Winning Poems for January 2021

Judged by Nicole Greaves

First Place

Winter Flower

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Waters

December sunset, all-day grey turns
faded pink at the edges like a washed-
out peony drooping, barely above ground.

So early, as if day is pruned before it
blooms. Night reigns for a few months.
Days wander between dark and half-

light. Ambivalent, I lie late in bed like a
dead flower pressed in a book. If there’s
a winter flower, it’s the moon—white,

burning in the cold, dark brew of sky
like an iceberg floating in a crystal
bowl of stars, the sun’s dormant self.

In “Winter Flower,” the poet captures the dichotomy of winter, the quality of stasis in juxtaposition to the life it hibernates. From the first lines, it locks the reader in that space through syntax and imagery. The reader knows immediately it is “December,” but the color, even if faint, edges in, permeating like light under a door. The rhyme and single-syllables in “all-day grey turns” eyes us into the needle of time with its ticking, a heartbeat flushed into the “peony” that appears just above the surface. We move back and forth in the poem's tercets, in this tension. In the second stanza, the fragmentation of “So early, as if the day is pruned before it / blooms,” quickly turns to night. In the third stanza, the “I” appears as a “dead flower pressed in a book” like a memory, which reinforces that state of winter. Then there is a marvelous leap of the moon becoming a “flower,” stone turning to life, the “eye” or “I” itself burning in perhaps the poem's best image: “dark brew of sky.” The domestic quality throughout the poem awakens in the last stanza, with this “dark brew” and contrasting “crystal bowl of stars.” The poem conjures Plath’s poem “Wintering,” where Plath putters about in this dichotomy of winter, its isolation. In Plath’s poem, we have the “honey” and persistent “bees,” and here we have the “sun” and the “flowers,” and in both the “I” keeping spring intact. In "Winter Flower," the sun returns, still “dormant,” but returns through its utterance in the last line, like the bees tasting spring in “Wintering.” There is life yet. --Nicole Greaves

Second Place

Live Nativity

by Ken Ashworth
The Waters

The babe is backlit by a 20 watt
bulb in his head signifying holiness,

tethered by the old umbilicus
of a fifty foot yellow drop cord.

The shepherds huddle, stamp their feet
against the cold, pass cigars

the way men do as if they were
the ones sixteen hours in labor.

Mary could use a drink about now.
Her upstretched arms beckon

mildly to oncoming traffic with
an overpowering urge to go pee.

One of the most fantastical aspects of poetry and one sometimes overlooked is humor, especially humor that humbles us. We see this a lot in Charles Simic’s work, a kind of absurdity that we find in everyday life that both engages us with an incredulous gasp, makes us laugh, and reminds us of our limits. We are ordinary. We are biological. We are full of vices. We hunger for immortality. “Live Nativity” is a magical little poem that captures all these things. The poet consciously addresses the audience in this absurdity, the “babe” illuminated by a weak bulb “signifying holiness.” The word “signifying” reinforces the artifice here. It’s as if the speaker is talking to us, saying, “Get it?!” Then there is the image of the baby tied to an “old umbilicus,” a “drop cord,” which in this poor makeshift manger humbles and shames us for trying to recreate such a moment as it also reinforces abandonment of this Christ child, who represents all neglected children in our modern world. Shepherds “huddle” like feral cats and try to keep warm. They “pass” around “cigars / the way men do as if they were” the ones having the baby, which humanizes them so distinctly and humbles them. We then see the “Mary” who’s playing the part, who “could use a drink by now,” after having spent so long frozen in the cold. When her need to “pee” comes on the reader can feel it, that need that comes because the cold makes us more conscious of our biology. Our needs possess us no matter how much we try to transcend them. But we never give up. Mary keeps her graces by “mildly” stopping traffic. This little poem just does so much. --Nicole Greaves

Third Place

Hitchhiking Through the Wilderness

by Midnight Moon
Wild Poetry Forum

I slept alone in the desert
the sands & the dry wind washed my dreams
I woke up & found an armadillo nearby
Later, in a thrift store, I found an armadillo bead

I kept it in my carved, wooden box
I said, Someday, I’ll make a necklace with it
You, my Father, drove me to the mouth of the arroyo
You felt guilty, you said it was almost a criminal offense

To leave me alone there
But because I’m not a baby I travelled unhurt
until a vaquero warned me
it’s too dangerous, It’s time to turn back.

This poem is about my Mother
and how she didn’t see me for the last 30 years
of her life. How crazy they were &
how I vowed to never see them again

But when I tried to any way, they said no.
That’s OK, I said. Traveling with a Quebecoise,
at the music festival, she translated a song
I have no mother or father, the sun is my Father, my Mother is the sky

Often, poems are testimonies or declarations about our journey through life. These poems bear witness to help transform our individual, generational, or collective suffering. They work to decipher truth in our memories and find in ourselves what is sacred. “Hitchhiking Through the Wilderness” is a traveling poem of such witness and self-discovery. In the beginning, the speaker is alone in the “desert,” rising out of dusty “dreams.” The “I,” however, is not alone for long. An “armadillo” is close, who comes with its strength, shield and quickly becomes a “bead” to keep, protected in a “wooden box” for the right time to wear as a talisman. The poem then dives into its heart, to the parents. First, the father who leaves the speaker alone to brave the elements. Luckily, a “vaquero” is there to warn the traveler to “turn back.” Here, the speaker confronts a mother’s abandonment of the last “30 years” and revisits how he “vowed” to stay away. The heart, however, tries to visit but is rejected again. The speaker responds with the very pedestrian, “That’s OK,” as if saying, “I’m ok.” Then he finds another traveler, a “Quebecoise,” who, in translation, connects him to nature in that mythical way, which speaks to our very human quest to find belonging. There is, also, an underlying sense of the political here, movement and word origins that conjure up colonization, propel us to think about how we must break from what has made and governs us to find our own identity in something purer, more fundamental. Kunitz, a master of the parent poem, noted: “My problem was not whether to acknowledge my losses and frustrations but how to transform them from a destructive experience into a creative one.” Here, the poet has done just that. --Nicole Greaves