Sestina | Portraits of Strangers

Kendall Morris



I was asleep in blue when the sun came and made

West’s bed. A color beam shone through the veneered

blinds as Sunday sent clear overhead. It was breaking

me cold open: a crack in the firmament. The blue-jays

flew, singing to hear how their voices colored

when they hit the bare morning sidewalks as water.

Clouds moved quickly in the kitchen window. The tap water

he poured into the mouth of the coffee maker

made the air familiar. Books piled on the yellow-colored

couch with bared arms. Newspapers stacked on the veneered

desk. Beside it the worn leather boots. A blue-jay

sang to me from the open window broken

lyrics cut from hymns. The transmission was breaking

but we drove to the Black Hills to pick sage, the smell of water

on the road. Sage was woven into the granite, blue jade.

We were busy to say what next, it was making

me feel quiet to myself. The air was vernal;

Its voices cracked open into pearls in the cloud cover.

We wore speech like the turquoise colored

rings we turned around our fingers. We cut sage into bundles

as the sun was halved by the tip of Black Elk peak. A veneer

I wear, is myself, West said behind the wheel as water

hit the windshield and the transmission started making

a throbbing sound. Crosby was going on about leaving the city, jaded

But he stayed longer and West cut his hair down. The hills sung in jade

tones. Out the window I was emptied of all else, my head the color

of the Black Hills. The ache in his transmission was making

a burnt-rubber smell. I said the self is a habit not worth breaking.

West looked as if I asked him to take shape, like water.

I said the idea of the self is, the idea is the veneer

we wear over the still center of being underneath. The verses

are worn thoughts, are the habits. As the sky grew dark I jawed-on

vaguely about California, my mother. I wanted to be water

in his cupped palms, see-through. In my head the slate-colored

ocean and my child self. The firmament was breaking

open. The blue-jays wove through the cracks in the sky. I unmade

my veneer in the passenger seat. We spoke in color as water

sounded in the wheel wells, blue sage on the dash. What to break

is the habit, the rhythm of thought, I said again, the making.


This poem was written in the form of the Italian sestina, six stanzas

of six lines and a final triplet. All stanzas having the same six words

at the line-ends in six different sequences that follow a fixed pattern,

and with all six words appearing in the closing three-line envoi.


Listen to SESTINA:



Portraits of Strangers


Just as what is is not, surely you know

How to remove strange spars of self with self.


Bathe in a slight turning of the face. Paper

Bodies smiling at strangers in the butchery.


Memory is more or less stable

But hints at these delicate meshes.


The smell of boiling water, some calm,

Convention for kindling our function.


I won’t explain ache; Others have more aptly

Felt this edge. Just gesturing, very sane,


To nourish the flat mirror played.

He most ordinary, peculiar stayed.


Sections of this poem were originally written as an erasure of

John Ashbury’s long-poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.


Listen to Portraits of Strangers:


Provenance: Submission

Kendall Morris is a California poet living in Denver, Colorado. Her poetry has been published in the Chicago Review of Books’ magazine Arcturus, and she was recently chosen as a finalist for the South Hampton Review’s 2019 Short Short Fiction Contest. Her senior undergraduate thesis “Seeds of Things, ” directed by the poet Graham Foust, received the the Mary Cass Award in 2018. She is currently writing a memoir in lyric essay.


Featured Image: The Blue Jay (Garrulus cristatus) 55. The Canada Jay (Garrulus canadensis) illustration from Zoology of New york (1842 – 1844) by James Ellsworth De Kay (1792-1851) provided by Rawpixel Ltd licensed under CC BY 2.0

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