Poetry: Babel Sestina by James O’Leary

“Babel Sestina” performs a journey through the powers of language, of naming and gendering, of grammarizing our own identities. James O’Leary’s poem declares, “We invent anew mountain, reach up for new holy”—but ends in a question: what’s left in our wake?


Babel Sestina

            God had to frustrate their ambitions by confusing their language” 
                                                                                                –Genesis 1:28

We revere like revenant & woven storm
We baptized in water soon to thunder desert
We horizon line like world in impossible silk
We language like dawn & prodigal daughter
We guilt communion—who first knew holy
As body bread to be eaten,

Blood-wine to be drunk? Bred to be eaten
Wheat must be reaped before wind & storm
We holy.
We wander from sea, now see a desert
We wander from boy, now see nobody’s daughter
We foundation ourselves until self-made from silk

Impossible, like building a tower out of silk
They small us with everything else to be eaten
They grindstone, use grammar to pillage each daughter
They storm.
They like ocean speak land to desert
Into ruin, into mirage, into punishment holy.

Into tongues, into stories, we made a tapestry holy
A ghost spun from spirit tears to silent silk
We desert.
Dry as mesquite bread, that first sin what have you eaten
Dry as destruction: scripture by sandstorm
Dry bones of a priest found playing daughter

Alone, no one else with whom to poem daughter
We invent anew mountain, reach up for new holy
We revere, yes, us architects to the storm
Wind-revealed dunes as soft beneath silk
Oh, Eden
Oh, remembered forever above the desert

Oh, we tried to build a tower in the desert
Oh, neither son nor daughter
Oh, even for fear for being beaten
Oh, to collapse like glass cathedrals: wrong structures of holy
Oh, did we construct too tall, spinning gender from silk
            & all that was left after a storm



                                                           am I a bad daughter-

-son, holy child un-

                                                   -raveling tower of silk

James O'Leary

James O'Leary (they/them) is a gender-fluid Pisces, poet, and writer from Scottsdale, Arizona. After spending some time up and down their home state, James has currently relocated to New York City, where they are pursuing an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. James has most recently won The Poetry Society of New York's Duplex Contest judged by Jericho Brown, as well as having been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for their work in Kissing Dynamite. James wants to share some coffee with you and talk about birds.

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