The Debt Sestina–In Which I Put My Money Where My Mouth Was

Dear Lily June,

In the last post, I talked about how to write a sestina and offered to write one if given six random words by a blog reader. BarbaraCT was cruel kind enough to take me up on that offer and gave me the words thanks, penny, woe, joy, sister, and lake. Below is the poem I came up with pretty quickly, so I hope she, and you, will love it forgive me.

(Note: The title is also the first line of the poem.)


Our family didn’t break bread at the table of Please and Thanks.

Instead, we counted each leaf as a dollar, each crouton a penny,
and we knew the value of every bitter bite we ate. Every woe
cost something, let alone the pounds of flesh collected for joys,
and so it was that we were teenage bankers, me and my sister,
and knew our home hemorrhaged money like a blood lake.

We would stare down into its pooling current, and the lake
began to pull us under with it. We could see the ways we’d tank
our own finances—my student loans, the children my sister
would find filling her arms like a slot machine paying in pennies,
and between my silent spines and her clinging bundles of joy
our wallets would cough up moths, our clothes would be woe-

begone webs of threads forced to endure another winter. Woah,
we’d mutter, stepping back from the edge of the water, the lake
in which you couldn’t tread, only drown in debt incurred for joy,
and were never sure where to wander next. We did get, thanks,
that a lake-future isn’t set in stone, but waves of penny-colored
blood, and yet, neither I with lessons, nor with love, my sister,

could think of a way to stop ourselves from becoming the sisters
we’d seen predicted. Meanwhile, my mother was slopping woe
onto our plates with words like divorce. Pinched to the penny
by a mortgage she couldn’t suffer (the one creating the lake)—
and choked, in all ways, by a man who couldn’t spare a Thanks
for the work she did at home, a husband who hoarded our joy,

packed it in a briefcase chained to his wrist and then spent it
on wines and spirits instead of on dinners for me and my sister—
my mother had had enough of saying please to him or thanks.
She was ready to dissect the word woman, slice man from wo-
and take both severed parts down to the boiling, bleeding lake
to toss them, like one might in a well with an unwanted penny

in order to buy a wish. It was days late and short many pennies
because my sister and I had already learned it’s all bought—joy,
love, family, home, hearth, happiness—there’s nothing the lake
can’t swallow given time and the dotted lines you sign. My sister
went on to become that mother who raised her kids in a woeful
home built from her husband’s shoe. And I, with a shovel, thanks

to college loans, buried my joys in the same poem as my woes.
I dumped in that hole—deep enough to hold a lake—my sister,
our parents, to sell our story for pennies. Buy it, please? Thanks.


Lily, if you learn nothing else from this, learn the power of words. With just six, I made something new in the world. What could you do given six-hundred? Six-thousand? A lifetime’s worth of them? I can’t wait to see what your words can someday accomplish.


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