Winning Poems for January 2012

Judged by John Timpane

First Place

A Bedtime Story

by Terreson
Delectable Mnts

“Makes you lonely and cold
standing on the shoulder.
But you’ve come too far to go back home,
so you’re walking on a nowhere road.”

                        –Waylon and Willie

One rider in winter, wasted,
caught in thorn of thicket and
walking his exhausted horse;
who comes to clearing, who sees
white mansion. Bones of those
who came before spread across
perimeter of father ground,
who tested, feared the fall, and so fell.

And the door, the tower door,
with secret clasp that needs the key,
just one more name for right word,
for spoken touch to unlock the thing.
And door that opens, and his constant
horse led away, gentled, taken to rest.

With outrider here, I saw him straight,
shown inside the chambers, through
successive rooms, again the doors, again
the trials, again the litter of bones;
when finally the last door unlocks
and all it takes is true color of breath.

The inside room. How, sweet friend,
to picture the brilliance of that place?

Sun is yellow star they say. Moon white
moves the metric warmth they say again.
In center spin system molts and Milky Way births.
In fertile life there is death. In death, life.

And still the carnage of failure to step across,
to see and hear and clear the way,
as he does the thing, as he steps up since
it is the only worth and start of sunburst.

On hinge of stone and central to
this largest room stands the source.
The cup, the chalice, the golden bowl
whose last step, or so he hopes, is close
when journey soldier must do his best,
take the chance, must scald his senses, and
look inside to focus find what’s there.

All the greens imagined in that cauldron,
all the shades, moist to cool, all
the interlock of vine, skin bark, and
grove oak boughs spread to open;
or until the fall occurs, and he
standing in the garden, the enclosure, in
patio surround, nimbus of wet light,
in songbird sound and cover uncovered.

One fountain. One sip of water. And her.

"A Bedtime Story" stood forth early and remained standing apart, bathed in its own light. It tells a "story," but that tale is compounded of many elements, from Christian lore, Dante, chivalric tales, and the Old West, so we soon realize we are on a journey through all journeys, prisms refracting prismatic refractions from other prisms. All stories comment on all other stories, on how we tell stories and why. So it's also a comment on telling, on the act of telling itself. A lonely rider on a tired horse comes to a place, a long-sought-after McGuffin. All of this is delivered in offbeat language, deliberately halting and awkward, bursting at odd, very odd moments with lyrical pops and zags ("And still the carnage of the failure to step across,/to see and hear and clear the way,/as he does the thing, as he steps up since/it is the only worth and start of sunburst"). We are kept uneasy and sagging sideways in the saddle throughout, much like the exhausted rider. Among all the riches of this nutty, bent tune, I especially appreciated the snug closure of the last lines, which bring us to the end while steadfastly refusing to explain a thing: "in/patio surround, nimbus of wet light,/in songbird sound and cover uncovered. // One fountain. One sip of water. And her." What a smile on the reader's face throughout, as the poem plays with many legacies, tells many stories, delights with crooked pleasures of words. Best of all is the original voice. ---John Timpane

Second Place (tie)

Hardwood Autumn

by Allen M. Weber
Muse Motel

Abiding more when out of doors (or well into his drink),
Big Mike takes the better part of a day to harvest half
a dozen rows. His John Deere stops near the yellow-leafed copse,

where at ten years old they buried hickory nuts in loam—
he and that pretty neighbor who, at sixteen, married quick
some blue-eyed boy whose daddy owned a Chevy dealership.

Mike spies his Angie yanking boxers from the line, clothespins
tumbling to the grass. Tonight he’ll face reprisal meatloaf,
without complaint—or salt. He’ll share with her the phantom deer:

each fall, they graze the edge of harrowed fields, white tails like flags
as they bound away. Won’t be a lie. Shoulda seen ‘em, Ang.
Dove into them woods like swimmers plumb a bottomless pool.

