Sestina for My Father


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Sestina for My Father

The once green yard is littered with squirrels
whose only crime was a taste for bright green walnuts,
now littering the floor of the house behind locks
jammed with scraps of metal broken off by my father.
Every day he barricades himself inside the scraps of sanity
that still remain to him. Inside, the house

smells like the den of some animal, a house
where the attic would never tempt squirrels
to save walnuts or acorns against any insanity
winter might bring, although even now walnuts
litter the attic in small heaps my father
has left behind. This is the way he locks

the present in place against a past he locks
inside himself. Despite his best efforts, the house
plots against him, whispering secrets my father
chooses not to hear. But dead squirrels
litter the yard like fallen walnuts,
and my father tries to buttress his sanity

within a litany of remembered wrongs. His sanity
has always been a matter he locked
away from us, covering himself with a walnut
shell of confidence. But this time the house
is a shambles, the bodies of dead squirrels
a testimony to insanity that even my father

has trouble ignoring. He remembers his own father
marshaling fleets of Buicks and Caddies against insanity.
Outside the house the fleet of dead squirrels
arrayed around the yard become locks
holding my father against his will in this house
he has carefully provisioned with walnuts.

Now, looking at the scattered walnuts
littering each room of the house, my father
begins to realize that even this house,
his home, can no longer protect his sanity.
At night he dreams of complex deadlocks,
but too soon the dream dissolves as squirrels

slip in to grab walnuts, and the shreds of sanity
become a dream my father wants desperately to lock
outside the house, outside with all those squirrels.

– Bill Stifler

This poem was originally published in Vol. 11 (2011) of Compass Rose.

A sestina is a poem of 39 lines. The first six stanzas each contain six lines all ending with the same six words. The order of the words ending the lines changes in a set pattern with each stanza. The last three lines of the poem are a separate stanza where the six words are again repeated, three at the end of the lines and three in the middle. Some writers use variations on the six words (which I have done here). Others use six rhymes rather than six words as the pattern of repetition. Often, writers will include the six words elsewhere in the poem in addition to the patterned repetitions (which I also do in this poem). Because of the repetition of words, the sestina lends itself to poems addressing obssessions.

This poem is based on a situtation in my father’s life that actually happened (and which became the basis for my initial six words). After the first stanza, I let the pattern of repetitions suggest the evolution of meaning in the poem. In the end, the “father” in the poem becomes a composite of his personality and my own imagination so that the final result goes beyond his individual circumstances and feelings while, I hope, at the same time offers a sense of what mental illness can be like.

Appointment in Samarra


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Appointment in Samarra

The Grim Reaper
is my guardian angel
saving me 1000 times
from certain death.

No doubt the times she
lifted me from danger
meant the saving of some
other neglected life.

Her soft touch
sends exquisite pain
radiating through my body
promising that final ecstasy
when the church bells will ring
and the veil will be lifted
and we embrace at last.

–Bill Stifler, 2017



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My father had the way of it,
taking his two week vacation
from the madness of the world
in his own private Twilight Zone
wreaking vengeance for remembered
wrongs, a Carpenter of gallows.

My crypt lies between the cardboard
sides and sheets of a book, or deep
within some forgotten mind’s crevasse,
head under the covers, and no light
to read, no light, no light, no light.

– Bill Stifler, 12/2016



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I want to believe, when my father shot
at my two brothers, he intended to miss,
but then, he was crazy at the time, so likely
the bullets came close enough for each of them
to feel the hot lead, feel their own hot blood
racing through their bodies, the way my father’s
hot thoughts raced through him and out the end
of his rifle toward them. I know they were
scared—I would have been, too, but I never
knew—or didn’t remember—or just
forgot—but I don’t think my brothers
ever forgot, or at least their hearts never did,
each having heart attacks years later, but never
saying whether—at the moments their hearts
jammed—if they heard the roaring of that night
tearing toward them again, threatening love.

– Bill Stifler, 12/2016

The Revelation


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The Revelation

Last time it came in waves
of screams slipping into depths
immeasurable, darkness smothering
hope and hate, love and larceny—no
matter—only slow rocking time
remaining beneath a darkened sky.

