Death left you a voicemail

by B.A. Stites
Second Place, February 2012
Judged by John Timpane

Time hands you a coffin.
Inside the coffin is a telephone.
The sound of the telephone ringing
is the sound of a million sparrows
taking flight. The sparrows
make up the face of a clock and
the clock’s hands are the hands
of your mother. She sits
behind you now, running a black
comb gently through your hair.

A million black sparrows
taking flight. This is the image
of your mother, sitting
at the end of her bed. The
sound of the telephone ringing
is the sound of a coffin opening.
Inside it you place a clock.
Its hands are made of combs.
The combs are black, the color
of your mother’s hair.

I simply could not stop experiencing this poem down to its last word. It impels the consciousness right down the line. So much is admirable, and when read aloud, incantatory. Reminiscent of musical forms such as the villanelle, pantoum, muwashshah, ghazal, and sestina, this orchestrates keywords and key images into new meanings and combinations. One simply flows into another: the clock with hands that are combs, the telephone’s ring, opening to the millions of sparrows, which are the image of the mother. Surreal is a hateful word, but there is an uncanny heightening in this poem, an aching, supra-real quality. What happens is that the poem represents its own system of meaning; the only way to say something about the poem is to let the poem say itself, and be within its network of relations. Death is always leaving us messages, and whether we pick them up or not is, of course, the question. And what we answer, if we ever can. When read aloud, this sings, and this reminds me of what poetry ought to be about. I’m grateful. --John Timpane