All Love Is Outlaw

by John Wilks
The Write Idea
Third Place (Tie), March 2012
Judged by John Timpane

Lob a grenade into the Scrabble bag,
see what the shrapnel spells. One act of love:
a terrorist kisses his wife goodbye
and all love is outlaw. If evil feels
the same as the man on the omnibus
without a back-pack, then no heart is safe.

No heart is safe. We muster our tiles
to make high-scoring words, while concealing
our worst letters. To deceive in order
to win. Darling, when I say I ZQVX you,
understand I need a blank. An empty space
which could hold anything. Those are the rules.

If the rest of this poem failed utterly, I’d still revere it for the passage “Darling, when I say I ZQVX you,/ understand I need a blank.” We have here a very handy extended metaphor, in a poem that blows up the game board, just to start. It’s a flashy move but does not fall flat, thanks to the lovely “see what the shrapnel spells.” The poem insists on the explosive randomness of love, on the essentially deceitful nature of courtship (“We muster our tiles/ to make high-scoring words, while concealing/ our worst letters.”), on love as a game for which the rules are blank, are any- and everything. I very much like the “if . . . then” faux-reasoning of lines 4-6, followed by the pat confirmation of “No heart is safe” across the space in line 7. Just terrific movement throughout, using line endings in a canny, funny, lancing fashion. This little poem packs a dense wallop, almost as if it were the Big Bang in reverse. It covers so much ground in such a short space, giving the impression of long-lived, long-observed experience. It’s a poem of thought and action, ever-unrolling, eye always on the surprise. It taught me a lot. ---John Timpane