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.

Hilde Weisert

 

“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

 

Persephone

 

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

mineral substance

as earth.

 

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.

 

Lynn Plath

 

“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,

and drank.

 

Rebecca Baggett

 

“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

of Arizona

 

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

been broken

 

Connie Post

 

“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

once again

washing away the dark.

 

Susan Roney-O’Brien

 

“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.