2008 LOIS CRANSTON MEMORIAL POETRY PRIZE WINNER
Finding Wilfred Owen Again
Our college love affair was doomed
like all the romance I outgrew at twenty;
trench warfare’s mad embrace be damned
along with Buffy Sainte-Marie and Nietzsche.
And anyway, the war in Vietnam was ending.
For decades he lay silent in a book,
moved from Brooklyn to St. Louis and LA
with curling snapshots, silver rings turned black,
the mildewed albums I will never play.
I left him to his war; our war had ended—
Until I call, the offhand way you do old flames
(as if you hadn’t kept their trail of numbers)
when something big has changed, or Armageddon looms.
(Shamed moment: Was it Rupert I remember?
Romance imagined?) Not now: War has descended—
distant and mine. I’m dazed, feckless, as lost
as my lost country. So I come here,
to find myself standing on shattered ground he blessed
with full eyes ninety years ago and hear
him tell another time how war must end
in this fell field, on this dark page. The night
opens, closes, opens, a swinging sulfur rhythm in the flare
igniting each line end, the faces lit
and then eclipsed, but always bright the names.
Author’s Note: Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was killed by German machine-gun fire leading his men across a canal in northwest France on November 4, 1918. News of his death reached his home a week later as the town’s church bells declared peace. In just thirteen months, in battle, in hospital, and back in battle again, Owen wrote thirty-one war poems, blazing into mature power with many poems considered the finest about war in the English language. They are known for their passion, sorrow, and courage; the unsparing portrayal of the special horrors invented in WW I; and their artistry and technical innovation.
“It was very difficult to choose a single prize-winner…. I finally let my choice depend on that elusive poetic quality that we feel without being able to name it—whatever it is in a stanza or a line of a poem that makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle and my breath catch. When I realized that every time I read the last stanza of this poem, that slight electric shock went through me, I said OK… Partly it’s the subject, approached so casually and revealed with such passion; partly it’s the delicately handled form, the recurring rhyme and halfrhyme; but what else is the secret of it? I don’t know, but the quality is rare, and to be honored and celebrated.” Ursula K. Le Guin, final judge
Hilde Weisert is a Geraldine Dodge Foundation Poet and winner of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowship. Her poems are published in The Cortland Review, Ms., The Sun, Southern Poetry Review, among others. She is co-founder of the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature, supporting the discussion of literature in veterinary education. Besides Chapel Hill, NC, she lives part-time in Sandisfield, MA.
2008 Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize First Runner-Up
Even in the presence of light
I build dark houses,
I wait for warmth to lapse,
for darkness like a voice
to beckon and enclose.
In summer I empty my heart,
I shape and smooth it like a clay vessel
to receive his love,
my husband’s, the one who stops time.
I am under his darkness
and the smell of ash is extravagant,
hands and voice of the same
I build each house
with dark alcoves,
roof of soot and eaves of pitch,
the windows painted black,
gleaming; no need for light,
no need even for sun’s echo.
Absence is enough,
absence carries its own weight.
I came not of my own will,
I came because of my admiration for
a flowering stalk.
It was not a transparent pane
of glass shattering, not
something loud and startling
as morning sun
that led me
from doorway of light
to black corridor,
but his shoulder blocking sky,
the hushed speech of the dead
murmuring all around us.
Like a child learning sound,
I press my hands
to his throat,
feel the vibration in muscle, bone,
as he speaks—
what he is fluent in
is not yet my language
but will be—
earth and rock and ash.
My hands unlearn their awkwardness,
find grace in repetition,
his rough lips pleasing
on my thighs,
the rest of me ground down,
worn away by his caresses,
reduced to a calm
like silver, his element.
I, who once loved light
and the things of light
above all else,
now I wait for a darker world
to spin and lock me
into its rotations,
to cut my lips with its sweetness,
to find me like seeds
of the pomegranate found my tongue.
I am still the dutiful daughter
returning at seed-time and harvest
but now, when he relinquishes me,
lets me go once more
through panels of spring and summer,
how savage the tough of light.
“Also completely successful as a poem, I thought, is ‘Persephone,’ which appealed deeply to me by the way it ‘lives into’ an ancient legend of inexhaustible meaning to women, and by the great simplicity, dignity, and power of the language.” Ursula K. Le Guin
Lynn Plath was born in Evanston, IL, grew up in the Midwest, and both her work and education are rooted there. She is published in Rhino, The Old Red Kimono, Cottonwood, and Rosebud.
2008 LOIS CRANSTON MEMORIAL POETRY PRIZE RUNNERS-UP
¤ That Summer
My brother returned from Vietnam
with a knot of scar tissue
from sternum to shoulder
and grey eyes so wide and empty
even the ocean couldn’t fill them.
