Winning Poems for September 2014

Judged by Suzanne Lummis

First Place

Of Course

by Christine Potter
The Waters

Four of us sitting like a family outside
around a table with a green cloth on it
beside the still, green creek, the trees

heavy and green, the treetops round
as bellies or breasts, our dinner warming
inside, the oven ticking up to temperature,

all of us gone from the hard white light
of the office, the church across the way
empty, evening sun in its yellow windows.

Chimney swifts and the harmless snarl
of a little jet bound for Newark–
in between worlds, in between words.

Of course, someone looked down
into the sad mirror of his cell phone
and said, “No. No, get out of town!”

to no one and soon we all knew what
war, what loss, what invisible flightless
wings were already folding around us.

Some would say it's my affinity for noir and the noir credo -- Baby, doesn't matter what turn you take, it'll all wind up in the gutter -- that draws me to this poem. Those sayers might be right, but we know it's never the subject, revelation, or message alone, that makes the poem -- it's the language.

Wonderful how this poet manages to evoke the components of banal ordinariness with details that conceal a certain bite, "the oven ticking up to temperature," "the harmless snarl of a little jet bound for Newark". (Newark!) Wonderful that someone in the party "looked down into the sad mirror of his cell phone," as if breaking one of those doom-bound Rules set forth in fairy tales and myths, don't look back, don't open that locked door. And I love that delicious "Of course," and the dark absurdity of the utterance that seems to prophesize calamity and failure. --Suzanne Lummis

Second Place

To a Dead Father

by Judy Kaber
The Waters

Some say there’s a lock on heaven’s gate
yet I see your face, spackled with sun, lean

out over the jutting sky, still looking like
you expect a clean swept porch, a pattern

on the dishes of bouquets of flowers.
Don’t slum, don’t come any closer.

Flecks of paint accent fingers, acrylic splatters
circle wrists. Dirt here is a household word.

Remember the trek up from New York?
The impact of lightless roads at night?

A vacation spent staring at the backs
of tractors groaning in the fields, riding

thick humps through plaited green. Nice
gesture, but you couldn’t fake consent,

contentment. Clench tight your teeth.
Too many slanted floors, unpainted

doors. An outhouse. A hole in the wall.
So far from suburbia the accent’s a fact

that smacks you in the ear. Does
the New York Daily News land flat

on your golden doorstep? Is there
a janitor to arrest the creeping scum?

Don’t strain your reedy neck, intent
on one last inspection. I still eat toast

and jam, ignore the crumbs. And, out
of spite, each morning unmake my bed.

Here, finally, is a poet with an ear--I say "finally" because these days most poets don't make use of sound as an element in their poems. This one folds in assonance (gate/face, impact/backs/tractor), the rat-tat-tat of plossive final consonants (consent/fact/flat), and internal rhyme and slant rhyme.

This profile suggests a personality whose intolerance of dirt and disorder seems -- in this telling -- almost life denying. Though the poet threatens a messiness so as to spite the obsessively tidy late father, the play of revolving sounds, as well as the clean strokes of the couplets, create a clipped, knowing, orderly effect. And that's just as well -- a writer couldn't achieve such an effective, stinging critique with a haphazard, messy poem. --Suzanne Lummis

Third Place

Three Strands of Barb

by Rebecca Van Camp
Wild Poetry Forum

The ground too wet to plant, Dad would walk
the fences, a claw hammer hooked
to his overalls, bumping against his thigh.

Hold it right there
he’d say, as I pulled taut
a sagging wire and he sunk a staple.

Hunters don’t give a damn about your fences.
As far as Dad knew, three strands were enough
if you didn’t allow hunting.

Step through here, but mind your breeches.

That’s how I learned
there were places to get out.

There’s always something to keep in, too.
Life leans against restraints and you don’t want
wild ideas running in the corn.

It's a fairly sure thing that if writers can accurately convey a man's hands-on work, or a woman's, they can catch something close to the core of that person. I'm taken with the plain-speaking, understated manner of this poem, which culminates in a stroke that manages to be both country-simple and deliriously poetic. Wild ideas running in the corn. As we say in our contemporary vernacular--How great is that? --Suzanne Lummis

Honorable Mention


by Shawn Nacona

Each as fucked up as the next;
my siblings, we evacuated
our nest as if it were on fire, and
it was a lick of flame
that seared our skin daily
unfurling from the tongue
of our Münchausen mother
like an inferno that erupts
from the mouth of Ancalagon
to consume those who would rob her
of attentions— those precious metals
far more dear than we. She
forced us to flee, leap out
into the world despite the fall, jump
though we never learned
to properly fly, and so we lie;
fledglings strewn among the roots,
but each damaged differently—
now we nurse our wounds
day by day, accordingly.

The opening lines echo the first stanza of Philip Larkin's most notorious poem (and his best beloved): They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.

Such a nightmare vision this short poem packs, such horror. I sense that there's more to be said, more to be made, of this mad woman and her scarred family, more poems, more stories, to be forged in the heat of that furnace. --Suzanne Lummis