Judith H. Montgomery


The sestina, with its obsessive circling form and repetition of the six end-words, seemed perfect for my circling puzzlement over my relationship with my sister, who for many years has lived geographically as well as emotionally distant from me (hence the presence of snow, cold, and silence in the poem).  To keep the element of surprise in a sestina, I like to choose end-words that can function as verb or noun (i.e., “keep” as in “keep away” but also as in “defensible stronghold”) and to ring the changes on some (“letter,” “let her”).  Past incidents seemed to characterize (though not necessarily to explain) the distances, but also led, in the writing of this poem, to recognizing my own failure at connection, my complicity in these silences.  Oddly enough, this poem was accepted by Poemeleon during a visit in which we began tentatively to acknowledge and perhaps to address this distance, this anesthesia. 






Wyoming winters breed a snowy silence
that muffles the sloped plains where my sister
lives for antelope and elk, her letters
earned in boarding school cast aside as white
blizzards part before her tracker’s eye. She keeps
her taut frame steady on the trail of game,

and poses, post-shot. Her other game’s
invisible to any scope: a silence
that seals her tight inside a mirrored keep,
that shields her privacy in ice, sister
to none. At eight, she clutched my hand, white-
knuckled as the dentist reamed her tooth, let her

have her way: no anesthesia. Later,
blue finger-bruises to explain. A game,
we lied, cherishing our bond of pain. But white
noise intervened: in separate states, silence
crept through idle chatter, not with sisters
but with roommates, other girls. We best kept

company with strangers. Learned to play keep-
away, heads bent to sums and foreign letters,
goals on competing fields. Blue-dressed sisters-
of-honor, each married the wrong mate, gamely
packed away wedding gowns that yet lie silent,
shoulder-distant, in attic boxes white

with spider-ice. Now I conjure her, white-
camouflaged in winter’s blind, her heart kept
warm by blood intent for deer. Sealed in silence,
deaf to this sister who pens pale letters
on rice-paper walls and obeys the game’s
rules of disengagement charade of sisters

sharing their (split) lives. O missed sister!
Once she asked to see my words, but a white
withholding signed her response. Always game,
I imagine remedies for rifts: keep
close the touch of flesh and breath. Load letters
to fire the heart away from numbed silence

but my sister’s too much muzzled, she keeps
her own white counsel. And I let her,
surrendered to the game that aims to silence.



Judith H. Montgomery’s poems appear in The Southern Review, The Bellingham Review, Gulf Coast, and Northwest Review, among other journals, as well as in several anthologies.  She’s been awarded prizes from the National Writers Union, Americas Review, and Red Rock Review, and several nominations for Pushcart prizes.  Her chapbook, Passion, received the 2000 Oregon Book Award for poetry.  Her first full-length collection, Red Jess, appeared in February 2006.  Her new chapbook, Pulse & Constellation, just appeared from Finishing Line Press.  She holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Syracuse University.