Winning Poems for March 2007

Judged by Pascale Petit

First Place

The Bird Artists

by Laurie Byro
About Poetry Forum

When my skin no longer fits, I carry a bag of bones
to the edge of the ocean. I steal the breath from a gull.
On the beach a mother bends to help a young boy
bundle up a baby cormorant. I watch as they cradle it,

hold a wing into the air and fling it eastward.
I thought you could teach me how to fly. I made you
out of sand dunes and red clay. My husband sleeps.
I conjure up you, Merwin, and you, Merlin.

Palm trees and ancient words, a black cauldron
of seawater and fire. You spread the fan of the cormorant’s
wing and arrange your pigments and brushes, stroke

each feather with woodland brown or green.
I feel my skin begin to loosen. I pick away the lice,
curl back the sclerotic welt of paint.


"The Bird Artists" is poetry as spell or charm, as container and transformer. It begins and ends with a skin: "when my skin no longer fits" to "I feel my skin begin to loosen... curl back the sclerotic welt of paint." In between there's a body that I can't quite pin down: a bag of bones, a baby cormorant, a gull's breath, sand dunes and red clay, seawater and fire, pigments and brushes are gathered as ingredients for the "black cauldron" of the poem. Merwin is conjured to work magic for it, (which brings to my mind W.S. Merwin), and Merlin the wizard. By the last line human skin has become painted feathers. Every line is weighted with a surprising image or action. Even though the effect is mythic, there's a precise highly wrought feel to this poem. Not a word or space is wasted. Vulnerable, visceral and ethereal, it lingers in the imagination and draws me back to marvel at its compact power. --Pascale Petit

Second Place

Omen

by Dave Rowley
Inside the Writer's Studio

This morning an omen: the blue jay’s stiffening
legs receive an open sky. Sad, like a blue flame
cradling a teaspoon, or the tap-tap-tapping
on a tenuous vein in a break-down motel.
Even the wallpaper peels away
from the cloying stories that stink this room
like rats who’ve crawled between the walls
and died. Now it’s summer and their ghosts
thicken and swell in your throat. The sting of steel
is mirror-flashed and plunging, close your eyes
to hear its sinuous song. Close your humming eyes
and wait, it’s close and warm, like morning singing
and the walls become blue-feather filled
quilts as your legs fall away and up into the sky.


Second place goes to another fine "bird" poem, also tautly constructed and packed with organic, chiming imagery. A blue jay's legs embracing the sky metamorphose into blue flames around a teaspoon, then into a room with blue-feather quilted walls. The images vibrate against each other; the language is trance-like, allowing the blue images to burgeon and transmute in semi-abstract motion. Synaesthetic phrases such as "their ghosts / thicken and swell in your throat," "close your humming eyes" and "it's close and warm, like morning singing" have a hypnotic effect, lulling the reader over the transitions and merging the triple image of blue jay/ blue flame/ quilt walls seamlessly. --Pascale Petit

Third Place

Show but Never Tell

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

In the Guller house, terrible things
were done to all the children.
I once lived around the corner, down
a mud road where the youngest
son sometimes walked. His name
was Charlie and I knew something
had to be wrong with his brain.
Nice ponies, he’d tell me, staring
past the edge of his own boyhood.
Ay-uh, them’s real nice. He’d grin
so wide I could count every one
of his tumbledown grey teeth.
He was eleven then, and growing.

In the Guller house, brothers, cousins
and uncles didn’t wait for the girls
to get their periods. None of them
stayed virgins much past five or six.
Except for the cripple, who had stumps
for legs and arms. They used to park
her on the step just to get some sun,
like a plant kept too long in shadows.
Neighbors said she didn’t mind, she was
a vegetable. I had no opinion on that.

In the Guller house, they ate cow-corn
stolen from a field across the highway.
The farmer hooted and slapped
his knee, because they were filching
his cattle-food and he figured it
was funny. I never saw any garden
in their scraped-raw yard. Battered
cars buried the lawn, and junk trucks
made fences. But the social services
and public health station wagons shone
in the dust. So did the small daughters.

In the Guller house, a nurse hesitated
at the threshold with her medicine kit,
while Charlie’s father was breeding one
of his nieces on the kitchen floor. Hold on;
I ain’t done yet!
he grunted, and finished.
The nurse told everybody, but this was
the 1970s. Incest was just a family affair,
except for the babies. Every once in awhile,
they got taken away. Charlie became
a man–with two kids by his sister–
before a Guller finally screamed, loud
enough to disturb the sweet community.
She was thirteen. They tried to shut her up.
By then I’d moved to another county.

In the Guller house, two hundred years
lie black as a dirty stove. The rape-
room is gone: part of a chicken coop.
I suppose the cripple died; Charlie
and his kin should still be in prison,
although probably they’re not.
The laughing farmer’s dead, too. Lost
children drift in the convenient dark,
names without faces, because it’s easier
for the rest of us. Good people still
drive past the ruin, shop and work
and age. Harsh January air cuts
across the South Mountain and sandblasts
an empty driveway–the same wind
that abrades me now. But I’ve never
been hard-blown open, a broken door,
a Guller child.


