Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2019 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:
James Davis May (web)
“Red in Tooth and Claw”
The 2019 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #66 were eligible. “Red in Tooth and Claw” earned 21.4% of the votes and the $2,000 award. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:
I read it as a poem about gentleness and hope in a brutal world. I was struck by how the poem brings together mundane images with the larger search for meaning and justice around life and death. The poem was also touching in its choices, such as the narrator’s refusal to use the word ‘battle’ for cancer.
I loved the unusual layout of “Red in Tooth and Claw” and many of its lines resonated with me. I lost a friend last year to cancer, he’d beaten it twice and it came back. To my dismay, the world went on, seemingly oblivious to his disappearance. I wondered about the same things the poet did–if we matter, if anyone is listening. In our divided nation, at a time when civility seems all but dead, I soothe myself by committing random acts of kindness, like the milk he puts out for the feral cat. The abstract is skillfully interwoven with the concrete. The ending flickers with hope and makes me feel warm inside.
This poem speaks to me as someone who recently lost a friend to cancer. It’s a poem I might have written myself to process what I’m going through, “appalled by the world and its gross refusal / to stop being the world.” In the face of this indifference, we need to find our way forward, which might come in the form of leaving milk out for a feral cat who, as we are, is only trying to make it through this.
—David de Young
I’m voting for “Red Claw in Tooth” for its voice, a voice that is so intimate I can hear the breathing in it, between the words, it steams up from the page. Yes, there’s the technique, the echo of the Tennyson poem (which I looked up as the title sounded familiar and so this poem taught me, which I appreciate), the palpable sorrow, and the compassionate and inscrutable images, and the use of the page, and the needed call for our best selves these days, but even without them, for me, it’s that voice.
To read “Red in Tooth and Claw” and all of the other finalist poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #66, or wait until the April, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.
James Davis May was the winner, but this year’s voting was as evenly divided as ever—each of the remaining poems received 7–13% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic supporters. As always, it was 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 Kathleen Balma’s “Punch Line”:
I vote for Kathleen Balma’s “Punch Line.” Her vivid dialogue between a stripper and a club owner engaged my imagination. I found it compelling and hung on every word, waiting for the punch line. She delivered. No matter how many times I read her poem, I always laugh at the end. We could use a little humor these days.
—Andre Le Mont Wilson
I vote for “Punch Line” by Kathleen Balma. She took me into a situation I couldn’t have imagined before, and made it real and believable—great dialogue, great punchline (with “Splinters” being a wonderful way to assuage the man’s ego, implying that she believes he can bust the broom, at the same time giving a very practical reason for not holding it), and I was delighted that the poet didn’t tell me how the story ended.
On Susan Browne’s “Bonanza”:
I like poetry with clear, straight forward language but whose meaning is much deeper and multi-layered than what meets the eye. I also like poetry that sheds light on the sterility of the medical industry—how it so often leaves us feeling like we are nothing more than machines with defective parts rather than holistic beings of mind/body/spirit/emotion. I was touched by how she depicted the loneliness and fear of being a patient waiting for a test result, of a being a human inside a body; how getting pulled into that singular experience can so easily jettison you from your connection to others and to the greater flow of life. The progression of the poem from examining room to elevator to crowded street shows how the poet reconnects with all that is beyond herself, and I love that. I felt equally moved by her depiction of the frailty of human life in a physical, medical sense juxtaposed with the desire to believe we are something more than an X-ray or mammogram—and that it is precisely this part of us that is “more than” that compels us to connect and share of ourselves. This deeper part of us is the driver inside the vehicle of our bodies; the true driving force of the “bonanza” of life. Thank you to Susan Browne for sharing this deeply touching and relatable insight. It really speaks to what it means to be human on a physical, spiritual, and emotional level and about how we come to terms with the inevitable mortality of our bodies. I feel honored to have had the chance to read and reflect on this beautifully written poem.
I am drawn to the way this poem captures the experience of any woman. This translates the episode into a matter of fact narrative of the internal and the external. Her use of words and form is very simple, yet very focused in how she negotiates from the X-ray machine to the outside world.
On Barbara Lydecker Crane’s “Mother and Child”:
The poet captures so much of the artist’s story, as well as the fear women face and inadvertently pass on to their children. I appreciate the use of form to contain the tension and experiences of the speaker and subjects sitting for her. The poem stands alone without knowing the painting due to the powerful, unsettling description used.
There are multiple layers to this succinct poem.
This sonnet draws the reader in with a curious element in the reading of the opening line, and with every image it twists. At the volta, the poem pulls the reader from the painting’s subject to inside the portrait painter’s head as she reveals her terrifying betrayal by her husband in stealing away her own child. Powerful. The rhymes are unexpected and build on tension and terror—the reader is in the poem, holding the baby, trembling.
On Maya Tevet Dayan’s “Foreign-ness”:
I vote for Foreign-ness by Maya Tevet Dayan. She says she came to the writing of poetry late in life, after her mother’s death. Evidently, by that time, she had stored up a wealth of experience, wisdom and passion. Much of it explodes forth from this poem. Though ostensibly the story of getting along with a neighbor of different ethnicity, layered beneath that are brilliant observations about the transmission of culture and the nature of womanhood.
