Winning Poems for August 2008

Judged by Tony Barnstone

First Place

Tsumani Prelude

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

Salt water curls back – tongue against sky roof.
Mud sucks and hisses, salivary, raw red
gleaming to horizon like a muscle sheath.
It is miraculous, this wrenched ocean, sudden
absence of tide. Even gulls are astonished.
Thin cloud scallops edge emptiness. Blind bivalves
sputter and spout as I cross their wet bed.

Caught among flotsam, barnacled pine-limbs
point fingerbones. Impaled, a child’s photo
grins grey, wavers. My own eyes (little changed),
bedraggled hair-bow, missing tooth. No acne yet.
I refuse to save myself. Beside a tampon case,
my jewel-box gapes, pink and broken. It may
have just given birth to something unnameable.

Storm petrels knife into the wind. To my left,
an old man bends toward a stained helmet;
three women on my right drape prom dresses
over their arms – lace bodices, tulle skirts.
Half-buried in silt, an Evening in Paris bottle
reminds me I’m allergic. But today’s scents
are kelp, rust, blended fresh remains.

This is too large a harvest for one season.
Diaries with vinyl covers; teen dolls holding
tiny 45s. Worn saddle shoes (brown trim,
not the black I wanted). Oak cane – I know it
from my closet debris. Scattered costume beads,
brooches, safety pins, cracked glass goblets.
Decanter I once gave my dad for his birthday.

I stamp on a wedding ring with cheap
diamond chips. Circular imprint: perfect fake
clamhole. Dried-rose-petal dervishes blow
across cumuli. Ululations (ecstasy? anguish?)
roil heat haze. On the beach, girls’ cries disturb
this universe. Freight-train-thundershake.
Tourists yell run in their language. Not mine.

Along a naked seafloor, silver leaps joyous
and unintelligent. When the rro-ooo-ll is called up
yo-o-onder. I’m not sure where I’ll be, except not
there. The promdress ladies are gone, nothing left
but a mohair stole. I wrap myself in woolscratch,
recall Nana knitting its duplicate. Senior year.
It scrapes at my skin like an oyster knife.

I lie down, open myself.

We’ll drown, the old man reassures me.

Foam gargles toward us.

That’s the point.

The great strength of this poem lies in the care and interest it gives to description, especially in the wonderful and strange first two stanzas. I enjoy the physicality of the receded ocean like a mouth, the tongue of the waves curled back, the raw red mud like muscle sheath. Though the poet restrains him or herself from saying so, implicitly it makes the oceanic force of the gathering Tsunami a godlike thing, a great god tongue coming to lick the world clean of life. The second stanza gives us a picture of the flotsam that the narrator and others are gathering in the bed of the receded ocean---all the detritus of their lives, child photos, tampon cases, and especially that very strange jewel box gaping, pink and broken. It is a strange image of the mother-vagina that has birthed something unnameable. The red mud echoes the Hebrew for Adam (“red earth”) and the vaginal jewel box gives us an intertextual echo of the myth of Pandora and just a hint of the Yeats’ apocalyptic beast slouching towards Bethlehem. So the creation story of Genesis is joined to the Greek myth of the origin of monsters, which have birthed (it seems) this monster storm. Out of that monstrous beginning will come the apocalyptic end of the poem’s little world made cunningly. Why does the protagonist stay on the mud to drown as the water gathers and rolls toward her, refusing to save herself, choosing instead to lie down and open herself? I don’t know, exactly. Yet that strange ending, in which the old man reassures her that drowning is somehow the point of it all, has an instinctive rightness to me. Why resist the god-tongue’s watery word? Why not drown in god and let him/her wash the things of your life away? What will remain then? --Tony Barnstone

2nd Place

Living in the Body of a Firefly

by Laurie Byro
Desert Moon Review

Cotton mouthed, hung over, I wake up in my sooty dress
somehow ashamed to be seen in the utter waste

of daylight. The barbecue with all those mint juleps
on the verandah was intense but I strayed too long on the edge

of a glass. I long for a quiet train trestle, wood and paint
chipping off, not those city lights where I am one of millions.

I’m not fooled by the low murmurings of the river,
cattails to luxuriate in, but danger in the deep-throated

baritone of frogs. Damselflies are entirely self-involved
and bossy, known to eat out of their own behinds. Never mind,

there’s safety in numbers. A neighbor has an easy split
in a porch screen and as I’m on a tear of wild nights

before I die, I’ve set my sights on their cathedral ceiling.
In the sway of tall grasses his youngest cups her hands

around me to pray. I am coveted in the moist chapel of fingers.
Tonight, I’ll hang around until they are all half lidded-drowsy.

