The poems that were submitted to the Southern States contest were grounded in the wisdom that comes only with age and experience. They were varied, moving, and formally inventive—they often sang on the page.
Subjects ranged from childhood memories, to children, grandchildren, and partners. Some poems confronted illness and the challenge of death—our own or those we love. Often travel inspired wonderful poems, and nature always provided the balm that comforts and heals.
I was reminded over and over again what gifts we, as women and as poets, bring to this world. The most difficult part of my task was to select only three winning poems and nine others to receive special notice. The easiest part was to experience life through the eyes of the talented women who shared their poems with me.
her grandfather’s thumb
was a chapter in the story
of his life, a black digit,
a hammer with which
he sometimes hit the nail,
sometimes not. She remembers
once when she was a child,
she reached out and touched it,
wondering how something ugly
could be a part of something
she loved. She said Grandpa
told her the thumb was hard labor,
and she thought he was tough—
but he was also trips to the bakery,
cream puffs and macaroons;
he was pink grapefruit
served with brown sugar
and games of checkers
on summer afternoons,
the hours they spent together. Grown now,
she says she is nails and a hammer too,
blueberry pie and coconut cake,
and the thumb that hits the space key
of a computer when she writes;
she is poem and story, and the digit
that is a chapter in the story of her life.
(traveling with friends in the south of France)
All day we hiked the gorge, descending boulders,
weaving in and out among pines and heather,
the twining yellow butterflies and limeade-
colored lizards. And the child in the Tribune
we’d skimmed while eating breakfast—
this child in the photo in Baghdad sun
watched the hanged men twisting slowly,
she peered out from around the crowd’s legs,
her mother nowhere near, she had been sent
to buy bread, perhaps, or she was on her way
to school, and stumbled on the plaza where they
hold their executions. All day as I climbed
through dusty sunlight or rested for lunch,
pitting apricots, tearing and munching baguettes,
I thought of this child, remembering the California
bookstore where once I crouched over a book
of lynchings published by SNCC, gazed shamed
and transfixed at the page where men with dogs
on choke hold and lank-haired women pressed
around their quarry hanging ragged from a tree—
crouched in the bookstore in my soft orange ruana
and hippie beads I breathed, my lungs rising and falling—
and a kid, his face bleached by the flash,
grinned over his shoulder at the photographer.
First Hard Freeze
In late afternoon, I take my buckets to the garden
to harvest the last basil, tomatoes, peppers,
and two full pails of young rapini.
I replay our hike yesterday on Skyline Drive
through fall foliage to Stone Man Trail,
photos of berries, mountains, colors of autumn.
Photo after photo of gray-green lichens—
a puzzling fascination. Marriage of fungus
with algae in thousands of combinations,
worldwide, used for dyes, medicines and food
in famine. So different, yet symbiotic, the pair
gets along in hardest times. All day, through our drive
and climb, we talked of couples we know who struggle
to stay together, and our connection.
From a seat on a sunny bank, we watched
a walking stick nearly invisible in brown oak leaves
and grass. For lunch, egg salad on homemade bread,
yellow tomatoes and cucumbers in Asian dressing.
Your partner of fifteen years no longer joins us.
At my kitchen sink, I wash and drain the greens.
Between the potted parsley and zebra plant,
I watch leaves swirl down to the mossy ground.
Change. Going inward. The scent of frying garlic
and steamed rapini recalls dinners in Brooklyn,
my parents and sister, at the blonde wood table
in the narrow dinette. My given family, who loved
this dark rapini— Sicilian goodness with a bitter edge.
Fountain with Six Children
After Robert Capa, photograph,
Ghostly, these marble children
on a pedestal, holding hands,
circling an alligator whose jaws
I can’t see. They must have
been singing a song when bombs
fell. Stairways leading nowhere
in the background. How
did this fountain remain intact,
this large funny frog
with eyes atop its head
looking straight at me,
other frogs spaced
an equal distance apart?
If I knew Russian I would sing,
and these children would kick
up their heels and dance.
