Posted by: John Looker | 16 December, 2011


A sestina:



Slowly, surely, light from beyond the window
anoints a single figure standing still
beside a rumpled bed. This is the son.
White shirt. Black tie and suit. His face looks grave
and tired as he takes the watch his father
left him, sets the time again and starts winding.

He listens for the clicks and stands there, winding,
watching dust dance in the light from the window.
Memories dance into mind of his father:
crystal mornings when he himself was still
a small boy, looking upward, feeling grave
and waiting the words “pass me my watch, son”. 

Etched on the back, the legend “To Our Son”
is read like braille by tips of fingers, winding.
This message they had chosen to engrave
all those decades ago opens a window
on a birthday, a coming of age, still
witnessing “With Love from Mother and Father”. 

Grandmother chasing her chickens; grandfather
on sunlit days of cricket which grandsons
always won – palpable memories still –
or fireside afternoons with them unwinding
in high-winged chairs and, through the misted window,
the winter world as barren as the grave.

Their lives, as all lives, ended with the grave
but years ago they’d cheered along his father.
He was there in the train beside the window,
off to work, checking the time, their own son;
or returning home late to his wife, winding
home through countryside lying dark and still.

And now it is his own life that is still;
the family must gather by the grave.
A portly man is holding a watch, winding
the same spring, in the same way, as his father
had done each new morning for years: the son
tilting the scuff-marked face towards the window. 

The lightening window. The waiting grave.
The rich endowment from father to son
whose thoughts will not be still, who’s winding, winding.


© John Stevens 2011

This is the last of three poems this year about death – all very different. The others can be found by clicking on the tag ‘death’.


  1. “the son
    tilting the scuff-marked face towards the window.”
    wonderful line…


  2. Beautifully woven, John. I wound my pocket watch as I read (well when I reached the end of the first stanza I reached for it, and thought of my plan to hand it down, and the watches I looked at yesterday for two of my sons (the fourth has his already). Maybe because you have crossed my path so strongly I am touched and maybe your poem touches all readers so.
    I love the nostalgia, the links woven together like the watch chain, the evocative images and moments you capture – well done indeed.


  3. John, first of all a lecture. Writing a sestina is an impossible task. The problem is that the rhyming requirements all get in the way. Not only, paraphrasing Robert Frost, do the lines and craft challenge the sense, but over 90% of the sestinas ever tried end up with rhymes that overwhelm the poem or there are awkward phrasings that take away from the spirit and heart of the poem inside.
    Lecture done.
    The question is, how have you wrought this magic? The rhymes and rhythm are correct and meet the rules of the sestina, but the poem and its spirit sings and the rhymes are not forced, and though I am sure they were labored at, they are not labored.
    The clock as metaphor, with its limitations as a time piece and its usefulness as a reminder of a human’s history, always being wound, but at the same time allowing memories of
    “Grandmother chasing her chickens; grandfather
    on sunlit days of cricket which grandsons
    always won…”
    and a touchstone on which generations pass love in the form of the talisman of an engraving, mother and father lasting as long as the clock passing from generation to generation, lasts, catches us up into thinking about who we, and the son, are in our human lives.
    Lecture again: And that, dear sir, is the spirit and heart of poetry.


  4. Perhaps Robert Frost promised to finish a sestina he was working on, when he quoted, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep…”

    I enjoyed reading your sestina – i have my father-in-law’s watch.

    i enjoyed reading your friends comments too…

    Happy Holidays to all


  5. I stand in awe, John: the sestina has defeated me every time I’ve attempted it. This is wonderful – real craftsmanship in conquering this horribly difficult form, and real poetry in the themes and images you give us. A masterly piece of work, and a brilliant finale to your series. It also made me think of my grandfather’s signet ring, which I now wear, engraved with ‘From Mum and Dad, 15/12/30’ on the inside; the power of heirlooms and their ability to hold memories.


  6. John, at first I had thought to take the opportunity to do some study and analysis of the sestina form, and may do so still…but just let me say it simply: This is beautiful. Heart wrenching and beautiful.
    (I inherited a small, very old pendulum clock when my mother died; I can hear it tick as I write.)


  7. Well, I am deeply honoured by these generous comments. Thank you everybody. I’ll admit that I found the form of a sestina a bit tricky, but it seemed to be appropriate for my subject and that helped. And isn’t it interesting how many of you have your own family heirlooms that work in the same way as the illustration in the poem?


  8. Hi John, this is such a great sestina! You really made it work, the different meanings of grave, the whole, moving, story of sons and fathers and time… I love it.


  9. This is so sad and yet so beautiful. It reminds me of my grandfather and my father. My grandfather used to carry this lovely pocket watch. When he died, my father got the watch. One night after my grandfather’s death, I saw my father sitting at his desk just holding and looking at the watch. It was so heartbreaking. I could only imagine what my father must have felt then, and this poem helps me put myself in his shoes.


    • It seems this experience – and especially with watches or clocks – is familiar to many of us. Thanks for mentioning your own memory.


  10. […] the Anglo-Saxon tradition. (To see how a sestina should be done, please read John’s terrific The Watch) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]


  11. John,

    This is a wonderful, deeply moving poem.

    As I read it the image which gradually emerged in my head was that of the watch which was passed from my mother to my younger son. I remained lost in that image and the memories for quite some time. Thank you for taking me there.

    As regards its form – I think the mark of a really good ‘form’ poem is that the reader does not notice the form. This one fits that perfectly. I have great admiration for your ability to make this work so well.

    All my very best to you for Christmas.



    • You are very kind David. And how interesting to find that you too have a memory of a watch being passed down!


  12. This speaks to me of the cyclical nature of life and death, and the value of mementoes. Another beautifully crafted piece.


    • Thank you for your kind remarks on this and other poems – it’s good to make your acquaintance.


  13. Brilliant!


  14. I just read this again, John, and it reads even better the second and third time through.


  15. What a magnificent layering of life, memories, and presence you have accomplished with this poetic expression of passings. I will now set about reading your other posts, though not at one sitting. I believe I want to savor each one, it is the way one should enjoy fine port. Also, thanks for your comment.


    • Many thanks Donald – these are kind words.


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