I’ll skitter down to her favorite blanket where she’ll wish
upon me like I am the last star falling, the last creature on earth.

I was engaged by this character who wakes in the waste of daylight in her sooty dress, partied out, smoked over, yet dreams herself a firefly leaving the city lights to be a light in the country, caught in the chapel of a child’s cupped hands, a star falling to her at night, a fairy wish. Better that than to be a damselfly, “self-involved / and bossy, known to eat out of their own behinds.” It’s magical, and utterly romantic, or more accurately, Romantic, in its division of life into innocence and experience, country and city, childhood and adulthood. As a critic I read back in grad school critic said, “Romantic poetry is a long walk into the sublime, and a short walk back.” Who can really write a Romantic poem today and get away with it? Something about this poem’s assured movement, its magical images, its tenderness, allows me to like it, because there will always be a Romantic in poetry, and the only question is the one that the moderns (especially Frost, Williams, Yeats, and Stevens) posed themselves: how to renew the Romantic impulse in a world in which the machines have won and the country has retreated to city parks and potted plants? --Tony Barnstone

Third Place

Surviving the Ugly

by Sandy Benitez
SplashHall Poetry

On a dusty dirt road
squats a rundown mosque.
Rumors point to a new
recreation center for soldiers.
I, an “infidel” disagree.
Blasphemy! To put American
spit-shine on its dingy blue tiles.

Escort duty–hours of sitting,
walking in circles without
a straight jacket. The sun above
Baghdad angrier here than back home.
Dropping heat bombs,
exploding on armpits and breasts.
Five days of wearing the same
sweat-stained bra. Baby powder
works wonders. A soldier
swears by Febreze; his trousers
going on a record eight days.

In the hooch, I thank God
for air conditioning. Say hello
to Mother Mary watching me
quietly from the blanket.
She doesn’t belong here, in this
unfamiliar place. Still, she’s
an acceptable battle buddy;
comforting me when nightmares
creep into my skull, ricocheting
horrors of war like sporadic bullets
fired in the air.

Suddenly, sirens scream,
“Duck & Cover! Duck & Cover!”
Channel 16 on the radio shreaks static,
“Help me!”
I can’t understand a word.
Thunderous seconds knock me down.
A flip flop lands across the room!
Tasting hair and lint. Boom!
Wait for it… Boom!
Is there enough life insurance? Boom!
Will my children remember me?
Except for my pounding heart.
A quick “Amen.”

The siren returns,
chanting “all clear! all clear!”
Helicopter blades loudly buzz,
giant dragonflies gone berserk.
Always in pairs,
off to find bad boys
who played with daddy’s rockets
when mommy wasn’t looking.

Mother Mary calls to me.
“Sit down and breathe.”
Offers me water; I sip, shake my fears.
We resume the evening
watching tv. Game shows; she beats
me at Jeopardy every time.
Stretch legs, eyelids lower.
My toenails are horrible;
they need clipping.

This poem’s portrait of the ordinary grimness and griminess of military life, punctuated by moments of extraordinary stress, could be the merest cliché, just a topical poem about (one assumes) the war in Iraq that relies on current events to lend it power and emotion. But it’s not. I love the details of the poem—the soldier who sprays his trousers with Febreze (which I use to get the smell of cat piss out of my pillows and couch), the protagonist whose armpits and breasts are bombarded by the desert sun’s heat bombs, the helicopters blading past like giant dragonflies gone bezerk. I felt that the poem faltered a bit here and there (I’m not convinced that the characterization of the enemy as “bad boys / who played with daddy’s rockets / when mommy wasn’t looking” is an effective irony). Finally, though, what sold me on the poem was the simplicity and psychological rightness of the protagonist’s focus on that sweat-stained bra, a rightness which comes back even more powerfully in the thoughts which run through her mind as war zone life returns to its strange normality of television and Jeopardy after the bombardment ends: “My toenails are horrible; / they need clipping.” --Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

