Winning Poems for May 2016
Judged by Joan Colby
The Writer's Block
Five figures, from three generations. Of the three females
a girl sits, her back towards the artist. Two small windows
display the darkness of evening.
Eight rafters run from front to back. The ouders sit on high-backed
chairs with raffia woven seats. Oma schenkt koffie in, Opa holds
out his cup over a table worn rough at the edges.
A lamp shines on vapour rising from a bowl of aardappelen.
They scoop the meal from a common bowl towards them
with reversed spoons. Mevrouw stares past her man,
an arbeider wearing a cap; wide eyed she wonders why.
Their hands presented as lumpy, an accent on the joints,
faces and noses scribed with a bulbous characterisation.
Two luxuries are evident: light and coffee. Such poverty:
no piano, no colour, no caged bird to sing, no literature to
enthral, no Bible to comfort, no paintings on the wall.
The artist has rendered to the core, he has left out: dried herbs and
ham hocks hanging from the ceiling. The family pose awkwardly for
their pastor. He captures their rough-spun clothes. We presume
their linen clean, washed smelling of lye. In his latter days he paints
with primary colours and abandon, with whirls and daring strokes
before the entrance of those crows that cross his wheatfield sky.
A finely-wrought ekphrastic poem that is also a telling commentary on Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist. The poem is wonderfully observant of what is in the painting and what is not. Precise observation evokes all the senses: the smell of lye, the bird that doesn’t sing because he doesn’t exist, the vapour rising from a bowl of aardappeien, the raffia woven chair seats, rough-spun clothes, the eight rafters, the missing Bible. --Joan Colby
It’s fish-bone frail from up here, half-dissolved on the
horizon. The brown Hudson pulses with wind, and I
consider the usual portents of our destruction. Always,
the bullseye centers on Times Square. Firestorms or gas
or radiation orbits in tight and tighter rings of deepening
dread. Asteroids, terrorists, plagues: we direct them all
here to illustrate the legions dead, and who might survive.
On northbound trains in high school, I breathed slower
with each station behind me. But how to lose the cut crystal
of those streets at night, the electric glitter caught in sour
black puddles and dark office windows? How to forget
the seventeenth century silversmith with my father’s name?
After 9/11, we drove to western Massachusetts, but I couldn’t
sleep in the loneliness there. The whole world had been lost
somewhere outside those lovely little towns; some great
light was gone. Manhattan’s mute at this distance, but
the sun it shares with me is ancient, Dutch, seafaring. I
hear my own heart beat in its silence: home, home, home.
A strong poem with imaginative descriptions “the cut crystal of those streets at night”, “sour black puddles”. The poem in focusing on the post 9/11 scene evokes dread, heritage and the refuge of “home, home, home.” There is a haunting emotional component to this poem that resonates with the reader. --Joan Colby
I once swam in the Atlantic and the Pacific inside
a week the space between meetings and sales talks
the desolate beach landing of American business
and all I can think of now is that picture
of you on that yacht with your sister
and wonder about the last time I saw
you which I had no idea would be the last
and I remember a time I was maybe
four and you were sick and the men came
and put you on the stretcher with wheels
and you laughed and said “wee” like it was
a ride which it was and you waved at me
with that smile which was part secret
smile for yourself and part smile for me
and you were home again and lived many
long years but I still don’t remember the last
time I saw you you were there and I was there and
I keep seeing you in the ’41 Chevy so sandblasted
it looked white but it was black at heart you thought
you might outlive us but for the aneurysm you might have
probably Chagas disease you picked up in Panama
but nobody knew about that back then and you
went by in your Chevy with that little wave part
of which was for me not the me now but the me
I was as a boy or the isthmus me stuck and I never
did get to live on the ocean always just about as far
away as we could get and you the daughter of a
sailor and me growing up in the midlands
land ocean it’s all ocean and you passed us
in your sleep driving that old ’41 waving
like you would be back soon as if off
to visit your sister who you lost
track of back in ’36 and I think that
is what you did but you never came back
the ocean after all is a lonely place despite
all the commotion and noise which stands
to reason how we make up a life get busy
so as not to dwell too much on those familiar
things that get lost along the way your body
your ocean sister mother so busy
so busy moving in and out in
and out and you leaving in your sleep
in the ’41 thing with wheels
the little laugh that wave
The originality of the device of one long extended run-on sentence hauls the memory of a mother and child in an iconic “’41 Chevy’ to the emotive conclusion “the little laugh that wave.” The writer breaks all the rules about grammar and punctuation and makes it drive the poem. --Joan Colby
A legacy of laughter, mother said.
He’s drowsy now, and Uncle Jimmy’s there,
to keep a brother’s vigil by the bed.
The doctor’s been again, so have a care;
he might not say much yet, but he will know
you’re in the room. He’s utterly aware.
I sifted through a thousand mellow notes
of melancholy, as my father stirred
to the sound of my subdued voice and spoke,
That you, my bonny lad; your face is rather blurred?
I’m loaded up with drugs; the Lakes road quiet, son?
I’m very pleased you’ve come.
A pyjama shirt conceals his beggared cage;
the idle watch strap cradles its dial
on the bedside table. Mantles of cloth,
creased and limp, hang loosely
from shoulder heights and fall
over the meagre girdle
of hip wings. It plays host in a lost
paradise, creeps like molten sills and dykes
to form intrusions of pitiless cells. Kingdom
usurper, builder of basalt thrones, ignores
the pleas of neighbours and messengers.
Plasma systems, thirsty and weak,
labour under the clef of Morpheus.
A faint riff of mucus persists
and as his organs chant their final canticle,
blood thickens, arterial flows mutate
into inertia’s anaerobic ointment,
where they beat a march to Hypoxia’s Wurlitzer,
leaving clusters to drop their pincers and wither.
Excellent imagery reveals the difficult narrative of the process of loss. A classic rhyme scheme comprises Section I while Sections II and III bury rhyme within stark observatories. --Joan Colby
Flowering chestnut trees foam
with blossoms, the heavy sighs
of the sea pouring through the branches
as we lean against our spades.
When an SS officer glances
in our direction
we furiously pick
at dusty scabs where potatoes
are to be planted.
We break for dinner,
soup so thin it could have been ladled
from a rain barrel.
At dusk we shuffle back to camp,
past the station with its piles
of luggage, purses, furs…
Every day is the same, Albina,
but at night I dream of you,
and in the morning it helps to know
you’re alive, working in the fields.
Your shaved head beading
with sweat, I pray you can steal
time in the shade of these chestnuts
–like school girls on holiday,
sporting white flowers
in their hair.
Expertly written reflection on how beauty can survive in the human heart despite the worst circumstances. --Joan Colby
He chittered, body out of burrow,
waiting a hundred feet away,
fenced in a fallow field.
I took the worst arrow from my
quiver. Nock nearly gone, chanced it
to string, drew and aimed straight up.
The errant shaft obeyed God’s
ballistic equations as it bore to
earth in a parabolic arc.
He stared blankly at the steel tipped
twig planted deeply beside him,
wonder in his woodchuck eyes.
About his lair, fletched beauty,
a forest of arrows, life’s close calls.
A fine use of language “ballistic equations” “fletched beauty” with a nicely ironic ending. --Joan Colby