Winning Poems for August 2009

Judged by George Szirtes

First Place

Smoke and Mirrors

by Antonia Clark
The Waters

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

Second Place (tie)

Doris Gray pictures regret

by Jennifer Bennett

the old woman has a
guilt edged
box on the wall
and in it sit her
two buttons
and she cuts through the wrists of
the doll her mother made for her sister
removing the buttons imbued
with a glistening green hate
with the wish it was her sister’s hands she had hacked off
with those sweet little scissors
in the shape of a heron
the shell that looks like a shoe
takes her walking the isthmus
where they said you would find nothing
grow nothing
leave nothing but footprints
and there it was
hard as love
a matchbox boat her daughter made her
so many years ago
before floating away
on a sea of years
wet with neglect
that tower of torn letters
small dried flowers

An interesting poem from the narrative point of view, moving through stages, developing rhetoric as it goes through its sinister twists and turns to great effect. There may be a difficulty in 'telling a story' that so clearly has a context outside the poem since poems generally have to be their own complete worlds. The emotional intensity of the last three lines must be coming from somewhere, presumably from the cutting of the wrists of the doll and that 'green hate'. The appearance of a they and a you in the middle - they disappear again - is a little disorientating. There is a really interesting question here regarding the world and the poem since, clearly, poems are set in the world and cannot be entirely self-referencing, but there must, I suspect, be a negotiation with that world within the terms of the poem. This feels a little like a dramatic speech from something longer. It would help me - my ignorance - to know who Doris Gray was. --George Szirtes

Second Place (tie)


by Billy Howell-Sinnard
The Writer's Block

I roast words
over the fire,
warm my feet,

soles to flames,
get down to hear
the earth breathe.

You drink
cowboy coffee
late, the mug

warming fingers,
feel the moon
close to your face.

I can’t stop laughing
until I cry and
don’t know why.

Your body rises
in the sleeping bag.
The moon settles

in the trees, a great
white bird migrating
horizon to horizon.

Splendid last image on which a great deal depends. I am not sure what to do with the intensity of emotion in verse 5, or why the words are being roasted in line 1. I don't mean I cannot guess, it's just that the emotions seem to be generated from outside the poem and that can make the reader feel like an intruder on the I and you. And I cannot feel too secure in my guess. I am left looking over my shoulder in case I have missed something. I like everything in this poem, particularly the end. Maybe I just want a little more context for the feeling. It is a very difficult issue because indicating that context is not the same as explaining it. Maybe one more verse of three lines, somewhere near the beginning would do it. --George Szirtes

Second Place (tie)

Toad Festival

by Connie DeDona

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

Highly Commended


by mignon ledgard

why leave shadows
and enter the fractured red
when ploughed snow
brings the horizon closer

it is such poor vision
behind a broken window

glass shattered
to dust
we walk and wonder
why feet ache

A good short poem - the last line feels a little thinner than the rest: such a rational question after that fractured red! The aural aspect is lovely: the sheer sound of it is excellent. --George Szirtes

Highly Commended


by Judy Thompson
The Town

It was the goal in the center
of everyone’s summer;
you sat on a rock in the sun
thinking, I could do that now
and all at once there you were
with your toes in the water, mind made up.
The air tingled in your nose
as you struck out past the dropoff,
further out than you had ever been;
the lake bottom disappeared beneath you
and where the water a moment ago was filled
with sunbacked shadows now it was
dark, cold, a glimpse of what infinity
must look like. You saw hints of drowned stumps
impossibly far down, tried to ignore
the voices calling you back–
the only thing that gave you
courage was one strong voice saying, “Let her try,
for Christ’s sake!” and when you clambered
onto that far piney bank winded, arms aching,
you suddenly understood
what halfway there really meant

A straightforward tightly written but sensuous narrative that depends on realizing the detail and allowing the reader to feel the power of those drowned stumps. The you is effectively internalized for the speaker for whom something is clearly at stake - or was at stake. Recounting an event of this nature - an initiation or encounter with infinity - carries a slight risk of inoculating the reader against risk. We know the experience is over and are left to wonder why we are being told this now and how much weight 'halfway there' carries.

Highly Commended

my name is river

by Derek Richard
Wild Poetry Forum

carlos says my face
a frenzy of boiling rivers.
this is the only compliment
my face
has ever received.

every morning
since i was five
i’ve begged the mirror to lie.
mirrors are the most honest
people i know.

carlos describes girls.
how they taste like stale popcorn,
feel like an old couch,
how they invite through eyes,
stamp out through scorn.
i’ll get you a girl, someday,

he promises, blind, drunk or crazy.
every morning
since i was five
i remember daddy, acid and sirens.
my cheekbones were soft,
people all around me, screaming

stay calm, stay calm.
carlos calls me River.
it’s one of the kindest things
anyone has ever said.
someday i’m going to get married,
father beautiful children,
drunk, blind or crazy.

the mirror will lie,
the itch behind my eyes will fade
and the frenzy of rivers
will blend into a calming of sea.
dear daddy, i’ll write,
my name is river, i am your son.

