Winning Poems for July 2008

Judged by Tony Barnstone

First Place

Feast of Disappointments

by Linda E. Cable
Wild Poetry Forum

I have come to the potatoes,
paring them down swiftly,
chanting your sins to the sink
until I hold another offering,
haphazard orbs the color of old eggs
and I choke on the smell of mud.

A room away you snore,
clutching at visions,
dreaming of butter,
gravy and youth.

I have seen your belly rise, fall,
still aching for round things;
sweet breast of melon,
pickled cucumbers biting
your sun broken lips,
the rain taste of green grapes;
ever a man of appetites.

In the fields, you confessed,
pulled up my skirt
with no concern
for the fallow years.

Now we are about potatoes;
the ticktock of consuming
roots in silence,
ignoring the pull of the scythe.

During those blind years
we knew nothing of wasted nights,
two beds, pressed against separate walls.
I boil Canaan with turnips,
served up on wedding plates.


The poem is intimate, a lyrically overheard bit of memory-thought-consciousness. At first I worried that it might be too tight, too controlled, but ultimately found myself admiring the image rhymes (eggs with melons with breasts with grapes with potatoes with bellies), the cooked-up assonance and consonance of all those great monosyllables (hold, orbs, old, eggs, choke, mud), the way roots and fertility and the difficult emotional harvest, cooking and appetite and consuming waste all interact in the semantic shadow of the poem. The poem keeps singing in the mind after you turn away from the page--a struck bell. --Tony Barnstone

Second Place

Seventeen, Before the First Time

by Ange Law
criticalpoet.com

Shoulder pout like Harlow.
Inciting reaction,
mouth a buzz full of bees.
She slams a mirror door,
glass splinters- catch tongue.
Wonders what it’s like to slash your wrists
flapper style.
Conjures scarysexy to suck
with heretic teeth.
In the garden, genuflects to the god of lipstick,
makes her mouth arterial,
backhanding red across the intrusive flowers.
Stalks through grass three foot high
desperate for knowledge of passion.
Lying in it,
grasps handfuls of green,
twists,
then it’s…
his hair a catch kiss of curls,
his eyes dark as dejected pews on Sunday.
In a furnace face blast,
she orgasms spontaneously,
lets go laughing…laughing.
Scrapes shiny off the sun,
smears her body
with forty- eight shades of golden.


Usually, I find poems that use this particular bag of tricks are unsuccessful. Portmanteau words like "scarysexy" are thirty years out of date now, the substitution of parts of speech for each other is an e.e. cummings trick that's hard to imitate well, and the artificial and extreme compression that leads to a dropping of the personal pronouns seems to reek of the MFA workshop poem. So, why on earth does this poem work so well? It has a utter psychic wildness to it, a deep, archetypal vocabulary that tickles the unconscious with a knife, a relentless sexual pace, and gorgeous sounds. Maybe that's why? I love the fact that the poet has made these old, warped arrows shoot true. --Tony Barnstone

Third Place

Roots

by Ken Ashworth
The Writer's Block

When I was a kid, I never knew why
one leg breaks the whole horse,
or how a circle the size of my thumb
pulls the whole ocean after it,
but I learned all there was to know
about girls behind Brindle’s barn
when Alice Paxton broke my tooth out
with her lunch box for trying to slide
my hand up her whithers and cop a feel.

I stood there in a moment of half disbelief
slivering my tongue in and out of the slot
that was now not-tooth, the taste of an old penny
strong at the back of my throat,

watched as she worried the hem of her dress,
smoothing and re-smoothing that spot my hand got to.
Her eyes began to well and she burst
out in tears, terrified I might have swallowed it.

We searched for it until dusk, scuffled clumps of
hay with our feet exposing the soft underbelly
of loam that was both not-earth and not-manure,

until there was just enough light left to make
our way down the fence line, fingers tipped together
across the top wire, both of us knowing that soon,
she would turn and disappear within a twist
of green corn rows and I would watch until
she became smaller than the stalks, then go on.

That night I dreamed the tooth took root
and grew into a tree like the one in the dream
of Nebuchadnezzar which covered the whole earth,
and I wove my way among its branches
to the one which stopped just at her window,
slipped inside sucking a wet handkerchief.

Smell of dung still fresh in my shoe treads
I slid in beside her holding my breath,
sifting her hair with my fingers, trying hard
not to wake her and to conceal the bulge in the maw of my jeans;
the medicine bottle where I kept the tooth.