"Hardwood Autumn" is as American a poem as can be imagined, straightforward yet exquisitely chosen, until you couldn't or wouldn't want to change the position of a single word. Such clarity of tale, such myth in particular, hard lives. We watch people working, lives troubled and contracting, feel the resonance of what isn't told, and meanwhile the wide-open calls, the world we work on, the resisting world that works on us. Beautiful use is made of the stanzas especially, three lines apiece in long lines of from nine to 13 words, keeping the sense of compact expansion, in pace, in language, and in content, in what is told and noticed. "Mike spies his Angie yanking boxers from the line, clothespins" is a fabulous line to read aloud, humble words just singing aloud. The next two lines are heartbreaking: "tumbling to the grass. Tonight he'll face reprisal meatloaf,/without complaint -- or salt. He'll share with her the phantom deer:" Even though these lives are hard and not special, the poem works up to a moment of sheer lyric, when Mike explains to Angie what the fleeing whitetailed deer looked like. It's all the poetry they have in the world. Beautifully turned. ---John Timpane

Second Place (tie)


by Brenda Levy Tate

Pearls – a row of fish’s teeth –
rose-dot cheeks, cranberry smile.
Thick braid with all the gold
memories twining my ears.
Lacy throat, where creases
hang under the fluff. Bouquet
on my chest, with every bloom
in the birch-carven world.

Uncap my head and another
woman stares out – eclipsed
by my larger incarnation.
A clutch of hyacinths spreads
over some small wound.
I am diminished, like a cat
who follows walls and pleads
for some way past them.
A cat with emerald eyes,
pretending to be human, who
will not walk another way.

Inside, the third girl blinks
at unexpected light. Shy
as a luna moth, speckles
on my hair. Blown from wings,
perhaps, or shed like layers
of myself, doll within doll,
face behind face. I carry
a crocus: Abuse Not.

I open, open and open – gem
crown to prisoner’s wire barbs.
Lilies crumple over scarred
hearts – Mary as her pain begins,
Magdalene with drenched hair,
old shadows bent above one
fallen stone. Wax from a ring
of candles is pouring down.
I crush a thorn branch.

Only a splinter woman remains
now, on the right-hand side.
I am no longer certain
she wears my name, or any
other part I valued once.
Still, she may hold the rosemary
that I grow in my window,
flowerless but grace-filled,
caught in the last atom of all.

"Matryoshka" is an extended metaphor that actually works. Even though the notion of nesting dolls is fairly common, the poem rescues it from cliche with novel, moving applications. Here, it's the layer-beneath-layer of a woman's self, plumbed by the woman herself. What's neat is that, as she plumbs, the speaker acknowledges the mystery of herself, a mystery that only grows as she realizes more and goes deeper and deeper: "I am no longer certain/she wears my name, or any/other part I valued once." Exactly. It's refreshing for a speaker to admit s/he cannot, in the end, claim too much of a privilege of self-knowledge. The poem moves sprightly among its stanzas of short lines. I love the movement around the ends of lines especially -- here, surely, is an excellent ear for how a verse "turns," for what makes verse verse. Throughout, there is a thick, gorgeous encrustation of image ("gem/crown to prisoner's wire barbs./Lillies crumple over scarred/hearts" -- lovely vowels, lovely r's, plus great play with references to death, war, religion, and more), but the poem as a whole has an airy, spacious solidity. I don't know how you pulled that off. And the last line is, as they say, perfect. ---John Timpane

Third Place

The Cantu Series

by Zeke E. Sanchez
Delectable Mnts

Is a series of poems covering
the lives of Efrin Cantu;
a man non-existent in the suburbs
though he lives there as a daytime
shadow, gone at night. The crickets
sing in the walls or rub their legs
or wings, and he does, too, since
he’s not real. Elfrin left
with his shorter brother to that
village in Zacatecas or Michoacan
never to return. Maybe waylaid
by Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel,
maybe harassed by the Border Patrol,
maybe got tired.

Here, he mowed my lawns,
the front and back. Always optimistic,
vibrant, spring-armed and strong,
solid, they waited for the weekends
to play soccer, a passion. I
don’t know where they went. They
left last fall after the leaves
had stopped falling from the giant oak
and hickory. In a series
of letters I imagined them alive
and well, having come back
to California where
their imaginary sister owned a tortilleria
and they both got jobs. It’s
a nice sentiment on my part,
as if here on Bleeker Street
there weren’t enough homeless.

Somebody in a Prius dropped
off two dachshunds
at the corner by Carl’s Pizza
yesterday. They huddled
together at a busy corner. As
if that’s not enough. I wanted
to find the owners and just
look them in the eye.

