Toad Festival

by Connie DeDona
Second Place (tie), August 2009
Judged by George Szirtes

Night falls and the air is stagnant and sticky
with white gardenia,
stephanotis and pungent citronella.
A fountain sprays into a koi pond
and echoes across the valley.
In the distance are the sounds
of after dinner dishes being soaped, rinsed and towel dried.
Television sets glowing and humming with families
settling into “The Biggest Loser” and “Howie Do It”.
At the appointed hour
a silent Bufo Army advances,
each to their own predetermined spot.
Out on a lonely stretch of road
beneath the glow of a street lamp,
hungry eyes examine the night sky,
patiently waiting beneath the bug lights by the well,
or in the hollow of a palm tree,
compelled to perform their part in the nightly ritual.
Sometimes in witless surrender squashed beneath an automobile tire.
Trancelike, as thousands of wings float aimlessly down all around them,
relieved of their former frames.
While listening overhead to the snap and sizzle,
of a multitude of tiny bodies being roasted to perfection,
their tongues salivating as their dinner drops and is swallowed whole.
The Formosan termite swarm is timely on their kamikaze mission,
blindly buzzing their dinner dates in reckless abandon.
A wretched few manage to escape wingless
and continue to crawl until they drop,
into stagnant watery graves,
behind downspouts and into crevices between rocks,
occasionally crushed beneath the feet of an uninvited passerby,
rushing inside to escape the carnage,
the rank and lusty slurping and spewing of the horde.

A very clear sense of place and occasion: all those specifics. Gardenia, staphanotis, citronella, the koi pond. Then we tune in to the sounds and become aware of the wider world, the camera panning. The toad army appears in ominous fashion right on cue after the the TV shows are named. From then on we are with the toads. There is, perhaps unavoidably, an echo of Heaney's 'The Death of a Naturalist' here, but the sensuous reaction in terms of alliteration - surrender squashed, snap and sizzle, former frames, dinner drops, blindly buzzing - and the grand guignolesque overload of the last line. If one of the functions of poetry is to turn the world of physical experience into language this poem does it very well, plus a little more which is down to the introduction of the first five lines that help relate the strangeness to the ordinary down home quality of the experience around it. --George Szirtes