This is a good narrative poem, lovely in its bones. It has wonderful sounds ("dusk, scuffled clumps," "tooth took root"), cool verbs ("slivering my tongue in and out of the slot / that was now not-tooth"), and the poet knows that the good narrative poem moves, that the story turns rhetorically, lyrically, narratively, or better yet, all three, as this one does. The move into tooth-root-tree dream is what made me fall in love with the poem, along with the perfectly right strangeness of certain lines. I don't know why when the protagonist climbs the world-tree into her window he's sucking a wet handkerchief, but instinctively I love that he's doing so. --Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

Browse

by Bernard Henrie
poets.org

Sunburned
water lilies,
a dozen birds
fly up
stunned.

The cat moves
room to room,
stops.

Plums
flicker out.

Shiftless
radios turn off.

Afternoons
fall deaf.


I enjoyed the poem's small ambitions---just a little sketch, some atmosphere, some sound pyrotechnics, spare words and no words to spare. The cat and the plums and the ambition evoke William Carlos Williams in his Imagist/Objectivist phase, but the atmospherics I think recall more the small, gorgeous poems of Jean Follain. It's hard to write a good Imagist poem. A Chinese shi hua (poetry talk) says it best:

Plain and Natural: First master elegance, and then strive for the plain style. Nowadays many people write clumsy, facile poems and flatter themselves that they've mastered the plain style. I can't help laughing at this. Poets know that simplicity is difficult. There are poems that illustrate the rigor the plain style demands:

Today as in ancient times
it's hard to write a simple poem.
by Mei Yaochen

The lotus flower rises from clear water,
naturally without ornament.
by Li Bai

Plain and natural lines are best.

from Sunny Autumn Rhymed Language

--Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

Aftertaste

by Brenda Morisse
Wild Poetry Forum

She sways to this half-tone
day, staggers like smoke on a tight
rope of discontent. The depth
of forever passes for lilies
in this muckheap.
She has no head for the world
and its free-for-all needlework
of bill collectors
and spiteful windows.
The floor is cluttered with bottle
caps and cans, so she drapes
the sofa on the ceiling and hovers
cross-legged and side-by-side
with the overhead.
If you ask me, she isn’t a saint
although she’s very photogenic.
Whoever heard of a pin-up saint
hawking pilsner? Her mother nagged
her to marry rich, but her heart
was never a cash register.
It’s always been the beer: sweetish,
malty Munich and the drier,
hoppy Franconian. Her shoebox is filled
with bits of broken
jewelry: rhinestones and paste,
pot metal and silver. Can openers.
Hardware softened by careless
spools of wires, head pins, eye pins,
disheveled bracelets, wrong-way earrings.
Orphans in this box have a way of tugging
at heart strings. The ring is broken
in. Remember when they were head
over heels, before life warped the metal,
and marriage became too hard to wear?
The sum of her memories is tied in knots.
I heard she was run out of town, a bartender
with stigmata. It’s not hygienic. Our St. Pauli
call girl resists know-it-all-gravity
and the attraction it mandates,
contradicts spiked heels,
prods her to wear a bra. Pompous gravity,
bombastic gravity,
she says. I will walk
on water, I will stop time. I levitate.
Get over yourself!

She is younger than her adult children.
She prefers polka dot baring midriff tops.
Mardi Gras without Lent.


I was tempted to make this poem a winner because of its utter wildness, its relentless flow of metaphorical and surreal jabber, its swerving, unexpected rhetoric. Sometimes that craziness leads to a kind of mental disorder, mixed metaphors, a semantic slippage of adjectives that seem not exactly exact or exacting but certainly interesting. Add some sort of turn to the poem so it develops more, can or renew the few cliches (tugging at heart strings, head over heels), and this one could be a real keeper. --Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

Sleep

by Tom Allen
poets.org

As when an old moose
with wolves hanging
from his ankles and rump
and wolves grabbing
for his face
bulls his way bleeding
to the edge of the lake
and with all
his last strength
inch by inch
fights to get deeper in
until the wolves
have to let go
and at last he stands
up to his nose
in red water
and watches the pack
wandering helpless on shore
falling back into the trees
watches with eyes
from which terror
is draining


The extreme, elaborate metaphor is one that tempts one to say, "hold on, now" but ultimately works as a bravado move and makes this small poem work powerfully, with each short, packed line struggling down the page like the bull moose deeper into the water. Whew! And I thought I had sleep problems! --Tony Barnstone


  • 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