Winning Poems for March 2012
Judged by John Timpane
The Lost Daughter
by Laurie Byro
Desert Moon Review
I have three daughters. They say I snatched them
from the earth. But the first appeared in a sugar cube I left
on the window one night after the snow-moon was round.
The second I grew from a seed in a brown porcelain cup.
The last came through my belly after I left on a train.
Everything I wanted I kept finding. Others lose a country,
a lover, a key to make things start. I lost my tongue
and the moon. I had to buy back my loss with keening.
I left their dream-music buttoned-up safe on their pillows.
When I knocked on the door of Patience, there was no reply.
I lost the word that contains all the syllables for mother,
for daughter. My mothers-heart knows the salt and sand
of her as she makes herself known to me. When I read
bedtime stories to them, we were afraid of wolves, afraid of lies.
These woods are full of them large or small, slow or stealthy,
they yip and dance before me skirting the fire while braving
the cold. How strong these lies must be to make them
so bold. I know which sleep-songs I shall never toss away.
I am like the stranger at the rail of a ferry. I search for the last
wave of a hand, the names I knew in a dark, sleeping land.
Compelling imagery accretes to produce a story that isn’t one, yet an emotive impression of a story anyway, built of shards, chance look-ins, juxtapositions of startling things (“Others lose a country/ a lover, a key to make things start. I lost my tongue/ and the moon” – the reference to Bishop’s “One Art” is nicely taken, especially since what the speaker loses must coexist with things gathered, things grown and snatched . . . we lose by gaining. The art of having a daughter is the art of losing her). The speaker searches, ransacks an imaginative universe, is turned away (“When I knocked on the door of Patience, there was no reply.”), is ever-departing on train or ferry. Parenting is a process of departure, always, from the child, the “salt and sand” of whom we know, and yet who eludes us and do things we can’t believe, braving fire and cold and showing strength we choose to believe we impart. Plenty of lovely music here, deftly (even if, especially if unconsciously!) massaged. Line 12 is delectable to read aloud. But the cascade of various long and short a sounds in the last couplet is a feast in itself: “I am like the stranger at the rail of a ferry. I search for the last/ wave of a hand, the names I knew in a dark, sleeping land.” We slide from schwas to full-blown long a’s. Just sumptuous, but also a means to finalize the poem, not to end it but rather to conclude our experience of this utterance, cementing the wave, the hand, the darkness. I do love the internal rhyme, too, of the last line. A fabulous fable. ---John Timpane
by Allen Weber
FreeWrights Peer Review
Like a blue flame in a speakeasy, that’s how Granddad found her,
shuddering and swaying to Mood Indigo. But family lore won’t
explain what a hard-handed man could whisper to such a woman
that would let her trade downtown celebrity for orchards and fields—
the glamour of tending endless rows. Seventy-two years later,
she’s in Chicago, again. Having met last night the warmest man,
she’s slipped into that old blue dress, packed her valise. Through the screen,
see her rocking the front porch swing, waiting to ride to where she already is.
This tells an intriguing story that not only revolves around but also embodies Duke Ellington’s wondrous, sultry piece. As a poem, it makes me feel much as the musical piece does. The voice sounds as if it belongs to a person of long habitation on this planet, long understanding of the ironies of human history life by life. Quatrains of long lines load every rift with ore yet move sinuously around line-endings: “But family lore won’t/ explain what a hard-handed man could whisper to such a woman/ that would let her trade downtown celebrity for orchards and fields – / the glamour of tending endless rows.” Wonderful and telling. We’ll never know just what he said, just as we’ll never meet the “warmest” (beautiful uncompared superlative!) man for whom she apparently is waiting at the end. This woman always already is where she’s going, even when that surprises the world. I like her and her paradoxes deeply. ---John Timpane
Third Place (Tie)
this poem is not about the charity of the dead,
by Brenda Morisse
Wild Poetry Forum
their innuendo and walnut smiles.
It’s not about how they call to me in a subdued timbre,
fill my room with grandma’s sweet language
of papaya and arroz con coco, her shallow cooing
that originates at the tip of the tongue.
This poem is not about the virgin yolk
and the muck of razors and daily resurrection.
It’s not about yellow cuticles, the schoolyard ditch
or what do you want to be when you grow up?
I polish my last breath, forget tomorrow’s cringe
in the epiphany of an emptied pillbox beside the bed.
This poem is not about the puzzling safety of whiskey,
no muscles left to kowtow to the slap and stalking nude
as I slump and cherish the painless tumble
in the shower watering down my first drunk.
This poem is not about the throaty
Falling in Love Again on the jukebox,
belly to bar and midnight shooters,
the hangover gauze filtering neon lovers
as they offer up hotel-room champagne
or moon like reluctant grooms, unbraiding my hair.
This poem is not about the bloody clock
of the womb, Has it been a month?
or Oh shit, it’s been over a month.
Nor is it about the thick musk and gush of my insides
making an appearance and how it finished
with a shrug and vanished after forty years.
This poem does not begin at the feet and dress-up
with an impure strut. It doesn’t recognize the new chiaroscuro
of wrinkles in the mirror, confirming a lifetime
of velocity escaping the reigns of resistance.
This poem is not about the darkest floaters in my eyes
or the hollows beneath them.
