Winning Poems for January 2008

Judged by Fleda Brown

First Place

The Bottle Tree

by Allen M. Weber
Desert Moon Review

I was so proud, Mama, to get that robe, to help
fashion a cross with Hale County’s finest men.
They let me have two swigs of shine and load up
Papa’s shotgun.

That boy was kneeling on the hard-swept floor
below a char-drawn likeness of Jesus.
In a rightful fury, his ma’am fought like three
big men; her sorrow bit like a sour bile
into the roof of my mouth.

We dragged him to their bottle tree, and Mama,
those bottles made a sucking sound and poured out
colored moonlight at our feet. We staggered about
grinning like fear

as someone shot the barking dog, cackled when another
tore down the damp unmentionables that fluttered
on a single taut line.

As the rope was drawn around a limb, too near
a hollowed gourd with purple martin eggs,
I raised my hood to throw up supper on my boots,
then helped to paint a home with kerosene
and fire.

Since then my children raised up children, who play
with brown-skinned ones; and those who’d force it otherwise
are mostly hair and bones.

But southernmost branches caught the flames that night;
their splintered wounds still bleed. The heat-shocked
glass still takes my breath, to howl for reckoning. So

the animals keep wary: deer won’t rut, dogs won’t
lift to pee; and until I too go on to Hell,
the martins may never come again.

A child's experience, in the child's voice, of being allowed to join in a lynching--the subject could easily turn cliched, but this poem manages to keep a hard light on the memory--the sour bile, the bottles in the tree. The scene comes vividly alive. The martin's nest, full of eggs, just above the head of the child throwing up witnessing the horror--is a brilliant focus for the poem. It's the martin's nest and the skillful control of rhythm that charms me, here. --Fleda Brown

Second Place

Goose Step

by Lois P. Jones
Pen Shells

The Goose-Step
. . . is one of the most horrible sights in the world,
far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. –George Orwell

He loves to goose-step in her parking lot,
fluorescent light casting the stage
for Dachau. He grins in his brown
skinned suit, marvels at the way the Germans
treat him like a countryman. Loves the coarse
consonants of their commands, the wild sex
with the German girl he’d had on the road to Spain.

He wanders through Jewish graveyards to feel
the faded dates of the tombs. A pastime,
in the way that stepping is his pleasure
in the darkness. He loves the swastika,
tells her about its ancient origins, the dotted quadrants
of the Hindus, the Neolithic symbols 10,000 years
before Christ. “A tradition” that dates to the 17th century,
the Prussian army stepping on the faces of the enemy.

She finds him aesthetic, like the tall leather
boots of the Reichswehr. Tries to think
about his love of flamenco, the dark hollows
of his song unbedding a command. She knows
to pass under him is the terror
she needs. He knows to pass over her

like another graveyard. She prays the neighbors
are not looking. Begs him to stop but he smirks,
lifts his legs higher and higher. A sign of unity
like the men who stepped around Lenin’s tomb.
It says that man can withstand all orders
for love, no matter how painful, how ludicrous.

A tightly controlled, dense poem that in its language evokes the goose-step itself. I like the way this poem moves from the image of marching (under the fluorescent light, scarier still!) to all the ramifications of the love affair, from flamenco dancing, to wild sex, to the study of gravestones--all at the emotional pitch that the word Nazi implies. "She finds him aesthetic" says everything we need to know about their relationship, and about what can drive people into inhuman behavior. --Fleda Brown

Third Place

The Cardiologist Has a Word with Us

by Yolanda Calderon-Horn
The Town

Cold fingers prowl my spine
even though no one I know is
touching me: nothing doctors
can do. Not a thing. I brush

fingers on one sister’s elbow,
greet my son’s shoulder with mine.
Another sister clings to mami’s hand.
My husband embraces me, lets go;

embraces, lets go. I call the rest
of my siblings in Chicago. I just
say it. I leave the hospital knowing
little about what comes next and too

much of what came before. Days after,
I’m a Radio Flyer covered in snow.
The body and mind lug its brood.
When I walk by young gals at the office,

endlessly pigging up their darling lives,
or the elderly neighbor shifting dust
to the street, I want to grab normalcy
by the collar, ask: why did you dump us?

I think of mami who has the right
or should raise her voice to suit,
and wonder if the phantom of the opera
will have untrained notes trapped

in my stomach. I go to bed trying
to sort fear from anger, resignation
from gratefulness, faith from hope.
I awaken tangled with pipes of the smoke.

I want to wish papi a feliz ano nuevo
the moment I walk through his door-
but the unpredictability of his failing
heart gobbles happy out of terms.

I stand by the fireplace hoping
the ice-storm will melt. Minutes later,
the hearth inhales moisture out of words:
my tongue is heavy like cooled clay.

I like the way this poem slips up on the sorrow, embedding it in the details before we understand its source. The Radio Flyer, the neighbor shifting dust/ to the street, the coworkers "pigging up their darling lives"--the images skillfully keep us one step away from the actual event, the one that matters. The poem stands in its length and its quatrains as testament to Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." I am particularly fond of "The Cardiologist..."s last two lines, the way the poem ends with "cooled clay." --Fleda Brown

Honorable Mention

Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!

by Guy Kettelhack
Desert Moon Review

Let it go? Vapid palliation! —
which at best can soothe one
into thinking there’s a truth quite
simply to be had, if only we’d get
calm enough. Stuff it: here is
what I know today. I’ve got a cold
I’m almost happy won’t too quickly
go away: I’ve just ingested
chicken broth with matzoh balls —
Balducci’s tasty anti-flu soup (lower
east side wannabe) – and I’ve been
on a spree of fantasizing lightly:
watching Turner Classic Movies
circa 1933: and it’s as if a Cupid
had alighted on my knee, to entertain
me with this possibility: that
someone full of glow whom I have
just begun to know might turn
into a Huck, or Jim — I do so very
much like him. It’s quite a mix, this
pile of pick-up sticks that one
calls one’s perceptions: full of
chicken soup deceptions: but
nothing’s here for seeing that we
haven’t dreamed up into being: so
allow me Jim, or Huck, and I will
be the other shmuck, and it will
half be daring, half be luck,
if we, out on our raft, get into —
something — ineluctable.

Honorable Mention

Red Cap

by Sarah J. Sloat
Wild Poetry Forum

Tarry, stray,
and you fall into his lap:

a pillory and bellylaugh —
for that is the plunge of strumpets.

Down the hatch lie rooms
strewn with wool, stockings

and children’s shoes,
lined with moss and stumpage.

No surprise to hear
the village hiss, complicitous.

Gossips consider it
no mystery how girls

go down, kindling appetite,
when the wolf asks what you have

under your apron, little
mistress, and you reply —

wine and tarts, old beast,
a ruse, a rosebud.

  • May 2019 Winners

    • First Place

      I think of the colour purple
      by Alison Armstrong-Webber
      The Waters

      Second Place

      Swimming in Twilight
      by Peter Halpin
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Third Place

      In another country with strangers
      by Greta Bolger
      The Waters

  • April 2019 Winners

    • First Place

      Furiously Overcome by Stars
      by Guy Kettelhack
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Second Place

      Ides of March
      by Rachel Green
      The Write Idea

      Third Place

      Natural History
      by Antonia Clark
      The Waters