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Bennington Annotations Etc. > Honor Moore's "First Time 1950" (sestina)

Anthology:  Honor Moore

"First Time: 1950"  (a sestina)

from "A Formal Feeling Comes" Poems in From by Contemporary Women

Edited by Annie Finch




          In this poem, Moore uses the challenging form of the sestina to match the intensity of her subject matter. She writes in the introduction:  "Embraced in its sure architecture, the violated child, silenced for thirty years, is free to tell her story."   I imagine she may have had work sitting around in journals for years, or memories too painful to write about in any other way.   The strict form of the sestina becomes a bridge to release.  A prison of sorts, the sestina lends itself to topics that are obsessive by its endless repetition and then reigns them in with its form, forcing the writer and the reader to deal with them again and again.

The language is what stands out in this poem:  a child's voice repeating the six words of six stanzas:  pull, black, slit, belt, hand, baby.  The poem is raw, a childhood memory, spoken in a child's language.  The poem restrains itself with 'simple' language, but by doing this releases the girl's pain and shame.  Moore drags me in to keep reading as she tells the story of being molested by her babysitter as a young girl, while her baby brother is being entertained with keys.  In the tight black/ quiet of my shut eyes, I hear my baby/ brother shaking the keys. 

In what could be a lengthy paragraph description, Moore turns into an effective opening stanza to set up the scene:  In the back bedroom, laughing when you pull/ something fawn-colored from your black/ tight pants, the unzipped chino slit.  The use of the word "slit" is carefully chosen: for the zipper, and the slit of the man's penis is an age-appropriate word for the girl. ..as you unbelt, turn me to you, my face to the open slit. / It's your skin ,this thing, head, its tiny slit/ like the closed eye of a still-forming baby. 

In the next stanza, slit is also referred to as the girl's mouth: you guide it, head reddening, into my slit,/ my five-year old mouth.   This is the first time "five" is mentioned as an age, but we know from the opening line and the use of language that this is a young girl, we don't have to be told, this is confirming something we already know.  The use of "baby" as another chosen word further emphasizes the young age of the girl, the baby brother, the babysitter, the cry of babee from the babysitter, the baby clothes on the clothesline.  An adult outside, Mrs. Fitz hanging out clothes to dry, is mentioned twice.  This is happening with an adult on the property, but out of reach to cry for help.   The envoi, the last stanza using all six words in three lines, lives up to its definition of a diplomatic messenger.  It puts us back to the outside world again, this went on in broad daylight, in the  middle of the afternoon while an adult woman was hanging out clothes in the backyard.  We know no one is told. 

          The girl reconfirms this:  You extend a shaking hand/ you make kind. That same hand that earlier guided his penis into her mouth, now is used in another form of power: to keep a secret. The words in this poem are ordinary:  pull, black, slit, hands, belt, baby.  Moore takes the sestina to elevate the key words into haunting images.


by Honor Moore


In the back bedroom, laughing when you pull

something fawn-colored from your black

tight pants, the unzipped chino slit.

I keep myself looking at the big belt

buckled right at my eyes, feel the hand

riffle my hair: You are called Mouse, baby-


sitter trusted Wednesdays with my baby

brother. With  me. I still see you pull

that huge bunch of keys from a pocket, hand

them to my brother, hear squeaking out back -

Mrs. Fitz's clothesline -- as you unbelt,

turn me to you, my face to the open slit.


It's your skin, this thing, head, its tiny slit

like the closed eye of a still-forming baby.

As you stroke, it stiffens like a new belt --

your face gets almost sick. I want to pull

away, but you grip my arm. I see your black

eyes you won't let go. With your left hand


you take my chin. With your other hand

you guide it, head reddening, into my slit,

my five-year-old mouth. In the tight black

quiet of my shut eyes, I hear my baby

brother shaking the keys. You lurch, pull

at my hair. I don't breathe, feel buckle, belt,


pant. It tastes lemony, musty as a belt

after a day of sweat. Mouth hurts, my hands

push at your hips. I gag. You let me pull

free. I open my eyes, see the strange slits

yours are; you don't look at me. "Babe, babe --"

You are moaning, almost crying. The black


makes your skin clam-white now, your jewel-black

eyes blacker. You buckle up the thick belt.

When you take back the keys, my baby

brother cries. You extend a shaking hand

you make kind. In daylight through a wide slit

an open shade leaves, I see her pull,


Mrs. Fitz pulling in her rusty, soot-black

line. Framed by a slit, her window, her large hands

flash, sort belts, dresses, shirts, baby clothes.