Sestina Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Read within the context of fairy tales, “Sestina” speaks not only of profound sorrow but also of personal growth. The grandmother may pretend to be happy in order to maintain stability and provide shelter, but the child recognizes the difficult emotions of their predicament. Moreover, the play of the child’s mind, which turns the almanac into a bird, lets the stove and the almanac speak, and draws its own version of the child’s world, provides a distinctive way of being effectual—of, as some might say, “dealing with things.” Like many a young protagonist, the child is a hero, or at least a hero-in-waiting, exerting himself or herself to transform the world. Yet, one must not entertain Romantic delusions that art might offer salvation. After all, the child’s drawing depicts a “rigid house” and tears falling into a flower bed; in its final speech, the almanac—that voice of the inevitable—interprets: “Time to plant tears.”

Going a step further, the voice of the author, with its considerable emotional distance, ensures that this story does not become maudlin. Indeed, when listened to, when one takes the author’s playfulness into account, “Sestina” is a very busy story that features not only the woman and the child but also the stove, the almanac, and the images in the drawing, defiant little antagonists or symbols of what can never be said directly.

Geography played a central role in Bishop’s life and imagination. Geography and travel stimulated her. She traveled often but made her home in Florida and Brazil long enough to absorb those settings and write of them repeatedly. She wrote both stories and poems about Nova Scotia, where she spent part of her earliest years. Throughout her work, there is the sense of the power of “the interior”—often a region, but in “Sestina” a domestic scene. Bishop could write of places as though looking from afar, like a tourist, but she rewarded—and surprised—her readers with affecting insights that the places yielded. As she writes in “The Map,” the poem that opens her first book, “Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is.”