by Sue Kay
Pen Shells
First Place, April 2012
Judged by Shara McCallum

Drought raises its head, trumpets another amber sunrise, tusks
the earth, charges the faded foliage, tramples, tosses it aside.
Storm-less days wrinkle and die. Dust on sun-cracked skin, dust
in the eyes . On the horizon, dust lightning sparks from clouds
that have rubbed themselves dry. Heat like a prayer for rain lights
the night with a fire line. Drought like darkness grows a shape

shakes itself free of restraints, parches, attacks and backs
its quarry into another hot day. Heat, like the aim of the hunter,
sights the prey, brings it down beneath an ivory sky. Drought pales
everything in its gaze, shimmers the promise of a lake lapping
dry waves. The deep aquifers bleed out pumping into wells
that fail to stanch the earth’s thirst. Heat blows its dry breath

into the land’s panicked mouth, pants a warning ahead of drought’s
heavy foot that stamps, bellows its coming. Heat enters into
every corner, every refuge, wearies of its charge, worries dead
brush and picked bones. Bored with the kill, drought turns once
to see ash and smoke sift over ruined leaves into dry streams,
drift and smother, like doubt, like memory.

From my first read, I was caught up in this poem and on many re-readings that feeling of being swept up in language never abated. The poem is a tour-de-force of image and sound, showing off poetry’s ability to resonate in the mind and ear. This poem also captivated me because the ending culminates in a statement. In that last line, the poet moves away from relying on image alone, saying something about what “drought” means—this is a risky move that pays off, as what is said feels both surprising and, yet, exactly right. --Shara McCallum