Winning Poems for March 2022

Judged by Terence Culleton

First Place

September Heat

by Andrew Dufresne
Wild Poetry Forum

I woke one night pebbled in sweat,
a dream in shreds hung
unremembered off a shoulder,
the crushing thought: no longer young,
not old, the feel of zero, yet
not zero, but zero getting older.

September was warmer than before,
based on statistics they keep
to have something to say, win a bet.
I’ve lost many shares of sleep
to heat, some to regret,
but most to fears, and keeping score.

Now that dream comes back to me
restored, it speaks in stutters.
It is a curtain and it flutters
inside a wooden window frame
through which I peer uncertainly
to see more of the same.

The heat before winter descends
tosses us into a sleepless dread
we dream to keep as September ends,
all Septembers present, past,
we think, what is cold is surely dead,
as warm September holds us fast.

Through sheer exertion of poetic will, this superbly crafted poem measures and, in a sense, reins in, its central and, for every one of us, devastating anxiety. The freshness of language like “pebbled in sweat” and “zero getting older” is complemented by the careful and surprising imagery of the third stanza, where the dream is revealed as a curtain fluttering in a window frame—and only that—“more of the same.” The rhymes are deft and unobtrusive, never over-determining the syntax or freezing up line endings. At the same time, the balanced six-line stanzas themselves are contained units. The movement between them lends a steady pulse to the poem’s revelation as contained in its central metaphor, in which September heat figures primarily as a precursor to winter’s imposition: “what is cold is surely dead.” This is an age-old set of associations—in that sense, universal. The poem, though, gives it an individualized reality that renders anything but formulaic its grim expression of fear and loathing vis-a-vis the irreversible passage of time. --Terence Culleton

Second Place

At the Cancer Center

by Terry Ofner
The Waters

A man at the reception desk 
says he has put in an order 
for some warm weather. Everyone 

laughs the laugh they laugh 
in such circumstances. Even so, 
the voice from the video screen

overhead assures: Your chemo 
kills your healthy cells 
as well as your cancer. 

Everything here is yours, 
whether you want it or not. 
Then the nurse calls 

your name. She calls it again 
to make sure it is yours.

This tightly written poem dramatizes in its concision one of its central premises—that what isn’t said, both in the setting and in the poem’s stanzas, is where the truth hovers. In a piece like this, the white space between stanzas and lines is itself articulate, while what the poem, and the voices inside it, actually put into words embodies the human will to persist in spite of what is known. The receptionist’s joke, the others’ laughing “the laugh they laugh/in such circumstances,” the detached video screen, the punctilious nurse’s summons, even the speaker’s use of the second person pronoun, are all instances of a refusal to yield to the possibility of defeat—not the refusal to admit it, but the refusal to give in to it. Everyone knows it’s there, of course, and each faces it when his or her name is called, which, perfectly, is where the poem ends. --Terence Culleton

Third Place

At Last Ghazal

by Greta Bolger
The Waters

Once we were young, longed to be grown and move away at last,
dreamed of escape, no one to tell us what to say at last.

Beach towels and beer and birth control. We rocked, smoked,
and caroused. Eventually, we became “they,” wildness at bay at last.

Buttoned up and buttoned down, we ran toward reputation,
worked far too hard for decades till we found our nay at last.

Two-piece pantsuits to Goodwill. Cocktail dresses shredded.
Parade wear went with Derby hats. We left the fray at last.

Into every life, they say, some acid rain must fall. For us,
an endless deluge. Pray for calm to stay at last.

Who knows how long the mottled story will go on?
The plot went wrong, pink fairy tale a grey cliché at last.

Old now, yes, but coffee, toast, warm silence and white wine,
paint, friends and friendly avatars. Big G’s mainstays. At last.

Form and content are closely wedded in this piece. The triple falling-rhythm rhyme linking the second lines of the couplets also links the first and last lines of the whole poem in ironic contrast: “move away at last” yields, in the end, to “-stays at last.” The formal premises of the poem, far from being restrictive, fully enact the cycle the poem wryly and mournfully notes, in which “[t]he plot went wrong, pink fairy tale a grey cliché at last.” The repeton—“at last”—gains in meaning with each return, which is the way refrains and rhymes work in formal poetry, as often in free verse as well. Repetition, while pleasing as a circling round, also functions as a cycling through. And, of course, the constant reappearance of “at last,” with its suggestion of finality, demonstrates the poem’s pervasive sense that, though for any individual the cycle ends, on a larger scale it is a kind of eternal recurrence, and “[w]ho knows how long the mottled story will go on?” --Terence Culleton

Honorable Mention

Died Last Fall

by ieuan ap hywel
The Writer's Block

The wind howls down the valley,
an icy blast from the black peaks.
It rattles the latch like a poltergeist,
slashing the kitchen window
with a crab apple sprig.
A puff of vapour expands

from the mine shaft hooter.
The sound reaches her seconds later.
The cage will lift
soon, and Evan will step
out with his shift, safety lamps in hand,
freed from the Stygian crypt.

She had washed his children, dried them
by the fire, dressed them in red flannel;
put to bed with copper hot-water
bottles wrapped in lamb’s wool.
Rachel, who’d taken ill, died last fall.
The yearly toll the pastor said, an act of God.

Easy for him to say, as if he had direct
access to the throne.
How long must she wait.
She’d seen him caress Rachel’s hair,
the touch that made her sister purr,
the younger, the pretty one.

“It’s for the children see, Evan.
I promised Rachel.” She’d washed
his back in the zinc tub, warmed
by an anthracite fire. She hid her needs
as he hid his manhood. Their daily,
brief moment of intimacy.

It came like an impetuous gust
from the peaks. Something she’d longed for.
When making ready to leave, he’d said,
“You don’t have to go.”
She’d searched his eyes,
the shroud of indifference gone,

he was alive again. She cried
that night in Rachel’s bed,
reached out to touch,
to make sure, to feel him stir.
“It’s for the best.
“It’s for the children.”