Poem of the Year:
May 2007-Apr 2008
Judged by Kelly Cherry
Wild Poetry Forum
You can grow accustomed to storms.
Every night they shake our sheetrock,
set the bricks trembling. Mortar remembers
it is only sand. Our jaunty roof begs
to be doffed. And I huddle within my frame
with dread and an awful wish that the past proves
its redundancies, that miles away the twister
will drop- not here, not now when I have just
remembered my own name.
When the windows bow like Galileo’s glass
I begin to pray to deities yet unnamed,
beseech the clever stars that hide
behind the churning ceiling. I confess
that peace is not my plea. Instead I ask
for more colors and a measure of strength
to face the wind. The red oak fusses
at my window, whines and scratches to come in.
But it holds, this vine-covered house,
stands on its wide flat bottom, a prairie boat
anchored fast in hard white clay and history.
Within I slip off my shoes. Tonight is not the night
that I will walk on broken glass and wear the unmistakable
face of disbelief. The thunder’s growl begins to lose
step with the lightning. In the attic rafters sigh
and creak like scrawny old men. I lay my head
on the last damp cloud where dreams of whirlwinds
and flying shingles wait. I sleep
like a town wiped off the map.
It is the music first of all that tells me this is a poem to pay attention to. The poet varies short and long sentences, carrying the cadence of them straight through to the slant-rhyme couplet that brings the poem to completion. The diction holds steady thoughout; nothing strays beyond the tessitura of the poem. This very American poem ("Sheetrock," "twister" "prairie boat") adheres to a classical sense of proportion that is equally evident in the speaker's statements. The same is true of the emotions it contains: we hear the speaker's fear and exhilaration but also a carefully calculated self-mockery that derives from years of experience with the phenomena. ("You can grow accustomed to storms," we were told in the very first line, and the poem demonstrates that you can. Accustomed, but by no means passive.) Because the self-mockery is handled lightly enough, it charms and does not depress. The poet's gentle acceptance of the emotions stirred by the storm gives to the poem a good-naturedness that the reader feels must be inclusive: reader and poet can experience--let's say weather--the storm together. --Kelly Cherry
Every biped, crawler and slitherer; every daybreak
fast-forwarding past the solstice; every afternoon that loses
momentum as it plods into evening; every child born
logical and cerebral, proud to be gifted,
bright as Andromeda and Cassiopeia; every planet in the universe,
comets, black holes,
their combined gravitational pull,
pulling on each of the five known elements: earth, water,
fire, air, and yellowing passion fruit;
every pediment, apse, nave, narthex, effigy, oracle,
pyramid, every all-seeing
eye; every crease and whorl on a palm;
every hand that holds money and is diligent,
hard-working, closed to commitments;
all of those, along with matches, hydraulic presses,
arguments, salt water,
and the admirable number pi, took long,
sweeping strokes to be made, one by one,
as God was going through multiple life crises,
barely surviving each brainstorm.
How many times he’s come back from the brink of losing face,
such as when in the midst of a heated debate
over who made what and to what purpose, a sudden
gust of wind blew off his skullcap,
exposing a bald spot
high in the crown.
But for the most part he’s feeling good;
he’s glad it’s spring even if it means he must restart from scratch,
trying to convince things buried and burrowed
to come back up, saying tongue-in-cheek
it will be different
Witty and intelligent, "A Second Look at Creation" uses marvelously precise words to make us see/hear/smell/taste/touch the world, even aspects of it we may seldom notice: "every hand that holds money and is diligent" (italics mine), "the admirable number pi" (italics mine--and is not the number pi entirely admirable, succeeding in all that it does?), God wearing a skullcap that hides "a bald spot / high in the crown." Such apt and vivid language. I love it that in the cosmos of this poem there are "five known elements: earth, water / fire, air, and yellowing passion fruit." Sly humor continues in the second stanza, where "God" has his tongue in his cheek when he tells us that spring "will be different / this time." Hope springs again; spring hopes again. Whether or not that hope is fulfilled, we revel in the possibility of the new, and in spring all creation at least seems new again. This poem is clever linguistically but also smart emotionally, and who can resist its appealing portrait of a happy, hardworking God? --Kelly Cherry
The Writer's Block
He’s losing faith in us.
We feel him check and re-
check that we have his keys
and wallet, and the talismanic
letter from his daughter,
wherever she may be.
He slouches down the same
streets to the same work,
mistrust a whisper that aspires
to clamour. Which of us
is guilty of the hole
that everything slips through?
Some conjuror has swapped
his life for one where wives’
eyes redden and accuse,
obsessed sons slur and darken,
daughters abandon him
for intolerable lovers.
Our forebears knew his children
when they were little more
than half our height, those soft
fists reaching up to tug out treasures,
his reward to let his pockets
haemorrhage for those he loved.