This is more than a narrative poem telling us a shocking family tale. It's hard to write convincingly about child abuse especially from an outsider's perspective, but the narrator's tone here is just right, a tactful observer who ends by describing him or herself through images, as someone who's "never / been hard-blown open, a broken door." It's this ending that enriches the poem, so that the final draught blows back up through the whole story like the wind in Munch's The Scream. The language is low-key and evenly paced in its steady recounting of the horrors of the Guller house. Simple, stark statements such as "two hundred years / lie black as a dirty stove" and "battered /cars buried the lawn" paint a vivid picture of the place. What shocks is the calm way we're shown how commonplace the sexual abuse was, so much so that visiting nurses would stumble upon it as they went about their work. The narrator is abraded by the sandblasting wind of memory and what has been witnessed but does not over-dramatise the facts. --Pascale Petit

Honorable Mention

Caisa Thorbjornsdotter

by Jana Bouma
Wild Poetry Forum

I’ve known the small red farmhouse,
the dear blue curtains and the white china,
the husband behind the oxen on the rocky hillside,
the patch of oats beside the tall pines.
I’ve known the forest alive with skogsra and wight,
trolls and huldre-folk, the hymns in the small church.
I’ve known the wash day and the birthing day,
the son gone off to the city, the iron crosses,
each with its name, beside the small mounds.
I’ve known the long journey, sick with fever,
the crowded passage, the strange new city,
the setting out by lake and river and wagon,
arriving at this place that stretches on forever,
a land of nothing, no tomte or myling
to murmur in the night, no neighbor, no fencepost.
This land did not turn easy to the plow,
but I planted myself here among the tall grasses.
The grasses’ deep roots, they welcomed me.

*skogsra, wight, trolls, huldre-folk, tomte, myling: creatures in
Scandinavian folklore
Thorbjornsdotter: daughter of Thorbjorn



Honorable Mention

Venetian Notes

by Adam Elgar
Inside the Writer's Studio

Cannaregio

It’s this way in, an umbilicus through a living monument
to everything that long ago mislaid its century, and stands
now on the sufferance of time, a backdrop to the boat’s
raucous trance, its grunt and shudder as it strikes the Campo
wall, our shock in finding that the tunnelled waterways
and pox-peeled facades are not illusions after all. This
is the unmoving dance of brick and stone on ether.

Santa Croce

This is the capital of claustrophobia
where liquid alleyways drown light
in pungent green, steep furtive passages
conspire along their dark cammin, and slip us
through the city’s corseted heart.
One humpy bridge will take us only to the next,
our dread and fascination mounting
till the pesceria like a sudden tide
grants us the gift of openness,
the sea in boxes on an ice-slicked floor,
fish gilded, rosy, silver, veined with blue,
beside a flaunt of sucking discs in stars
and jointed creatures trying not to die.
Our hearts’ tides make no sense of this.

Dorsoduro

Our eyes stream at the dazzle on the Zattere.
Here the world’s light tightens to a smack,
there’s no escape from blue except returning
through the narrow calli where the shadows
sulk in loyalty to winter.
This taut geometry discharges us at last
to lunch in kinder light subdued by stone.
The weary curve of Campo Santa Margherita
drinks, as we do our Friuli, the declining sun.



Honorable Mention

The Box Which is Myth

by S. Jason Fraley
Inside the Writer's Studio

For each brother, the box contains Agamemnon’s skull, a collection of precious stones, and Dad’s old Playboys, respectively. All their stories: how each made love for the first time while it was in the room, how it survived as their parent’s house burned. The slight indention where a thief’s head landed when clubbed with a trophy. Not a mildew stain. No, a glow.

* * *

They arrive at Dad’s birthday party. In the corner–the box covered with a decorative table cloth. Someone puts a red plastic cup on it. When the two oldest brothers go outside to bring in extra bags of ice, the youngest takes the box, sneaks into the laundry room. He slices it open with his pocket knife. An explosion of flannel shirts.

* * *

The box is meticulously taped. The lead detective stretches latex gloves over his hands, drops the knife into a plastic bag. Fingerprint dust floats. Handcuffed to chairs, the brothers share stories. One insists he stole the box from behind the museum when a Greek exhibit traveled through town. The other says that when it is time to retire, he will live as he has always dreamed.



Honorable Mention

Takes your breath

by Kathleen Vibbert
Pen Shells

We settle in close like apples in a round bowl,
while the moon brushes off bits of light as awkward;
you remove the white shirt with button down collar.

And in between split spheres,
the hairs on your neck become soft-wheat.
You find your way through my breasts.
Hands separate dusks from the corners
of our mouths-
some colors enter and never leave–
the world knows how to cool and warm,
which scars never sleep and which voices say yes.

The world knows when and how to dress a peach–
and how the thistle slowly takes away your breath.




  • August 2018 Winners

    • First Place

      The World Is Moist in the Morning
      by Terry Ofner
      The Waters

      Second Place

      My Epitaph
      by Guy Kettelhack
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Third Place

      I kissed a tree
      by Alison Armstrong-Webber
      The Waters

  • July 2018 Winners

    • First Place

      The First Time I Drank With My Father
      by Ken Ashworth
      The Waters

      Second Place

      My Bicycle
      by Andrew Dufresne
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Third Place

      J. Alfred Prufrock Searches for Mrs. Right
      by Laurie Byro
      Babilu