When we at Persimmon Tree decided to hold an international poetry contest, we weren’t sure we’d get enough submissions to make it work. Although we have readers in 75 countries, the numbers are small compared to those who live within the U.S.
As it turns out, plenty of submissions came in. We thank Wendy Barker, our guest editor, for carefully going through them and selecting the poems you will read below. A poem of hers is included in this section, as is our custom for our guest editors. The winners of the contest come from a variety of countries: Turkey, France, England, Italy, Israel, Canada (Ontario and Quebec), and Greece. Congratulations to these fine poets.
Her Detail—Paris Cherry Trees
The distant woman remembers—Paris but not what trees were blooming
then, when she hung under their fallen nail parings in a June, or what blooms
in April, do cherry trees bloom in April, yes, I’ll tell her, but these times do we
know what is about to open, the hand, the cannon, the heart, I send her mad
Van Gogh’s marronniers instead, did he even then mistake their fists for stars—
I’ll hope this is for a page, I’ll tell her, not for a science experiment on deaths
of birds who have forgotten when to sing, is it in winter or in autumn when
Tuileries garden grandmother crows counsel how easy it is to lose a voice
that bloomed in hope— Someday you’ll visit Jerusalem, a visiting woman
speaks to me over buttered salmon, I’ve been visiting churches, she says— their
martyr-song no different than our wailing wall, I see it— she is touching
the knife, now— all one, all one— nodding over the pink dead fish we feed on.
If I can give you one question from Paris, dear visitor, dear distant woman
unsure what tree, dear self, and I hope it is not for science of failing
blossoms or the death of gods, with and without my dying faith, could it be
this, what faith does a soul need, to flower? any? winter or in spring, in
bright or in black, even when it loses its skin, a healthy snake has
a heart that is in danger of peace—shedding, let us make
peace this season, even if it kills us there is nothing more to die for.
We bow to one another at the corner of a boulevard I once walked with my mother,
her twentieth century sobs turned to gin, l’Hotel Lutetia housed German generals
when cherry blossoms bloomed, even then— every
year, every year, all falling, all flesh, all unsure of what day it is
hope — loses and wins the dawn, its white petal . . .
Taste of Vanilla
Somewhere on a bed, a woman, tasting rain.
Somewhere on the Seine, a motorboat, three
monks in gray cassocks and life-vests reach.
Their little launch idles where they clamor
out and up a jetty wall to buy ice cream cones at
Berthillon, re-board, and river-borne, lick prayers
as potent as vanilla, to bells — the most surreal
tourists in sight of Notre Dame, her steel eye.
Small pleasures beckon.
They will remember the taste
of marron glacé and vanille and the water spray
of a filthy river, mixed, for all their lives. It will
taste like sacrament, like sex.
Summer torpor makes us want to weep all
week, weep, for choking oil-slicked beaks,
weep for independence fallen, in our country,
weep for altars of an old light.
Cooled enough to cross again, sky
is metallic with albumin, gilded with vanished sun,
stains left behind like some slaughtered goat
carted off in pieces, magnificence of its kill-
color, smeared where it last cried.
Quieted, kinder, sky guards its monks on
a platinum Seine.
There is a Russian story: three
hermit monks on a desert islet, so old they
have forgotten how to pray. Their bishop’s
voyaging ship stops, he lowers in a tiny boat,
and lands it at their shore to bless them.
We’ve forgotten, they confess, teach us, please,
again. And he does. And leaves them to their lonely
holiness. No sooner gone, than the old men forget
their prayer, bereft, one runs and chases after:
running on waves to cry oh Father,
Father we’ve forgotten, tell us again.
My grandmother spoke about angels;
they stood at the foot of my bed.
They counted the sins of the daylight;
they counted the sins in my head.
They glared as I crept beneath bedclothes,
sought solace from teddies and dolls.
But they knew of the time when I ate all the sweets;
the time when I drew on the walls.
The time when I farted, blamed Great Uncle Ted,
who seemed unconcerned by the pong.
The time when I failed at my spellings;
the time my additions were wrong.
The time I was late down to breakfast;
when I left my bike out in the frost.
The time when I hid the crisp letters from school
that warned I was weaker than most.
Oh yes, they saw it all, these angels of mine,
that stood at the foot of my bed.
Did they count the sins of my grandmother?
They disappeared once she was dead.
That Stick, That Wind
It was a long drive from the city
through the string of farm towns,
and then onto the high plains,
and up and through the hills.
