Smoke and Mirrors

by Antonia Clark
The Waters
First Place, August 2009
Judged by George Szirtes

My sister dressed in the colors of water
and stone, walked out on foggy mornings
in search of misted rivers,
folded herself into low-lying clouds.

She insisted that none of this
was for the purpose of deception.
It’s a matter of becoming

accustomed, she said. It’s incremental.

She studied the art of graceful sleight:
To take her leave without notice, without
a visible stirring of air, as if dying
were only another illusion.

The hard part is what to do with the body,
she told me. The rest is nothing.
It’s easy to disappear.

The first verse immediately grabs the reader with a clear image that has potential for transformation. We read on seeing where it might lead. The combined effect of water, stone, fog, mist, river make the point at which the sister folds herself into low-lying clouds natural. We accept 'folded herself'' as the natural product of all the factors. At this stage the poem is rich but could end up merely pretty. Then the vocabulary hardens - insisted, deception, incremental - and we feel we may be moving to another level of meaning. These are hard business terms . A transaction of some sort is hinted at. The quatrain beginning 'She studied' moves us into ambiguous territory. We are uncertain whether her folding is about death or a kind of avoidance. Now there is a sense of haunting. The balance is never completely resolved though the language is firmly declarative. In the end we feel we have approached a difficult subject - indeed a difficult person - with a proper respect. A good poem can feel as if a ghost as passed through us. It doesn't need atmospheric effects. Nothing has been intentionally hidden. Another way to think of it might be like treading on ice, testing each step as you go. That is what this poem does. --George Szirtes