Poem of the Decade:
May 2000-Apr 2010
Judged by Daniel Hoffman
Every biped, crawler and slitherer; every daybreak
fast-forwarding past the solstice; every afternoon that loses
momentum as it plods into evening; every child born
logical and cerebral, proud to be gifted,
bright as Andromeda and Cassiopeia; every planet in the universe,
comets, black holes,
their combined gravitational pull,
pulling on each of the five known elements: earth, water,
fire, air, and yellowing passion fruit;
every pediment, apse, nave, narthex, effigy, oracle,
pyramid, every all-seeing
eye; every crease and whorl on a palm;
every hand that holds money and is diligent,
hard-working, closed to commitments;
all of those, along with matches, hydraulic presses,
arguments, salt water,
and the admirable number pi, took long,
sweeping strokes to be made, one by one,
as God was going through multiple life crises,
barely surviving each brainstorm.
How many times he’s come back from the brink of losing face,
such as when in the midst of a heated debate
over who made what and to what purpose, a sudden
gust of wind blew off his skullcap,
exposing a bald spot
high in the crown.
But for the most part he’s feeling good;
he’s glad it’s spring even if it means he must restart from scratch,
trying to convince things buried and burrowed
to come back up, saying tongue-in-cheek
it will be different
I’ve read and re—read the twenty finalists and have found a clear winner, a poem in which vision, fecundity of imagination, relevance to its central theme of all its disparate images, and wit are memorably combined. This poem gives pleasure in its surprises, and makes one eager to see more work by its author.
Wild Poetry Forum
You can grow accustomed to storms.
Every night they shake our sheetrock,
set the bricks trembling. Mortar remembers
it is only sand. Our jaunty roof begs
to be doffed. And I huddle within my frame
with dread and an awful wish that the past proves
its redundancies, that miles away the twister
will drop- not here, not now when I have just
remembered my own name.
When the windows bow like Galileo’s glass
I begin to pray to deities yet unnamed,
beseech the clever stars that hide
behind the churning ceiling. I confess
that peace is not my plea. Instead I ask
for more colors and a measure of strength
to face the wind. The red oak fusses
at my window, whines and scratches to come in.
But it holds, this vine-covered house,
stands on its wide flat bottom, a prairie boat
anchored fast in hard white clay and history.
Within I slip off my shoes. Tonight is not the night
that I will walk on broken glass and wear the unmistakable
face of disbelief. The thunder’s growl begins to lose
step with the lightning. In the attic rafters sigh
and creak like scrawny old men. I lay my head
on the last damp cloud where dreams of whirlwinds
and flying shingles wait. I sleep
like a town wiped off the map.
Some memorable lines — "Mortar remembers / it is only sand" ... "[I] beseech the clever stars that hide / behind the churning ceiling."
After the test, I waited and thought
of its cold hug under the shoulders,
its weight on the chest, blackness
packing the mouth, the nose, the eyes.
When the call came, I went out
and knelt in the dirt, watching
the worms and pillbugs work
leaf-decay to loam. I lifted
a handful, smelled green
earth and thought how hard
seed-coats crack in rain,
how root-hairs uncurl, blind
and sure of finding. Dirt clung
to my hands as I rose and let go
a shower of clods that hit
my boots with soft thuds
and broke into pieces all
I have yet to become.
This little poem ends strongly, moving from "the test" to “a shower of clods that... broke into pieces all / I have yet to become."
When her mother throws
a metal sugar jar at her dad,
leaving a dent in the wall,
the child appears calm.
She has studied Buddha,
has chosen to follow his path
accepts the dharma, his teachings
of peace and moderation.
Wearing a yellow robe,
she sits in the shade
of a fig tree and vows
to remain till answers come.
Her hair swept up
in a wisdom bump. Curls
combed to the right.
She’s drawn a mark between
her brows, wheels on her small
palms and the soles of her feet.
She’s in the lotus position.
No one in the house
notices her absence.
A hand fills her rice bowl.
She gathers filtered light
to bathe her mind, to drown
the screams and silences
and sweep away spilled sugar.
Wouldn’t the finale be better in a quatrain, like the rest of the poem, instead of a couplet?
Desert Moon Review
When I could not get with child
I swallowed the egg of the meadowlark
who eats the daylight,
the mother of untangled grasses.
A long drop, the egg bore its root
in my foot, it stitched me
together with grain.
I am patient now; I am not damaged by waiting.
Languid as a coming rain, stalks
inch alongside my veins to the tips
of my fingers. A grassland has thirst,
so does a fire,
the color of dough,
so while I sleep the moon creeps
between my poised teeth to feed
and flood me with moonwater.
When I speak, the scent
of lengthening wheat overwhelms me.
