Winning Poems for July 2020

Judged by Ron Singer

First Place

An Octopus’s Garden in the Time of Social Distancing

by Laurie Byro

I’d like to be under the sea
in an octopus’s garden with you.
–Ringo Starr 

We thought we’d be happy and there would be no one there
to tell us what to do. But each night, at bedtime, a foghorn
would announce the next day’s rules. Starfish, with their

five arms, would point out that we had to wear our
mask, we had to keep six feet away especially from
the octopus (who liked to hug). We were told we had

to avoid the coral with its boney fingers, forever trying to
undo our buttons, untangle our hair. Sirens became
fretful and instead of luring sailors closer, chirped

“stay away, go back.” Angelfish reminded us what
would happen if we forgot ourselves, if we allowed
the octopus to hug us. We watched as the Angels

multiplied, rising like haze into our sunniest days.
As ever, the sleepy foghorn would blow its warnings,
announce our losses, prepare us while the Angel’s numbers rose.

With the tone anticipated by its epigraph, this poem is a witty take on the pandemic. Like any good conceit, the parts of this one cohere, and like any good poem, this one’s cohesion is strict enough to please, but not to suffocate. If the poem has a sub-text, it is that Covid-19 is like being underwater: we can’t breathe.

By the time the octopus swims past us, in lines 5- 6 (of 15), the terms of the conceit are firmly in place. Then, in a flash, the eponymous sea creature gives way to further aquatic creatures, capturing the effect of a scuba dive or of gazing into an aquarium tank.

Each creature keeps its essence, even as it plays its part in the social distancing. None stays in our ken too long. The form of the poem, unrhymed tercets with enjambment from verse to verse, and the long lines (13-15 syllables), is octopoid.

At the end, the conceit is wittily resolved, with hordes of angelfish represent the mounting numbers of our newly dead. Thus, the other shoe drops: “As ever, the sleepy foghorn would blow its warnings/announce our losses, prepare us while the Angel's numbers rose.”

Playfulness, at the end, gives way to the seriousness of the pandemic. Like the author of June’s first-place poem, Peter Halpin, this poet has found a vehicle that indirectly expresses the combined seriousness and absurdity of the situation in which our species finds itself. --Ron Singer

Second Place


by Andrew Dufresne
Wild Poetry Forum

I do not speak French, Spanish,
Portuguese, German.
Born in winter, I have been
shivering ever since.
When I was young, I gave
my mind to apples and oranges
And neglected the pomegranate
and the pear.
I know that “one” and “three”
and “five” are answers
Where “two” and “six”
are not,

(L’écho de la nuit passe dans l’écho du jour.
Recolecto las bobinas separadas de una
serpiente de cascabel y las sacudaro.)

It’s not that hard to
figure out: language
is ordered
Within nationalities, hewing
to theoretical centers
But pulled constantly
to the fringes, my man.
The parts of speech
are lungs and air.
Look it up. We isn’t
dumb ain’t I?
Smart don’t sell,
that I can tell you.

(Passe dans l’écho du jour di L’écho de la nuit.
Recolecto müde wanden separadas von una serpiente
von cascabel müde dort sacudaro auf.)

They built a tower to the sky
did they and down it came.
In scale it was the biggest,
therefore its fall was mighty.
Oops. Take a lesson. Those
pants are much too small
For you. Here, paint yourself
brown and don’t
Stand tall. My, how you talk.
How’s anyone gonna

(The echo of the night passes in the echo of the day.
I collect the coils of the rattlesnake
And shake them.)

This heteroglossic poem is full of surprises, from erratic punctuation and irregular line length, to tonal extremes (“heteroglossia” to “dawg”), unexpected turns of reference (birth and youth, then fruit and arithmetic), and cryptic logic. (Why were odd numbers “answers,” but even, not?)

And then, in St. 2, the literal heteroglossia sets in, the obscurity of its meanings initially eluding even Dr. Google’s translation. Take the first two lines: “Night’s echo passes into day’s” is French. The more difficult line that follows is Spanish, I think. (Or is it Portuguese?) And this contradicts the poet’s initial disclaimer: (S)he says (s)he is not polyglot.

In st. 3, we arrive at a mini-disquisition on the nature of language: its order and disorder (again, with startling shifts of tone).

Next, we return to the heteroglossic chorus of st. 2, but now the French and Spanish lines both loop around themselves and are peppered with the German “von.”

After that, enter the Tower of Babel. Predictably, this stanza (5) starts with the old trope about hubris, but then, the poet startles us again by shifting to too-tight pants, painting one’s self, and shrinking, before turning back to language (“My, how you talk”) and dissolving back into argot, with surprising line breaks (“How’s anyone gonna/unnerstan/U?”

And, at last, the heteroglossic chorus is Englished, and I understand the meaning of the second line, which, it turns out, mimics the “coiling” effect of the whole poem.

The net effect is a wild ride that uses self-reference and shifts of tone and register to make a point about the disorderly order of language. Some readers may find this poem’s heteroglossia –its dislocations and mixed registers-- unsettling, startling, even pretentious-- but having been to Coney Island, I am an acolyte of roller coasters. --Ron Singer

Third Place

Beethoven Unhappy

by Bob Bradshaw
The Writer's Block

To view the trees​
across from his apartment,​
Uncle hired a stonemason​
to knock a hole in a wall.​

The landlord, enraged,​
demanded Uncle move.​

He couldn’t satisfy critics​
anymore than landlords.​
Why can’t you compose​
more like Haydn–​
or Mozart?“​

His orchestras were unhappy,​
always plotting rebellions against him​
for his unplayable scores.​

His neighbors​
would confront him late at night,​
Uncle in his underwear.​

He would squint at them​
like a misanthrope​
confronting beggars.​

His answer to their complaints?​
A slammed door.​

Years after his death​
they still recall his music,​
restless as surf​
rumbling across their ceilings.​

Groggy, they would bang​
on the landlord’s door​
the next morning​
with their usual complaint​
about the awful​

The narrator is the composer’s nephew, Karl, whom music history remembers primarily as the object of a fractious custody dispute. In this poem, however, Karl offers us a portrait of the human side of the great composer (“Uncle in his underwear”), a man who could not get along with his musicians, his critics, or, especially, his neighbors.

The portrait is intimate and particular: “He would squint at them/like a misanthrope/confronting beggars.” And, as the years pass, these neighbors recall the subject of complaint, “the awful/noise,” with greater appreciation: “restless as surf/rumbling across their ceilings.”

Thus, the poem is primarily a genre painting. Its unobtrusively metrical form complements the matter-of-fact tone. Yet some of the word pictures are very vivid, such as the opening: “To view the trees/across from his apartment/Uncle hired a stonemason/to knock a hole in a wall.” --Ron Singer