Every morning that summer,
we walked to the far end
of our island, away from the pier
and the boardwalk, jangle of pinball
and carousel music, away from
the sweet cloying scent
of cotton candy and hot doughnuts,
away, away from the raucous tourists
with their sun-reddened shoulders and thighs,
their children glowing
like hibiscus flowers
in pink and purple suits.
On the edge of our world
we sat close together,
castaways with frayed towels,
wax-paper-wrapped cheese sandwiches,
Sam’s cooler of beer, my milk jug
filled with sweet tea.
I crunched ice and read
Jane Austen, lost in a world
where I wore my hair piled high,
an Empire-waisted gown,
and white lace gloves,
while Darcy bowed to me
across the ballroom floor.
Sam stared out at the waves
and said nothing, all summer,
while our skins darkened
to the shade of polished oak,
and the sun rode low on the white peaks
of the waves. Every evening
while I changed for work
our mother whispered to me,
What did he say? What
did he say? and would not believe me
when I told her Nothing.
I don’t know how
to talk about it, Sam said at last.
It was sunset, late August,
and he clutched the last lukewarm
can of beer. I had reached
the final chapter of my book,
and I didn’t want to listen to my brother
just then, wanted to linger
where Darcy toasted me,
where tables gleamed
with crystal, silver, spotless linen,
but Sam leaned
toward me, gripped my shoulder.
I don’t know why I’m here,
he said. Why am I alive?
This is the only thing that saved me.
He gestured to the shore,
to sandpipers chasing the waves
back and forth in their never-ending dance,
their endless rise and fall.
My brother turned to me
across the sand.
You, he said, and bowed
to me, and raised his can,
“More typical of many of the submitted poems than my other choices, this long, informal personal narrative builds to an unexpectedly moving close.” Ursula K. Le Guin
Rebecca Baggett is the author of two poetry collections, Still Life with Children and Greatest Hits 1981-2000, both from Pudding House Publications. Her poems, stories, and essays are published in numerous journals and anthologies, including six issues of CALYX Journal and the CALYX anthology, A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-Five Years of Women’s Poetry.
¤ Left Behind
you dropped your promise
on the way out the door
I noticed it hanging
half out of your pocket
when you came in
I could tell you had a life
full of hard whiskey
and imperfect chapters
you never looked at me
as I sat reading a magazine
about health and wellness
your appointment was before mine
so I never heard your name
I wondered what you told
your children before
you left them in the dry heat
I wondered how many
burned bars and broken teeth
you have stepped over
between the red chili pepper skies
It’s not that
you remind me of anyone
It’s not that I shuddered
when your hand smothered
the door knob when you left
It’s only that
I have picked up this
promise you left behind
and it is still here in my lap
but who am I to pretend
I’ve ever seen a red pepper sky
or that my teeth have ever
“A brief, dry, allusive narrative so full of lovely use of colloquial language, it’s irresistible…” Ursula K. Le Guin
Connie Post is the first and current Poet Laureate of Livermore, CA. During her term, she created two popular reading series, “Wine and Words” and “Ravenswood.” She has written six collections of poetry and her poetry is widely published in many journals. Her most recent book City of Words is a collection of all of the poems she has written during her term as Poet Laureate.
¤ At St. Peter’s Basilica
a janitor swipes
a mop head over marble,
grey water sloshes from the plastic pail
he hooks with his foot
and slides behind his steps.
He is dressed in blue—his hair
grey as the mop head, the water, the stones,
and the water is old, holds Paleozoic tears,
yesterday’s bath, and he washes
stolen mosaics from Constantine’s floors
while tourists, some faithful,
caress the worn feet of St. Peter
replaced three times,
all toes gone on the right,
then study Bernini’s baldachin
that shades the pope—
bronze ripped from the Pantheon.
On the Sistine ceiling,
Michelangelo, to hold the corners
of Christianity together,
painted gold-bodied mythological figures
between Old Testament prophets.
Nothing is new—the footsteps
of Jesus trace the early gods’,
the seasons’ celebrations
echo Druid rites,
and the swing of the mop
is the scythe’s arc,
a comet’s sweep,
a parabola of light
washing away the dark.
“A marvelous extended metaphor that manages to get most of Western history and the whole cosmos into its 32 vivid, unpretentious lines.” Ursula K. Le Guin
Susan Roney-O'Brien teaches middle school, reads for The Worcester Review, and writes. Her work is published in many journals. She won the Worcester County Poetry Association Contest, the William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award for her chapbook Farmwife, and the New England Association of Teachers of English Poet of the Year Award.