Shoots rise straight up
and don’t droop as tears,
don’t fail like questions;
they get on with growing.
I hold a handkerchief
over my mouth to veil the clover
and bees that tickle my throat,
but the angel
who’s due at my tent
won’t catch me laughing.
A kiss would do it.
One sprinkle of milkwhite salt
and I’ll break like bread at your table.
Strong first stanza: "When I could not get with child / I swallowed the egg of the meadowlark / who eats the daylight..." But the governing conceit, the would-be mother merging with the prairie, doesn't quite persuade the reader.
Desert Moon Review
Cotton mouthed, hung over, I wake up in my sooty dress
somehow ashamed to be seen in the utter waste
of daylight. The barbecue with all those mint juleps
on the verandah was intense but I strayed too long on the edge
of a glass. I long for a quiet train trestle, wood and paint
chipping off, not those city lights where I am one of millions.
I’m not fooled by the low murmurings of the river,
cattails to luxuriate in, but danger in the deep-throated
baritone of frogs. Damselflies are entirely self-involved
and bossy, known to eat out of their own behinds. Never mind,
there’s safety in numbers. A neighbor has an easy split
in a porch screen and as I’m on a tear of wild nights
before I die, I’ve set my sights on their cathedral ceiling.
In the sway of tall grasses his youngest cups her hands
around me to pray. I am coveted in the moist chapel of fingers.
Tonight, I’ll hang around until they are all half lidded-drowsy.
I’ll skitter down to her favorite blanket where she’ll wish
upon me like I am the last star falling, the last creature on earth.
Strong opening and closing.
When she opened her mouth, only a tongue came out.
They had expected fire engines, or maggots, or little
frogs with hooked teeth. Only a tongue, sadly, and all
it did was wiggle around. The stars hung slugged,
acting neither cowardly nor special. The gaseous
things refused to even blink or shoot because stars don’t
really do that sort of thing. The dirt didn’t suction and
swallow pumas or skyscrapers. Everything stood as it
should be, indifferent to her perfectly human, though
delicious, kisses. This surprised them, and several hands
were thrown protectively above heads as though bombs
or boulders would drop. But none fell. One woman fainted
and the prostration wasn’t significant because she soon woke,
scraped and muttering ouches. This disturbed the fellows,
so they grabbed themselves reassuringly. Yes, still present.
Yes, still stiff. But then they remembered that it was only
their hands and her tongue, not some catastrophic Gwinevere.
The throng cried. It was quite romantic of them (her
tongue still milled about), but there were no rivers of tears
or hearts pierced with tiny daggers. After the kiss, they
said goodnight. Everyone returned to work in the morning.
I like the tone of this fantasy: "When she opened her mouth only a tongue came out." [The next line is too much of a stretch.]
Green sunflowers trembled in the highlands of dusk and the whole cemetery
began to complain with cardboard mouths and dry rags.”
–Federico Garcia Lorca
You asked for an R, for the ripening of olives
in your garden, the red-tailed hawk
angling over the road, the path
that took you down and away
from the empty room of the body.
The R of reasons, of the ringing that breaks
in a yellow bell tower – the only sound
after the round of shots that shattered
an afternoon. And the T can only be more time,
time to be the clock or the weather vane,
the twilight through your windows
on the page, your pen once again plow
and the places you took me
where I abandoned faith.
A is alone, how you never wanted it,
preferring the company of bishop’s
weed and drowsy horses—the warm trace
of the lily and a flame
for the night with its black mouth
that sings your saeta.
G is the ghost bird that hovered
at Fuente Grande that you did not wish
to come, for the grave some say you dug
with your own hands,
empty as a mouth full of snow,
as a sky that held no moon that night
only its pure shape to stow
all the names of the dead.
A clever executive metaphor, with which perhaps more could have been done than offering only what R, T, A, and G suggest. These are imaginative and surprising. The poem holds together well.
Wild Poetry Forum
And it is this battle of the giants
that our nurse-maids try to appease
with their lullaby about Heaven
Afterwards, unsettled, I travel
for days. The moon’s bone, thin and curved,
points to a new paradise. I sweep the forest
floor, cast fishing nets into the pines
above our bed of needles.
I fill the forest with favourite things:
marmots and chattering bats. Of course,
I will add turtles and rabbits. We read to each other
by the glow of wolves’ eyes, a string
of starfish, varnished fireflies.
The earth hardens beneath our backs.
I lay this bed among lady slippers and ferns.
I make him discard everything but his Argyles, loop
his pocket watch over the twig above. Bedtime,
we thrust and sing. The watch swings
back and forth, dropping minutes.
