Winning Poems for December 2013

Judged by Kelly Cherry

First Place

A Survivor at Paddington Station

by Marilyn Francis
The Write Idea

He was used to waiting,
and the transit lounge on Platform 1
wasn’t too bad.

The Polish girl behind the desk
was busy, busy, busy with enquiries.
But he could wait.

After all, he had his own chair to sit on.
He would wait until someone noticed him
in his too-big scarlet jacket

and black cap loose on his skull.
He had all the time and no time –
a piece of travelling debris. He slept.

Slept to attention, hands like a handful
of kindling resting on his knees, and a tide
of travellers washed around him.

This is a poem that possesses dignity. Without squirming or showing off, it delivers a clear, crisp portrait of a man waiting to ask a question of "t]he Polish girl behind the desk," who is dealing with a slew of questions from other people. He is content to wait, undemanding, perhaps somewhat meek. The man's jacket is too large for him and his black cap too small, which tells us he is probably down at the heels, poor, certainly unattended by tailors or department stories. He falls asleep, which tells us he is weary, has perhaps already been traveling for a long time, and not in a hurry. He is referred to as "debris," and now we know for sure that he is one of multitudes of travelers, no one to be singled out. As he sleeps, his hands lie on his knees like "kindling," as if they are trash branches, no longer serviceable for real work. Yet even sleeping, he seems ready to wake at any given moment. This small but crucial detail heightens our sense of his precarious life and his personal decency. Alas, no one notices him. In fact, "a tide / of travellers washed around him," this splendid image underscoring our understanding of him as "a piece of debris," discounted by others as litter, without worth. The poem is simple but does its work efficiently and leaves the sympathetic reader with something like heartache, a kind of sadness coupled with fondness. --Kelly Cherry

Second Place

near winter

by Dale McLain
Wild Poetry Forum

In November the dock is forsaken,
silvered boards and spider webs,
dull little birds beneath the pines.
I hate the fucking sound of the water,
how it shrugs against the bank, lazy
and cold. In fact I hate this lousy lake,
this non-ocean and these clotted clouds

that foul the sky. Look, I’m happy,
okay? Don’t worry. I see rose hips
and flagstones where the house
once stood. The well is uncovered.
I lean over it, whisper “snow”.
It’s a dare. The fence wants its picture
taken. Time makes one of those jolts,

a little sideways move. Remember
how that makes you all wobbly?
I slide my hands in that awful water
just to make them ache.
Now the sun threatens some theatrics,
an exit for the ages. I don’t want it.
I want it to slip away like a penny,

like something no one will ever miss.
The lake is glad for nightfall,
greedy for dark upon dark, colder
now, a place to drown. Someone
comes with a lantern and I go
with the geese, on wings the grey
of battleships and rain.

I usually want to understand the whole of a poem; I am not drawn to fragments or riddles that can't be solved. "near winter" ends with three lines I can't make sense of in context, but the rest of the poem is composed with such authority and precision that I have to give it Second Place. Descriptions of the dock, the water ("how it shrugs against the bank"), the grim clouds, the "rose hips / and flagstones where the house / once stood," the well, the fence, the sun are vivid and anchoring. There are fine lines ("Now the sun threatens some theatrics" with its personification, "silvered boards and spider webs" with its sibilance, "dull little birds beneath the pines" with its alliteration). The author's adamant voice and desire to escape the scene rivets the reader. --Kelly Cherry

Third Place

Grand Canyon, North Rim

by Lois P. Jones

At the edge of a known world
mountains repeat themselves

like old people. Each ripple
a blue syllable, a language of forgetting.

A place like this, exposed
to harsh winters and long years

of drought, begs to be how it was.
I can’t but think

standing at the chasm
above the seep willow

how the ghost water raged
like bison through the bottom

of this immense gorge.
Not from flash floods and snow melt,

but a force so powerful
the ground split open, shearing

the canyon raw. What strength could carry
massive boulders miles away?

Surely no methodical erosion,
but a truth catastrophic

leaving this maw, this mouth
to gawk. My tongue so heavy now

with dust, like a potter’s wheel in the sun,
stays mute – having nothing more to say

than two hawks circling the canyon
or the wind coaxing the last leaves

from the cottonwood below.
It’s nearly dusk and the red rock face

shifts mood, deepening with itself.
What time changes leaves a shadow,

a human sundial at a precipice. A gnomon
tilted toward a true celestial north.

Couplets convey a sense of the canyon, the huge expanse, its age and history of "harsh winters" and "years / of drought." I love "how the water raged / like bison through the bottom" because we see the water raging and a still life is set in motion (the bison). The speaker is so overcome that his tongue is tied by heavy dust—like a potter's wheel in the sun," dust falling onto it. The final three lines move away from description to inform us that the changes wrought by time are marked by a "shadow" or "a human sundial at a precipice," which I take to mean human perception, and surely it is true that the perceiver is forever in shadow, "true celestial north" forever the aim. --Kelly Cherry

Honorable Mention

The Epicures

by Gerry Callaghan
The Write Idea

The old pair ordered
Pairwise the same from
The fusion food menu–
The alleged and untenable
Last Taco in Paris

Then they danced drunk,
Tripping the light stochastic,
Fish out of water,
Flopping around in the
Civilization and its discotheques

Later, they lay together,
Spent and stiffening,
Like stale breadsticks acting
Their age, but tempted anew
To the old frisson
And a saving drop of olive oil.

I also want to mention "The Epicures," with its sprightly rhythm and hilarious allusions to Last Tango in Paris and Civilization and Its Discontents. If only the last stanza could give us a third joke as good as those two—that would be brilliant. --Kelly Cherry