The speaker is the really interesting thing here, since he is constructed like a character in fiction, with a voice out of the dramatic monologue tradition. The voice hangs in the air like something we recognize, something with baggage that is not entirely unfamiliar. That recognition helps for the most part since the baggage involves archetypes. The potential disadvantage is that the experience may remain 'out there', like a genre movie in which we know the tropes but stick with it because it is so well made. I am, I should add, assuming that the poem is not a piece of straight confessional. It feels a little too honed to be taken as a straight personal account, which would, after all, bring in its own problems. --George Szirtes

Highly Commended

Oils of Soft Fingers

by S. Thomas Summers
The Writer's Block

The sofa absorbs early sun,
siphons heat. Already, its paisley
swirls brighten. Small flowers –

petal edges rise like a sylvan Braille,
fertilized by cookie crumbs, potato chip salt.
I ask some unseen vine to tighten

its itchy length around my waist, pull
me beneath the cushions where I’d lie –
a forgotten coin. One day you’ll misplace

your eyeglasses, fail to remember where you
abandoned your keys. As you rummage
through the darkness that bears these

cushions, you’ll rediscover me, polish
my ache with the oils of soft fingers.

This is a lovely vignette - that sylvan Braille is nicely found - and the warmth and sensuousness of it are beautifully conveyed. My one uncertainty is about the ending, that may be either a bit too complete or maybe not quite enough. The lost coin image is at the core of the poem. Maybe we should have a little more of the coin as coin at the end. --George Szirtes

Honorable Mention

true romance in black and white

by Alex Stolis
Wild Poetry Forum

on the charcoal gray corner
of franklin and chicago
a sepia woman is alone,
maybe waiting for a bus,
maybe lonely, afraid, needing
protection; maybe on the make
with a razor sharp attitude
ready to slice you open
the instant you utter a sound.
she brings a cigarette to her lips,
hesitates for a moment
and once you crawl inside
that moment you are unsure,
words lodge in your throat,
your eyes drawn to the crease
in her skirt, the curve of her hips
as she shifts her weight, moves
her left hand to light the cigarette.
there is a spark and a flame
and you catch a brief flash
of truth or is it a well concealed lie.
she deliberately closes her eyes
and you count onethousandone,
onethousandtwo, when they open
she exhales. you want the smoke
to cut through you, want to know
her name, where she was born,
you want to take her home, want
to walk away and find another
drink in another city on another
corner and though you don’t believe
in god you pray for primary colors
and rain to break the silence.
she takes a final drag; in the still
air you catch your breath and wish
for her kiss to bleed you dry
until all that’s left are ragged
shreds of apathy drenched
in green, blue and red.

Honorable Mention

Surgery at 14

by Timothy Blighton
Desert Moon Review

For Emily

The doctor returned
from his antiseptic kingdom with a gift: your son
with his ribs split to reveal the un-lit
entrails and their favorable signs, where his heart
bulged through the separation,
like an unclenching fist, one held holy by you,
since his father struck him

down the stairs. The hiss of veins
coil and snake through his chest with the charm
of blood from a flywheel
beating an irregular time: he has inherited
your straw hair, coal-eyes; he, too, has been
stripped naked by prescription, set upon
by a father’s curse of rage.

Beside his bed, the hum
of machines. An air hose strung around his neck,
he is sewn back together, all the trauma settling
between dry coughs. Yet, his eyes will open
into white knuckles; fever-dreams will set,
shaking his useless arms. He will begin
to sweat; the nurses will be unable

to mix the proper ingredients to turn
bodyweight into silence, unable to dispel
the moan-cry, or reach out
and cup the chest of a sutured effigy. His voice
will sting the nostrils. The call-light will code:
open-close, open-close, open-close.

Honorable Mention

tasting the blade

by Pam O'Shaughnessy

during the time of the babies
before the return of the large hadron collider
when my arms were full of you
the warm day lay quiet and blue
we took naps
the hours before lunch

were thirteen billion
comfort – belonging to
our slow movements as if we’d last
into afternoon and you’d be forever new
lifting the spoon like a spoon
has never been lifted before

with joy as if joy is eternal discovery
pushing forward into time and mass
at the stores of women you hid
behind the racks at noon the clocks held
still noon even after the ice-cream
still noon at the kindergarten door

I was a grazing ewe raising my head
to see again the noon the lamb the grass
the grass the lamb the unending noon
look look you’d say and I’d look lazily
stroking your soft hair
at the daylit moon a slip showing

  • April 2021 Winners

    • First Place

      What If I Wasn’t Born as Much as I Fell Out
      by Jim Zola
      The Waters

      Second Place

      Sycamore Dreams
      by Terry Ofner
      The Waters

      Third Place

      A Clear Crisp Morning
      by Kenny A. Chaffin
      Wild Poetry Forum

  • March 2021 Winners

    • First Place

      What if the Wages of Dying is Love
      by Jim Zola
      The Waters

      Second Place

      The Heart is not earthbound
      by Michael Virga
      The Writer's Block

      Third Place

      Ode to My Ears
      by Bob Bradshaw
      The Writer's Block