The Ultimate Sestina: James Cummins' The Whole Truth
The Whole Truth has the potential to change a reader's opinion of that most polarizing of forms, the sestina. It is almost impossible to resist the charm of a sequence of twenty-five sestinas which unfold, with increasing surrealism, the off-screen and inner lives of the characters from the sixties television show Perry Mason.
To the reader who is already a sestina devotee, these sestinas demonstrate new opportunities for sleight of hand and daring with those tricky repeating end words: in the first sestina alone, one of the repetends is "masturbating" while two of the others cycle through various metamorphoses (heiress/ hairless/ harass/ airless and swizzle/ sizzle/ whistle/ weasel), all of which sets the tone perfectly for the high jinks to come.
Mason is institutionalized after a heart attack brings about the death of his mother/grandmother followed by delusions in which he debates philosophy with a talking fly. Both Mason and the fly use an African American dialect reminiscent of Berryman's Dream Songs. Meanwhile we learn about Hamilton Burger's foot fetishistic dysfunctional relationship with Della Street.
But if all poems are a "rallying of everything that remains," as Harold Bloom asserts, then The Whole Truth is a rallying of the hero's inner psyche which has him considering Foucault and Flaubert en route to his triumphant (and hysterical) return to the courtroom. Beneath the humor then, lies a genuine desire to provide answers, or perhaps just the single answer to the eternal question of poets: does it all end in silence?
There are moments of hilarity here and deep, dark humor, but also striking metaphors, such as when Della imagines a man jumping from the opposite office block: "No chance/ He'd survive the fall: a twisted bag of garbage on the altar/ Of the city" or when Perry is drugged "Catatonic, his face stony as an oracle's cave."
Perhaps Cummins is most amusing when he is making sly establishment jokes. A poet turns up to teach poetry to the mentally disturbed and in forcing Perry to speak, accidentally grants him back his own voice, which would seem to be an allegory—or indeed an apology—for poetry. A few sestinas later, Perry picks up a copy of Lowell's Dolphin and the creature speaks to him, alluding to Lowell's death "Know he learned at the last, any cab might be a dolphin." The first stanza of sestina 22 is paraphrased from Walt Whitman's "A Song of Myself." In 19 we learn "Great. Keats gets roses. I get assholes." and must remember that the rose was a symbol of final accomplishment to Keats.
And there is a positive final accomplishment to the book, which is, despite appearances, a testimony to the dogged persistence of the human spirit. Perry survives therapy and emerges schizophrenic but with the vision of a poet.
Critics of the sestina claim its verbal acrobatics too easily lead either to tautologies or dull narratives. Clearly The Whole Truth is too fantastic to be dull. I would also offer that when used properly, the fact that the first line of each stanza ends with the same word as the last line of the previous stanza leads to ingenious poetic reverses. For example in Sestina 9, the stanza which ends: "The real question was, does it all end in silence?" is followed by a stanza which begins: "He'd been very good at cracking someone's silence." Similarly, in Sestina 16 we have: "Put your mouth/ on them now. Oh god, I love it when you do my toes!" followed by "Della couldn't understand this obsession with her toes."
In The Whole Truth we are continuously being surprised even as we are entertained, and the philosophical "whole truths" which slip into our brains do so slyly and palatably. As the shady Mo Fugger (motherfucker?) says in Sestina 14, describing the life of an underling: "I'm a fuckin" hawk on somebody's arm. With a glove on my head. He takes it off, and I fly away." Or as the penultimate sestina concludes, answering the book's question "does it all end in silence" in confident voice:
"Perry suffered the night coming on, his every thought
A stone in a cathedral of praise. He heard his voice
Shake itself from itself, begin its song—He wrote:"
Of course what he writes is a sestina. I challenge any poet to read this book and not feel like doing the exact same thing. I know I did.
Anna Evans is a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where she is raising two daughters. She has had over 100 poems published in journals including The Formalist, The Evansville Review, Light Quarterly, Measure and many others. In 2005 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist in the Howard Nemerov sonnet award. She is editor of the formal poetry e-zine The Barefoot Muse and is currently enrolled in the Bennington College MFA Program. Her first chapbook Swimming was published in March 2006 by Powerscore Press.
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