Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2021 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:
“The Internet of Things”
The 2021 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #74 were eligible. In the closest vote since the tie in 2017, “The Internet of Things” earned 16.4% of the votes and the $5,000 award, edging out Rayon Lennon and Susan Browne, who earned 13.9% each. Here is what some of those readers had to say about the winner:
A little like the Winter 2018 cover of Rattle, Erin Murphy’s “The Internet of Things” has the spare geometry of the bare branches of a sapling in a snowfall where a robin, all red feathers, orangey beak, and black mask, perches, waiting for that glance, understanding that will connect two worlds and for a moment, just as long as that glance lasts, let them be one. The subtitle defines the word, but what is “The Internet”—or anything? The spare sequence of doublets leads in sets of keys, key changes, rips on a piano, to “the grief”—”Oh—the grief. The brief / ecstatic flight of things.” And what could have been—and was—isolation becomes connection, even union with those last four words.
Because I keep coming back to it. Because each time I read it, it surprises me. Because each time I read it I am showered with a cascade of startling, baffling, and beautiful sensations. Because, finally, the grief given to flight.
Too many poems are autobiographical, and blatantly so. Murphy uses a series of crisp visual images, contrast and duality in this contemplation of connectedness, and ends with sudden severance in a heartfelt outburst of grief. It is a finely crafted work, not at all self-indulgent. The author Charles Dickens spoke of good art hiding the art behind the art. Murphy’s work does that. In her simple and focused images she tells a whole story, placed in the framework of universal contrasts.
I love the abundance of short i sounds that echo things—hill, silt, moonlit, pitter-patter, clipped, skin, stippled. Love the way it says so much with, seemingly, so little. That filtering down to the fundamentals that is so challenging to achieve in a poem is beautifully done here. Given the title and focus on this poem’s investigation, it’s particularly poignant that the shared humanity brought out in the list of things is so very much in contrast to the things on the internet of things. I admire this poem.
“The Internet of Things” is not clever, overwritten, or self-conscious. It does not score political points or tell us how we’re supposed to feel. Every time I read its pure, unhindered truth, it grounds me and brings me such peace, reminding me of what is most important in poetry. My body, my heart recognize the truth inherent in this poem without even having to try. I keep rereading “The Internet of Things” just to experience the afterglow that grounds me in what it really means to be human.
I like its brevity, and its playful seriousness.
—Charles Harper Webb
I love the musicality and specificity that jumps out in a list poem of “things.” There is a an exhilaration that builds to the sudden turn to grief at the end—then quickly turns back to wonder. Beautiful!
I tried to judge the poems for imagery, language, feelings realized as I read each; just the overall mastery of the craft, even looking at appearance on the page. My final choice has much to do with an envy long harbored–the gift some have in being able to pull so much meaning and emotion out of so few words! Erin Murphy’s poem is masterful in its brevity. Beautiful in its imagery. Heart-wrenching in her finely honed word selection. I tried to choose a favorite phrase to include here. No can do. It’s freaking full of favorite THINGS.
To read “The Internet of Things” and all of the other finalist poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #74, or wait until the April, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.
Erin Murphy was the winner, but this year’s voters were divided, as they always are—each of the remaining poems received between 6% and 12% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic supporters. Every year, it’s an interesting and informative experience reading the commentary. To provide a taste of that, here is a small sample of what our subscribers said about the other finalists:
On Elizabeth Johnston Ambrose’s “After My Teenager Tries to Kill Herself …”:
I kept on coming back to this one like a zombie to spongy brains. I was moved by the narrator’s honesty, powerlessness, and love. (Life is hard, almost-death is harder, but the living dead, well …)
Every parent can relate to the nightmare Elizabeth unfolds for us in her poem, even if we have not personally dealt with that circumstance. It’s the fear captured with depth, and precision; the juxtaposition of the nightmare and the reality. There is some measure of absurdity also, with the “jumping Taco Bell’s counter / rummaging for chips and salsa” that is relatable in the way that no matter what we do as parents, things can still go horribly wrong. She brings it home beautifully by marrying the two disparate scenes and pinpointing her/our willingness to lie just to let our children have the last chip. It’s like a punch to the gut. Bravo Elizabeth!
On Heather Bell’s “This Is How I Make My Money”:
Her poem operates on multiple levels at the same time. It sounds cliche, but I laughed and cried while reading it. Actually, I laughed a lot more than I cried, which I needed. After reading and re-reading this poem, I discovered more of Bell’s work, and I’m thoroughly impressed.
—Charles B. Snoad
The blend of bare confession and hyper imagination, the unspeakable desperation and hysterical laughter, the way this poem runs a million miles away screaming with its teeth on fire while slumped, barely able to sigh in front of the camera. That’s why.
On Susan Browne’s “Do You Have Children?”:
The question is like the chainsaw “that just won’t quit.” The wish in the last stanza is so honestly and simply expressed that it seems to hush the rude noise of the insensitive questioner.
I like how the speaker has just been asked that question, and already we’ve got a chainsaw going off behind her. You feel that it’s actually her annoyance. That paired with shouting and hot asphalt, I really thought the poem would end in anger or bitterness. I thought it might get sarcastic when she describes the quilt with the lambs on it. But no. As a pleasant surprise for the reader, she flips the entire mood of the poem on its head with the very last line, which got me.