There were cars behind me,
but the road ahead was empty,
an abstract stroke on vellum.
The wind picked up, and clouds,
untethered, gray and barren,
scudded across the horizon.
Near home, three girls,
kneeling beside the road,
drew a stick through an anthill,
disrupted the pattern, and watched.
Your absence is like that stick, that wind.
I scatter in a thousand directions.
Let a Boat Rest Here
Paint me as a boat
or paint me as the clear pond
upon which I float.
Let the paint peel from the boat.
Obscure its mooring.
Paint me as a rippled pond
with pebbles beneath.
Let the ripples reveal where
the last raindrop fell
and where agitation lies.
Paint me as the sky
reflected in a clear pond.
Let my colors be
blue and gray and white and gold,
now the storm has passed.
Paint me as a smooth pebble
beneath the surface
of the pond, rippled and clear.
Let a boat rest here,
its long lines my counterpoint.
Paint me as the rain
collected in a small boat
that rests on pebbles,
moored in the shallow water
of a rippled pond.
Let the paint peel.
Let a boat rest here.
Cardiac Ward at Dinnertime
Listen. There’s always a word in the air,
a word that floats out of the room across the hall,
echoes through the open doors of the bathroom
linking this room with the next, then drifts
down to the nursing station. Squash,
say the women (wives, daughters
granddaughters, nieces). Squash.
You know squash. You like it.
Nothing is what it seems. Lassie on TV
when I was a kid, was male, even though
he was sometimes shown with puppies
crawling over him as if seeking teats.
(Collie bitches throw their coats
twice a year, lose their collie charm.)
This scoop of squash, next to a scoop
of mashed potatoes, could be
pumpkin ice cream, next to vanilla
in a photo for a magazine around
Thanksgiving. Real ice cream would melt
under the photographer’s lights.
The men who don’t know squash
or don’t like it are the lucky ones:
Dinner comes on a tray—something like
room service in a hotel—and not
through a tube in the arm.
Lukewarm squash may not be tasty,
one of the women says to another, but
it’s good for him and won’t burn his mouth.
She believes—and she’s not alone—
that once the doctor figures out his meds,
her husband (father, grandfather,
uncle) will return, can come back home.
B is for the birds
Israel is a bottleneck for migration routes;
five hundred million pass through each year.
Who came first?
The Indian silver bill established itself
along the Syrian-African rift in the 1920s.
The corncrakes, red-footed falcons, and pelicans
are just visiting. The bitterns are ours.
“Bulbul” derives from Arabic for nightingale,
which it is not, its song nasal or gravelly,
and the name now childish Hebrew
for penis. The northern wheatear has nothing to do
with wheat or ears, its English name white-arse,
which it has. A holdover from the Mandate,
like emergency regulations? Rare,
but a Kurdish wheatear was spotted in the Negev
during the war in Gaza. And Oriental skylarks
cross borders like foreign workers with wings.
Tree-tree-tree trill the little green bee-eaters,
not caring whose. Its multicolored sexes
look alike, which is against some beliefs.
O yellow wagtail and old world warblers,
fly catchers, sand grouse, shrikes and babblers,
An assimilated foreigner, this 25th letter.
It immigrated for good, yawing
far from Scandinavia, and slipped an over dose of yang
to Chinese bachelors laboring on the railroads.
Now we nibble the roasted yams
of ambushed Africans and spoon up our Turkish yoğurt.
Some words stayed like people simply because
we use them, happy to yabber
without knowing pidgin.
Person+animal in Tibet is our
abominable snowman, Yeti.
We continue to tickle the Sanskrit yoni
in linguistic oblivion of common origins,
and worship the god, Yahweh.
And don’t care where from
or where to.
Toronto, April 2, 1957
My son, who isn’t generally all that impressed
by what I’ve done in my life
is, he says, blown away
when he learns that I saw Elvis once.
The real Elvis.
In concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto,
April 2, 1957.
You were there? You were actually there?
You were, like, into that scene?
He looks disbelieving at this plain-haired, grey-haired, plain-dressed old lady,
tries, and fails,
to imagine the hip young chick she might once have been.
It was exam time.
We should have stayed home and studied.
But we went down to the Gardens
to see this guy
who was shaking up the world.
I was there.
I felt it move.
Becky Dennison Sakellariou
The Mediterranean Garden Society
We watch the earth draw out its own seed,
roots, rot, grasses, our mouths silenced
by the curtained air. Chryssanthe says the borago
will disappear in winter, reseed itself, make up its own mind.