Then, a promise of fire, bright orange,
suns exploding, the moon bloody, always
more blood, the sacrifice of innocents,
foolish lambs led to slaughter by wolves
rising out of the northern winter,
all promises forgotten—or misremembered—
the abomination of desolation at last revealed.

Still, hope clings to flotsam carried on rivers
of fire, the rapture’s final embrace carrying
them to the promised land of gnashing teeth.

— Bill Stifler, 2016

Cento: Lines from Mandelstam


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Cento: Lines from Mandelstam

Where to start?
No one word’s better than another;
Here, taking form, is the first draft.

The air trembles with similes,
And sometimes the air is dark as water.
You can’t get out of it, and it’s hard to get in.

The breast of the sea breathes tranquilly,
And all the seas of the world lie open,
but it’s a hard sail, and the same stars everywhere.

Time gnaws at me like a coin,
Stirs itself from long sleep on the harsh avenues,
Hangs above the damned abyss.

Never mind if our candles go out.
Ahead of us we’ve only somebody’s word,
And there’s not even enough of me left for myself.

I have forgotten the word I wanted to say.
Everything’s happened before and will happen again.
What I’m saying now isn’t said by me.

I have studied the science of good-byes.
Who can tell from the sound of the word ‘parting’?
Memory, are those your voices?

– Bill Stifler


A cento is a patchwork collage of lines taken from other works. All of the lines from this poem are taken from translations of various poems by Osip Mandelstam from a 1987 world poetry text compiled by Richard Jackson for ENGL433 at UT Chattanooga. I wrote the poem while taking the class and recently edited it.

The Death of Plato


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The Death of Plato

I wonder in the end
if Plato realized
this old flesh
was more than just
the shadow of himself,
more than just
a flickering recollection
divorced from time?

Did his hand take
his flesh in hand
and feel the frailty
of human life,
the promise and hope
of something sweeter?

Did he wish
for all the flesh once knew
now that Spirit
shouted Triumph
and left his flesh behind?

–Bill Stifler

Walter Cronkite, Voice of Reason


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I wrote this September 21, 2001, the day after hearing Walter Cronkite on Letterman. 

Awakening to Our Responsibilities as Americans
21 September 2001

During this crisis following the attack on New York City and Washington, D. C., I have frequently heard people refer to that World War II quotation which says, in reference to the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor, that a sleeping giant has awakened. Those who use it mean it as a warning to our enemies, as a reminder of our actions in WWII.

But there is another sense in which the sleeping giant has awakened. September 11, 2001, was not the first terrorist attack in the world. For years, terrorists have slaughtered innocent men, women, and children around the world, spreading hate and suffering. Far too many of us have been happy to sit back in our complacency, happy in our wealth and privilege, secure in the safety of our freedoms and way of life. Those whispers of trouble in other worlds—slipping between the sports scores and weather, the local children’s pageant, Visa bills, tax hikes, fluctuations in the stock market—those whispers we so easily ignored. On September 11, 2001, those whispers became a scream that woke America from its complacency.

Thursday night, September 20th, I heard Walter Cronkite on the David Letterman show remind Americans of our obligations in a free world. Many of us were sleeping across America. It was midnight, it had been a difficult week, hard days lay ahead. So, many of us didn’t hear what he had to say.

Among the many things Walter Cronkite said that night, one important message highlighted our responsibility in the events to come. He spoke of the Allied liberation of prisoners from Nazi WWII interment camps. He spoke of the many German citizens horrified by the atrocities committed by the Nazis and soldiers in those camps. He spoke of the great pain the citizens of Germany felt when exposed to that great evil. And despite their horror and their empathy, Walter Cronkite condemned the German people as guilty for those atrocities. He said they were guilty, not because they had done anything wrong, not because they had known. They were guilty because they had not known.

In the days ahead our military, our government, our President will make difficult decisions. The consequences of those decisions will affect people across the world. And it is our obligation, our duty, our American right and responsibility to make sure that we know what actions they take. We cannot go back to sleep, we cannot pass off the responsibility for the actions of our military, our government, our President. This is America, where each of us bears the responsibility for the choices our country makes. And it is our responsibility, the responsibility of we, the people to make sure that justice is done, to make sure that, in our anger and our pain and our deep distress, we do not become the enemy. We are Americans, and we have an obligation, a moral and spiritual duty, to do the right thing.

