Winning Poems for May 2021

Judged by Sarah Carleton

First Place

Sparrows, Starlings

by Christine Potter
The Waters

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them
is forgotten before God. —Luke 12:6

Consider the tiny hard-eyed birds in the skylight of the shopping mall,
shoe-leather brown, fat on french fries, the cast-off bits of hot dogs, sodden
ends of ice cream cones, and mean as a sore knee—or the ones dining

outdoors with you, bullying their way into croissants and spilled lattes. One
lights on the table two feet from your shopping bag and turns its head right
and then left, puffing its feathers: Give me. A house sparrow, its species now

in decline in its native England. Supposedly loosed in Central Park in the
nineteenth century by Eugene Schieffelin, who may or may not have been
trying to seed America with every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. Bees

hum in the garbage can beside the only other unoccupied seat. Best to
carry your coffee to the car and drive home, where starlings the color of
oil puddles and stippled at the neck by metallic rainbows shovel seed from

your feeders onto the ground. Descendants of another flock brought here by
the same man, but handsome, sleek as new-sharpened pencils. Nest-robbers,
though. And neither breed protected by U.S. law against human cruelty, not

like other wild birds. Common. Aggressive. Destructive. Weed-creatures.
And yet if you had never before seen wings work you’d forgive them for
being here with the rest of us, the result of our good intentions and folly. As

if they need forgiveness. Great numbers of starlings fly sometimes in the
shapes of wings or even of whole birds: undulating murmurations; dark,
shimmering clouds—like songs you can see. The way prayers look to God.

“Sparrows, Starlings” jumped out at me immediately, and on each rereading, it only got better. The poem teems with life in all its random and ordinary beauty, and the poet does a great job of using sounds to tie it together. Images flit and land throughout the poem, with bits of history tucked in like ribbon in a bird's nest. The metaphors are fresh and startling and spot-on—"starlings the color of / oil puddles and stippled at the neck by metallic rainbows," "sleek as new-sharpened pencils," and of course, that zinger of a last line, "dark, / shimmering clouds—like songs you can see. The way prayers look to God.” So good. --Sarah Carleton

Second Place

American Night

by James Thomas Fletcher
The Waters

The electricity disappears and I know
this is no mere flicker so I go outside
to sit in that rare darkness when all lights,
inside and out in the world are dead.

There in the chilly deep rain I watch
the absence of light. I would say blackness
but it’s not. Even the clouds seem somehow lit
like what French filmmakers call American night.

The rain sounds like echoes inside tin cans
until the elephant-low rumble of thunder begins,
ending in splinters of sound that raise
the staccato voices of dogs in the distance.

Thunder moves slowly in stereo from the far
east to the edge of the western horizon.
I hear voices drift through the night knowing
that’s not possible. My feet are damp and cold.

From a house across the lake a lone pinprick
of light. A single candle almost undetectable
becomes a focal point. Later within another
a ghostly light traverses one window then another

like will-o’-the-wisp. At times spotlights arch
through the trees like a spinning zoetrope
as someone returns home to an uninviting house.
What may be a raccoon slinks through the bushes.

The air is fresh. It smells like nothing
—simply fresh. Clean. Then lightning takes
a negative of the scene for too short a time
to focus before all is lost again to grayness.

The night is silent between booms. I enjoy
the solitude amid the silence of the natural.
Somewhere above, meteors sizzle through the sky.
The moon shines bright above the clouds.

And I, alone, direct the night.

“American Night" is wonderfully filmic. The singular quality of blackout darkness in a storm is so well described that I feel like I'm sitting out there, too, watching it roll by. The poet expertly compresses language and imagery within a narrative structure, yet the poem has a timeless, unhurried feel. Reading it, I can hear the slow rise of thunder, see the bits of light from candles and spotlights, and feel that goose-bump sense of being alone in the company of the universe. --Sarah Carleton

Third Place

Town Square

by Ken Ashworth
The Writer's Block

On the courthouse lawn, old grey men
pass a bottle they hide in the mouth
of a cannon dragged from the field
of some long forgotten skirmish.

They swig and swap lies about wars
and women lost, sons whose names
it is now hard to remember, forget
for a time their pain and loss, until

they snooze on benches beneath
chestnut oaks that themselves were
once young, but now missing limbs,
holes cement-filled, whitewashed.

On windy days, the metal lanyard
of the chain-fall striking the
flagpole sounds like a church bell
calling home the lost and the broken.

I've been through a lot of towns with memorials and benches, and “Town Square” perfectly captures the unsettling feeling of those locations. Starting with "old grey men" pulling a bottle from the mouth of a cannon and ending with the flagpole "like a church bell / calling home the lost and broken," the poet paints a scene of a lonely place where memories have been whitewashed and damage patched but the pain still lingers. A powerful and haunting poem. --Sarah Carleton