Rattle is proud to announce the co-winners of the 2016 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:
Santa Cruz, California
“Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness”
“This Living Hand”
The 2016 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #54 were eligible. Both Bass’s and Kirby’s poems earned exactly 14.4% of the votes, resulting in the first ever tie. The $2,000 award is split equally between them. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choices:
On Ellen Bass’s “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness”:
From line one, I knew this poem was going to take me somewhere boldly vulnerable. I love that the piece depends on the body and title being together to work. The relationship between the loss of the narrator’s mother and wife’s illness is painfully honest and revelatory, yet the rich, detailed memories moving through the piece are so real and close that a sense of comfort is felt, too. This poem embodies not only the heartbreak and beauty of love and loss, but also the doubling of this heartbreak over time. A truly stunning piece! —Nicole Miyashiro
“Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness” really hit me hard with the deep emotional truth of it, and a close reading reveals all of the art that brings that truth home. There is a compassionate rendering of parts of her mother’s life. Apparently she minded a liquor store. It seems she was a drinker as well. Some of that life seems so mundane as to be pitiable, but there is no scorn for it, only understanding. All the details are acutely observed: for example her lipstick of Fire and Ice dates her time exactly (of course I remember it because I wore it!). Close after the fire and ice she remembers the snow her mother shoveled. There is an early intimation of death when she describes her mother putting on her bra, settling the straps in the grooves in her shoulders, “reins for the journey.” This reminds me of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” where the horses’ heads were pointed toward eternity. The journey is also her life, headed as all lives are, toward death. A lot of the beauty of the body of the poem is in the assonance and internal rhyme and off-rhyme threaded through it: for example, all the crumpled bills … steeped in the smells of those whose body heat, cheap cologne, onions and grease, lumber and bleach and later the cream of wheat her mother cooked for her father. Never did I feel the sense of the poem was subordinated to this artistry. Instead, the poem gains in feeling so that when it ends with the story her mother told her of when her father was in the hospital in danger of dying and her mother sat in a diner crying while a kind waitress never asked her a question but just continued to re-fill her coffee cup, we are really afraid that the poet sees herself in the same sort of situation, afraid of losing her wife.
I am deeply moved by the Ellen Bass poem “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness,” which avoids reacting to or directly commenting on her wife’s illness and focuses instead upon her mother by presenting her both in moments when they were together or apart in a kaleidoscope of images.
From the first unforgettable sentence, “I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave/ would be dug in my body,” Ellen Bass exerts an unrelenting, emotional and tender assault on the psyche of the “I” (or anyone) dealing with the harsh reality of loss. Details (crumpled bills, pink or yellow napkins, hot black coffee, etc.) become bitter, sweet, knives, and like objects, keep expanding in the universe of memory.
On David Kirby’s “This Living Hand”:
The idea that you can take a fragment written in the margin of a Keats’ poem to tell the story of one lost soul in the sea of many while quoting literary figures, Jefferson’s edited words about truth, and mystics all connecting to Keats’ fragment is an amazement. When Kirby holds his “living hand” out to his dead friend, the Celtic “thin place” opens and I grab it. Listening to the horror of political news this morning yet again, I hold onto Kirby’s poem.
David Kirby’s poem “This Living Hand” would be my choice. It is a powerful story, told with understatement and straightforward language. The weaving in of Keats’s dying moments gives the poem an even deeper level of poignancy.
It is a single very personal elegy and homage to writers and writing, to the young who should not have died so young, to multiple stories colliding, to ideals we hold to be self-evident, to a world that should be better but isn’t, and to the mysterious power of poetry. Its casual language and spiritual force undo me every time.
“This Living Hand” has well-wrought seams, partly because the most obvious one, “It’s so hard to connect/ with others sometimes,” seems at first too jagged and abrupt—but then it becomes clear that this very abruptness enacts the dilemma at the heart of the poem, between the here and not-here, the living and the dead, a dilemma beautifully resolved at the end as the speaker urges his friend to reach out in the timeless world of the dead the way he was unable to reach out in life. Plus the image of the hand as a metonymy for the writer justifies the sudden presence of Keats in the poem even more—as does the fact that both writers died far too young. I think it’s a deeply moving and beautifully achieved elegy, and apart from Julie Price Pinkerton’s wonderful “Veins,” which feels like a memoir skillfully rendered to its essentials, Kirby’s poem is the one that went straight to my heart and stayed there.