—T. J. McGuire
On Rayon Lennon’s “Follow Me”:
The poem’s imagery is vivid and unusual, but never contrived or overplayed. I learned something new, without feeling taught. Evoking caged lobsters battling with taped claws as a metaphor for two Black men’s ongoing struggles with class and race? That is something only great poetry can do.
—Nancy Romines Walters
This poem gives me everything I yearn for when reading poetry—stunning language, visceral feeling, and the gut punch of a reality I can relate to a little bit better having read the poem. As a BIPOC woman, I have been on the receiving end of racism in many forms. Yet I have not lived in the skin of a black man. This poem transports me into that experience, while also beautifully elucidating broader aspects of systemic racism in America. An amazing balance of personal and social commentary, brilliantly written. Bravo.
On Dayna Hodge Lynch’s “Black Boys as Fireflies”:
This poem is clearly written and yet metaphorical. It’s powerful because it’s very real. The writer watched it unfold. It’s power is that it’s the story of thousands of young, black men. After the death of George Floyd, we can all understand it. It’s a call to a deeper justice, to reset the balance between young, black men and the police. Dayna has captured a moment in time that we all thought about last year. Her brother’s been stopped by the police. She and his mother can see him. He’s complying with the officers, but will he come home tonight? They watch the lights of police cars flashing like fireflies. Young black men are an endangered species.
I grew up in the south, I’ve felt that, “the air between God’s palms.” The humidity can be stifling. I could imagine as a mother looking on powerless at her son. That’s so painful. Her succinctness is perfection. This will always need to be read, and read again!
On Mary Meadows’s “White Privilege Skydives with Black Guy in Appalachia”:
I enjoyed that the author kept me engaged for 7 1/2 pages of poem that spilled broadly over those pages telling a story that is adventurous, emotional, sexy, relatable, racial and always human. From the title to the concluding period, she kept me going.
Brave, skillful, and leaping—leaping in so many ways—literally and poetically, in time, space, imagery, and realization. You know, it looked like a long poem, but didn’t feel long at all, not a wasted word (and this is coming from someone who rarely likes anything more than a page or two). But Mary’s poem lifted me off my feet. I also loved her line and word placement. I was easily and willingly along for the ride (and the jump!). It accomplished so much. I was very impressed and moved.
On L. Renée’s “Exodus: Gilliam Coal Camp, West Virginia, 1949”:
I love the authentic use of regional dialect and what the mother says to try to keep her child from leaving, and her heartbreak when it happens. A searing story told in the form of a poem, epic.
I love how the personal, universal, historical are so seamlessly woven, and how the pacing and flow of the words wrap powerful, restrained emotion around the story they tell. The lines and verses plod with such somber weight and resignation, so much always-the-same, so much repressed fear, so much mother Mary, while Junior Mary is off to the side, almost out of view, a kite pulling at the end of a tangled line, trying to get lift. The ending feels sudden, like a big gust of wind, only it’s Big Mary’s heart that is cut loose to soar. Threw my heart in my throat.
On Zella Rivas’s “Purgatorio”:
This poem read like a transcript of my own arguments, my own conflicts, my own fears. I struggle to get down, get out, get past the myths, the lies, the misunderstandings still roiling within me from my childhood six decades ago. This pain, this power, this bravado and toughness are real.
When I first read the finalists, I thought it would be impossible to choose one over the others because they’re so different and each one has so much to recommend it. So I read them again and felt the same way. I wasn’t surprised to read that so far in the voting, it’s pretty much even. But when I reread the poems just now, I realized why “Purgatorio” is the one that stayed with me—and both thrilled and chilled me (again) when I got to the end. I think it’s a brilliant self-portrait and an almost eerily accurate rendering of the battle that the self constantly wages with itself. What I love about the poem is that it shows the battle without oversimplifying it or undercutting its gravity by offering a resolution. We know there really isn’t any resolution other than death. But the poem doesn’t condescend to us by spelling out what we already knew. What we didn’t know is how a poet’s imagination could transform that struggle into art.
On Richard Westheimer’s “My Father Transformed by Dying”:
Westheimer’s poem resonated with me because of its economy of words. The aching recognition of grief as parents grow old and approach death … “no room to move but away” is powerful. How do we reconcile the interior spark of the vibrant (if stern) parent of our childhood with the silent, distant galaxy where that spark has drifted? What do we need for understanding?
—Gurupreet K. Khalsa
My choice is “My Father Transformed by Dying,” for several reasons. It’s the most direct and humanly communicative of the lot, eager to be understood; it has more substance than fireworks; it has the taut, live skin of a sonnet, even without rhyme or perfect meter, and that skin contains it wholly, cleanly, with perfect details conveyed in quick metaphors, without any extra packaging material. The only other poem among them that I almost chose is “The Internet of Things,” which has the same slender economy despite a haunting, musical use of repetition. It’s essentially a love letter to reality, composed–as thought is–of imagery conveyed in sentence fragments: not skin this time, but bones.
—Rhina P. Espaillat