Saturday, June 02, 2007


Some Poems from Prize-Winning Collections


The hornet holds on to the curtain, winter
sleep. Rubs her legs. Climbs the curtain.
Behind her the cedars sleep lightly,

like guests. But I am the guest.
The ghost cars climb the ghost highway. Even my hand
over the page adds to the 'room tone': the little

constant wind. The effort of becoming. These words
are my life. The effort
of loving the un-become. To make the suffering

visible. The un-become love: What we
lost, a leaf, what we cherish, a leaf.
One leaf of grass. I'm sending you this seed-pod,

this red ribbon, my tongue,
these two red ribbons, my mouth, my other mouth,

--but the other words -- blindly I guzzle
the swimming milk of its seed field flower --

--Jean Valentine, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965 - 2003
The National Book Award for Poetry, 2004


"The Breasts"

She gathered up her breasts in her two hands
like small explosions, a soft outward flow,
a timing device that anytime could blow.
So life hangs on the slenderest of strands,
a lover's hunger can seem all of it,
a child, an image in the mirror, hope,
the way a back, or pair of hips might slope,
or how two closing bodies click and fit.

Time is always against us. Youth slips down
the polished shoulder like a loosening strap.
She looked down from her bosom to her lap
and ran her palms over her dressing gown,
her mirrored face drowned in a cloud of dust:
How beautiful, she thought, and how unjust.

--George Szirtes, Reel
T. S. Eliot Prize, 2004


"12th Century Chinese Painting with a Few Dozen Seal Imprints Across it"

The tea has given way to plum wine,
and still they're talking, animated down to points
of fire deep in their pupils -- two scholars. "Look,"
one motions at what's outside the sliding panels: landscape
where the purling of river leads to foothills,
then to the tree-frowzed mountains themselves, and
up from there . . . The sky
has opened. Out of it, as large as temple gongs
yet floating as easily as snowflakes, pour
transistor circuits, maps of topiaries, cattle brands,
IUDs, the floorplans of stockades, cartouches,
hibachi grills, lace doilywork, horsecollars,
laboratory mouse-mazes, brain-impressions, all of it
sketching the air like a show of translucent
kites in blacks and reds, a bew beginning
("Look, there . . .") to snag in the treeline, or hover
above the whorling bunched rush of a riverbend . . .
"Yo0u see?" says one with a shrug and eloquent
tenting-up of his eyebrows, "You see?" -- he's
too polite to declaim it in words.
They've been arguing if The Other World exists.

-- Albert Goldbarth, Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology
National Book Critics' Circle Award for Poetry, 1991


"Of All the Dead That Have Come to Me, This Once"

I have never written against the dead. I would open my
shirt to them and say, yes, the white
cones still making sugary milk,

but when grandfather's gold pocketwatch
came in by air over the Rockies,
over the dark yellow of the fields
and the black rivers, with Grandmother's blank
face pressed against his name in the back,

I thought of how he put the empty
plate in front of my sister, turned out
the lights after supper, sat in the black
room with the fire, the light of the flames
flashing in his glass eye
in that cabin where he taught my father
how to do what he did to me, and I said

No. I said Let this one be dead.
Let the fall he made through that glass roof,
splintering, turning, the great shanks and
slices of glass in the air, be his last
appearance here.

--Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living
The Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983
National Book Critics' Circle Award for Poetry, 1984



Most of the things you made for me -- armless
rocker, blanket chest, lap desk -- I gave away
to friends who could use them and not be reminded
of the hours lost there, the tedious finishes.

But I did keep the mirror, perhaps because
like all mirrors, most of these years it has been
invisible, part of the wall, or defined
by reflection -- safe -- because reflection,

after all, does change. I hung it here
in the front, cark hallway of this house you will
never see, so that it might magnify
the meager light, become a lesser, backward

window. No one pauses long before it.
This morning, though, as I put on my coat,
straightened my hair, I saw outside my face
its frame you made for me, admiring for the first

time the way the cherry you cut and planed
yourself had darkened, just as you said it would.