How Soft is the Blackness that Cannot Bring Me Joy

by Ellen Kombiyil

Day dawns, bright as chrysanthemums.
I am balanced on the brink of the earth.
Somewhere else, light fades
on the edge of chalk-white cliffs.
I can taste them, dry as death.
Nightingales sing the last song of night.
If only I could graze your arm,
your imagined scent still clinging to the pillow.
I try to remember but not to think,
that’s what Jesse Jackson says
when he remembers Memphis.
I’d like to adopt a philosophy like that.
Philosophy is meaningless when sun hits the empty pillow.
I was young when I met you bling-blinging at the party
to the sounds of revamped disco.
Night tasted of sweat and you’d forgotten my name
because I wore my best dress.
How soft is the blackness that cannot bring me joy
you said, or something like that.
The elusive smoke of giddiness
crept into our heads
and love was like a funeral.
We fell through earth
and swam out upside down the other side.
Little Boo spelunked the forests,
convinced I was vanished.
I hadn’t said au revoir or sounded a warning note.
Years from now I will write a song
and you will not hear it
shaking the forsythia, their drab bells
having forgotten your name.
Your name means ‘ocean’ or ‘lake,’
or ‘teeming with life’, or ‘vessel,’
and I remember what water sounds like
only when it rains:
the river widens its mouth;
the forsythia sings hallelujah.
Ca ne fait rien,
it was so long ago and morning
empties through porch windows
to echo in the parlor.

Although this poem tries to get away with one cliché (“Dry as death”), it’s great strength is in the surprise and strangeness of its surges and shifts of image and mind. I fell in love with funny lines like ““I was young when I met you bling-blinging at the party / to the sounds of revamped disco,” and surreal emotional images such as,

The elusive smoke of giddiness
crept into our heads
and love was like a funeral.
We fell through earth
and swam out upside down the other side.

“Philosophy is meaningless when sun hits the pillow,” eh? Okay. And yet this poem’s erotic, emotional journey is more about experiencing the Zen flash and holding back thought in a less discursive way, about the sound of water you remember when it rains, about sunlight emptying “through porch windows / to echo in the parlor.” I like this poem’s tenderness, and its very peculiar movements of mind and syntax. --Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

If Men Wore Lip Paint

by Bernard Henrie
The Writer's Block

I am an amateur of love,
but I will write a love poem.

I will say:

the moon is yellow as a goldfish
and big as the breast
of an opera singer.


I would write about
the rich thighs of widows,
or an older woman burnished
by the meticulous night
and speaking Spanish
in loving tongue
to a younger man.

I will write for a heavy woman
sitting in an airport terminal, called
from a pasha couch in a garden,
a cumquat delicately placed
under her clothes.

Young women in summer dresses
half-hidden by a curved boat hull,
shirt fronts buttoned by men
who gaze as though saying rosary.

Rain passes into the night,
love grows old, poems fall asleep
in a chair.

Let me start again:

if men wore lip paint, breasts
and hips of women
would stain red.

This poem is a sweet, lyrical poem, and that’s nice. However, what makes it interesting is its swerves, the quick shtick of magician’s tricks, using syntax to surprise, pulling it like taffy into looping, loopy mental shapes. --Tony Barnstone

Honorable Mention

Seiren Song

by Steve Parker

that made him yearn not for women not water’s shades
some same cool and riversides
and rat-shatters and ice and low bursts

and green fingers stretching for his
only to drug as from strings words
out of him but to a night-sky whirled
in lofts within reach of that fishman

which spun from salt jism ancestors the while
alert to tugs the binary [fire] engine-putting
(slow as yawls) (moans of location) (mist)

over years over
humming shadow machinery
limbic waves of song

take me up he crieth take
in the Fall flowered as arrayed death dynamited

grey-flopping up murk-bearing O grim-aspected

fishman of fleeting littoral, falsehood of starry fishmen
casting of sparks, bearing of eggs, spuming of milt

some psentage’ve what hear’ve in dead channels
outflow’ve of a litl bang

your fucking tongue I know is our joint antenna twisting

but this, this

(O untrousered apprishns of Phnicia
thy mermids ist none so faire—
what outspankered prismes, what
neutic flutic combes soonest they bare)

Yes, I know that this poem seems to descend into gibberish pretty regularly, and that it has absolutely wild shifts in register (from the contemporary diction of “your fucking tongue I know is our joint antenna twisting” to the overwrought alliterative diction of “fishman of fleeting littoral, falsehood of starry fishmen” to the archaism of “O untrousered apprishns of Phnicia / thy mermids ist none so faire—“). But, wow, it’s fun. And I like those twists of diction, shifts and frictions of reference and rhetoric. Finally, I like the author’s great sense of humor, as he or she blends nonce words in with the archaisms. I don’t know what “outspankered prismes” are, nor what it means to bare one’s “neutic flutic combes,” but the newness and oldness and weirdness of the language are such that, frankly, I don’t care. I can guess. The poem seems to be a Frankenstein monster stitched together from odd literary corpses and the bloody pieces of the author’s imagination, written in the ideogrammatic method of that crazy old fascist Ezra Pound. But, unlike far too many of Pound’s Cantos, this monster’s got a jolt of life to make its limbs twitch. Watch it rise from its slab and wander the countryside until it’s pulled in by the siren song of the old man’s violin. --Tony Barnstone

  • 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