Winning Poems for October 2020

Judged by Jim McGarrah

First Place

Last Bus to Reno

by RC James

Waitin’ on the last bus to Reno
out here in these long rusty hills
ponies run wild as ghost-shirt Lakotas.
There’s a stillness out here, alone
the moon is restless in its own vacant lot
there’s just nowhere for it to go
it’s lookin’ for me to give up all I know
but there ain’t even room enough for what I forgot.

Lakota ponies race over the ridge
with no riders, faster than memories
come calling, swifter than a lance
to my heart with all our old stories.

I remember, then I try not to remember
everything and everywhere the two of us sang,
you on the hood of that ’41 Ford coupe,
I thought if it was the last ride, I’d go.
Why you had to be so beautiful, why
I never made room for your dreams,
questions come down with the whole sky,
I just can’t tell exactly what it means.

Maybe in Reno, my buddy keeps tellin’ me,
maybe there you’ll hit the right combination
streets empty parking lots and the night
don’t seem too friendly or full of promise
to help set it right.

Lakota ponies race over the ridge
with no riders, faster than memories
of all our old stories.

I really enjoyed this poem for its ambition and its imagery. It is working on several different levels with the literal images connecting with figurative ones to create a poetic resonance, or thematic echoing that makes this work greater than the sum of its parts, which is what we all want, or should. Lakota ponies – memories, both race fast in our vision and in our minds and both are riderless without control. A lance to the heart causes death and the next stanza provides an image of emotional, not physical death. Maybe chance will resurrect that emotional death, like a gambling game might resurrect the narrator’s fortunes, but the odds are against hitting the right combination and so, we return to disappearing ponies and memories. One could argue that there is a mixing of metaphors here, but it doesn’t distract me from the thematic or vertical content enough to be problematic because, though different, they all connect ultimately to a leitmotif of loss and regret. --Jim McGarrah

Second Place

In the OR

by Mary MacGowan
The Waters

First they tried a spinal block.
Or was it the epidural? Two
were needed after one failed,
that much I have straight.
Five male doctors surrounded
me on the table. I was to remain
sitting up, waiting to feel nothing.
It wasn’t working, but we were
waiting to see. When I tilted
forward to rest my head
on one of their shoulders,
they chuckled gently
like a bunch of grandpas.
That shoulder had no needs,
asked nothing of me, offered
only support. His hand patted
my back. No man before
or since has held me so well.

A good poem will normally have a turning point during which the poet discovers what the poem is really about and in so doing, allows the reader to learn something or feel something as well. This poem provides a good example of that as the context begins seemingly about the numbing of physical pain in a hospital operating room and how difficult some pain is to numb. Soon and especially with the allusion to “male” doctors specifically, the text turns into an emotional reflection by a narrator that has been used in a relationship, perhaps by a male, that caused a lot of pain. Suddenly, there is a sense of comfort, like the spinal block should offer physically, by the simple gesture of kindness and empathy of a male shoulder, a male who has no agenda other than to bring that comfort. The poem ends with the realization that no intimate relationship has ever provided that same level of trust or security. Does that mean one is not possible? We are left here with several different options and that means the reader will walk away with some interesting things to consider. --Jim McGarrah

Third Place

An Ancient Temple on a Leaf

by Don Schaeffer
The Waters

Not a painting
but the patterns of things
etched into the walls.
The wall in my
grandmother’s Bronx home
was made like that.
Who knows how old
were those walls. And
the backs of my eyes
are like that sometimes,
illuminated with stray sunlight
making virtual shadows
and glistening when
I dream. And here they are
cut into the surface of the leaf
under my flashlight aimed
like the sun. Ancient palaces
in faraway places
as intimately mine as this
lens, as my eyes, and memories,
and dreams.

Robert Bly wrote a seminal treatise on a subject he labeled “Leaping Poetry” in which he posits that works of art, including poems, make leaps within themselves if they are truly art. “A poet who is leaping makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” The best poems are always the ones with the richest associations between the conscious and the unconscious mind, but any poem that is worthy of the term art will contain some of these leaps. “An Ancient Temple on a Leaf” attempts those associations well enough that we sense an act of discovery taking place within the author and therefore, are able to make those distinctions through the images presented, we are able to find new areas of reflection as readers. It helps the poem maintain a universal connection through specificity, an important point in the all-important balance between clarity and obscurity, between emotion and intellectual competence. --Jim McGarrah

Honorable Mention

Opportunities Slipped

by Alan Jackson
The Write Idea

Albondigas and
patatas bravas for tea
all that’s missing
is the heat of your
slow and secret smile
and the spice of the
laughter in your eyes

The poem works as a lyric of absence and longing. Also, it says a lot with very few words, which makes the inference that much more powerful. The foods mentioned are well known comfort foods in Spanish cuisine. Knowing that generates emotional power to the other five lines. It brought up a memory for me of William Carlos Williams’ famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” and that is a compliment, not a complaint. His maxim – “No ideas but in things ” – or basically, that to speak about ideas, emotions, and abstractions, we must ground them firmly in the things of the world is at play in this poem “Opportunities Slipped” and increases its value as art. --Jim McGarrah

Honorable Mention

September Heat

by Andrew Dufresne
Wild Poetry Forum

I woke last night, pebbled in sweat,
a shredded dream hung
casually off a shoulder.
A bobcat’s thought: no longer young,
not old, the feel of life, yet
not life, life becoming older.

This September, warmer than before,
is based on statistics, to keep,
to have something to say, win a bet.
I’ve lost a leopard’s share of sleep
to heat, the power of regret.
Mostly to years, not having more.

The dream wilts, then returns to me
restored, speaks in stutters,
it is a curtain and it flutters
inside a wooden window frame
through which I peer desperately,
tagged with a badger’s name.

The heat, as winter quick descends,
tosses me into a civet’s dread.
I dream to keep, as this September ends,
all Septembers presently and past,
think: The cold speaks to the dead.
A warm September holds me fast.

Well done. This poem speaks to several different concepts and ideas regarding mortality, regret for things not done and the passing of time spent worrying about feeling regret, also the inability to affect time. The rhythm of the lines and the end rhymes have a subtle effect on how the poem makes a reader feel without being obtrusive. It’s a good example of the old Ezra Pound advice that form should follow substance, not replace it. The examples of different animals is interesting and works as a nuanced reminder that even animals feel a simplistic version of mortality and time. --Jim McGarrah