next 30 minutes. "It's one of those things where you start to explain and it's like a bad joke, but, basically, it's a medieval troubadour poetry form. It's the only one where repetition takes the place of rhyme. Originally, the scenes of the sestina were time, love, loss, with six stanzas of six lines each. Each of the end words of the first stanza repeat in an intricate way throughout. So, you have only six end words all the way through the total of 39 lines, especially through those first 36 lines, and then in the last stanza, it's a three-line envoi, and that envoi includes all the six end words in it. These three end words end each of the three lines. And there's one end word on each of the three lines. It's about repetition and change, how things come around each stanza. If you're in a sestina and you step into the same river twice, you're in a bad sestina."
"Help me," I said. "If you were going to explain this book to a class of seniors, what would you tell them?"
"I would say that it's not attempting to be over-determined, it's not attempting to give you a theme or a thematic thread, but it does give you a kind of structure. They're all sestinas, after all. It's like going through a pinball machine. You're the ball.
"There's no thread that I can pick up except that the project itself provides the thread. It's like a cathedral where you have the pressure of the arch itself, holding itself together."
"The more complex a form in poetry, the more that form draws out of the poet notions and words that he or she had not previously entertained or would not likely have entertained. Do you think that is true?" I asked.
"That is a truth," said Mr. Cummins, "that you can't explain to people, but it's absolutely true. What I found when I was doing my first book -- The Whole Truth -- which is a sequence of 24 sestinas based on the Perry Mason characters from the old TV show -- I actually had somebody call me from an English department asking what 'the whole truth' was. The whole truth is that there isn't one. But what I try to tell people is you wrestle a sestina, and you don't always win. You have some content, and you're going to pour that content into a form; that form has its own ideas about your content."
I suggested, "It's rather like wrestling between Jacob and the Angel. The sestina's content seeks the Angel's blessing of form."
"Yes. Especially the sestina. The sonnet is much more like a good child."
"The sestina," I said, "seems more complicated a project than the sonnet."
"It's complicated, but I'll tell you, when you get down into the third and fourth stanzas, you have to be light on your feet, you have to shift and go with the way that the poem is developing, rather than the way that you conceived of it beforehand; it's a lot of fun. It can be thrilling. When I was writing my first book, I used to crack myself up on the typewriter. I don't know if that's conceited to say or what, but I used to get a kick out of them."
"Why shouldn't you enjoy what you do?"
"True. Why shouldn't I?"
"When did you discover sestinas?"
"Two of my favorite poets were John Ashbery, the genius of the age, and Donald Justice."
"Donald Justice -- whom everyone forgets."
"I know. It's amazing, isn't it? He's got such a reputation and yet, it's almost like stealth playing: at a certain angle he disappears. But, those two sestina writers in particular -- John's poem, 'The Painter,' and then the 'Popeye' sestina and the 'Faust' sestina, those were the three sestinas that I first read after Pound's 'Sestina Altaforte,' which I didn't like. I read those three and I thought, 'Well, I love them,' and then a few years later, I thought, 'What if I took this weird content and put it into this weird form?'"
"When did people start writing sestinas?"
"That's a good question. Nobody ever stopped, but nobody would ever think of having more than one, or maybe two at the most, in a book. Now, Donald Justice did have three in a book, I think. But, mostly the sestina is looked at as way too 'self conscious,' way too -- I call it 'Baby Huey.' A sestina kind of walks up to you and doesn't know its own strength, slaps you on the back and causes your dentures to fly out."