by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block
Second Place, February 2021
Judged by Nicole Greaves

I remember beauty mixed
with ugliness. Hollyhocks

growing in cinders in the alley.
The flowers grow hair

like the hairs in an old man’s ear.
A totem of old men’s ears

on a thick stalk, a talisman
of shrunken heads. Beside

a rickety, rotting shed
they loiter like freaks hiding

from sight, from judgmental
stares of people with gardens

of prize-winning roses
and chrysanthemums.

When I was 6 or 7 walking
home from school I stuck

to the alleys. A little fear mixed
with adventure. Hollyhocks

watching over me, listening,
showing me how to hide.

Early in life, we are drawn to the natural world. We turn to it for understanding about our place in the landscape and sense of belonging. Later, this curiosity and wonder is often lost to the social canvas, and nature serves more as an aesthetic backdrop like a mowed lawn, which is unfortunate because nature has so much to teach us. Mary Oliver knew this and persisted in this exploration with simplistic language, undaunted by her critics who thought she lacked sophistication. In Oliver’s reflective quality that stills the self in the world, she meditated on her connection to things, like to a fish in her poem “The Fish,” where the speaker becomes the thing it consumes and shares in the “pain” and “mystery” of being. It possesses that child’s wonderment. The speaker in “Hollyhocks” explores these connections through that memory of childhood by walking through a more urban landscape, an alley, but paying witness to the natural world striving and breaking through “cinders.” The flowers “grow hair” like that of an “old men’s ears,” personifying nature to give presence and conjuring that young imagination. Hollyhocks become “freaks” hiding in sight from people with more curatory gardens “of prize-winning roses / and chrysanthemums,” that stagnancy, lack of life. The speaker then brings us close to the self as a child of six or seven, into that wonderment and sense of “adventure” as a wild creature traveling the alleys. The hollyhocks protect this precocious traveler and teach the speaker “how to hide.” This is like the mystery Oliver closes with in her poem, part darkness in the light, and that sense of being sustained by it. The poem moves beautifully in couplets and the s sounds and moment of alliteration lend a musicality that echoes the spirit of its song. --Nicole Greaves