Winning Poems for July 2009

Judged by George Szirtes

First Place

The Day the Egrets Came Calling

by Christopher T. George
The Writer's Block

As ever I sought a glimpse of the blue herons nesting
in the woods east of the Anacostia River as my train
drove into D.C., but today there were three white

egrets heads bent among the roosting herons. Or perhaps
they were snowy herons. Do snowies associate with blues?
White-robed Holy Men! Prophets! The Dead! The Wise,

perhaps the spirit of my late Father. Don’t laugh. Wipe
that smile off your face. Wipe that face off your face.
I may be wrong, but I’d be wrong to express no regrets.

Father, forgive me for my neglect of my aging Mother,
your widow. You died far too young, in your sixties,
and I am sixty-one now. O, cruel world, embrace us

with your savagery! Sweet Embraceable You — Life!
How I loathe you for the pain you deal me but I need you.
I saw a blood red-leaf on an ornamental pear tree

at New Carrollton Station in dark green foliage,
the same tree clothed in white blossom weeks ago.
One spot of blood. Oh, Savior! Be the saving of me.

"The Day the Egrets Came Calling" takes even more risks than "Bereavement" does. And they are very big risks. The list of apostrophised figures in line 6. The use of "O, cruel world" and "Sweet Embraceable You". And that last line that could have sprung out of Herbert or Hopkins. I was fascinated by a poem so balanced on a knife edge. If it held the balance it was terrific. If it did not, it fell into bathos. I didn't think it was bathetic at the end. There is something terrific and edgy about it. --George Szirtes

Second Place (tie)

Nothing to Discuss

by Guy Kettelhack
About Poetry Forum

Dying people
sleep a lot.
In a way
it’s a relief. Death
sneaks in like
an incremental
thief, idly filches –

here a tittle –
there a jot – until
the scaffolding
that holds
life up cannot.
erode. Slowly,

as you sit there
watching core
and carapace
implode, you find
you’re glad
you aren’t made
to talk about it.

Babies sleep
a lot as well,
and so does
every cat.
Perhaps there’s
an analogy
in that. But

thinking at
this bedside,
now, feels like
unnecessary fuss.
There’s really
to discuss.

"Nothing to Discuss" seems plain to the point of bluntness at first. It sets out that way, determined to reject the fancy, but under cover it is building up a hoard of internal rhymes that act cumulatively so that when you come to the "fuss / discuss" end rhyme it hits you hard. Returning to the beginning from there helps appreciate the use of the scaffolding metaphor that mounts through two verses, before switching to the analogies of babies and cats. Poetry competitions are not necessarily the best way of judging poets or poetics: the simple straight stand-up poem that holds space with a certain clarity tends to make a strong impression. I liked the way the poem moved into that space. --George Szirtes

Second Place (tie)

I am Dying Afghanistan

by Bernard Henrie
The Writer's Block

On Venice Beach, California. The tissue thin letter
of my father brings the hushed news: another school
blown-up and a hellfire drone takes a wedding party
for a terrorist cell.

I am aging and unemployed. Nobody understands
me in my first two languages. And what of it? 20 years
of war, 20 years of war.

A dog in a yellow jacket barks, a spray of saliva
opens on the air like smoke from a white cigarette,
a silver polyethylene bag for his shit.

The boardwalk skaters are oiled like Greek wrestlers.
Back home, the Taliban would shoot them for target

My father desires electricity and windows strong enough
to stop the whistling, hollow point bullet.

Bathers dip in the tepid waves. A beached monster
wreathed with drying ringlets of salt water stares
with one dead eye. His swollen black hump and slack
mouth opens and closes like a Japanese parasol.

