Winning Poems for October 2017

Judged by Michael Larrain

First Place

The Day of a Girl

by John Riley
The Waters

A few miles from here in a town marked by this shallow river
men stopped working the forges decades before I came to sit
on the riverbank and wonder how many summers
the water must lick the stones to turn them to powder.
Before tomorrow comes undone I’ll walk in the morning heat
beneath the slanted sun
not once wishing it was a full winter moon
ending the day of a girl
who will soon be attached to a man who plunges
freshly shaped iron into water
gone dead beneath dead rainbows.
Her hands are red from scrubbing the lives of others.
It is the end of a thought that matters she was told
and because there is nothing unceasing
she cares to know
she works on.
Tomorrow I will not wish that before the end of my walk
I could go to the laboring girl
and tell her what we both know is untrue,
of how her life and mine carry on them
the weight of two. So much in such lies
is there to make them true enough
to keep the forges burning
beside the river that flows
without concern for now and now.

This piece is altogether superb, and can be read both as a poem and a story. So much has been learned about narrative and construction by the author that he/she is able to move us along with that river, yet we never want to leave the town. It is beautifully entered, it is entirely its own, but reverberates with echoes of other writers, masters who preceded it. Look at how much information (and feeling that runs tributary to it) is given to the reader in the first four lines, a wonderful long sentence that ends just as it should. The differing lengths and musicality of the lines bespeak a poet who owns the gifts of rhythmic sureness, equipoise and access to deep sorrow. There is a life and a world here, an infinitely expandable moment. The word haunting is overused in reviews and criticism, so let me just say that I feel I will dream this poem again and again, forgetting each time that I’ve dreamt it. It was an honor to have read The Day of a Girl. --Michael Larrain

Second Place

Night Thoughts of a Mottled Songbird

by Kenny A. Chaffin
Wild Poetry Forum

Dark as the inside of a dog’s stomach
and brain going a hundred miles an hour
Why can I never sleep no wonder
my songs suffer. I keep slipping off this
branch, that don’t help and I can’t help
thinking that maybe this is all just a dream
Maybe nothing is real, Maybe some kind of trick
Maybe everything I think, everything I see, every song
I hear or think I hear is really just in my own head.

Maybe nothing is real…
Maybe I’m a brain in a vat
or a computer program
or just a fragment
of underdone potato
but, but, but, but, I am
therefore I think.

I think of seeds,
will there be seeds tomorrow
will the sun rise as it always does
will there be rain will I fly
through the air
tree to tree
twittering my song
hearing friends’ songs
or will they
be in my head
in the vat, in the lab
in the computer

Or is it real

I must stop
must sleep
must sing
stop the
monkey mind
and rest

Why do I keep slipping
off this branch, did some
fool pig-grease it, should
move to another branch
or is the grease on my feet
or in my mind
Will I slip from that
branch too

How can I sleep
How can I rest
slipping like this
Why me – is it because
I’m mottled – is it
my brain – is it me —
is it everyone could it
be the theory of bird mind
or just pig-grease inside a
black dog’s stomach vat

God of Birds!
Let me sleep
Let me rest
Let me sing

This is very clever. So many of us are plagued with sleep deprivation, yet who but the author of this piece has (perhaps while suffering his/her own bout of insomnia) bothered to wonder if other creatures lie or sit awake all night, puzzling over their own dilemmas and conundrums, slipping off their perches until dawn. Reading this, I could see the bird tilting his head one way and the other, puzzling over how it is with him. It’s so fully informed with humor that it almost becomes a vaudeville routine, or one of those old Heckle and Jeckyl cartoons about the two interminably squabbling magpies tapping off cigar ash and speaking out of the sides of their beaks. Except now both magpies are inside one bird’s head, making him tilt one way and then another in a dialogue worthy of Sam Beckett. These are matters of considerable personal importance to me, since I suffer from both obstructive sleep apneas and late-onset narcolepsy (surely the most surreal of afflictions), but they are of general importance as well. If songs and dreams emanate from the same place, as well they might, how are we to arrive at the former without access to the latter? This poem deserves to have its own Saturday morning kid's show. --Michael Larrain

Third Place

The Art of Not Being Descartes

by Guy Kettelhack
Wild Poetry Forum

“What is all this?” must surely be a candidate
for the iniquitous ubiquitous first question
asked by sentient beings everywhere; well,
asked by those at least who dare to cleave
to their galactic versions of Cartesian reason:

you think therefore you are. From that self-serving
point of view, who else but you could be the star?
A star exploding into untoward elements which cool
on spinning orbs to sod: can Word be lurking far
behind, all ready to be Flesh, Body of the Letter?
How more neatly to suggest that thought is God?

(Harold Bloom says add the Odd and you have
something better: genius.) God is Phileas Fogg,
finding, naming, blaming worlds. Existence
is a language test. But you and I will shock the rest:
we’ll dock them in our pockets of resistance.

Like nests availing birds, we rest on other
than another’s words. I am the place you live.
You are the thing that lives there. What undergirds
this into grace? What theory does God have waiting
for us to remind us of our place? We don’t care.
You are where I live. I am who lives there.

How very unusual to find a poem rich with actual intellectual curiosity, but not in the least pedantic, off-putting or even boring. Iniquitous Ubiquitous should be a character in a movie based on an obscure children’s book. Apart from my personal detestation of semi-colons (probably the result of reading Henry James), I found it great fun. The author’s questions are good questions, and it helps that they are playfully posed. This is why many of us got into what Dashiell Hammett once referred to as the “literary grift” in the first place: to be able to think. To see where your mind will take you once distractions have been set aside. It made me want to take up café living, to sit all day at a table on the Rue de Something or Other in the heart of the 21st Arrondissement (the one that exists only in the Paris to be found only in our minds), sipping an aperitif—well, make that a vodka martini—and pondering such matters, our minds wandering through the galaxy while our bodies remain resolutely still. --Michael Larrain