Winning Poems for July 2022

Judged by R.T. Castleberry

First Place

striking a match in an empty house

by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Waters

the sizzle and flare like a dud firecracker
the stick burns down
to bare fingers
not wanting to let go but letting go

too hot too short too useless
strike another and another
and another
until the pilot light stays lit

nothing to see in the dark
in the vacant rooms
the cold
like a heavy blanket

the air ringing
like a phone
covered by a pillow
ringing in a cave

nowhere to lie down
the smell of a cellar
of an old woman
who never left

I like the stark quality of this poem, the darkness of its sorrow, the repetition, like the thoughts we repeat to ourselves after someone has left. --R.T. Castleberry

Second Place

My Soul to Keep

by Jim Doss

Only in dreams did I speak Iñupiaq,
that ghost language of my ancestors,
the syllables sweet as muktuk on the tongue

as I addressed my forefathers. What I said,
I don’t know, but they nodded and laughed
in agreement, their ivory labrets gleaming

in the firelight, imaginary spears in their hands
thrusting at some large beast swimming by.
Awake, I speak the English of the government schools,

that precise noun-verb-adjective-noun simplicity
developed half a world away from the tundra
and the ocean’s frozen fingers scraping the pebbled shoreline.

South of us salmon run like clockwork
from summer into fall, first the Chinook,
the Sockeye, then the Coho feeding our brothers,

the grizzlies and blacks, the eagles, the other tribes
and sportsmen. They flock to the riverbanks
by the thousands with their lines and nets

to snag kype, break the hunched backs
to taste their pink flesh, while we wait patiently
by our boats on the arctic icecap to see

that first bowhead breath rainbowed in sunlight.
We ease our wood-framed vessels into the water, paddle
through the breakers to where the great beasts will surface next.

We wait crouched like our forefathers, listening to the quiet
lapping of water against our boat, tensed with harpoon in hand,
ready for the miracle of life to continue

for the next thousand years in sod huts
with their caribou pelts, or manufactured homes
stacked on pilings along gravel roads

with 4-wheel drive pickups and snow machines
parked out front. The glide of the umiak is just like I remember
from my dreams, almost slow-motion, yet it is filled

with thousands of spirits, both dead and living,
chanting softly to the whales and their ancestors,
urging them to rise up, rise up, and take the next breath.

I enjoyed the richness of the details in this poem. It's a powerful evocation of their ancestors and their rituals. --R.T. Castleberry

Third Place

Li Po Adrift

by Bob Bradshaw
The Writer's Block

I row alone through these canyons
where dragons sleep in purling rivers.

Hummingbirds drain the last nectar
from a muddy branch’s blossoms.

It’s the end of autumn and an early snow
flies in as cranes fly off over Wu Shan.

How quickly sixty years pass!

Draining a tankard of wine, adrift,
I grow content with the world’s beauty,
no longer laboring at the oars.

So Li Po is with us again, in a tender rendering of time spent with thoughts of aging and drink. --R.T. Castleberry