In the sleep of trees owls devise
a plan to furnish him with wings. Each morning
he sifts piles of dead birds. He doesn’t fear death,
but nor do jackdaws, I’m told. Some birds
flirt with suicide, fling themselves at oak or ash:
titmouse, nightjar, bullfinch, crow.
My lover promises when his work is done
he will return to me. I will knit Argyles and wait.
Birds have given up breath for him. Among their feathers
faith now thickens, and I rinse away
their sticky blood.
It’s easy to see that his purpose is love.
He unstrings the beads of time in the sun.
It’s easy to see that his purpose is death.
He sings to an implacable fire.
His mother was a lapwing, his father
part kite, part nightingale. He carries her
cries back to him, as if they were coins
to unspend time, to unpawn summer.
I envy you the bite of heaven
as I lie cradled in the earth. I saw
deer today. I glimpsed a falling
star and wanted to show it
to you. I will be faithful. I am a firefly
captured in your hands, and the forest
floor is carpeted with the dead.
The stars hang from cracks in the ceiling.
How can I be so cold in the summer?
I saw a snake today, a brown
striped viper. I found a broken shell, and blue
was the blue of the sky. And periwinkles
were my lover’s eyes, and you are free.
And I have had to let you go.
And I have let you go.
There was a spider
in the lighthouse, a dry web
on my face. And you have gone
to steal your father’s eyes,
to put the moon in a wagon, the planets
on the backseat of your old Fuego. She waited
for you in Rapallo, she is waiting
in Dunbarton. We are all
waiting to see you drown.
up the gallows hill.
Dear Peregrine, don’t fall.
At night the earth shrivelled and you whispered
stories in my ear. They were not fairy tales.
If I had been truly hungry for you, if jealousy
had been a chain I’d fastened around your neck,
then I’d have coveted every hour you spent without me.
You recounted the story of a bird who started as a boy.
He set off to bring back his masterpiece.
You asked me to accept this. You wanted me to lie
under a juniper tree and wait for your return.
I am sorry you had no Ariel to carry you
home in her arms. I flinch to remember the magic
your father fed you. I was your lover, your mother,
your sister, your whore: the wine you were looking for
was locked in my pantry. I gave you as consolation
two strangers telling stories among gossiping trees,
together forging an epitaph, their happy ending.
on the griddle of the sun
our dreams melting like butter
and when you leave me
to sleep my eyelids will flutter.
Parts ii and iv. The rest of this poem (i, iii, v) are too literal; despite a couple of good lines ["the moon’s bone, thin and curved’; "We read to each together / by the glow of wolves’ eyes"; "the stars hang from cracks in the ceiling"] but the effect is diffuse and dilutes the authority of ii and iv. These two poems are successful and could stand alone. (In iii, it's Icarus, not Oedipus, who drowns.)
Tin Roof Alley Poets, formerly SplashHall Poetry
Indolent dust drifts over the roofs and drains of my city.
Barber shops and a lip of rose water, soiled boxes
stacked with rendered fruit, faraway, the chug-chug
of a bus leaning forward like an animal hunting water.
Mumbai half shut down, alcoves falling into darkness.
One electric bulb coming on in a rooming house,
heat resting in hallways and squalid yellow rooms.
Your suitcase carried away beyond the dry hydrant.
A forgotten lipstick tube opened and never closed.
Our bed against the window, draped mosquito netting,
your discarded slippers gold as aquarium fish.
The language of your underpants cater-cornered
in a drawer, your forgotten bra hanging on a hook.
Your eyes looking over the androgynous city for rain,
monsoon held in abeyance beyond the Western Ghats.
Your red lips flung like coins into the face of a beggar.
The poem rather vividly portrays Mumbai awaiting a monsoon—a particularly good image is "the chug-chug / of a bus leaning forward like an animal hunting water", but the poem ends suddenly with an image seemingly irrelevant, for which the foregoing lines have not prepared the reader--"Your red lips flung like coins into the face of a beggar." Hard to visualize this.
One Leg of a Return
for Janice Kijenski
As I leave: the old moment’s cathedrals,
a blue sky’s supposed perfection. What
was Krakow’s sorrow like, when
it still knew sorrow existed? And should it
matter to us, who haven’t ever
lived here? Like someone
digging clam flesh from the shell
with a little fork, something’s pulled
from your belly. The soul? In
another location a maple leaf flutters
into the distance, a disconnected thought
on the American asylum’s grounds
toward which the cops drive
the ostentatious rebel, 1964. Months later
while you play the piano
he hasn’t heard yet, the asylum’s flowerbed
of withered tulips mocks him, hiding
boy-like in the nurse’s shadow
while the world closes in
around him. Eventually he leaves the place
forever. That of course
was then and this is now. The silence
with itself – yesterday
in Srinagar in Kashmir, today
here, tomorrow near Brush Run. Moments from one zone
or another: a child’s legos with which I build
a history of mornings
just for you. They
are what I am. Feel
the light. Gentle
as your husband’s breath
upon your neck, day
The swan’s soaked belly, a secret, rises
from the pond in a chaos
of beating wings
deaf Ephram doesn’t hear. Trees, throwing
flakes of burning ash
into the air, die
as he watches. When I walk him home
to Janice’s, we pass the old papermill, one wall
a pile of rubble. The chill wind blows
harshly along the rowhouses. Ears
reddened by silence, his head aches.