--Claudia Emerson, Late Wife
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 2006



As when the flesh is shown
to be remarkable
most, for once, because

where the bruise
was, that we called

a bell, maybe, or
-- tipped,
stemless --

a wineglass, or just
the wine spilling

or a lesser lake viewed
from a great height
of air,

instead the surprise that
is blunder when it
has lifted, leaving

the skin to resemble
something like clear
tundra neither foot nor

wing finds,
-- or shadow of.
When did the yard get

this swollen --
mint, apples,
like proof of all that

anyway went
on, in our distraction?
When did the room

itself start

stirring with -- distant, but
decidedly -- the scent of

pines wintering, further
still, a not-very-far
sea --

--Carl Phillips, The Tether
Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, 2002



It is four skeins of gut, tight on four pegs
he turns to true the pitch, secured below
over a crested comb; clasped by his legs,
wood tortured to a torso; now, the bow --
horsehair, taut on a rod -- with which he plays.
And each returns, each thing, to praise and grieve
the gift it gave in dumb compliance, days
it still loves (the tree to bud and leave,
green in remembrance, and the phantom horse
to pace its field again, and with a sound
halfway from roar to cry, the ox, dark force,
to rise both sweet and harsh from underground),
all shedding at his touch their one despair,
a kind of unseen blood staining the air.

-- Rhina P. Espaillat, Rehearsing Absence
Recipient of the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award



Nights are hardest, the swelling,
tight and low (a girl), Delta heat,

and that woodsy silence a zephyred hush.
So how to keep busy? Wind the clocks,

measure out time to check the window,
or listen hard for his car on the road.

Small tasks done and undone, a floor
swept clean. She can fill a room

with a loud clear alto, broom-dance
right out the back door, her heavy footsteps

a parade beneath the stars. Honeysuckle
fragrant as perfume, nightlife

a steady insect hum. Still, she longs
for the Quarter -- lights, riverboats churning,

the tinkle of ice in a slim bar glass.
Each night a refrain, its plain blue notes

carying her, slightly swaying, home.

--Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work
The Cave Canem Poetry Prize, 1999



Lisa, Leona, Loretta?
She's sipping a milkshake
In Woolworths, dreassed in
Chiffon & fat pearls.
She looks up at me,
Grabs her purse
& pulls at the hem
Of her skirt. I want to say
I'm just here to buy
A box of Epsom salt
For my grandmama's feet.

Lena, Lois? I feel her
Strain to not see me.
Lines are now etched
At the corners of her thin,
Pale mouth. Does she know
I know her grandfather
Rode a whie horse
Through Poplas Quarters
Searching for black women,
How he killed Indians
& stole land with bribes
& fake deeds? I remember
She was seven & I was five
When she ran up to me like a cat
With a gypsy moth in it mouth
& we played doctor & house
Under the low branches of a raintree
Encircled with red rhododendrons.
We could pull back the leaves
& see grandmama ironing
At their wide window. Once
Her mother moved so close
To the yardman we thought they'd kiss.
What the children of housekeepers
& handymen knew was enough
To stop biological clocks,
It's hard now not to walk over
& mention how her grandmother
Killed her idiot son
& salted him down
In a wooden barrel.

Yusef Komunyakaa, Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1994
Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, 1994


"Another Theory of Dusk"

What is there to say
when the sky pours in the window
and the ground begins to eat its figures?
We sit like dummies in our kitchen, deaf
among enormous crumplings of light.
Small wonder each thing looms
crowding its edge.
In silent movies everyone overacts a little.

It would be nice to breaths the air inside the cello.
That would satisfy one
thirst of the voice. As it is

only your ribcage speaks for me now,
a wicker basket full of sorrow and wish, so tough
so finely tuned we have often
reinvented the canoe

and paddled off.
It would be nice to write the field guide for those riverbanks,
to speak without names of the fugitive
nocturnal creatures that live and die in our lives.

--Don McKay, Night Field
The Governor General's Award for English Language Poetry, 1991


"Divining the Field"

Through the body of the crow the finch flies:
Small yellow-green patch of flower springing
Up in the weedy field: of briefest flight.
The flower will be shot dead by the coming cold
Or by the woman's disregard. Her forgetfulness
Arrows him the way Saint Sebastian was arrowed:
Poor man stuck with a hundred bony wings, laddered,
The stripped shafts trembling, as if Sebastian
Had been instructed to climb his own flesh
Up into the high regard his skewered sight
Was planting there: Crow's Nest: House of the Spy.
Regards grow up like trees. The thing Sebastian
Was thinking when he died: a leafy assemblage
With a driven core: swift monument of oak or stone
The heart passes through, the way the finch
Passes through the body of the crow: the lord
Of highness. From his post the crow shouts
The other hawkers down: sells tickets to
Sebastian fledging: devours in one gesture
The finch like a piece of fruit: like a roasted morsel.
It is too much to bear sometimes: a tree
Of flame-flung arrows, a bird selling portions,
Our endless lust for spectacle to rouse
The stupored sight. As if the body of Sebastian's
Death were not always with us: This high
White garment of grasses the birds fly through,
Opening with their sharp gold wings
The purple and crimson wounds of the flowers.

--Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Song
The Lamont Poetry Selection for 1994


"The Ferns"

One day we will no longer be stunned
by the bric-a-brac,
the china model of each month
with her name on a sash,
February molded with a miniature muff
or June with a tuft of net
glued to her tiny shoe.
The violet dachshund made of clear glass,
chipped yellow plate,
pink chalk of the pots-de-creme
in the salt-eaten blue of the snappy air
where we found our troves,
these conversation pieces
with nothing to say.
What were we doing out there in the world
but looking for something to bring back
and set by the bed
as proof we had been?
Do nuns collect?
And the favored whore
in her high shoes,
insteps arched like a back in labor,
needs a few things to survive.
We put on and put off
our coats.
We know the earth
once belonged to the ferns.
But these earrings
in the shape of grapes,
complete with frosted leaves,
they dangle and glisten;
we bear their weight
for awhile.

--Mary Ruefle, The Adamant
The Iowa Poetry Prize, 1988


"The Wreck"

But what loevers we were, what lovers,
even when it was all over --

the deadweight, bull-black wines we swung
towards each other rang and rang

like bells of blood, our own great hearts.
We slung the crunk boat out of port

and watched our unreal sober life
unmoor, a continent of grief;

the candlelight strange on our faces
like the tiny silent blazes

and coruscations of its wars.
We blew them out and took the stairs

into the night for the night's work,
stripped off in the timbered dark,

gently hooked each other on
like aqualungs, and thundered down

to mine our lovely secret wreck.
We surfaced later, breathless, back

to back, then made our way alond
up the mined beach of the dawn.

Don Paterson, Landing Light
T. S. Eliot Prize, 2003


"Fear and Fame"

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight's but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes -- all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O'Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. a gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin's
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down onme and the smoking traces puddled
at my f eet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I'd sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I'd cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and the third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

--Philip Levine, What Work Is
The National Book Award for Poetry, 1991


"Memory's Angel"

In the half-light of closets
you can still see
lust in the trousers,

the bottoms of the legs
caressing dust,
drawing from memory

a pair of shoes, perhaps
the black ones he wore
on his journey through the earth.

In the pocket, the last
grocery list you gave him,
a pencilled check

beside each item. That day
he found everything
and brought it home.

--Lorna Crozier, Inventing the Hawk
The Govenor General's Award for English Language Poetry, 1992
The Pat Lowther Memorial Award, 1993
The Canadian Authors' Association Award fo Poetry, 1993



That astonishing thing that happens when you crack a needle-awl into a block of ice:
the way a perfect section through it crazes into gleaming fault-lines, fractures, facets;
dazzling silvery deltas that in one too-quick-to-capture instant madly complicate the cosmos of its innards.
Radiant now with spines and spikes, aggressive barbs of glittering light, a treasure hoard of light,
when you stab it again it comes apart in nearly equal segments, both faces grainy, gnawed at, dull.

An icehouse was a dark, low place of raw, unpainted wood,
always dank and black with melting ice.
There was sawdust and sawdust's tantalizing, half-sweet odor, which, so cold, seemed to pierce directly to the brain.
You'd step onto a low-roofed porch, someone would materialize,
take up great tongs and with precise, placating movements like a lion-tamer's slide an ice-block from its row.

Take the awl yourself now, thrust, and when the block splits do it again, yet again;
watch it disassemble into smaller fragments, crystal and fissured crystal.
Or if not the puncturing pick, try to make a metaphor, like Kafka's frozen sea within:
take into your arms the cake of actual ice, make a figure of its ponderous inertness,
of how its quickly wetting chill against your breast would frighten you and make you let it drop.

Imagine how even if it shattered and began to liquefy
the hope would still remain that if you quickly gathered up the slithery, perversely skittish chips,
they might be refrozen and the mass reconstituted, with precious little of its brilliance lost,
just this lucent shimmer on the rough, raised grain of water-rotten floor,
just this single drop, as sweet and warm as blood, evaporating on your tongue.

--C. K. Williams, Repair
The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 2000


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