"I am Dying Afghanistan" selects its material with real sharpness and ends superbly with the Japanese parasol. I admired the ambition, the level of complexity in the feeling. I wasn't quite sure whether the first verse was necessary or useful. Maybe it is a bit too explanatory, a bit too prosaically informative. The directness at the beginning of the second verse is excellent and takes us straight in. The Greek wrestlers are excellent too. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

At a Mall in Bangkok

by Marc-André Germain
Mosaic Musings

(Based on Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”)

What fancy I entertain of you tonight, Nan, for I rummaged through swarming sidewalks under rose and azure neons with a heartache, ever sentient, scanning the dim sum shops.
In my desolation, and shopping for memories, I investigated unfashionable malls, dreaming of your lamentations.
What mobile phones and what umbrellas! Clans of friends shopping at night! Boys between the skirt racks, misses in the arcade! — and you, Mr. Director, what were you doing down by the pawn shop?
I saw you, Nan, alone, alluring crestfallen mistress, sauntering among the trinket vendors and eyeing the foreigners walking by.
I heard you address each one of them: Hey you! Where you go? Where you from? Do you speak Thai? Do you have girlfriend?
I carved my way through flashy stacks of bags and shoes stalking you, and stalked in turn in my imagination by an immigration officer.
We traipsed around the subway station together in our solitude and fancies tasting plum puddings, possessing a specimen of every accessible sweet, and never entering the station.

Where are we going, Nan? The station closes in half-an-hour. Which way do your glass shoes point tonight?
(I reach for your photo, the one you gave me not so long ago, and feel both guilty and liable…)
Will we ramble all night through noisy and noisome streets? Placards adding noise to noise, lights out in the shops and flats, we’ll both feel lonely.

Will we meander dreaming of a perfect love and a perfect future past the driveways of family duplexes?
You knew that I could never provide that for you, and catching my reflection in a scooter mirror, now I can own that too. Long after you will have moved into these quarters, I’ll be traipsing around the subway station, a ghost of you followed by a ghost of me.

"At a Mall in Bangkok" is, as it says, based on Ginsberg, but it does a delicious and convincing job, better than pastiche and perfectly appropriate. Aurally it has plenty of variety and authority. I liked it very much. I didn't think it would quite win because of that single direct obvious debt to its avowed model, but there is a real gift here, a breadth that could go its own way. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention


by Sylvia Evelyn Maclagan
Mosaic Musings

I’m used to loss itself;
it’s trivial things that smart, wear out my heart:
orphaned mug on kitchen shelf,
terrace table grown too long,
and by its side a wooden chair, vacant.
Without end, they caution strong,
shadowing me in endless pageant.

I disregard remorse for churlish word,
fixed angry looks… Oh misplaced books!
Or grief for tenderness demurred
through life’s uncertain lane.
It’s the scrutiny of minor things in winter
depths, an enduring bane
by which my heart grows fainter.

"Bereavement" is subtly song-like, the register just off centre ("Without end, they caution strong"), attractively so, I thought. A ruffled surface may indicate more underwater activity. I wondered how to read "Oh misplaced books!" - how straight, how far a conscious gesture. The lines afterwards suggested it was straight. As straight rhetoric the last five lines were maybe just a touch overwrought. But the ear for phrase was impressive and the first verse very promising. How to balance inflation with deflation? Hard to know. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

Der Busant

by Laurie Byro
Desert Moon Review

Like a medieval clock, two figures round and round,
cuckoos echo our goodbyes in France. We are giddy
with champagne, playing at quintain, a barge waits

like a giant dragonfly with us as its glistening tail.
Again, back to those smiling angels with their wings
pinned up against church stones. We pass bricked-in

secrets, shaggy soot in chimneys that whisper
confidences. Somewhere close, a witch stirs her kettle
of pointing fingers. This time, I assume the role

of Princess and not the scullery maid. We lie next
to one another, my shift falling to the ground like white
petals. A hawk steals my shimmering gold ring

with every precious word in his mouth—love that moves
the sun and countryside below his wings. Lying next
to you, our bones settling like snow in a barren field

in the North—England or France or some other
fairytale. We are a forest falling into madness, all
the places we have left behind, the places we are lost in.