"The Cantu Series" is perhaps the only poem in the group to address anything like a topical issue, and yet it needn't be seen that way, as the poem shows -- this story is of human beings and their relations and how history throws them together and apart. I like the way the poem refers to a "series" of other poems someplace else about the lives in *this* poem. That series, so described, may actually exist, or it may not. But the point is that it *could* -- you could write a whole book of poems on the lives of Efrin and his shorter brother. So the poem expands, to take in a possibly imaginary series, implying a sweep, an inclusion. I just love that notion. And it's mirrored by the "series/of letters" the speaker writes (to whom?), in which imaginary pasts and presents are imagined for the Cantus. The lives we might lead, we could lead . . . the dangers and encroachments . . . the truth and what we think the truth is. Lovely stuff. "He's not real," we're told, which is the only self-evident lie among all the self-announcing fictions here. Sure, he is. He's the guy in this poem. And THEN the lovely turn at the end, where we appear to leave the whole subject of the Cantus, migratory workers, sub-rosa American lives . . . and see a moment of cruelty to the unsuspecting, and a burst of righteous anger, right at the end. The connection is left lucidly unspoken. Excellent movement around line-endings, and a resolute avoidance of anything lyrical. Yet this is a humane poem full of love and wonder. ---John Timpane

Honorable Mention

You may misunderstand

by Cherryl E. Garner

You may misunderstand my grousing.
I’m a bitching maker, lists
others’ errors, scaredy
of my troubling own. Still, I

see life as my one gem.
It’s buried, so I dig for it.
It’s grail, it’s beating red, it’s raw,
that singularity.

Ways can surround with
tender trees and
steady rooted stays,
the uber

blooms of showy
everythings…those stars! That
calling, endless black! I’ve tried the
awkward nothing.

Ungraceful, I still want it
like the scents of cinnamon,
cloves bitten, bitter,

a puff of bodydust, a view of soul.

"You May Misunderstand" has the flavor of a summing up. It's the kind of statement any poet feels like making, any person alive in the world in which others are alive to him or her. It also has the shrug of helpless apology: "It's grail, it's beating red, it's raw,/That singularity" -- fabulous! We can't help it -- we're the way we are, poets more so than most, Me more than Anyone. And the awkwardness of "I've tried the/awkward nothing" really hangs the whole thing, awkwardly, on a limb. That's yet another virtue of this poem: it seems to imply that nothingness isn't an option, since we're not granted it. Instead, it's everythingness and us, and if we act weird, and get misunderstood, well, right. The poem goes up, literally, in a fragrant puff of smoke. Very strong appeals to the sense of smell as the closing gesture of a poem -- you don't see that too often. Great stuff. ---John Timpane

Honorable Mention

In the Night Still Dark

by Jim Zola
The Waters

The leaves have drawn out their dying.
Just as I let myself linger.

I’m the grumpy General,
barking orders about gloves and hats.

Putting on a sock,
my son forgets what world he’s in.

I can’t forget. I keep
notes in my pockets.

The snowy owl peers down
the sweetgum branch,

a license plate reads soon.
Later, after the house settles

in its dark reluctance,
after the owl’s belly is full

of mouse, leaves start to crash
against roof and windows.

"In the Night Still Dark" -- the engulfed life of a parent, edged in mortality, with dead leaves as the border for a tender preparation of the child for the day. And the natural world goes on the way it does, because we go on as we do. Tenderness, but never overindulgence, floods this poem, as the facts of a harsh natural world in a vast darkness swirl around the intense, mindful lighted place where a parent sends a child, dressed and ready as s/he'll ever be, out into that very same world. These pairs of lines are often end-stopped, often offering pauses and full rests at the ends of lines, until the smoother movement of the last four lines, which feel as if they are draining toward the real reality. There are two or three dizzyingly wonderful bursts ("I can't forget. I keep/notes in my pockets" -- fabulous cliffhanger on "keep," rounding to the solid, almost drab, irony of the close!) ("a license plate reads soon" -- comes after an owl peers at us, and resonates with official human efforts to collect and corral what can't be collected or corraled . . . an amazing image . . . I keep thinking that license plate is on the family SUV! But of course it could be glimpsed anywhere and nowhere. All license plates, in a way, read "soon." Once the family scene is done, the house reverts to quiet, and the inescapable mastery of nature and death resume. Lovely. ---John Timpane

  • 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