Winning Poems for January 2016
Judged by Lee Slonimsky
I will bear witness
that you have come to this river
out of thirst, perhaps, or a longing
to see yourself reflected just one time
in its movable mirror.
I will speak of those steel teeth,
the devastating claw-lock
you could not understand –
an evil beyond your small capacity.
A sin far past your ability
The scrap of bait on gravel,
the ragged cloth of your tail
furled in defeat, that cold mist
settling on your flame coat –
I, an old and broken woman
on the road, will record them.
Every water-side stone must seem
a mountain to you, huge and harsh,
terrifying in its indifference.
Your maimed leg will never let
you climb away from anything.
Your eyes gleam at me – amber –
with no caught creature in them
except yourself, lit with the flare
of a fatal intelligence. If you were dim,
some stupid crawling slug,
would it matter then, I wonder?
I tell you to wait for mercy; that I
have summoned help.
But you have been a trickster,
the dancing god of illusion.
You understand the alternatives.
Pain through the coming night
or a death at our pale hands,
those same beings who decree
that you and your kind do not
count for much by comparison
with us, and with ours.
Officials arrive with compassionate
finality. I am asked to leave,
because this is no sight for anyone
who carries hope like a candle
and believes there is, still, any
kindness left. Kindness. Such
a decrepit and magnificent
This poem is a triumph of empathy and moral insight into ignorant cruelty. In a solemn and straightforward tone (“I will bear witness…I, an old and broken woman/on the road/will record…”) it recounts a series of excruciating facts, and the overlooked consciousness of the fox, and the massive indifference of its fate, all in bleak yet vivid language that a reader will never forget. “Every water-side stone must seem/a mountain to you, huge and harsh,” is an example of a line that gives voice to the sensibility of the fox with a beautiful and realistic image. “To a Fox” has crossed a boundary between species, one of thought and experience, in its profound poetic vigor. --Lee Slonimsky
Wild Poetry Forum
The blues is like a dog gone mean from lack of tenderness.
For seven hard years I worked
the plantation of her love,
chipped away at the hardpan,
felled trees to clear new fields.
More than my share.
Deep in summer when the mosquitoes
were the size of hummingbirds,
I wrapped stumps with a logging chain,
spun comet trials of dust
with my tires,
courted her with crowbar
in hand as she and her friends
drank lemonade in a gazebo
by our trickle of a river.
I went halves on everything with her,
sharecropping her soul,
dreams and night sweats,
the trout leaping up to kiss the moon,
cotton plants raising their shriveled clouds
up to the sky for rain.
Her bedroom was a trembling bridge
no man would dare cross uninvited
as she sat in front of her mirror
brushing waterfalls of hair,
or looking at the bee
inside the rose crushed
between the leaves
of the family Bible,
those names written in longhand
who had long since passed into backwater.
And here I am now,
snow nipping at my ankles,
burning back through the years,
smoke, beer, a wall on which I lean.
My nights are spent dancing,
holding a sax in my arms,
swaying in the hazy drunkenness
of people who don’t give a damn
about anything but the groove.
I can listen to the rain,
watch it drip off the brim of my fedora
as I lie myself back into a younger body,
into bodies that never touched
but in thought.
And it is for these lies
I give thanks,
carve my life into small pieces
like notes on a register,
and blow through a moist reed.
move over the keys
as though I were loosening a zipper,
unhooking a bra,
feeling her skin wrap around me
like a bandage to heal
all that got broke in the fields.
But she is like a porch swing
with a frayed rope,
the weight of the wind
is almost too much.
A bird song
just might be enough
to bring the whole house crashing down.
A sprawling, robust blues poem with outsize metaphors like “when the mosquitoes/were the size of hummingbirds”, and “my fingers/move over the keys/as though I were loosening a zipper.” Natural surroundings (“the trout leaping up to kiss the moon”) receive parallel flourishes in the voice of a saxophonist looking back with bitter harmonies over the now vanished years. Lemondrop Johnson appears grateful for his potent mix of real and unreal memories, and his longings so poignant yet so frail too much melody can bring “the whole house crashing down.” The poem makes music of love in a musician’s life, and conjures up trills of refrains that allow poetry to participate fully in the great musical tradition of the blues. --Lee Slonimsky
written after finally visiting you
at the sanatorium. written
to apologize for not introducing you
to any of my college friends
because of that seldom off stocking cap,
the army coat. written to remind
myself you were my lover, friend.
not written to reprimand you
for your refusal of all help, not taking
medication, never trying not to be
obsessed with germs, gloves, the need
of anything that is cost free. written
in the color of old love. written
in guilt. it won’t let me come again.
An intense poem of self-acknowledgement and regret, of insight one wishes one had had at an earlier time. The poem makes superb use of the details of reminiscence. And in a mere fourteen lines we learn of a youthful love, a bit of a mental illness that ended in a sanitorium. We also learn (partly inferred from the phrase “written/in the color of old love. written/in guilt”) of the fleeting nature and rarity of such love, any love, never handled at the time the way it should have been. --Lee Slonimsky
Wild Poetry Forum
A while back my sister told me
my dad couldn’t dance,
he would hobble around the living room
with a broom trying to foxtrot,
When the leaves of autumn fall
I move the patio chairs inside
not wanting them to get leaf full
and then of course there are the geese.
I couldn’t imagine it, him dancing
with a broom, not the tight-arsed
paragon I remember. She also said
he didn’t believe –just went along with it!
I know that before Thanksgiving
it will snow and the lagoon will freeze,
it always does but sometimes it will
thaw again before Halloween.
All this time I thought he was that person,
rat-catcher for the morality police,
the unassailable Paddy of virtue.
Sometimes it’s hard to know someone.
Last year just before Christmas
I ran across a coyote on the path.
He had tip-toed over the ice
and crawled under the fence.
Perhaps there is room to reconsider,
maybe even see a glimmer.
But I don’t like my memories
shaken— I lose bearing.
I enjoy the predictably of winter days
flattop prairies snow covered.
I could stare out at them forever,
the sameness –distant and comforting.
This original poem, with such diverse refrains, puts forth astute observations on character, stability and nature, inside a lilting musicality that is most entertaining. Details of seasons move from the basic (“not wanting (chairs) to get leaf full/and then of course there are the geese”) through the dramatic (“a coyote…tip-toed over the ice/and crawled under the fence”). Meanwhile the recalled father wobbles in memory from a “tight-arsed/paragon” through “the unassailable Paddy of virtue.” A constancy in nature reassures, even while the wavering of human memory unnerves. --Lee Slonimsky