This means, as Walter Cronkite so eloquently argued, that American journalists must accompany our troops, our forces, our leaders as they take on the task before us. Those journalists must exercise the restraint necessary to patriotic citizens not to report the news in a way that would endanger the men and women who will risk their lives for all of us, Americans and citizens of the world. And those journalists must act as the eyes and ears of the American people to ensure that our troops, and our forces, and our leaders act according to the strictest guidelines of morality, conscience, and the American spirit, where justice cannot be a word, a rallying call to war, but must be a living reality because it is that reality that defines who we are, that epitomizes what makes the United States of America unique among the nations of the world, both now and throughout history.

This awakening to our American responsibility must remind us of the spirit of giving and sacrifice that in the 1960’s prompted our then American President John F. Kennedy to challenge young Americans to give themselves to the world. In our complacency, in the safety of our security and material comforts, we have too often ignored the poverty and misery rampant in many of the countries of the world. The citizens of those countries, seeing our complacency and comforts, become easy prey to these charismatic terrorists who blame us for that poverty and for that misery.

Worse, there have been times when we have contributed, when we have been responsible for others misery and misfortune.

Sometimes in America, some of us forget our responsibility to each other, and acting in our own self-interest or reacting out of our own fear or inadequacy, we, too, commit acts of terrorism, acts of destruction. We have only to look at the burning of churches, the murder of Civil Rights leaders, the assassination of an American President, the attacks on abortion clinics, the Oklahoma bombing to find in ourselves the evil we have now committed ourselves to excising from the world. And we should not forget that those Americans who committed these atrocities believed themselves patriots, idealists, the hand of God.

And we have not just been guilty as individuals. In America, we have had, at times, to correct the excesses of our leaders. We have created, in this country, a system of government predicated on the necessity for checks and balances on power. We have created this system, not because we believe our leaders are unjust, not because we do not trust their integrity, but because we know that all of us are human with all the limitations and glories that that entails. We have created this system because we know that even the best of us can make mistakes, can react in anger without justice, can convince ourselves that we act in the interests of all as a cloak for our own selfishness. And our system of government, the American system of government allows us the opportunity–-and the responsibility—to right those mistakes, those excesses, those acts of selfishness.

And so, when American leaders, when American businesses and corporations, when American institutions and individuals of every stripe and affiliation act unjustly, we can call them to account. And we have.

But in our sleepy complacency, we have too often closed our eyes when those same mistakes, those same excesses, those same acts of selfishness–-committed by Americans–-have taken place outside the borders of these United States.

And so the nations of the world have sometimes focused on our inconsistencies and our failures instead of our strengths. They have seen our complacency as acquiescence, and as, Walter Cronkite reminds us, they have been right. And those inconsistencies, those failures have helped fuel the hatred that has now come home to our shores.

We should not be surprised at our failures. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who penned the words that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously maintaining the institution of slavery. After all, we are human. And our strength does not lie in our perfect way of life–-our strength lies in the incontrovertible fact that more than any nation in the world, we hold ourselves accountable.

Many changes lie before us. We the people of these United States of America will have to take action against an elusive enemy, an enemy who justifies its evils by the argued rightness of its cause. As Americans, we must do better. As Americans, we must remain awake. As Americans, we must hold each other accountable so that if one of us goes astray, the others can call him or her back.

We must avoid excess. We must, as much as is humanly possible, protect the innocent, whether those innocents are Americans, Palestinians, Iraqi, Afghani, or members of any nation, community, or religious or political belief. We must do this because as Americans we are committed to people’s rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to choose their own governance, freedom to make the best of their lives.

We must protect the innocent. We cannot generalize about those who are not in complete agreement with us. We cannot vilify those leaders who, living in a world that does not understand the freedoms that we hold dear, are just beginning to see the light—men like Yasser Arafat, who has, if slowly and hesitatingly, begun to change.