There’s only a trickle of water left,
so the frogs can’t jump
in, and nowhere for my
wishful coin to sink. A woman
sits on a park bench facing
the fountain. She wears a scarf
in the August heat, and is waiting
for her barefooted daughter,
the one dancing in the swirling skirt.
Margaret S. Mullins
She is two, and words fly in and out.
Verbs tumble and spill,
pronouns get sorted and stored
as she scuffles through dry leaves,
pigtails coming undone.
Me roll down hill higher.
Sounds and concepts swirl and are pulled in,
rearranged, tied together
and sent sailing back out
as she covers her Hermie doll with pine needles,
tucking her in with a kiss.
Go sleep now, Hermie. I ride merry-go-chicken. Oh, man.
Little room for nuance, little need;
subtlety will come later, with secrets.
For now, present tense trumps participles
as she climbs back up the tunnel slide
and corkscrews back down, long legs leading.
Wheee! Me want more olives. Run home now, OK?
She grabs words, flips them over, tosses them back
and folds them into her fantasy play
as she points at a garbage can and announces solemnly
that she lives there. Then she laughs and dances away
into a field of adjectives.
Hermie cool baby. Me love pink Hermie.
Rand Silverbear Hall
oh my beloved south
where the hair pin turns
are tighter than my ass
as the side of the road opens
to a sheer mountain drop
bald knob, white face, cedar mountain
where 15 MPH means it
roads wrapped in foliage
open suddenly to reveal
a horizon of mountain crests
stretching up from the earth
like a sleeping woman’s curves
and even at mid-day
the mist snuggles deep in her valleys
i went out west
to new mexico’s orange and blue
but shrunk in that land infertile
without “life support”
god forsaken… i ached
to come home to the south
green and alive.
forest so dense
it tries to eat the road
trees breaking through the rock
every inch bursting
with life and water
lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, waterfalls
and rich damp soil
maple, oak, tulip, beech and birch
pines reaching for the sky
seem to grow as i watch
the road clings
to the mountain’s side
wraps around her curves
slips deep into her moist hollows
before climbing to the crest
the valley opens
drawing the breath from my lungs
my eyes to distant hills
while wildflowers and mountain laurel
say “don’t look so far away”
You’ve tried to tell me how it is for you, my love,
this fog you say has folded round your agile brain
and I try to imagine how it must feel to struggle
to retrieve a simple memory.
That day in San Francisco when fog
obscured the most familiar landmarks
as though they never were,
everything remained the same as in the sun
but near invisible, and I had to conjure the reality,
my mind retrieving the last known vision of the bridge,
the tower, the bay, all still there but gone.
Do you remember our camping trips in the desert,
the night we shed our sleeping bags
to lie under the stars and didn’t sleep,
afraid we’d miss the constellations’ path?
Can you still recall the night in Iceberg Canyon
when Luciano filled the dark with high C’s
that bounced from canyon wall to canyon wall?
Yesterday you told me that when you woke
you could not remember my name for a moment
and I was terrified that what has lurked in shadows
has now begun to skulk into the light, to steal
our careful equilibrium, carry away what is left
of our loving connection on dusty moth-wings
Your memory invaded by the destroying fog,
your brilliance shrouded in a blur I cannot penetrate.
What shall I do while we wait — shall I search
in dark corners and behind doors and brandish a stick
or a broom, perhaps fight a duel with the damned fog?
Or shall we squeeze life and truth from every moment,
saving grief for later, always later, but not now?
I will never be ready to remember alone.
