Wolfblood Sestina

(In memoriam, Kurt Cobain 1967-1994)

Last night on TV I watched Larry Talbot weep
Over shooting-gallery wolves of hammered tin.
It was all a question of blood,
Carrier of inheritance and curses.
He didn’t know what he was yet,
But those tears of blood and tin, they knew.

I’m not sure why I thought of you then, but I knew
That I’d think the rest of the night of watching my teenage friends weep.
They seemed too young to feel that kind of eviscerating loss yet,
Too young to find out that death always robs us of our gods of tin.
Back then you seemed to me to be a creature of muttered curses,
My age, their generation, bound to end in blood.

I’d like to have known you in spite of the thunder and blood,
To maybe have shared the things I knew
About the word and the verse and how they can be curses,
Make you scream and rant, tear your hair and weep —
But how they can bless, too, when all the rest of the world tastes of tin.
I don’t know if it would have saved you, or even if it will save me, yet.

I went back to the movie eventually, and yet
I kept coming back to the shotgun, the jet of blood.
Poets are my gods of tin:
Berryman, Sexton, and Plath (Jesus, she knew.).
It’s such a drama-queen of a word, weep.
We should mourn our poets with tequila and curses.

Maybe this is all because the movie’s about curses.
That’s probably why I haven’t let go of this yet.
I didn’t understand then, and now it’s too far gone to make me weep,
But the words you scattered when you splattered your brains and blood,
Took from us all the things that only you knew.
Their vanishing is bitter as tin.

I’d like to bring your spirit rice balls tied in silk, or dumplings wrapped in tin,
Like they bring to protect Qu Yuan from death’s indignities and curses.
On second thought, I’m grateful not to know what you knew,
And that I can maintain equilibrium yet,
And that my only abattoirs are splashed with Hollywood blood,
And to sit here watching the father who brained his wolf-son with a silver cane weep.

Here’s what I know: Weep and fling volleys of curses,
Or cringe like you bit into tin and so dodge it for a bit longer yet;
Either way, poetry wants blood, and that’s something I think you always knew.


My long, stuttering dry spell broke loudly with this poem.

I’d been since Kurt Cobain’s death trying on and off to grapple with what I wanted to say about it. He was very close to my age, but it was my younger friends who were most devastated by his death; their mourning touched me deeply and reminded me of the power music still has.

As I sat up late one night watching the 1941 movie The Wolf Man, I was unexpectedly moved by the scene in which Larry Talbot, on his way to becoming a full-fledged werewolf, weeps without understanding why over seeing tin wolves being struck in a carnival shooting gallery. For reasons I still don’t understand, my mind connected that scene with Cobain; it was probably the greatest mental-creative leap of my life, and I sat down and wrote a first draft that looked very little like this poem.

At some point in the following days, the title occurred to me; suddenly, I’d committed to making this very difficult poem a sestina, one of the most complex and difficult of the classical forms. It took me another three years to finish the poem; it didn’t happen until I stopped trying to explain that mental connection and surrendered to the idea that the real point was that the connection was there, not why.


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