We must act. We must act with resolution, with courage, and we must act responsibly, we must act like Americans, we must act like people who truly believe in liberty and justice for all.

© 2001, 2014 Bill Stifler

Looking Back


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I was cleaning files on my computer and found a copy of the one and only letter I have written to a public official.  I wrote this on March 19, 2002, when my opinion was clearly in the minority.  This was my letter to President G. W. Bush.


I have never before written a personal letter to any public official, and certainly never considered writing on a topic about which I am less knowledgeable. But recent events have frightened me, and in the hopes that even one person’s opinion might carry weight, I have chosen to write. It may well be that you will never see this letter. I’m not so foolish as to believe that the President of the United States has time to read every letter sent to him.  But I hope that this will find its way to someone who will pass on my concerns to the policy makers in our government.

I know that these have been difficult times and that even more difficult times lie ahead.  I also know that there are many details about the happenings of recent times that are not available to the general public. And this is as it should be in the interests of both public safety and military policy.

Recently there has been talk in Congress and elsewhere of attacking Iraq.  I know that Saddam Hussein has committed a number of atrocities.  It may well be that our intelligence community has evidence of his complicity in recent events which has not yet been made public. However, it frightens me that our nation might overstep the bounds of decency and justice and become ourselves the aggressors,  taking action which is unjustified.

I am, at best, a novice student of history and even less of modern affairs. I have no idea what our best course of action should be. But I am afraid of the passion of desperate men. I am afraid of those who find it easy to suggest military action. I am afraid of how easy it is to justify the wrong thing in the effort to do the right thing.

I firmly believe in the freedoms and concerns on which our country was based.  I believe our country was founded on a willingness to sometimes allow a potential wrong in order to avoid a greater wrong. It is this principle that sometimes, regrettably, allows the guilty to go free from our justice system.  But the alternative, to act where there is reasonable doubt, was abhorrent to our Founding Fathers and the principles upon which they founded our nation.

In closing, I have never been prouder of an American president than I was while listening to your State of the Union address following the attack on September 11th. I thought you spoke reasonably, compassionately, yet firmly.  As our leader, you can restrain those who, in their anger and pain at what has happened, might be tempted to excessive action.  If we act without due cause, Osama Bin Laden and those like him have defeated American freedom and American justice more surely than any act of terrorism they could ever commit, and we will have shamed before the world the principles we hold most dear.

© 2002, 2014 Bill Stifler

The Carpenter’s Son


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The Carpenter’s Son

He must have grown anxious as the sun gave way
to stars and darkness and bitter cold,
blamed himself for not pushing them harder,
for his inadequacy, his poverty, the thin
rags his wife drew tighter against the chill.
The night filled with distant stars;
the cold cracked his hands gripping the reins,
and he forced the mule another mile, then another,
around them the desolate emptiness of fields,
a few stray sheaves of winter wheat.

The dream must have seemed only that, a dream,
and he must have been afraid, afraid for his wife,
the child she carried, afraid of the night, the cold,
the empty loneliness they traveled.
Perhaps he cursed, softly, under his breath,
softly, so his wife would not hear, softly,
so the stars would not hear,
and he jerked the reins harder,
hearing his wife’s silent whisper of pain.
And then, the lights of the town,
the promise of shelter,
warmth, a hot meal, a soft bed.

In town–faces at the doors–
each repetition a reminder of his failures,
until finally, at the far edge of town,
he accepted the small charity of a stable,
glad at last for a few frostbitten blades
of grass, anything to answer
the fear in Mary’s eyes,
the pain–

His hand caught the baby as it came,
His blade severed this life from its mother,
this baby, like any baby, dark-haired,
dark-eyed, so like its mother.
Did he smile as she nursed his first-born son;
did he whisper to himself, “This is my son”?

Then, what were his thoughts
when the shepherds came,
when the dream surrounded him?
Did he kneel with them
or stand forgotten in the shadows
as gnarled hands claimed
the child that was his?

                          –Bill Stifler

© 1996, Bill Stifler. At the time I wrote this, I had been memorizing poems by Richard Wilbur. I would like to think his style influenced this poem.