Sestina: The Bullet Sons

by James Sands


The sestina is a form poem that is both intricate and complex. It consists of thirty-nine lines encompassing six stanzas with end words from the first stanza that repeat as end words in a specific pattern throughout the following five stanzas. It closes with an envoi that contains the six end words, also occurring in a specific pattern. This form relies on the repetition of the end words rather than a rhyme scheme to effect a rhyme-like quality. In this particular work, I chose end words that paired into slant rhyme and direct rhyme. And, while I did include all six end words in the envoi, I did not follow the envoi pattern as it was originally intended.

I began this poem in late 1998. Initially, it was not a sestina. It was originally titled “The Bullet Son,” singular, and intended as a catharsis of sorts to help me try and come to terms with the death of my brother, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of eighteen in April of 1989. I was unable to complete it as such. Then, Columbine happened.

There had been several school shootings prior to Columbine. I decided to try and draw attention to this, and it seemed the sestina—though far out of fashion—with its repetition of end words might lend itself well to that endeavor. There is a phrase, a cliche´ no longer used much in literature, “little did he know.” I completed this work in 1999, and, “little did I know,” the repetition inherent in the sestina would so aptly illustrate the tragic continuance of school shootings and gun violence in America. As of this writing, according to Wikipedia, since Columbine there have been 375 school shootings in the United States.

I will note–I am a gun owner. I have two twelve gauge shotguns, a 7mm-.08 hunting rifle, a .22 caliber rifle, and an antique Winchester lever action .25-.35 caliber rifle manufactured in 1908. I live and work on a farm; each of these shotguns and rifles, with the exception of the antique Winchester, is a tool with a specific, potential purpose.

I do not advocate banning all firearms. My brother killed himself with a Ruger .30-.06—a hunting rifle. I had the option of having it destroyed. I did not. I remember walking through downtown Billings, Montana, rifle in hand after retrieving it from the Billings police department, and seeing the grim looks on people’s faces as they drove or walked by—likely mirroring my own. The rifle was a tool; my brother’s last action was a tragic mistake. I gave the rifle to a friend whom I have since lost touch with. As far as I know, he hunts deer with it to this day.

Large magazine capacity assault-type rifles have no place in civilian life. None. Beyond that, education, access, and accountability are three words that should be paramount in the work to prevent gun violence. This should not be a complicated issue. This should not be like a sestina.

The Bullet Sons

The bullet sons violently rend the facade
comprising our dreams our serenity
forever lost in a violent cascade
of actions that echo eternity
off splattered, pocked walls of silent red ruin
painted red-rage of corrupted red vision

Innocents cross their empty red vision
cursed by a dark and unnatural facade
surrounded with rage, silhouetted in ruin
forever erased from serenity
with Erebus etched in eternity
forever entombed in a brutal cascade

We the people, crushed by the brutal cascade,
vainly search for the source of the vision
the bullet sons share with eternity,
coverage beyond their twisted facade,
their destruction of our serenity,
transcribed by the news in self-serving ruin

The bullet sons blast; the walls run ruin
in random red-rage assault rifle cascade
with vengeance their song of serenity
in secrecy alone with their vision
fantasy for truth that builds their facade
self-martyring death their eternity

Survivors live guilt for eternity
remember the walls and pay for the ruin
knowing they never saw through the facade
they wonder could they have stopped the cascade
if they somehow had looked with clear vision
through the sons’ dead stares of serenity

Our dark demons allow no serenity
in dreams ride through hell for eternity
wrapped in red-raged destruction of vision
surrounding dead walls running red ruin
blasting dread echoes of sonic cascade
we’re cursed by the truth gunned through the facade

No serenity for eternity
survivors’ visual cascade plays ruin
bullet sons’ fatal facade their vision

photo credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay