“Life,” to quote Ruth Stone,“ is one sad miscalculation”—or so it seems to a large number of poets who incorporated one of ten required lines from her work into their own poems for this Western States poetry contest. I see no evidence they were daunted by the challenge. With few exceptions, these adopted phrases from Stone’s poems made fine adjustments in a borrowed home.
As guest editor, I’m initially drawn to good opening lines. Do they immediately pique the reader’s attention to enter and continue? In my own revisions I sometimes find the provocative action or statement begins, say, in the second or even third stanza, so I lop off the offending section(s) and move from there. The same with endings—why do I need this, when the poem’s word picture tells/shows more than a final spat of rhetoric?
A fine poet once told me, “Give the reader credit for understanding.”
These poems, by and large, did fill the criteria of good structure, and in doing so endeared me to the writers. It is always a mystery and joy to see the world translated through the eyes—or binocular vision—of others.
Editor’s Note: We thank Julie Suk for graciously agreeing to judge the poems submitted from the Western States. Her poem “Flying Through World War I” appears below at the end of those she selected. The poem is included in her book Lie Down With Me: New and Selected Works (Autumn House Press, 2011) and was originally published in Ploughshares.
The old cat weighs no more than
teeth, claws, and purr, the bones inside.
A cat is a cat: lap comfort, or
too much togetherness, Egyptian god,
mummy demanding my mind.
Tonight “I want to tell you something
with my hands,” I say. She turns
to lick her flank, her thigh, what’s left
of fur after thirteen years together.
I could tabulate each vertebra
down her spine. She still knows how
to purr, as long as hands
think of pain as a flit against the pane,
a bird that flies. Teeth and purr,
feathers of bird-wings in flight, bones
inside. In her next life, in mine.
Edythe Haendel Schwartz
In the cloth I see the ghost
of the artist I once knew
the cobalt blue Giotto loved.
How I wrestle
with your obstinate ghost.
A residue of wax
pocks the silk, plants illusion—
some vision of what lies
No congruence. The fabric falls
in folds, the way a head
the hues in layers
as if strata
of conscious and unconscious
Today, even the green is tinged with grey,
the shadows heavy on my hands, dye
deepening like slime
in the kitchen sink I forgot to clean.
I must let the blues evolve,
the spirals of the iris sorrow
like furrows on my face.
How I wrestle this sentence
fixed in wax, this dye my wary
hand imposes on the silk; steam
hisses from the iron,
this ghost I press and press—
This sorrow is like an old mirror,
mottled and haunted; like fog
that settles on the soul; like a drum-head,
pulled tight over the hollow
that has formed in your center where
you no longer feel your heart.
Grief is like this.
An unending wasteland
from horizon to arid horizon.
And at the teasing edge you begin to remember
the scent of gardenia and the sound of water
trickling from a fountain.
You begin to believe in the power of flight
and the possibility of tomorrow.
A road sketches itself out of the sand. . . .
Crazy People Rock
I know why crazy people,
the ones shut away or roaming the streets,
It’s what you think you remember your mother doing
a long time ago
when she was all you needed.
I know why they repeat the word No.
Said a magical number of times,
the thing that happened
—just at that final grain of sand—
becomes suddenly suspended,
and you made it all turn out differently,
Had you been there,
majestically commanding No!,
you could have held the mountain from falling,
strangled the world from swallowing what you love.
Suppose you had listened to
the plain-spoken stranger
in your face,
the one passing in the street,
or the one you knew well,
“Go back . . .”
If you had been older,
you would have screamed “Noooooooo”
at that person who was hurting you,
hitting you, handling you.
But, since you weren’t there,
or you were powerless while you were there,
you rock and repeat no.
When I was young, thousands
of somber-faced braceros
crossed to my side of the border —
yellow busloads of them in straw hats
with chin straps, knotted bandanas
around their necks.
In fields, heads bowed, faceless,
they worked in hundred-degree heat,
harvesting sugar beet, leaf lettuce,
and smooth-skinned melons.
At the teasing edge, I begin
to remember all this
as I watch you
clip our rosebushes,
cupping each blossom,
sweat wetting your forehead
and pooling low on your spine.
Your arms nicked and scarred,
palms spreading my white rump,
lifting it, pressing it down,
your skilled hands on task.
Tierra, my appetite for the soil —
what it brings alive and what it feeds.
Gail Rudd Entrekin
Not so much death as an end to decision making,
being bright and brittle, embarrassing mistakes,
bald spot at the center when you bow under lights,
the name of the thing you saw, that image
walled up forever in the catacombs
of your mind, and what is that thing,
that bicycle or ghost approaching
from the right?
No one touches you.
Where are the hands, bright words?
At the teasing edge you begin
to remember your life, stories
you read before sleep, the ones where
you stood up for the underdog,
brave or funny or smart.
What’s left is sand and paper in your pockets,
pieces of something stuck between your teeth,
occasional fury, crying in your car. Reduction
continues, a teaspoon at a time, until you’re
a watery mess in a chipped brown bowl —
even your taking in and letting out,
no longer a dream machine but
a contraption, too much
of an old thing.