"Der Busant" I took to be an account of an episode in a relationship. There are lovely lines of imagery there: "a barge waits / like a giant dragonfly with us as its glistening tail" and "our bones settling like snow in a barren field". And there was that "forest falling into madness". I had this as my favourite for a while. If it didn't quite stay that was only because its assemblage of properties felt a little tidy. Not quite enough of the forest falling into madness. That is entirely a matter of taste, of course. I do think this is a very gifted writer, who given something a bit more ragged, would rise to the occasion. I wanted the poem a touch more dishevelled. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

Old Women Farming Rice

by Brian Edwards
The Poets' Graves

You want to sketch them as birds, storks perhaps, or origami cranes, speechless and hungry, wrestling stubborn ears from shoots. You want them bent by the weight of history, and these fields to be the pages of their lives, their children’s lives and their children’s children’s lives. Bowed by every failed harvest and centuries of typhoons and foreign invaders bringing noise.

You believe
an ideology in purple robes
raped these fields of men
dressed them in heavy cloth dressed them with guns
ordered them to kill
pointing everywhere.

You believe
a philosophy in pinstripes
stole the future of these fields
dressed the men in sweatshop suits
gave them comic books taught them how to steal
pointing everywhere.

You want these women
to be written on the landscape
forced into a right-angled existence
held down by Yasukuni and Zainichi
held down by Hiroshima and Nanking
held down by doutaku bells struck 100 times and more
held down by a hand on the nape.

Burn the flag! you cry.
Storm the Temples!

You wear these women on T-shirts.

And then you walk with them
crouch and push seedlings into mud
feel translucent skin on yours
hear laughter spill from toothless faces
laughter born deep in the gut
laughter at once ancient and coruscant.

                              they mock

before they teach you how to snap your wrists
and fill the sky with clouds of pure white chaffs
moved by the wind to where steel prisons pass—
curious faces pressed against the glass.

"Old Women Farming Rice" says what needs to be said and ends strongly with those faces pressed against glass. "You wear these women on T-shirts" is very strong. It is just that I think it is slightly overfurnished, that it might be better more compressed. The first verse of part III for example is more insistent than it needs to be. I think we know and feel that already. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

Offertory Red

by Richard Stillman
The Poets' Graves

‘This wine was born the same year as me,’
he blushed. ‘I like to think the same day.
Chateau Ausone Bordeaux, eighty-two,
Although, of course, it’s many years in the making,
but then again, that’s rather like me too!’

One sip of ruby gave me sweet fruit
and black tea. It whispered love to me.
‘How about that for a finish?’ he kissed the air.
‘How about that for a start?’ I waved my glass.
He smiled, refilled my bowl, refilled his own.

‘How many glasses to the bottle, do you think?’
he asked as we held each stained glass in worship
‘The way you pour, maybe four,’ I guessed.
‘Well how many sips per glass is that?’
‘Maybe ten?’ ‘So forty in all, let’s say.’

‘Sure,’ I shushed, mindful of where the sum
was heading but living in this blissful wine
which made the way I drink anew; it was
the sun reborn. ‘So, forty sips,’ he went on,
‘That’s twenty-five pounds a sip. Enjoy, my friend!’

I knew then how his palate had been formed;
he hadn’t aged that well. I rose, ‘Excuse me,
I have to piss away five hundred pounds.’
He smiled at my poor joke, but wouldn’t take
another sip until I had resumed my place.

"Offertory Red" is damned elegant, like a perfect anecdotal short story. Reading it is like handling a piece of material from a well-stocked wardrobe. It is an admirable poem, a light close-to-satirical poem with satirical bite. It's a nice poem to have about your person somewhere and read with a cocktail in a bar. Which is something that one does want occasionally to do. It is, as I say, admirable and I admire it. I would certainly read a book by this writer. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

on phil jackson’s tenth championship

by Jonathan Muggleston
The Town

the June air is so perfect
i feel like a spider crawling

up the featureless smoothness
of the ceramic sink until some huge,
barely perceptible form throws
a shadow across the smooth expanse
of white and the water comes
pouring from the sky,
wiping the white world clean

