We Burned Incense

by Judy Swann
The Waters
First Place, September 2009
Judged by George Szirtes

And this is my mother’s mother, your great grandmother,
and this is her brother, this is my dad, they’re all dead.
This is your dad before we were married, this is me,
you can tell I was born in the year of the mountain goat
by the way I’m standing.

I never mastered politeness, and I like to be corrected
when I err. So, can I have the salt? Would you please
pass me the salt? Sorry to bother you, but could you
pass me the salt, please? He was only thirty-nine when
he did it, it was a lot less red

than you would expect, and also bloodier, if you can
picture that. “Humbling” or “exalting,” those were the poles.
It was the year the tornado touched down. And that’s me
again, how do you like my pony, my pleated dress? I
was a loved child, spoiled.

He could no longer bear it, you know how the young can
cry for a very long time and then some minutes after calm
has set in, a whooping sound shudders its way out
and then quiet again? You know what I mean? Not the
serene, poised people

In the leather armchairs of the university library, but the
people on the bus with the tweety-bird shirts and the red
noses, glum, with crooked teeth, muddy clothing, ripped
clothing that it would be rude to photograph, even to
get the crown of roses

documented, as it thundered mightily into the summer dusk,
each peal rumbling for five or six long seconds, waterfalls
of rain, pillows of it soaking into the wooden bridge, he was
never the one who liked to get wet, never liked the water much
even in paintings

This gets it over the others because it is substantial, has a compulsive voice, takes risks with its reiterations in the second verse, tells a story without too much 'telling'. It is in effect a dramatic monologue that is close to the voice that makes it (many of Browning's are deliberately distanced from the maker). The fourth verse seems to me properly embodied, not a special effect, but firmly located in the speaking voice, that contains its irony with a certain edge. I wondered about the weak line endings (twice) of "the". It isn't quite syllabics but the form of it is teasing and faintly echoes Sapphics. It understands and plays off form. --George Szirtes