Winning Poems for May 2012
Judged by Shara McCallum
After the spring thaw when what snow there was melted, left
Braille trickles in the dirt, the time came for me to move,
carry the last load of hay to the barn, scratch the goat, feel her
dry bag sag down low. Time came for me to let the dog free,
ease her collar over her scrawny neck, give her room
finally to drink her fill from that dented aluminum bowl. Time to
gather my clothes together in the burlap sack. Take my spoon,
half a jug of whiskey, the fancy linen table cloth, white faded to
ivory with only a few moth holes. Turn the latch, greet the
jittering morning, birds like torn leaves, kick song in the bushes.
Kind of like this day’s a bad draft of all the others. Too many
loose vowels and crossed off lines. Too many bitter
moments like off-kilter rhymes. I step in the dust-mottled yard,
notice the black sprawl, piles of wood ashes. Makes me think
of the days when I had a little smoke house out front,
plenty of ham, bacon, tied with twine, and me always with
quick thrusts of green apple boughs to keep the burn going.
Right now don’t mean much. Right now I think I should have
sold it all in one fell punch. Not that anyone would come looking.
Too far out. Roads like black pus. No electricity. No water
unless you use the pump. Too far gone now. Never had many
visitors, except maybe when I had those chickens. Don’t know
why now I sold them. Bright little bunch. Claws that made little
x’s in the ground, hunting bugs. That was their life, laying
you eggs, spending the rest of their time searching for insects,
zig-zagging some crazy path. No sense to it. None.
The voice that comes through in this dramatic monologue is Faulknerian, replete with the drama of loss yet completely understated and matter-of-fact about this aspect of life. The speaker/persona of this poem observes the world so meticulously and unselfconsciously that everything radiates a greater meaning (the chickens, for example, are never just chickens). The diction of this poem is constantly inventive (“Braille trickles,” “jittering morning,” “dust-mottled yard,” etc.)—yet never loses the sense of the colloquial speech that makes the character of the speaker so believable and engaging. Finally, the form of this poem (an abecedarian) is used in the best manner—seamlessly, unobtrusively—and is inseparable from content. On many levels, this is a masterful poem. --Shara McCallum
FreeWrights Peer Review
The Front Range is arid, a place where leather simmers, takes ages to rot. Iron refuses to rust. It is a place of smoke and dust and sun lust. It is swept with tidal waves of wind that peel the moisture from your lips, gulp water from your body and shoot it up the slopes of the Rockies, or shove it down the throat of the plains. It is a region dry as mummy tongue and wrapped in a bland of multiple tans. There, you find yourself with flat lungs and legs of lead but, like the morning cool, those will escape to higher blue. You can walk where there are no sounds except gurgling nerves and a morning sun crushing its way along the next ridge. It is a place of catkins and cactus, meadowlarks and magpies, waterfalls and star-fired nights, cottonwood and columbine. It is rugged, littered with knee-deep creeks and weather-worn boulders. It is a massive and open land, lifting into the sky, like Icarus, and built on the back of smallness. That is something we all forget, that everything is built on and from and of smallness.
This prose poem’s description of place and use of anaphora are what initially drew me to it—there is much to appreciate here on the level of image and sound. In multiple readings, those remained constants. Added to that, I also became increasingly impressed and moved by the poets’ ability to lead us, through the accumulation of stark and desolate images of the Front Range, to the poem’s dramatic conclusion about the nature of life: “everything is built on and from and of smallness.” --Shara McCallum
Third Place (Tie)
Desert Moon Review
Easy to take an orange, cup it in one hand,
dig the thumb of the other through the first sharp,
citrus, tang, or maybe use four fingers, gathering
zest under nails, then savour sweetness with an acid
edge. Simple enough to plot 207 bones
on a strand of DNA to shape the miracle who
grasps her mother’s little finger. Machinery
of wonder, bones, tendons, muscles, neurons
pulsing: open, close, grasp, loosen. And yet,
the microscopic god whose voice commands
cells to multiply and form forgot the words,
for one brief moment could not conceive the shape
of arms, forgot two bones. Not then
the wonder of creation nor even evolution’s
complexity, rather the perfection of being.
This perfect baby knows how her hands work, not
that they are different, knows how to pick
the smallest crumb between two fingers, knows
that I smile when she strokes my calloused palm.
This lyric-narrative poem is beautifully crafted, the poet’s control of diction and tone nearly flawless. Like the act of peeling an orange—the image that opens the poem—the poem itself is multi-layered and ‘unpeels’ as it unfolds to reveal the intersection of the personal and philosophical. For me, the poem is at its most “perfect” in the lines: “Not then/the wonder creation nor even evolution’s/complexity, rather the perfection of being.” Within this statement reside the poem’s central and lasting questions: What is “perfection”? What is the nature of “being”? --Shara McCallum
Third Place (Tie)
Through my window, asphalt shimmers
as if the pixelation of the world were losing its grip.
In the gutter, clumps of leaves begin a ceremony
of decay. Umbrellas trudge along the sidewalk
shading blurred, generic eyes.
Cars blunder down the street, while collisions wait
in ambush. The rain comes down so heavy,
it’s hard to tell where the cars end,
and the space around them begins.
Even words surrender to the storm.
Eyes closed, I picture an enormous book,
broad as a mountain, open to the drenching sky.
What humanity has discovered in the odyssey
of a thousand generations is scribed within this tome.
The rain beats down. It strikes and slaps.
It wants to make the paper soft,
and turn the wisest ink to smears of mayhem.
There are no shrouds or jackets broad enough
to spare the fragile pages. All that stands
against this riot is memory.
This poem found its way inside me because of its images and the particularity of phrasing the poet uses to render those. “In the gutter, clumps of leaves begin a ceremony/ of decay,” is one example and a stand-out moment in the poem for me. I love the way the poet renders the image of the leaves as part of a grander “ceremony,” illuminating the desire we have to make even “decay” beautiful. This same gesture occurs again, fittingly, in the last line and half of the poem where the world’s chaos (“this riot”) is held at bay by human will, through the act of “memory.” --Shara McCallum
if there be a history for salt
in a black woman’s vibrations
and there be a gathering of poet tribes
to carry a female name across water
and if there be an anthem to hum
for the making of old bones
and there be a single root ribboning
through dahomey soil towards my daughter’s hands
i say lucille if there be a truth
this be the time for you. you. you.
and your twelve fingers
I was drawn to this elegy for the wonderful poet Lucille Clifton. The poem pays homage to Clifton by imitating her style and offering lines that are a kind of pastiche of those from Clifton’s own poetry, though revised and re-imagined in this context. The approach is a risky one that could fall flat but, instead, stands as a moving and fitting tribute. --Shara McCallum