Winning Poems for February 2021

Judged by Nicole Greaves

First Place

Other People’s Cats

by Mike LaForge
The Waters

I promise not to write about the way she sits on the sofa
in her plaid, mint green pajamas and the fuzzy gray slippers
she bought for herself three short days before Christmas.

No one needs to know, she says, about the skillful way she wraps
her freshly washed Argan Oil of Morocco scented hair in a towel
like the bright yellow turban of an Amritdhari Sikh.

She doesn’t like to be photographed or even looked at
closely after she’s removed her contacts for the night
and put on her wire rimmed glasses to watch those

soothing videos of other people’s cats, the ones
with Bengals, Ragdolls, Tabbies and Savannahs
stretching, climbing, curling up and posing

that she likes to watch before bed. If I photograph
her now, I know she won’t go to sleep until I’ve deleted
the evidence. I struggle to tell her that the photo is for me

to look at, that the sight of her curled up on our old couch
is better, for me, at the end of the day, than cats.
What are you writing about tonight? she wants to know.

Poetry distills. It breaks down moments and relationships into windows of time and sentiment in the way that paintings do. The beauty of poetry is how language plays in that canvas to add texture, to bring us further into the mind’s eye. “Other People’s Cats” conjures Galway Kinnell’s “After We Make Love, We Hear Footsteps” in the way it captures a domestic moment and the complexity of intimacy. While we are one in our togetherness, we are also separate. Like the child in the Kinnell poem and the speaker's own bearishness, the lenses here of photography, cats on tv, the subject’s own glasses layers the setting. These external presences contextualize the internal life of the poem. We have the relationship, then how the speaker sees the beloved through the frame of how she sees herself, while we still learn about the speaker. In the very first line of “Other People’s Cats,” the speaker betrays his love as he endears her to the reader as she sheds the day to be alone with her guilty pleasure of watching cats prance on tv. He “promised” not to write about her, but goes on to write about her intimately, how she treats herself, cleanses, puts on her glasses to become more of herself. As she settles into who she really is, he wants to photograph her, to keep this vision close, but he “struggles” to communicate this, just as she struggles to be vulnerable. She has her secrets she wants to keep, to maintain her own sense of being, to feel protected. In the end, she wants to see what he is writing about, to see if she can truly trust him. We know she cannot, which is at the heart of this poem. Not that he does not love or adore her because that affection itself is revealed in the betrayal, which is part of this poem’s charm. Tercets are also ideal for this poem, breaking that union of two as the lenses do. --Nicole Greaves

Second Place


by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block

I remember beauty mixed
with ugliness. Hollyhocks

growing in cinders in the alley.
The flowers grow hair

like the hairs in an old man’s ear.
A totem of old men’s ears

on a thick stalk, a talisman
of shrunken heads. Beside

a rickety, rotting shed
they loiter like freaks hiding

from sight, from judgmental
stares of people with gardens

of prize-winning roses
and chrysanthemums.

When I was 6 or 7 walking
home from school I stuck

to the alleys. A little fear mixed
with adventure. Hollyhocks

watching over me, listening,
showing me how to hide.

Early in life, we are drawn to the natural world. We turn to it for understanding about our place in the landscape and sense of belonging. Later, this curiosity and wonder is often lost to the social canvas, and nature serves more as an aesthetic backdrop like a mowed lawn, which is unfortunate because nature has so much to teach us. Mary Oliver knew this and persisted in this exploration with simplistic language, undaunted by her critics who thought she lacked sophistication. In Oliver’s reflective quality that stills the self in the world, she meditated on her connection to things, like to a fish in her poem “The Fish,” where the speaker becomes the thing it consumes and shares in the “pain” and “mystery” of being. It possesses that child’s wonderment. The speaker in “Hollyhocks” explores these connections through that memory of childhood by walking through a more urban landscape, an alley, but paying witness to the natural world striving and breaking through “cinders.” The flowers “grow hair” like that of an “old men’s ears,” personifying nature to give presence and conjuring that young imagination. Hollyhocks become “freaks” hiding in sight from people with more curatory gardens “of prize-winning roses / and chrysanthemums,” that stagnancy, lack of life. The speaker then brings us close to the self as a child of six or seven, into that wonderment and sense of “adventure” as a wild creature traveling the alleys. The hollyhocks protect this precocious traveler and teach the speaker “how to hide.” This is like the mystery Oliver closes with in her poem, part darkness in the light, and that sense of being sustained by it. The poem moves beautifully in couplets and the s sounds and moment of alliteration lend a musicality that echoes the spirit of its song. --Nicole Greaves