To read these poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #54, or wait until the end of March, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.
Ellen Bass and David Kirby were the co-winners, but this year’s voting was more evenly divided than any other—each of the remaining poems received about 8% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic fans. It’s always 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 Noah Baldino’s “The Nurse Lifts the Clipboard & Replaces All Your Vital Signs”:
The Lewis Carroll-like play of words, the horror of his/her experience, the times that we’re living in blended with the personal and the public … a surreal experience tinged with wildly black humor. This made for a truly literary and artistic piece that I believe will live on, burned into any soul that knows what it is to be at all different in this world. Noah has crafted a poetic—and scalding—masterpiece.
In a field of strong poems, Noah Baldino’s “The Nurse Lifts the Clipboard …” stands out. It plays with or presents us with a semi-surrealist scene that is presented emotionlessly, objectively, and yet is disturbing, unsettling. The implicit horror of the situation is all the stronger for the almost off-hand way in which it is narrated.
On C. Wade Bentley’s “Spin”:
Phenomenal piece. Powerful and very balanced between the heartbreak and the logical but melancholy scientific metaphor. This is a striking and honest way of embodying the pain of fatherhood; the interior conflict of our fascination with and distaste for all the emotions that we are unwittingly held captive by (especially with our daughters). We wish only to be strong, and we are thrilled and enchanted by their trust and faith in seeing that. Then, denied this relationship, estranged by geography or circumstance, we find ourselves betrayed by our own strength, abandoned by our believed sovereignty, even our logic is left daft by melancholy as we discover ourselves to be old heroes with no damsels or dragons left to rely upon.
—David T. Trueb
For me, there are multiple touchstones, some which emerged on the first reading, and others that surfaced only on subsequent readings. The poet captured the longings and vulnerabilities of so many parents—and also the real or perceived recriminations we tend to carry throughout our lifetimes. It is comforting to apply the “Spin” and feel the continuum, regardless of where we happen to be walking in relationship to our children in this moment—and then perhaps, even into the beyond. This poem has a universal quality to it, and I appreciate the realm of possibility it offers in the end.
On Rhina P. Espaillat’s “The Sharpened Shears He Plied”:
I love how this poem stabs you on its first read, and then just keeps resonating, deepening, drawing you back for further reads to appreciate the exquisite rhyme scheme, the carefully chosen form that fights against the very imagery—an overgrowing garden—that it summons. All while capturing that stab of grief that accompanies a realization of the emptiness of things that once held meaning but cease to when the person who plied them is gone.
—Ilana A Kelsey
This is the shortest poem on offer and, if past choices are to go by, it won’t be chosen. But it is my choice for numerous reasons. There is the sense of a world “almost” in sympathy with the loss but not and that leads to what her note calls “an internal solitude, a human absence that only sentient beings can understand or allay.” And that internal solitude is beautifully modulated in this poem. She mentions the Romantics and the simplicity of the presentation and, especially the last line, remind me of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems. Like Wordsworth, she manages to get great resonance from the simple word “difference,” albeit with another evocation. There is a wonderful sense of rhyme (often slightly off kilter) and a wonderful sense of metre, something that many of the other short-listed poems lack. When a poem is that brief, the choice of words has to be exact. And it is. That penultimate line is a case in point. Someone else, a lesser poet, would have written “Nothing” instead of “No thing.” But that would have changed the metre, the meaning, and the emotion. It is for its wonderful cohesion and its emotional depth that I pick this as my choice of the poem which deserves to win the 2016 Reader’s choice award.
On William Fargason’s “Upon Receiving My Inheritance”:
The work radiates a piercing poignancy that’s all the more powerful because the story of a man—of two men, really—is packed in the form of a poem, a shrapnel bomb explaining co-existent pain and gratitude in one person. The author’s use of relentless thank-you’s is a testament to humility, even while acknowledging the probability of worse things to come. Deeply felt irony reveals a special mind. How else do we gain understanding of others’ lives except through stories? This story happens to be formed as a poem, but its power will resonate with me as though I’d read a thousand-page novel while wide awake.