The poem travels back and forth between the backyard hedge of a Canadian family in the throes of a divorce, and dealing with a daughter who is suffering from anorexia, and a family from Israel trying to fit in to the Canadian culture that often employs euphemisms in place of threats. Right away, in part 1 of 27 parts, we are told the Canadian’s dog is deaf, so no use in yelling at him, however, the dog is not deaf. And that’s the problem, a conversation where each side doesn’t seem to listen. The poem is weighted with texture that is remarkably active, varying, and unpredictable, and one that compels close attention and minute adjustments of feeling. I found myself not wanting to take sides and hoping for some resolution. The last line and a half sums up the poem: “Why do you all at once / stop being happy?”
On Daniel Arias Gómez’s “Cathedrals: Ode to a Deported Uncle”:
My grandparents immigrated to New York from Italy and today I feel a palpable affinity for the Latino culture, because, even though I was young, I remember the discrimination my grandfather experienced because he spoke with an accent. What grabbed me in the poem came right at the introduction, “Tio, you learn there is always a border.” But the way that the poem introduces the reader to the multitude of borders (and cathedrals) is captivating, and I could relate to all of them. It left me recalling a line from the old Dragnet television series: “This story is true, only the names have been changed …”
The poem allows an entrance into multiple lives, whether real or imagined, and takes multiple turns that are both surprising and seamless (the boat, the sex). While it paints a vivid picture, the weight of the poem rests on the uncle and the unknown: where is he, what is he doing? And yet, it imagines the best for him, because to not imagine the best would be to succumb to sorrow.
On Red Hawk’s “The Never-Ending Serial”:
I don’t think I’ve seen those old films with women tied to the tracks except in TV clips or as remakes in Dudley Do-Right cartoons, but the principles of discrimination in how women and minorities were represented—or not represented at all—remained true for many generations. It would have been a pretty entertaining poem just from the girls’ perspective of looking for white men to save them or from looking at the boys’ feelings of inadequacy. Looking at it from both perspectives grabbed my vote. It brought back my own frustrations in the ’50s that women never did anything exciting on TV. I either pretended I was Roy Rogers or Superman or made up my own female roles: Gloria the Angel and Morning Cloud the Indian Princess. Gloria could fly like Superman. Morning Cloud could ride a horse better than Roy, and both could speak to animals in their own tongues.
The poem that resonates most deeply with me is Red Hawk’s “The Never Ending Serial,” for when I was a boy, our small town’s little movie theatre showed those never ending serials, just as Red tells it. So I am imprinted by them. The poem cashes along apace, revives my excited mind adventures as the train approaches. But more than that, the poet goes beyond the poem and feels empathy with the damsel in distress, her point of view, as a commentary on society and its cliché thinking. As well, he expresses his own, and some other males’ POV, showing the helpless side of malehood.
On Sue Howell’s “Gender Studies”:
The poem is clear and concise in its imagery and insightful in its content without sacrificing pace or rhythm. It is exactly what poetry is meant to be.
“Gender Studies” is one of the freshest poems I’ve read in months. Ms. Howell observes keenly, with rich, rich detail and humor. This is what can happen when poets don’t write in the first person, which John Ciardi called the lyric yelp, as from the newborn popping out of the womb, and which Toni Morrison considered anathema.
—Alberta Lee Orcutt
On Kimberly Kemler’s “From Oblivious Waters”:
I vote for “From Oblivious Waters” by Kimberly Kemler because of the poem’s made-to-look-effortless use of meter and rhyme, crafted with a light (but far from frivolous) touch. I especially liked the introduction of a second main character in the final third of the poem, a female photo developer imagined at work in the darkroom, who may or may not be another earlier version of the speaker herself. And because the world is water.
As always I’m impressed with all the contest poems and love reading them a few times. Tonight I’m sure my heart votes for Kimberley Kemler for “From Oblivious Waters” after William Empson. Before I made my final choice I of course had to look up William Empson. So I am smarter than before and loved reading about his seven ambiguities of any given “piece of language.” I admired how free Kemler was to do what Empson advised in a piece of writing, using imagination “to go find yourself.” In addition to her fine craftsmanship I loved how she began the poem with brushing her teeth, spitting and setting about looking for a line of poetry and the whole thing goes on a journey of memory and discovery of an old lover, merging ambiguity after ambiguity into a lucid whole, the photograph of the woman in a wash of developer. Thanks for the ride, rhyme and all.
On Gabrielle Otero’s “Self-Portrait, Despite What They Say”:
I was captivated from beginning to end. Sometimes when I read work by poets whose backgrounds are vastly different than my own, I almost feel guilty because I don’t “get it.” Ms. Otero’s poem was so vivid and creatively direct, it would be hard for anyone to feel disconnected from it.
My vote gets cast for “Self-Portrait, Despite What They Say” by Gabrielle Otero. (Though it was hard to ignore, “From Oblivious Waters” with its wonderful cascading rhyme scheme.) There are some wonderful lines in the poem and a very effective use of the type of enjambment I like where a second meaning is invoked depending on whether one reads through syntactically or stops at the line break. Also, the last four tercets feel like one long exhale (It is not lost on me …), which makes a nice culmination to the breathless progression of the first 2/3 of the poem—kind of like a finale of a fireworks display. And finally, the last two lines echo a bit of history: The Balfour Declaration at the end of WWI, when the Allies were dividing up the spoils of war, gave the Palestinian territories to the Israeli diaspora for a new nation, and was introduced at a ceremony by declaring, A land without people for a people without a land—thereby ignoring the 700,000 Palestinians who were living there.