Winning Poems for December 2021

Judged by Terence Culleton

First Place

My Sister And I Decide To Surreptitiously Scatter Our Mother’s Ashes In The Hudson River

by Christine Potter
The Waters

She was supposed to be planted in my yard: a tree.
A kind woman undertaker sold us the bamboo urn
that would dissolve under its root ball. It would

break down, she explained. Break down is what
my mother never did. She liked bamboo, though—
had bamboo shades on the sun porch windows

before any other moms on our block, even when her
own mother tried to convince us Japanese people
could see through them and it was all a plot. That’s

just ridiculous, Mom said, and it was and I think of it
whenever I pass her ashes in the bamboo urn beside
our turntable and records. She’d like the music but

she loved the Hudson, where it is not exactly legal
to scatter her ashes. She seldom spoke of my
father after he died. Or her parents. But the River,

the long, curvy horn solo of it, the constant hustle
of its two-way tides—all colors, all—that was her
kiss from God each day. Even on rainy four o’clocks

when it all looked like dull, wet fur and the lights
on the Tappan Zee Bridge where just beginning
to blur the mist. I’d have to go home then, try not

to get caught in the evening rush. Mom hated
that, hated goodbye. I’m sure she never wanted
to rest in peace. She didn’t like to rest much at all.

She was a commuter: midtown and back every
day. Like the Hudson. She got away with backing
into a cop car, backed down my fifth grade principal

when I was wrongly accused of plagiarism. My
mother is not a handful of branches straining for
the sun. She’s a three hundred mile long party,

people dancing all night on boats, silvery train
cars bound for Chicago. She needs to be what she
loved to see: The River raising its glass to the sky.

Walt Whitman would have loved this wide and embracing poem, the way it brings about a true confluence of elements, from the tidal flow of the voice, to the imagery accruing around the river itself, to the mother the poem celebrates, her spirit far too expansive to be buried in a bamboo urn under a tree somewhere. The chattiness of the voice is deceptive, seemingly desultory, rambling, even, but instinct with a canny awareness of the significance of every element it treats of. The overall effect is pleasingly discursive and accessible, loose-tongued, even. At the same time, the stanzas are tightly crafted and the whole piece, as it turns out, knows exactly where it’s going. Just as the mother’s ashes will enter into the river’s timeless flow, both mother and daughter are incorporated metaphorically into the flow of time itself as embodied in place. --Terence Culleton

Second Place

my father

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block

i remember him
so pitiful
his heart would go crazy
and whole oak tables
would shake in his grip

and i wondered
what force
drove the small wheel
of this man’s being
i wanted it all to stop

his very heart
to stop
because the shaking
wouldn’t stop
until he stopped

because everything he held
shook fiercely
and i thought there was nothing
he held more tightly
than me

Frost said poems are about griefs, not grievances, and this poem, though to a degree accusatory, rises out of the narrow channels of binary thinking to understand the richness of every human relationship, no matter how fraught (and inevitably so) with error, even abuse. All of this is achieved by the deployment of that simple but multi-dimensional verb, “held,” which in context connotes both affectionate embrace and coercion. The poem understands that the father not only inflicted himself, his “crazy”ness, on others, but also into them, and since “there was nothing/ he held more tightly/than me,” the poet’s ominous desire for the father’s “very heart” to stop stemmed as much from an instinct for self-preservation—literal, but also moral—as from anything else. To embody such a multi-valenced understanding of such a painful relationship in so few words is remarkable. --Terence Culleton

Third Place

For God and Country

by Kenneth Ashworth
The Writer's Block

Now I see my father at fifteen,
gangly in T-shirt and khakis.
On the back stoop is a galvanized
bucket of crushed Camels.

Four years later, he will join the Army
the Monday after Pearl Harbor.
They made him a ball turret gunner,
twin fifties, floor full of hot brass.

He speaks to me with string
and two tin cans. “Tell them I
did my duty,” he buzzes, “I did not
mean to bring the war home.”

I watched him live long enough
to lose his mind. In the burnished
glaze of spit-shine and boot-black,
you can almost see your reflection.

The turn at the end of this poem speaks of an inheritance. The father’s history, perhaps, is his own, but what it did to him serves as a kind of omen. “In the burnished/glaze of spit-shine and boot black,” the poet worries, “you can almost see your reflection.” Thus, the poem toggles between innocence and knowledge, as the father’s youthfully confident first-stanza presentation yields to the second stanza’s grim eventualities, then to the third stanza’s revelation, which comes to us in a voice imagined in boyish terms (“string/and two tin cans”) by the remembering poet—who, in the fourth stanza, knows too well not to be fooled by nostalgia or imagine that he or she is protected by it. This is a very complex look at a life—at once the father’s and the poet’s. --Terence Culleton

Honorable Mention

Coming to My Senses One Breath at a Time

by Carol Saba

Oh, Teacher,
you say
“Practice mindfulness on the morning path.”

My way is not your way.
“Sunny or rainy,
dry or wet.” That part I get.

My morning journey though
is not on foot along your same dirt path–
I drive a concrete highway.
I find no wild grasses or rice plants
on both sides to quiet me.
I see instead a Trader Joe’s
and an Audi dealership as I pass by
at forty miles per hour.

Each red light gives me pause
enough to think
Can I tune in?

And so I turn again to breathe
in the midst of the wondrous miracle.

Honorable Mention

My mother

by Terry Ofner
The Waters

is what’s left of October,
the damp part. She takes me in it
to the overgrown orchard
to see the bird.

We dress in dun shades.
Walk standing still.
Wet wood. Weeds.
Color is on the inside

folded in mist or a wing.
It’s time to hunker or vacate.
The shape of hush.
Nothing sings.

An ocean of air above us.
She moves through, parting the way.

Honorable Mention

Vietnam Memorial

by Bob Bradshaw
The Writer's Block

I never knew Tommy,
my older brother. He was a name
Mom teared up over.

Mom said he was in heaven
looking down on us.
I had an image in my head

of heaven as a bridge
over a pond—
a bridge where Tommy sat,

gazing down at us
all dressed up on Sundays
with our faces bright, like koi.

Today Sis went with us
to meet Tommy. Her dress a pastel blue
like her favorite fish, the ochiba.

Ochiba is Japanese
for “leaves that have fallen”.
We searched for Tommy’s name

on that long black stream
of a wall. When Dad found it
he crumbled to his knees.

Mom, sobbing, left flowers
and a handwritten note
on the ground.

Our reflections
hovering together like koi
in the gleaming blackness,

we turned and drifted away,
Sis waving back.
The sky was filled

with cumulus, the clouds
like crumpled tissues being blown
about at the wall’s