Today its thick mauve stems have traveled
around the base of the olive tree, more beneath the wild almond.
Irene says its blossoms taste like cucumber.
Jennifer says Valeriana disappears in November, reappears
in April, double in size. Remember its pale pink flowers, she tells me,
and spiked leaves. The Sparta is tough, wild, needs
no water, its spears filling with fat yellow pods that explode
in midday heat. When dry, it makes perfect kindling.
Veronica grows high, so plant something low
and wide-spreading in front of it. Nearby, liknis,
the flat plant with lettuce-like leaves loves the sun.
Surround it with pebbles and it will please you every spring.
This morning I saw the daphne had lived right through
the cold that killed the lemon trees, its leaves
morning green underneath, tongue yellow on top.
The erysimum love to be planted close together;
like hunched monks, they sit among leggy strilitsia
whose creamy white mouths yawn open to a blue tongue.
Their blade-like leaves will pierce yours.
The roses, relieved of the high fire of July,
bloom through their coppery leaves
as if there were no snow yet on the peaks of Mount Iti.
The young mulberry seedling will not put out shoots
this year, its roots still pawing the blind earth for moisture.
Our hollow fingers can find no water, we do not know
who will come to our door.
I walk days without another’s touch, keeping
desire braided tight. My skin molts,
liquid seeping to the raw surface.
I could loose it all upon
this raging world, race through the market,
run my palms down the naked chest of the fish monger
as we turn from the gray marble slab and pay.
What is a body for? ready, wanting another body
to lie across, to fold into, to do what humans long to do.
A woman like me is invisible, if she is not,
she should be, an anathema, a sin.
My grandmother kept her whole body
covered, no want in her vocabulary,
my mother didn’t know how
to want, my sister wanted, telling no one.
A bathtub, clean hands, wet fingers
run down the arm, touch the neck,
pause at the damp skin under the breast.
The women in the Turkish hammam
appalled at my pubic hair, mimic shaving,
shake their heads disapprovingly, tsou tsou. Dirty hair.
I can see that they too yearn,
their thin singlets wet against their skin,
breasts and thighs soaked in suds,
Eve, her sisters, her mother, loving,
longing, washing each other, washing
the dead, in this, their precious House
before God came and decided otherwise.
Almost deaf, I read faces to hear
their silent films. All present
has source in near scripts
written with forgotten ink,
o faith, o blind pain that flowers
I should have believed that
seeing into your intelligent and shy face
so long ago. These massive angry eruptions
scald, but are no more
than if I had built my house
under Etna’s magnificent cone.
Wendy Barker (Guest Editor)
Eight years before she died, my mother tried to divvy up
her jewels, called back each of the daughters one at a time,
spread across her bed the velvet bags and wooden boxes.
She’d lived our lives with a script of her necessity, kept us
confined within roles she’d assigned us, the film director
feeding us lines, a ventriloquist speaking through puppets.
Jade and diamonds, pearls and agates, sapphires and opals,
earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets, pendants, brooches.
She wanted to know who would be wearing what, and when.
She wanted to have it arranged so she’d know how it would
play out after she died, and she orchestrated her own death,
deciding the exact day to call a halt to food, and finally water.
What I thought I most wanted of my mother’s jewels
she’d given to another daughter, but what I now know
I always desired had nothing at all to do with those stones.
While we sifted through the ropes and clasps, the metal
chains and pins, outside the window the lake shimmered,
but somehow with Mom, we never got down to the lake.
Never time to drift in a canoe—and she’d long ago sold
the canoe—to laze on the dock, to ease down into the water,
alive in the layers of cold currents, to gaze up at the pines.
It was about china, who would inherit which platter,
teapot, and the silver, who could use the flatware,
the ginger jars, the crystal, the ivory-handled knives.
It’s true though that I craved those things, the ring
with the stone the color of the lake’s morning surface,
the strand of pearls, iridescent as the water at dusk.
I hadn’t heard then of the mi-se porcelain cherished
by the Tang Dynasty emperors far more than gold,
celadon vases and bowls the colors of mossy mud.
An odd kind of beauty, perfect in their imperfection,
drab simplicity, the stipples and crackles of the glaze,
absence of shine or glitter, of any metallic luster.
No wonder, with the heaviness of a crown bearing down
on their heads, trapped among ornaments, they prized
uncertain tones, muted, the breathing haze of the earth.