Put it down — cyanide under the tongue or helium
tank and mask — afterward someone to remove
the evidence, make you legal, make you
properly dead, straight and serene,
more whole than in a long, long time
Penelope Scambly Schott
I went barefoot into the uncut grass
— a line from Ruth Stone
My feet remember the cool of June,
grass blades with foamy bug spit
like bookmarks between my toes.
I never intended to walk into fire.
You with your hands on my throat —
it’s forty years since I saw you last.
Now I hear that you’ve just died.
I hadn’t known you were still alive.
Today I am busy unbreathing
each deluded breath. Your gin,
tucked into insulation, the stove
left on all night, you stalked me
through long alleys of evenings,
and I cringed. Please stay dead.
Now a lock of your oily black hair
like a disheveled crow’s feather
floats and revolves in my soup.
When I was a child, my mouth
tasted sweet. Even the grass
was well-intentioned, so sugary
when I sucked on the stems,
our lawn all dotted with clover.
Pat Phillips West
The Place I’m From
I am from old fashioned clothes pins
you push on the line. Fruit cellars
with hard packed dirt floors, rows
of tomatoes, pears, apple butter.
Broken bottles tossed in the crawl
space under the front porch.
From yards without fences. I go
barefoot into the uncut grass,
wade waist-deep through elephant ears
in my mother’s flower garden
to watch ants open peonies.
I am from flat land covered
with cornfields that touch the edge
of town on all sides. A place
populated with farmers, merchants,
factory workers who need only
a hand shake to strike a deal.
From boiled ham dinners with cabbage,
potatoes, carrots. Ox tail stew, calves
tongue sandwiches. Siblings who fight
for a turn to make pie-crust cookies
and for the heart of the pheasant come fall.
From a father who believes it is his right
to sample the first fruit of his garden, trees,
his daughters. I am from lines and shadows,
hide-and-seek. I count the days until
I can run from this place, hollering,
ollie ollie oxen free.
Tilt of Memory
At the teasing edge you begin to remember
the deer netting left on the rosebush
sourdough rising in the pantry
the name of your second-grade teacher.
At the teasing edge, you begin
to understand the fulcrum of life
and the tilt of seesaw, the hairline cracks
at the bottom of the swimming pool.
At the teasing edge
of garters, stockings,
and the imagination,
a cauldron boils.
At the teasing
a deer is giving roses
to your second-grade teacher.
Joanna M. Clarkson
My Father’s Heaven
On certain mornings, through fir and cedar,
I see my father, the builder, who died
at 42, balanced on one knee
in the center of the house
he is creating. No roof yet or walls.
The framing is up and support beams gleam
the platinum of planed lumber.
He is doing what he loves: building
from the cleared earth up
to form rooms to return to,
that will endure weather,
lock in what needs to be kept safe
and keep out what may linger
He draws his hammer from his belt,
chooses a straight nail from the shining can
and with perfect rhythms
pounds it true.
How his muscles ache with pleasure
as though every house is his son
Is this the heaven of those who die
young? Is passion a place of pure creation,
saying, “ I want to tell you something
with my hands?”
A Manner of Speaking
Lacking the art for art or voice for song,
I want to tell you something with my hands,
in which a different rhythm pleads language
made of flavor: a glistening babka risen brown
from the oven; a tonic soup of sifted lentils,
browned onions, clever seasoning, or
how I woo you back
through bouquets you bring me.
You may not have noticed, but tulips preen
when baby breath’s set just so beside them.
How these hands hover
over your skin like hummingbird wings.
I want to use light the same way I use hope,
throw shadows against the wall of your body,
invent abstractions that cannot be misunderstood.
Grace Marie Grafton
Oh, words, that each of us views in our own
grey or purple way. You say, “Soon,” and I
hear, “Half an hour from now” but no, you mean
“I want to forget this whole matter and
never speak of it again.” I say, “Life
with you can sure be interesting,” and
you hear, “If only there were a lot less
uproar around here.” We think we talk.
I want a different language. At least,
alternative speech. Increase our chances,
bolster honesty. I want to send a
meaning via my eyes, want to practice
dazzle or adore. I want to tell you
something with my hands, a sweet caress word.
Flying Through World War I
His plane was scarcely more than canvas
stretched across board.
Gunned down by a German Fokker onto no-man’s land,
my father crawled under cross-fire to a crater
and sprawled in on the dead.
Only once did he mention the maggots and stench
in a world that slammed up too soon.
That night, between the sizzle of flares,
a Yank pulled him back into a trench and left
before the swapping of names.
Long after I came and went my ways, a friend of his
passed through town, bringing with him an army pal.
Buddy, old buddy, war tales told until what do you know—
true I swear true–they found it was the stranger
who’d rescued my father.
Crying, they embraced—life is so sweet
when death is on leave.
By Spring a tumor invaded my father’s brain,
taking him out, along with his wish to float
once just once again with the noiseless clouds.
I’m left replaying those summer nights
we sat on the stoop, bull-bats diving overhead,
cicadas puncturing the quiet.
See, he pointed, there–there! scorpion,
fish, ram and lyre, wheeling across a sky
threatened by hunter and bear.
Hiding my face on his arm, it was hard to connect
myth with the lap I nestled in.
And still no clue
from a heaven seemingly preoccupied.
Tracers that stutter around us
briefly illuminate our lives,
what I forgot to say, what I forgot to give
to the living, bringing me down to a fragment
of you, my derring-do father who flew.