It could have been gimmicky to create an entire poem around the conceit of what it’s not about. Preterition, that rhetorical device, mentions what it claims it won’t mention, therefore making us behold it, up against our noses. The reason “this poem” works is that the things the poem isn’t about are so wondrous, the language so unexpectable. And, despite its own protestations, it does build into a narrative of things it’s not about, as if the speaker is in denial and is trying to avoid the impression that s/he is trying to give an impression. In a poem that’s about what it isn’t, we latterly experience a rush of the fleshly, of periods and dressing and wrinkles in mirrors. The final image, of “the darkest floaters in my eyes/ or the hollows beneath them,” without really even touching on death, suggest it nonetheless, by pointing out the falling-apartness of supposedly integral aspects of the flesh (the retina, whose instability is marked in the floaters), and the empty basis of the supposedly solid. The unmentioned wrinkles “confirm” a particular “lifetime/ of velocity escaping the reigns of resistance,” a nicely telescoping surrealism worthy of Desnos. The wrinkles thus confirm a lifetime seeking to escape, as the poem appears to seek to escape. Plenty of beautiful, puzzling moments. ---John Timpane
Third Place (Tie)
All Love Is Outlaw
by John Wilks
The Write Idea
Lob a grenade into the Scrabble bag,
see what the shrapnel spells. One act of love:
a terrorist kisses his wife goodbye
and all love is outlaw. If evil feels
the same as the man on the omnibus
without a back-pack, then no heart is safe.
No heart is safe. We muster our tiles
to make high-scoring words, while concealing
our worst letters. To deceive in order
to win. Darling, when I say I ZQVX you,
understand I need a blank. An empty space
which could hold anything. Those are the rules.
If the rest of this poem failed utterly, I’d still revere it for the passage “Darling, when I say I ZQVX you,/ understand I need a blank.” We have here a very handy extended metaphor, in a poem that blows up the game board, just to start. It’s a flashy move but does not fall flat, thanks to the lovely “see what the shrapnel spells.” The poem insists on the explosive randomness of love, on the essentially deceitful nature of courtship (“We muster our tiles/ to make high-scoring words, while concealing/ our worst letters.”), on love as a game for which the rules are blank, are any- and everything. I very much like the “if . . . then” faux-reasoning of lines 4-6, followed by the pat confirmation of “No heart is safe” across the space in line 7. Just terrific movement throughout, using line endings in a canny, funny, lancing fashion. This little poem packs a dense wallop, almost as if it were the Big Bang in reverse. It covers so much ground in such a short space, giving the impression of long-lived, long-observed experience. It’s a poem of thought and action, ever-unrolling, eye always on the surprise. It taught me a lot. ---John Timpane
by Cynthia Neely
Desert Moon Review
The fog is in. We button coats against
the dank, and that which we don’t know
rises and parts, sets in again. Frost
would have us choose a road, mend a wall.
But we’d work too hard at it, digging up
old poems, pick and shovel, body
and soul, trombones moaning
like Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street,
instead of here, where we sit tonight
beneath these wind-crippled pines, no road,
no wall to choose or mend; instead, we tend
our wine, sip our liquor, lick our wounds,
like salted margaritas, limed green
as luna moths whose caterpillars soon
will spin cocoons, while days diminish,
nights lengthen, cryptic as years.
Could it be a mistake? What difference
would one road make?
As a reader, I can take a poem any way that suits me, and it suits me to treat this quizzical, smart effort as if it were an ars poetica of a sort. The art of writing (or maybe of being) entails choosing, or avoiding the choice of, a road that literally does not exist, making a choice one can’t see or know, existing in “that which we don’t know.” Choice itself is a hazard; it can be a bad choice; one can try too hard. I have no idea what the “it” in the penultimate line actually is, not that it’s legitimate to ask that at all. But it does sort of attach to the floating topic of choosing a way. I like the way metaphor and simile bear us away from recognizable referents, often by starting as clichés then going someplace unexpected: we “lick our wounds,// like salted margaritas, limed green/ as luna moths whose caterpillars soon// will spin cocoons.” The wounds we (already metaphorically) lick are like margaritas, which are as green as moths, and so on. The speaker, and his associates/friends, the “we” sitting beneath “these wind-crippled pines,” do nothing but sit and lick. Maybe that’s the “it” that could or could not be a mistake. And I do like the last attempt to blow the whole road/wall thing out of the water, with the last who-cares question. A poem that began with echoes of Sandberg and Frost ends cocooned in underminings. Very nicely done. ---John Timpane
Across Europe and beyond
a man’s about to fall in love.
In the metro, air exhaled in unison
with cloud movement, a woman
stops to ask for directions.
The city where we loved each other.
I’ll give you the moon and the sun
one large-winged bird, Jonathan dreaming.
Winter isn’t so bad after all.
At noon big cities look alike. At night bare
branches and truth sway in wind. Imagine
humans turning into deer. Love
is weird. Have you seen such a sky before?
But you don’t really care for poetry, do you?
a woman’s about to fall
out of love. Someone is born,
someone dies. People will live
much longer, small towns
will become ghost towns,
people will migrate more and more.
They didn’t mention wars.
Have a sandwich with anything you like.
I like the dark sweep of this poem. It’s hard to avoid the certainty that somewhere, across Europe and beyond, there really is a man about to fall into, and a woman about to fall out of, love. We feel how far apart the man and the woman are . . . even if they are a couple, or even if they are anywhere in Europe or beyond. Threads run among the lines, references to Leonard Cohen and Chris Rea tunes, including a (deliberately) revamped line, But you don’t really care for poetry, do you? which could be the speaker of the song, re-singing it, or the poet speaking to any reader at all. These are songs, we feel, that people in or wanting to be in, or remembering what it was like to be in, then fall out, of love, listen to . . . and there grows, throughout the only apparently disjointed imagery, a sense of personal history, expanding, in the accelerating, widely telescoping last nine lines, a sense of world and human history, migrations, births, deaths, and (but this was not mentioned) wars. And then, as if out of self-consciousness, the rug is pulled out from under the poem with the last line. This poem both abjures a cohesive center and creates one, both fragments a sense of history and cements one. Lovely. ---John Timpane