Winning Poems for September 2009

Judged by George Szirtes

First Place

We Burned Incense

by Judy Swann
The Waters

And this is my mother’s mother, your great grandmother,
and this is her brother, this is my dad, they’re all dead.
This is your dad before we were married, this is me,
you can tell I was born in the year of the mountain goat
by the way I’m standing.

I never mastered politeness, and I like to be corrected
when I err. So, can I have the salt? Would you please
pass me the salt? Sorry to bother you, but could you
pass me the salt, please? He was only thirty-nine when
he did it, it was a lot less red

than you would expect, and also bloodier, if you can
picture that. “Humbling” or “exalting,” those were the poles.
It was the year the tornado touched down. And that’s me
again, how do you like my pony, my pleated dress? I
was a loved child, spoiled.

He could no longer bear it, you know how the young can
cry for a very long time and then some minutes after calm
has set in, a whooping sound shudders its way out
and then quiet again? You know what I mean? Not the
serene, poised people

In the leather armchairs of the university library, but the
people on the bus with the tweety-bird shirts and the red
noses, glum, with crooked teeth, muddy clothing, ripped
clothing that it would be rude to photograph, even to
get the crown of roses

documented, as it thundered mightily into the summer dusk,
each peal rumbling for five or six long seconds, waterfalls
of rain, pillows of it soaking into the wooden bridge, he was
never the one who liked to get wet, never liked the water much
even in paintings

This gets it over the others because it is substantial, has a compulsive voice, takes risks with its reiterations in the second verse, tells a story without too much 'telling'. It is in effect a dramatic monologue that is close to the voice that makes it (many of Browning's are deliberately distanced from the maker). The fourth verse seems to me properly embodied, not a special effect, but firmly located in the speaking voice, that contains its irony with a certain edge. I wondered about the weak line endings (twice) of "the". It isn't quite syllabics but the form of it is teasing and faintly echoes Sapphics. It understands and plays off form. --George Szirtes

Second Place

The Secret Life

by Laurie Byro
Desert Moon Review

Seeing things in a light that spirals
down through the arch and tunnel of a nautilus
shell, on the strength of nothing too important,
genuine or real, a modesty, a sense of eyes
indirect, a pearl that bursts snowflake
on a green velvet coat. I’ve memorized us like that,
your arm as it extends to pass me a cup, a copper
penny slant of room, the smell of bergamot

behind the veils of buttery sun. Across the sea
of words, the bickering, the old habits, the stingy yelp
of Dickinson as we read to each other out loud.
The wilderness of the mind is where you are:
a forest that crouches under a bedroom window
while you sleep and feral words find you.

An unrhymed sonnet, it was the last two lines that clinched it for me: the forest that crouches under a bedroom window (a memory of Baudelaire's forest of symbols?) and the feral words at the end. That firmed things up and gave the poem necessary claws. I liked the light spiraling down, then lost it a little on the snowflake and the green velvet coat. I didn't quite know how I was to respond to that. The last six lines , indeed from the smell of bergamot onwards, are very good. --George Szirtes

Third Place (tie)

On Waking I Think of Winter

by Sarah Sloat
Desert Moon Review

mostly because my legs jut like a long
pier out over waves
in the dark’s oceanic pitch

I think of winter when my husband snores across
          the expanse of bed, tundra-vast
because children insist on visiting

papoose, bear cub, eskimo: wool
blanket curled below their throats

and I wake like Jack London, only less
bearded, less brave, though the brown kiss of a dog
assists me

where just moments ago I was steeped in
          sleep, hallucinating a daisy-faced cartoon
landscape, now

I think of winter because of dreams redressed
          by startling alarms, because I have no idea
how to go on

and I think of winter as I always do at dawn
and always did, before I guessed
what winter was

A splendidly funny and childlike image to begin with, immediately given gravity by the dark oceanic pitch, the poem opens on its large possibilities with confidence. Then comes the snoring husband and the waking like Jack London. All this is lovely. The poem then moves on to a meditation about winter and I slightly wish it had moved back into the rougher, more surprising territory it set out with - not necessarily the same image but in that realm. It goes just a touch abstract at the end. It is still a very good piece of work but that cartoon landscape might have come up with something more. But excellent first eleven lines. --George Szirtes

Third Place (tie)


by Matt Moseman

opening myself up is often
difficult on the order of opening
a can with only teeth and fingernails.