Bright snow our nest, trudging to the outhouse
Piñon fires, wooly wet things
Our abundance all we had, the two of us
Then life split open like a nut and you were
My grief beyond reason, the middle season of
Childhood stolen; I am sorry
All I could give and some damn blackbird
Snatched you and brought you back broken
The best he could do
I would comb through evidence
Your truculent nature lit a blind trail
Mountains, ponds, rivers, air
Did I think burning the tablet would remove
Pages lived already, strange rooms, cold cars
No comedy seduces me to forget
It is me, this story, it is
Enough lesson for a life
What Grief Isn’t
My grief is not a lake
nor ducks arrival in mist
morning’s slow glimmer
out of which sails rise
miniature and moonlike
It is not the dock
nor the deep end from which
I am invited to dive into
cold springs nor
flesh unready to be stunned
nor the rough bottom
the feet too tender nor is it
the surface of sheen and glisten
the lustered air
mist of our undoing
off-lake and ambient It is not
the old wooden swing’s rope
blister and splinter-ridden
to which we do not come
gloved or loose gripped
nor is grief the hammock
unprepared for our weight
nor the trees like arms held out
unfilled uphill from the riffled
shore which is neither sorrow nor night
Grief is not the sun flashing
the long-eyed glass house
nor morning’s soft focus
nor can the ducks floating out
to the lake’s calm center
surrender to it nor
the boats’ wakes
its reflection of low purple hills
define it as if the house
mirrored on the surface
will imprint itself
as if water is
impermeable and forever
anchored and riddled, trust
to wind. Relentless blue
darkens, the cracked
with rain. Some afternoons
failing light goes
in outrageous red, bleeds
into rose, lavender
above the living and the living
dead. Some nights,
the sky’s black holes,
sad old ghosts, consent
to be consumed by stars.
Jane Ellen Glasser
Tour Guide in the Musée du Louvres
La Grand Odalisque by Ingres
It’s the torso we see first, its languid,
sweeping curve that lures us in. Let critics
argue the deformation of the arm,
the extra vertebrae, the too small head;
the body’s seduction is no less perfect.
The rondure of the breast, the buttocks
are like ripe fruit beckoning to be taken.
Dressed in a jeweled turban and bracelets,
she holds a peacock fan, its many eyes,
against her thigh. As if to repeat a theme,
we’re next drawn to her gaze—aloof—
as if years of harem life have worn her down.
Imagine holding this pose for hours…
Maybe it’s the end of a day and she’s masking
a stiff neck, the chill of a drafty studio, hunger,
restlessness. Or perhaps she’s just taken
a toke of opium from the hookah by her feet,
withdrawn to a foreign place we cannot reach.
Sixty years ago I did something like this.
I remember small triangular blades
scissoring along an arm flung down.
The tall elegant grasses fell
in slow motion as a horse pulled me by.
This time I sit on a John Deere
pulling a flat whirling blade
that grinds through baby palmettos,
thistles with startling fuchsia topknots.
Cowbirds follow the widening cut.
Not so graceful, the chore still ends
in smaller and smaller rectangles.
One last pass. I hope my life ends
with the same feeling: There, I’m done,
you can see for yourself.
(from The Gravity of Flesh)
Contour Line Drawing
Our thumbs the first model, we move
a pen around them on the page,
really seeing for the first time
knuckle hills, the plowed furrows
stretched across them, white half-
moons shining above thumbnail
skies, our finished work ancient
as the first hands drawn centuries
ago on a cave wall by firelight.
After the hijacked plane crashed
in the reaped field, they found
two hands bound at the wrists.
Now we draw our whole hand, lying
on its back, curled fingers reaching
toward us, as in sleep or death.
Two people jumped from the flaming
towers, cartwheeled all the way down
through smoke and ash holding hands.
We trace the second finger pointing
toward the unknown, try to catch
the palm’s curve, its maze of destiny.
Next we trace the lifeline, its deep
groove dark in the innocent hand,
the line a palm reader measures
to gladly announce a long life ahead,
or looks down to mask her expression
for a lesser truth than what she sees.
The chef, a hundred floors up, chopped
beets, the window washer squeegeed,
and a broker wrote in her day planner
as they took their secrets with them,
their delights and lies, failures
and dreams, years they hadn’t lived.
Those who were lost return to dwell
in the negative space between our fingers,
their faces barely imprinted on our palms,
cupped to hold treasure we took for granted
until it was so lost that even our hands
holding photographs couldn’t find it.
“Contour Line Drawing” by Jill Breckenridge from The Gravity of Flesh © Nodin Press, 2009.
(Available at www.Amazon.com.)