of my insouciance, the imposition
of my imperfection onto
this pristine arctic field

that’s what treeflowers do to me
in your absence, the violence
of the blooming cacophony,
flowers’ slow motion sex

in the air we breathe,
plants’ transcendence
into the June night sky

the night breeze is cooler
where you are, and not so floral
but salt-tanged, rougher
from constant contact with
beach sand and splintery boardwalk

and the belt tightens
around my heart as the surf
speaks and speaks, untongued,
senseless, unyielding, filling the air
with permanent wordless speech
the babble of an idiot
immortal, demented, a tortured god

unkillable, unsilenceable

that’s what the perfect June air
does to me, though i seek
sanctuary in the loud silence
of the bar, the bottle,
some fucking basketball game,
that’s what the treeflowers

do to me these days.

"on phil jackson's tenth championship" comes at you with its firmly uncapitalised title and lines. It is a declaration of some sort, something about having nothing to do with 'poetic' trappings or emotions, but being after something more ephemeral, like life itself. But, like "Offertory Red," albeit in a different way, it is a damned elegant piece of writing, the diction precise, aesthetic with just a slight curl in its lip. Like "Offertory Red" it establishes persona as voice and carries that voice through its shifting imagery. It moves to the point when it talks about "my heart" and then develops into more personal romantic territory with "babble of an idiot" and that "fucking basketball game". I had this poem on top of the pile for some time because I liked its atittude and the way it moved through the first half particularly. I was less sure about the second where some kind of backstory was becoming too important. The guy was in a mood about something but he wasn't saying what. While it was just the voice I was with the poem. Once there was a story and a cause it lost me a little. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

The Rebuttal

by Sachi Nag
The Writer's Block

An actor is charged with raping the house maid.

His wife expresses undiminished love.
Her voice cuts through the disquiet, disgust.
She extols his virtues as a father: ask my kids! Law
is not a river. Virtue is no inheritance. There is fairness.
The night is just, despite the voyeurs;
vultures don’t scare angels paused for breath.

What do we know of lust?
Of revenge, retribution, greed?
Why should we pick nits between force and will?
Who can claim to know what ever is real?

Retreating into quarantine, she turns on the shower.

Water whistles down her forehead in a red stream,
she mistakes for an untimely period
but it’s just broken vermilion. She scrubs hard,
the red stains are washed, the vacant scalp
between her parted hair is deep scarred,
shiny and redolent of lavender.

"The Rebuttal" is much more straightforward. It is an anecdote with potential for fable. The story as story is powerful. I just wondered whether the ending lay a little too pat, a little too willed. The writing is direct at the beginning moving to rhetorical questions in the middle. I thought the writing very good, the questions for real and was looking for a sufficiently complex albeit incomplete answer. The end closure here doesn't quite do it for me. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention


by Kathleen Vibbert
Wild Poetry Forum

Stephanie came to live with us from Yugoslavia.
She had small shoulders, a nervous laugh,
and the half-moons of her fingernails were egg white.

She described her late mother as a winter tree,
her father’s senility between King and drifter.
Quiet. When I first heard her voice I asked

what she aspired to. A chef, she replied.
Olives. The sleep of marinade.
Cutting limes, selecting blackberries as if they were a song,
dropping chocolate centers onto sheets of cut rite.

She brings sweet weather and rest.
Elegance, for the way she carries the spice trays to the table,
breathing deeply as the bread rises,
weary toward evening near an open window.

"Stephanie," like a number of other poems uses the first line to set up the situation. I am not sure that is necessary in this case or indeed in some of the others. Entering in medias res is generally good advice. The end is beautiful and not over-resolved. The second verse is nicely enigmatic. The third maybe a touch over-explicit but still under control. Maybe at the very end, as with "The Rebuttal," I feel the poem is too much resolved in the writer's mind before the poem actually starts. It's a nuisance 'having something to say'. It's always better to discover what one might have to say. --George Szirtes

  • 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