This, of course,
has little to do with anything

as if anything had anything to do.

a word I use far too much is
I am obsessed with them and their workings and I hate them
and I am so sure that they are
responsible for all I despise.

I never found inspiration in the
or any other celestial component
for that matter.
The constellations have only ever
gotten me the girl,
by way of dissimulating speech.

every god I ever brought down from the sky
has been a little mumpsimus
and I will not cut my hair ever again
unless one of these days
I imprecate a household god who
is honestly bigger than my middling pecker.

This, like the winner, is voiced for character, and has a real and convincing vigor that increases as the poem progresses. I think the verse form is a touch less substantial than it might be. There is real firmness in the voice and maybe the verse might have articulated that even more. I am not absolutely sure about the first three lines though I like them in themselves. I just don't see how they are developed as theme. The last two verses are the best of it - in fact the last two verses may actually BE the poem. And what a fine poem that would be. --George Szirtes

Third Place (tie)

Illegal #2

by Sergio Ortiz
Wild Poetry Forum

She makes it difficult
to ignore the wet clothes
on a man’s back

as he wanders into la migra’s
office for a 24-hour stay,
or a free jet ride home.

She’s too alarmed to remember
the two daughters left behind.

Umbrellas keep her in the shade
while officers bring tamarind flavored
snowballs to douse her dehydration.

They wick the sweat off her breast,
keep her armpits from staining,
stinking the robe.

Tomorrow she’ll rattle all this away
like cows shake off flies.

This is succinct, well shaped, the language high register but subtle and supple. "They wick the sweat off her breast" is nicely dropped in. And the subject is, of course, compassion and its lack but does not make a great dramatic gesture either way, retaining its distance without coldness, out of a kind of respect. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

Acquired Tastes

by Allen M. Weber
FreeWrights Peer Review

If he’s perturbed at all by the drowning
wasp, twirling in week-old dishwater,
or dismayed at the ruin of what’s left

of their ficus—its leaves shriveled and
dropping like question marks on the floor—
he refuses to concede any of it.

His was a talent for beginning; but once
past the shallow bluster of seduction
he found her to be an acquired taste, like

even a single malt Scotch. He’d deny
using the toothbrush she left behind
and claim that photographs of her, and them

together, didn’t upset him, that they were
taken down to mute the walls: he’d never
get used to the colors she chose.

And he’s been too busy to buy new paint,
so the unfaded rectangles still mock
the weakness of his endgame. Resigning

to suffer through her favorite Coltrane,
he sips diluted Scotch and wonders why
one wants to acquire a taste for anything.

In medias res - a place, an action, a question. The diction is interesting: 'perturbed' 'ficus', 'shallow bluster of seduction', the syntax teasing and sustained. The tone is light, a touch breezy even. It sets out a subject then explores it, that is all, like a piece of fiction, but it is skilful and entertaining. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

air poem

by Divina

the first word
is on the tip
of my tongue
I can’t think of anything else

other than having
lemon tea
while I type
my fingers away

contemplating the dreams
that in the end
have found a home

and the sun
rising in my eyes
things change

so I’d prefer
to give it a name
or a colour that isn’t
yellow or orange

the apollos
are dreaming about
the cassandras and trying
to figure out what to do
with all the love

how similar
how different
how strange
our hands are
as we hold the air

Very good beginning and ending. It may be that the passage in the middle about home and yellow or orange is not as important to the piece as the more blowsy apollos and cassandras., though their entrance is somewhat suprising. The diction in the best parts is clear, simple, tight. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

Bird-dog, Bird-dog

by Margaret Hemme
The Waters

he’s a god
fur flapping
racing frantic
leaping earth
green and gravel
by wired walls

he hears
the blackbirds
digging dots
coating oaks
fluttering far
no fences
free, and one

has landed
from his lawn
too late

the rubber ball
is black now
and he’s trained
to grab it
from the sky

bird-dog, bird-dog
good catch, but
I’d rather
watch it fly

It's the writing rather than the whole shape here that seems particularly good, the second verse with those inky blackbirds. I think the last verse thins the poem a little, the tone maybe a touch flip. It is the observation that is the strongest element of the poem. --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