with critique by Jendi Reiter
There's a pretty little girl
up in Michigan
living under snowy skies...
I haven't seen her, but I know
snowy blanket pulled over her head
tucked into her icy ladle
pour out your soul
each night (to stay whole)
drink in the finger of light
from the southern skies
when their eyes are heavy closed
waxen your skies with crayola color blues
rainbows for your eyes
white-light blessed blinders 'round your sight
look straight ahead
than blinding snow
you haven't seen it
but you'll know
If your daddy falls too hard
dreams on ice behind the bar
granddaddy puts your soul on tap
pour and pour more
he'll sell it to the devil, sweet baby E
he'll drain your love, like he drained me
pay no mind to what he's undone
three women's souls they breathe as one
close your eyes and dream
you'll see me, I'm the one
in the finger of light from the southern sun
brush the grit from your heart
each night before bed
fill your head with shades of red
bloodline flows between
blessed with His Grace
even stronger unseen
sweet, sweet baby E
There's a pretty little girl living under dreary skies
I haven't seen her but I know
the weatherman predicted snow
Copyright 2004 by Laurie J. Ward
Critique by Jendi Reiter
We welcome back Laurie J. Ward to the critique corner this month with "Saving Grace." We critiqued her poem "Blackened" in our November 2003 issue.
Ward here lends her compassionate voice to a child in danger of becoming a lost soul, in a ballad whose bluesy rhythm spirals upward like cigarette smoke in a late-night bar. The skillful syncopation of "poor/baby pour/baby" conveys a whole world in four words. We've been here before, this archetypal jazz club where a lonely little girl seeks consolation and escape in a drink. The line plays off the two meanings of "baby," a child and a sexy woman, and suggests how easily the distance between them is erased. This may not be what Ward intended, but the repeated phrase "baby E" also made me think of the drug Ecstasy, an ironic counterpart to the spiritual transcendence that the narrator holds out to the child.
Water imagery both benign and sinister—flowing, pouring, or falling as snow—gives this poem thematic continuity. Lines such as "If your daddy falls too hard/dreams on ice behind the bar/granddaddy puts your soul on tap" and "he'll drain your love like he drained me" warn of a life force dripping away, because the girl's family is exploitative or indifferent. But Ward juxtaposes other flowing imagery that refreshes, like light pouring from heaven: "drink in the finger of light/from the southern skies," and later in the poem, "fill your head with shades of red/and blue/and green/bloodline flows between/blessed with His Grace/even stronger unseen".
Between these opposing moods falls the snow, more ambiguous in its effects. The "heavy snow" at the beginning and end of the poem seems to represent the inertia that weighs on the child, as she tries to see beyond the hopeless and loveless life of her family. She risks being smothered by the weight of those dysfunctional traditions.
Yet the snow, like a childhood home, is also cozy and familiar: "snowy blanket pulled over her head/tucked into her icy ladle". The unusual image of a girl tucked into a ladle segues into the phrase "ladle/over her/pour", as if to say that the warmth of family security is inseparable from the icy shock of poured liquor that taints the scene. The odd structure of the sentence replicates the impossibility of integrating these aspects of her loved ones into a comprehensible whole.
The snow also resembles the "cloud of unknowing" that the mystic must penetrate to see God. The narrator asks the child to have faith in what lies beyond the curtain of white, just as the narrator herself tries to have faith that the child can sense her prayers and kinship: "I haven't seen her but I know". The poem effectively employs paradoxes of seeing/not-seeing to suggest that by closing her eyes to the sterile life around her, the girl can see the love and hope that are truly real: "white-light blessed blinders 'round your sight". She is the one who sees the light from the sky "when their eyes are heavy closed".
Where could a poem like "Saving Grace" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: September 30
Sponsored by well-regarded publisher Red Hen Press; formerly known as the Red Hen Press Poetry Award
Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: October 1
Excellent journal from Prescott College in Arizona; free-verse lyrics predominate
James Hearst Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Sponsored by North American Review, the oldest literary journal in America; "Saving Grace" fits their style and subject matter
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Poetry and prose contest for "personal writings that illumine the search for the sacred and the spirit"
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.