I like this “poem without a period.” The run-on syntax of the poem allows for multiple meanings. There is a sense of intensity and concentration and progression and inevitability. There are phrases which can be read in different ways at the same time. The poem builds to a climax which is both appropriate and ironic. One might say that the language of the poem is so precise it cuts like a knife.
On Ingrid Jendrzejewski’s “Superposition of States”:
Here is a perfectly balanced poem in which form meets function. The lines are staggered so that what we have are two independent poems married into a new relationship. If read lineally, as it should be, it forms a kind of ghazal. Like the ghazal form, this one gets its power from surprise. But there is something else at work, a kind of verbal peek-a-boo in which the narrator reveals and hides at times, is both objective and subjective, which I think imitates a more realistic processing of intimate event(s). A miscarriage is at the heart of the poem yet is tempered and contextualized by a nearly academic explanation of quantum phenomenon. Ultimately, the clinical sterility of emotion reveals a deeper human grief and loss. The Schrödinger’s cat experiment conducted within, proves the possibility and perhaps the necessity of the poetic form.
In “Superposition of States,” two strands in tandem, where one is a discussion of measurement that ends a superposition of states in the field of quantum mechanics and the other a description of waiting for the results of a blood test, a measurement of whether a baby is dead or alive, simultaneously distance the speaker from the finality of the situation and add to its intimate coldness. I particularly appreciate the structure of alternating the two discussions line by line that creates dissonant line breaks yet rhythmic repetitions and intersections that parallel the shifting emotional state of the speaker. When it would seem impossible, she expresses that a superposition of states is possible, a baby living and dying. This ending evokes what is the reality for every living creature as well as the tremendous courage to risk having a baby at all.
On Craig Santos Perez’s “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene”:
The sarcastic tone is seemingly roasting the American populace for the longevity of Thanksgiving as a holiday. It brings the symbolism of the classic holiday spread into question, while flippantly commenting on the methods by which all of this food is procured; which in truth, is quite the sensitive matter to some. The idea of consumerism at the expense of humanity is extrapolated line by line as the poet trudges through gruesome facts while softening the truth through humor. But if anything this indifference, or frankly benign attitude, further critiques the attitudes of Americans upon the revelation of such atrocities. Finally, the structure itself was immaculate, especially the use of line breaks in the middle of thoughts. One specific example is found in the 12th couplet, which begins with “most”—which in relation to the previous line makes this one of the most horrid revelations of the poem; the emphasis given truly lends itself to jarring the reader into thinking and not just passively reading.
Kicked my ass with sad truth. Now I’m going to teach it so it can kick more asses.
Emily Ransdell’s “The Visit”:
I love the power of simplicity. It is a subject many of us can identify with, and the poet conveys this scene with wisdom and compassion. Her understated language hits me in the gut.
Though many of the poems were good, the emotion this poem evoked made it the only choice for me. The subject matter is difficult and not easy to read about, but Ransdell’s imagery is perfect, her stanzas tight. The ending goes right to that line of sentimentality without crossing it, something that is not easy to achieve. Kudos to Ransdell for this beautiful poem.
On Patrick Rosal’s “A Memory on the Eve of the Return of the U.S. Military to Subic Bay”:
Rosal’s poem strikes that perfect balance of graceful and unsettling. The threat is real and infantilized. Laughter becomes stark, suspicious, but retains its lightness, adds softness right as it adds madness, freezing the reader, perfectly impending. The timeliness of its uncertainty is simply lagniappe.
Amazing how a simple day of tag along on a visit can suddenly be pitched to high tense anxiety. “I’m serious …” A five-year-old with a gun, seemingly amused, aware of his “side of the gun.” I am assumming that all came out peacefully—we are never told the outcome—I was a bit freaked as I read. I loved the tension, the interesting spacing in and of lines, it makes you read it differently—like a remembrance told in a haunted way, that stays with the speaker to this day. “I’m Serious!” And if our current state of affairs isn’t a time to be serious, I don’t know when is …