Poet's Choice: 'Ethel's Sestina' by Patricia Smith

By Patricia Smith
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Herbert Freeman Jr., his mama's only son, had spent his entire life at his mother's side. After she raised him, he moved next door. As she grew frail, he moved in with her again.

In the wretched days following Hurricane Katrina, Herbert and his mother waited for rumored rescue from New Orleans' Morial Convention Center. They waited for three days. She died on Sept. 1, 2005, just after asking her son -- yet again -- if the buses were coming.

When the rumbling calvary finally did appear and Herbert was urged to evacuate, he wrote his name and contact number on a piece of paper and positioned it near his mother's hands. Then, for the first time, he left her. After news photographs showed Ethel Mayo Freeman draped in someone else's poncho and curled like a comma in her wheelchair, the 91-year-old woman became a country's abandonment and a sweet city's fall.

In writing this persona poem in Ethel's voice, I wanted her to triumph. I chose the form of sestina (six end words repeated in varying order in each stanza) because it mirrored the way elderly women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words.

(Patricia Smith will be a featured presenter at the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. The festival will take place on September 26 on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)

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Gon' be obedient in this here chair,

gon' bide my time, fanning against this sun.

I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.

He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.

I trust his every word. Herbert my son.

I believe him when he says help gon' come.

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