Winning Poems for January 2011

Judged by Kwame Dawes

First Place

Infield Chatter

by Michael Harty
Wild Poetry Forum

You don’t hear the old chatter these days,
the third baseman’s chipping staccato
to your right, the random hoot from first,
behind you a warbled stream, a doubleplay
duet like meadowlarks celebrating summer:
that chorus of monologues, chanted mantras
of got-your-back, comebabe humbabe
shoot that pill, rock and fire, you’re the one,
but you’re not the one any more
and the game has changed.

It’s a poor imitation, just the very young
in their home and away jerseys
and all they know is batter the batter
with empty crescendo, like practice
for the talk shows. In the end your best stuff
is thrown into shadowed silence,
the seats half empty, the sun
sunk below the grandstand roof,
the birds gone mute,
even the children grown old.

It is not easy to make fresh a poem about time passing that uses a sports metaphor at its core, but this is a beautifully managed poem. The final image of the sun falling behind the grandstand roof is so evocative and so perfectly moderated for this poem: “the bids gone mute,/ even the children grown old”. The second stanza is the heavy counterpoint to the playful game with words, sounds, and the perfectly captured richness of baseball chatter which is hopeful until those final three lines of the stanza: “…you’re the one,/ but you’re not the one any more/ and the game has changed.” It would be easy for this poem to sound like the ranting of an old curmudgeon complaining about how things have changed, but there is a delicacy here, a self-reflective sadness that undermines any hint of arrogance; and in the end the poem is not about baseball because it is really never about baseball, is it: “...In the end your best stuff/ is thrown into shadowed silence,/ the seats half empty,…”For its pitch perfection, its tidily shaped classic structure, and for its understated honesty, I really like this poem. --Kwame Dawes

Second Place

Death Artist

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block

Six foot five Kiowa
with one leg,
Sada stretched across a booth
in the cowboy
and oil worker’s bar
like he’d conquered a country.

He sketched with carpenter’s
pencil in a Big Chief notebook.
Nobody bothered him,
except to buy him a drink
from a distance
as if to settle a debt.

He lost his leg in Nam,
wore a long green Army coat,
medal pinned to the lapel,
tall black cowboy hat,
eagle feather
stuck in the beaded band.

He painted murals
of ghost dancers and totems
in acrylics–faster drying
than oils, not as fast,
not as permanent
as bullets.
Brush had replaced gun–
medicine against wolf
prowling inside him.

The poem is a character sketch. The efficiency here must not be overlooked. In four stanzas the poet offers us a way to see a man who is of course fascinating even if a bit of a cliché. But he is what he is and sometimes people are clichés. What the poet is able to do is find some very fetching images to turn this cliché into a poignant poem. First there is the simile of the man stretched across a booth “like he’d conquered a country”—fitting for a soldier returned from a war where that is exactly what did not happen. In the second stanza we find another simile of people buying him a drink from a distance, “as if to settle a debt”. Again, the lines are densely packed with ironies and yet accurate to the moment. Finally, the image that ends the poem: “medicine against wolf/ prowling inside him” brings us to elegant and haunting closure. These are carefully constructed images and they work well. The character sketch is superficial. We don’t know the man any better, but what we do have is a powerful portrait from the outside barely looking in. --Kwame Dawes

Third Place

The Borrow Pit

by Allen M. Weber
Muse Motel

When Earle would say, Need you, Little Bro, I’d always come
running—that’s the way it was. On a visit home from the Navy,
he tells a tale of swimming from torpedo tubes, how his men
take fear to folks you’d never read about in the Daily Gazette.

Growing up, Earle could tread water forever—had to be tough
in the pit by the blueberry fields: the water gets dark, real fast;
the steep mud bottom holds your feet, so there’s no way to rest.
A neighbor boy drowned there—cramped up, maybe, slipping

right under, without calling to his friends. We weren’t allowed,
but some nights we’d sneak down, with a six-pack, to skinny-dip
till the farmer’s hounds got to howling and we’d know that soon
the screen door would bang shut, and we’d see his flatbed Ford

as bouncing balls of light, clattering down the dusty path. Tonight
a black Buick glides in—One Nation Under a Groove and something
like joy pulsing from the open windows—some city boys muling
uncut coke from Chicago. I take one look at Earle—those blue lips,

how they stretch across his berry-stained teeth, and even before
he lifts the grocery bag of money and glinting metal from the trunk,
I understand: not everybody’s leaving this field tonight. Then Earle
tosses a shotgun and laughs, Hey Brother, still like to climb trees?