Beyond Brush Run
Near the civil war cemetery, apples
rot in an orchard
not far from where doe and fawn bound
through cold rain into
the underbrush, hides soaked
with the impalpable. Having lost track
of Katherine and not knowing how many years ago
she died, I look
through the broken window at a corner
in which I once passed out, drunk. When
I came to, she asked
“Do you understand now?”
while spaghetti boiled in the kitchen
at the dirt road’s end where my father
would one day stand
in the doorway, hat
in hand, awed by the old woman
telling stories about the storm-swollen Arno
as the rain
then as on so many other days and now
beat roof and walls, drumming
but not loudly enough to drown out
the fox with fractured leg yelping
in the steel trap
in the silence between two words. Only today
do I finally understand the drenched soil’s
smell, as the earthworm’s bristles
penetrate bright dark. In another place
where she once showed me a dead swan
coated with oil, I sat
on a flat roof in my soldier’s uniform
and talked with her at dusk. That
was the year DeGaulle almost fell
from power and Brown’s leg was blown up
in a paddy north of a mangrove swamp
where the water’s silence
like a stranger’s held breath at the border
of a small town at night
was louder than the unknown’s prelude played on the piano
by Katherine’s friend’s daughter in a parlor
years later. The rain
froze that evening as she played, then turned
to snow, which by morning
anywhere you walked.
Dusk Mist Years Ago
Where the branch juts out from the maple trunk,
it disappears into mist.
The ducks on the pond, noise
Even I, walking here, am only
an absence’s motion, to anyone
more than a foot away.
Still, I thumbtack a message
for Katherine on the gatepost
of the horses’ grazing field.
What will it mean to her? She doesn’t know yet
that I’ve returned. Or from where.
In all respects, I’m the mother
words desire, except
I abandon them when they’re born.
Years later, their crying haunts me.
Tonight I listen to ducks that aren’t there.
You whispered once, “Tell me who you are.”
I answered, “I’m the message that I leave.”
Mist touches stone.
In the rain in the meadow
east of Katherine’s house
the wind pummels aster stems.
Leaves matted on his boots
he trudges through soaked grass
down the slope.
Where the trail
cuts through the woods at dusk
Later, the wind dies down.
The rain stops.
No stars tonight. Or moon.
Miles from Indian Caverns
Under the fern,
tomorrow’s absence. A raven’s
the possible, lies on the path. Time: fat
and burrs stuck
to fur. From this
the wolf’s warm breath,
paw prints in snow. The mind, owning
no bow or gun, follows. Later
with one quick move, a flash
of animal fury, it kills its prey
with its teeth. Wind hisses
over creek rocks and through
dead weedstalks. Hearing
the unclear clearly, I find
beyond the thicket
a shack, falling apart, snow
on the floorboards, and sit
on a dented bucket, already
hungry for another meal.
As part of the return, I fed
the stallion an apple in the stable.
More than haysmell brought me there, brushing
my cheek against its mane.
Listening to the sound from the east meadow
of mist touching pond, I remembered
Srinagar, nothing else. A building burned
while a woman scratched for food in a stony place.
Thick as afterbirth, animal slobber dripped
from my hand. Later, the noise of ducks
flapping wings. No, that was different:
a year ago, one morning. I awoke. You weren’t there.
But she was. The woman grubbed for edibles
in the dirt inside my head. Behind her, an explosion
rocked the city. I could have saved her
but while I wrote my dispatch, she disappeared.
Where my fingers
end, the air
says nothing. An absence
of paradox begins. Oak
bark’s rough feel. Leaves rot
field stalks. Prophecy
is like this: a simplicity
so simple it’s
complex. Old Connelly,
name carved here in stone,
decayed long ago, but now
his rot rots also. A cold front
comes in. The wind
shrieks along Smith Mill Trail. What
clarity. The pond
turns to ice, the night
Here, as in "Penelope...," less would be more. I cite only two sections of this sequence: "Dusk Mist Years Ago" with its concluding lines, "Your whispered once, 'Tell me who you are.' / I answered, 'I'm the message you leave.'" I'd prefer the poem to end there, kill the last 3 lines. Also good, "Miles from Indian Cavern." The rest, prosy.