Winning Poems for June 2012

Judged by Shara McCallum

First Place


by Lois P. Jones

Only a careful bird like me can see
your nine tails twitching at once.
The small pointed snout of a dog,

your fur a place of night crawlers.
You have ears on your legs — bristles
turned to hear a rabbit’s breath,

the rasping of earthworms, all the quiet
without defense. You have fed
on my eggs. I see them in your

phosphorous eyes as if a lamp swung
before your face. You are everywhere,
shapeshifting like a shore, aurora

of Northern Lights. Even as I perch
near the Canal du Midi your tails squeeze
my thoughts, wind toward the wide mouth

of the river. You smell of the feast,
the afterbirth, your lair musky with the slain.
Glistening and beaded.

This poem is in great company and holds its own with the likes of poems by contemporary poets Lucille Clifton and Adrienne Rich, who have also used the fox as a metaphysical conceit. The language of this poem is highly inventive, rich and evocative, and is what immediately distinguished it. Phrases like “rasping of earthworms” or “your lair musky with the slain” conjure fantastical images. On repeated readings, though, I also loved how the poem tethers us to the real: the direct address used in the poem creates a relationship between the speaker (the “careful bird,” perhaps a goose, whose eggs the fox has “fed on”) and the fox, which extends the conceit of the poem further, delivering in the process a complex allegory of the bond between victim and victimiser. This fable-like poem accomplishes the feat of bringing pleasure to the reader, even as it disturbs. --Shara McCallum

Second Place

No Cover

by Jane Wilcken
Wild Poetry Forum

It’s a thing I do alone, drive to the North Side, where
the finest ingredients are used, where the sign means

to say GIRLS, but the L is missing, as though once
you get inside you will hear the voices of bears.

Where the tornado hit last year. I never bothered
to come see the uprooted trees, the sidewalk overturned,

those bright blue tarps tossed over the roofs. Sleeping
low income children, their mothers dancing for money.

GIR_S. The dream recurs in the gymnasium of my junior high.
Tell myself I am a star. Tell myself the aftermath in past tense.

As it turns out, the choice was between my finger and my life
the whole time. Pointing away from myself inside the dark room,

poking into the red glow across the surface of a stop bath.
Chemistry, repelled and rapt. Call it a reaction of emergence.

This is how we learned what they didn’t teach in health class,
the importance of substitution. A boy’s erection through layers

of cloth, a living thing against my thigh. We hover toward
each new inkling, fruit in each other’s hands. I mean

it’s not like this was ever my idea, all the boys on one side,
all the girls on the other, lined up, unscathed.

The poem’s opening implies that it will unfold as a conventional narrative, but it quickly departs from that form. Starting with the loss of the letter, “L,” on the “GIRLS” sign (a loss that is figurative as well as literal), the poem takes many twists and turns. As we are pulled from one location and moment in time to another, the speaker braids together the larger story she wants to tell: about gender roles and sexuality. The associative quality of this poem is engaging, allowing us to feel as if we are inside the mind of a speaker who seems to be talking more to and for herself, than an audience, as she recounts the past. The connections between the images and vignettes (the strip club, the bear, the tornado, and the junior high scenes from gym, health class, and Chemistry) become apparent only on multiple readings—but from the get-go the unsparing nature and honesty of this voice drives the poem and keeps us “rapt.” --Shara McCallum

Third Place

Somewhere in Our Past

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Waters

I hold the sky in my hands.
It is a snake that terrifies
yet bewitches me,

undulating over the earth
of my palms,
the worship of my fingers.

There is no end to it.
A stillness in its movement
where space could reside.

The tongue is a flickering of stars.
Its eyes are cold planets.
Its hiss is the language of suns.

The only “telling” moment in this poem is the title. Relying solely on an extended metaphor (the sky as a snake), the poem only suggests what “our past” means to the speaker now. The fact that the poem is surreal in its use of metaphor creates the feeling that the speaker is unmoored, even without the poem locating this sentiment in a narrative back story. The keen diction and phrasing throughout the poem aid, as well, in establishing the tone. The line I am drawn to again and again is, “the worship of my fingers,” but there are many others I might single out as well: the poem is a tour-de-force regarding its use of the image. --Shara McCallum