Short as this poem is, it offers a heartbreaking glimpse of a life entire. A man living next door to the grown children of parents who were of his generation has become, with age, suspicious, insecure, secretive. His daughter has not kept in close touch with him, is living with a man of whom he disapproves. His wife and sons have, he thinks, turned against him--and perhaps they have, given his changed personality, or perhaps he misinterprets their responses. Brilliantly, the poem saves its revelation for the last stanza: this same man was once adored by his children, and he was glad to share with them what he had. The use of hemorrhage in the last line is an extraordinary choice, emphasizing the free flow of the gifts he gave and simultaneously suggesting the "hemorrhaging" of his own life. Other words that carry deliberate weight here include "talismanic," "slouches," "conjuror," and "intolerable." Let's note also the fine lineation, which moves us swiftly from beginning to end. The speakers ("we") of the poem are psychologically astute and humane; the portrait is bittersweet, honest, and forgiving. --Kelly Cherry
About Poetry Forum
I didn’t use to like the ones with birds in them—
she’d paint alluring skies and water—minerally
brimming glints—then seem to feel she had
to punctuate their ambiguity with some expected
order—carefully assorted gulls: culled illustrations
out of greeting cards—obligatory birdies dotting
gleaming shards of sky and sea to add cliché
to the topography: some expected notion of what
ought to be above, beyond, around an ocean:
turned the beach from vague-and-haunting-lone
to Jones. But I was an elitist prig. Now I look at
each meticulously painted sprig of wing and breast
and tail and beak: and almost hear my mother
speak: each fine careful flying thing belies her
death: bears witness to what’s left—lifts the gulls
and deftly keeps them up: her artist’s breath.
Internal rhyme strengthens the poem, which carries its bird imagery successfully through all four stanzas to create a persuasively heartfelt grief and tribute. --Kelly Cherry
Route 22 ripples to an axle beat as the red pickup approaches.
Puddles pulse, wheels veer, water arcs like a tide
parting before the F-150’s tire hiss. Beer cans snicker
Sleet coats cables, gone by noon. Pavement’s a mosaic â€“
broken headlights, embedded pennies. Mouse bones crunch
under Goodyear studs.
First tractor out of the yard wallows with a pulmonary
wheeze in muck stubble. Field’s black, twisted
as abandoned shirts. An old collie three-legs it
down the chain track because that’s what he was born to do.
In a heifer-gnawed grove behind the loafing shed,
deer scrabble snow crust under bare oaks;
limbs scratch cloudskins. Mated robins drop
sky bits onto dull moss. New melt trinkles
and plishes off the gambrel-roof barn.
On the porch step, farmboy smooths his trout filament
between forefinger and thumb, feeds it into the Shakespeare
with a handful of hope.
The day flows around him — river and rock –while mother
sings from her clothesline, “Fare thee well, love,”
hazel gaze a salamandrine fire that burns what it touches.
He listens, furrows deep as plowed dirt
above his eyes; matches reel spin to wash-pulley creak.
Milkroom radio chatters about foreclosures, lost soldiers
and protests against a mine two counties away. Fishhook
snags the little fellow’s thumb.
Long driveway rasps its monotone; gravel shoulders shrug
still-frozen clods into ditches. Muddy Ford swerves,
bumps over brushcut lawn, halts beside a lattice arbor
where rambling roses will soon explode like ruptured hearts.
Woman-song stops. She turns – sliced lemon smile –
carries her laundry basket, sets it down carefully.
Then she straightens to confront the truck, but won’t glance
at her son. Not even once.
Out on bleeding earth, her husband inhales the dark
diesel, whistles off-key. “This will be no ordinary April,”
he assures his crippled dog.
Excellent description, grounded in observed details. Dynamic verbs charge the poem with energy. --Kelly Cherry
Can you hear the whole sky ringing?
I watch you stumble under its alleluia bell.
Your bare feet string a dozen prints
like pearls across the December grass.
These soles are your only stars, girl.
Hours, days, years – every last wound
you’ll ever endure – catch in the silty net
you drag behind, sans mermaids, moths
or seraphs’ teeth. Your uncombed dreams
pour down your face, white as salt.
Listen, the sea is shifting in sleep.
It’s Christmas, and you are unparented
again. We both wait in this empty inn-yard;
a few stray gods quarrel behind their curtain.
Since they have been replaced, no doubt
they can discount one more failed prayer,
one more gloria in excelsis. A feather zags
its way to earth. This is only an owl’s trick,
girl. If you pick it up, you will be lost.
Can’t you feel the darkness gathering itself?
Midnight snaps shut, a padlock against hope.
Tomorrow is ordinary, as you must surely
expect by this time. Come into the pub-light
where a solitary barman offers decent ale
and music for all the bruised people. We are
among them, we whose homes and lovers
have blown like scarves over the world’s edge.
Here’s to absent friends, someone says.
I lift a mug; foam spatters my right hand.
A nearby church peals one o’clock and I
almost believe in something. Then I look down
at the tabletop reflecting your face. Its eyes
turn to knotholes, beaten into the wood.
Its mouth is the crack under a door.
You’ve damned me, girl, with a feather
saved from dirt. Now you wear it in your hair.
The use of metaphor allows a reader to make associations that would otherwise not occur. --Kelly Cherry