Third Place

Hobo Stones

by Laurie Byro

Hobo stones began to appear around Granny’s Farm in South Jersey.
They had memories of the men who laid them down to rest, one
on top of each other. Each one carried an intention. Property owners,
fearful of bad luck were not obliged to move them, to scare away their magic.
There were hobo stones.

One, had been bitten by a terrible black dog. For weeks, the stone bled
crimson, for days the stone burned yellow. In cold weather, the stone
ached all over, wishing for a milder winter. The stone beneath
and the stone above worried, wary the dog would again break its tether.
There were hobo stones.

There were stones the wild grasses that surrounded them hissed at.
There were hobo stones that hissed back. There were stones that tumbled
to the ground; there were stones that lost their direction. There were
hobo stones that parted their skirts and danced at the full moon. There
were hobo stones that ran to the next farm and never once looked back.
There were stones that returned home, regretting their frivolous nature.
There were hobo stones.

There were stones that sneaked into the barn and slept in the hay. There
were stones that loved to hear the lowing of the cows. There were stones
that tumbled to the gulley, then found comradery on the next wall.
There were hobo stones that guarded the children in the farm house.
There were stones that begged the beaten children to run away. There
were stones that begged the children to stay.
There were hobo stones.

There were stones that asked the other stones to play. There were stones
that begged the other stones to work. There were stones that danced
In a circle in the moonlight. There were stones that clung to each other
in the steamy summer grass. There were stones that married and moved
to the next town. There were stones that never, ever left the wall.
There were hobo stones.

Granny listened to the stones and their stories. Often, the stones
didn’t listen back, turned a deaf ear to her. As long as she lived in
the old farm house her husband had built for her, stick by stick, there
were these hobo stones. When her children grew up and moved away,
after her husband died, the hobo stones kept her company. She listened
to them while she grew old and died herself. Then they stopped talking.
Out of respect for her, they hurled their voices into the earth. But In 1915,
there may have been a million hobos and they needed to keep moving.
There were hobo stones.

Cataloguing in poetry roots the work like roots anchor a tree trunk. From here, the poet elaborates and reaches out toward new and surprising directions, but the reader has that constant foundation to reach back to, that grounding that allows us to accept the imagination in juxtaposition. It is ancient in origin and out of the oral tradition when repetition supported memory so that stories and costumes could be passed down. You can find cataloguing in the Bible and in Homer. In America, Whitman used cataloguing to conjure the connections between the self and all things, or the magnificence of the universe. There is a stream that moves or leaps as connections are made and the reader moves back and forth from the finite to the infinite. In Whitman, reading is active, like watching a sporting event. He wanted us to move with him, walking, swimming, seeing things panoramically. In “Hobo Stones,” the lives of these stones and the people they personify are catalogued and give us a sense of movement through time in that repetition of “There were hobo stones.” The images leap as the poem builds. Stones “hissed back” and “parted their skirts and danced at the full moon.” There were runaway stones and ones that returned home like after a Rumspringa, but whether they stayed or left, they always possessed a hunger. In the last stanza, we return to the “Granny,” on whose farm the stones started to appear, or were noticed. While her children moved away, the stones or her children’s spirits remained, or that is a possible sentiment. In the end, when Granny dies, the stones were silenced and moved on, evoking that reverence for our ancestors and the mysteries that are lost with them but are carried with us as myth. --Nicole Greaves