The lonely maple quivers and startles my skin with an earlier rain.
Hugging a lower branch, oiled steel ices my cheek. Between leaves
I make out that Earle’s showing off—got all three flocked together,
bowed down and kneeling, facing the edge of his still moon water.

Were this poem to lose the heavy “prose-markers” festooned first stanza, we would be looking at an elegant narrative poem of such delicately observed emotion and such carefully shaped detail. The line, “not everybody’s leaving this field tonight” is a powerful turn of the poem that studies the understated casual violence of the scene. The poet has an important gift, the ability to discern what is important and interesting in a moment. In the narrative poem, this gift is critical—it makes all the difference in the world because it is, ultimately, the thing that allows us to see the poem in the moment. This is well demonstrated in this poem. --Kwame Dawes

Honorable Mention

Pack Ice

by Bernard Henrie
The Waters

I will go to the pack ice
and when others return
I will stay behind.

I carry my long knife,
tar black strips of fluke meat
and boots sewn by my wife.

But I have no hunger, no
thirst for the vial of vinegar.
I go pure like the great sea
before the whale boats enter.

In the all day sun
I dry my straight hair
and briefly expose my chest.
I call like a white bear
as my father once called.

My eyes are grown small
as the eyes of fish, but I see
my wife gone over the floes,
not looking back.

My brave dogs strong
as bone hooks.
They pull into white ice.

The great walrus I hunted
and lost in the snow,
death heavy snow with no water
hiding falls in broken places.

I will see you again.
I will wait for the great aurora
to swim in the sky
as sea animals tossed in waves
the color of kerosene and gasoline
spilled on the ice.

Even though I can’t be sure of the accuracy of the arctic details in the poem, what carries powerfully and beautifully is the sense of aloneness, the resignation to the kind of pure emptiness of being alone—a purity akin to the combined desolation and possibility of “the great sea”. The final image, of course, is jarring for the basic way in which what reads like a poem about the natural world (timeless), becomes defined by time, by the contemporary world of “kerosene and gasoline/ spilled on the ice”. Any poem that manages to offer us, “My brave dogs strong/ as bone hooks” is coming from a promising poet. There is something here, despite the occasional imprecision in the poem. --Kwame Dawes

Honorable Mention

The Forgetting Water

by Brenda Levy-Tate

Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep – Twelfth Night

A woman must have created such a river –
one chance at erasing all her memories,
even the better ones. Heaven, it appears,
is set apart for patriarchs and handsome
boys who please God more willingly.

I shake on the bridge’s edge, listen down
at the current as it sucks, mutters, sucks,
mutters. Sullen infant – barely contained
by its dam – froth rising through a mouth
prepared at any moment to break open.

Green steel rocks me, lulls me, salts
nuggets of rust in my eye-corners. I catch
myself just in time. But this is my temptation:
to balance here like Athena’s bright owl
on a twisted limb. I scan the night for blood.

Overstep, swoop into this field of foam –
my own predator, my own lost prize.

There is a wonderful evocation of sound and movement in the line: “at the current as it sucks, mutters, sucks,/ mutters” that describes the body of water flowing under the bridge. At the surface, the poem seems to be flirting with the idea of suicide, but the epigraph reminds us that the inclination towards self-destruction is often prompted by a resignation to the fact that one no longer wants to contend with the tyranny of memory, the haunting of those things we would rather forget. So the poem. In this sense, the poem takes some interesting risks. Its problems are not insignificant, though—the reliance on the Greek mythology for a certain cleverness is cliché and unnecessary—no real effort is made to engage that allusion. Also, opportunities are lost because of the distraction of the “owl” image which turns the core metaphor of the poem towards that of an owl in hunting. An unfortunate shift, but one that does not completely obscure the deft craft at work here. --Kwame Dawes

  • 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