with critique by Jendi Reiter
from flints flung off
cliffs where crags snag
fledglings came my seed,
buried, until as sapling
i spiraled off ground. air
feeds me but it turns
poison when i exhale, cracks
when as blossom i break,
feigning petulance. i am crowned
when i abscond words.
i bear fruit when my
flesh oozes. my dreams
drip when birds hang where i gaze
on a promise; moons that sprout on my limbs i count as wings
wear out the sun, singe my heart
a thousand times. but always
at dawn i bud.
Copyright 2008 by Alegria Imperial
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Alegria Imperial returns to our pages with the haunting lyric "Riddle", which explores how creativity is conjoined with suffering. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker's barrenness of spirit is bitterly contrasted to the abundance of life that surrounds and inspires her. Yet out of this failure, paradoxically, she creates this eloquent poem, following in the tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "dark sonnets" and John Milton's "On His Blindness" ("When I consider how my light is spent...")
What is the riddle this poem poses? To begin with, there is the bafflement that the artist faces when her gift, already mysterious in its origins and operation, suddenly and inexplicably fails her. This blockage is accompanied by shame and sorrow when it seems to her that she cannot offer a worthy response to the beauty she perceives: "air/feeds me but it turns/poison when I exhale, cracks/when as blossom I break". The riddle might be, how can so much splendor fail to nourish me, how can it produce only this stunted growth?
The alliterative opening lines suggest that the speaker was not expecting a shortcut to inspiration. "from flints flung off/cliffs where crags snag/fledglings came my seed,/buried, until as sapling/i spiraled off ground". These lines are dense with F, G and S sounds, conjuring up a rough terrain of hard stones and hissing winds. The speaker nurtured her "seed" patiently in a harsh environment where naive "fledglings" are battered against the rocks. Shouldn't this effort be recompensed? We come up against another riddle, a more unsettling question: is the struggle worthwhile?
I wasn't sure what the poet meant by "I am crowned/when I abscond words." Perhaps she was trying to express the irony that she flourishes only when she renounces speech, the essence of herself. She is "crowned", perhaps praised for her talents, at a time when she feels they have deserted her. "Crowned" also suggests a tree or flower reaching full bloom.
The meaning can be inferred from the context, but I don't think "abscond" is exactly the right word. To abscond means to leave quickly and secretly, generally in order to escape punishment. A better word might be "abjure" or "renounce". Alternately, add a "from" after "abscond" to clarify that she is fleeing from language (abscond usually needs a preposition rather than taking a direct object).
I was also a little confused about the subject of "feigning petulance". Grammatically, it is unclear who is feigning, the air or the speaker. From the speaker's overall tone of anguished sincerity, it seems most likely that the air is playing cruel games, teasing her by withdrawing at the very moment when the long-awaited blossom opens.
The gorgeous, wrenching lines "i bear fruit when my/flesh oozes. my dreams/drip when birds hang where i gaze/on a promise" call up images of crucifixion or Promethean bondage. Like another tragic hero, Atlas, the speaker holds up "moons" on her arms, which become wings, the sign of transformation into the more-than-human. The poem pivots on this moment where the greatest agony coincides with the first sign of renewed fertility. Many cultures have myths of a god or hero who is sacrificed to make the crops grow. The eternal interdependence of life and death is creativity's ultimate "riddle".
Where could a poem like "Riddle" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Annual Poetry Prizes
Entries must be received by October 18
Prizes up to $10,000 and web publication for short lyric poems "celebrating the spirit of life" by authors under age 40
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Prizes of $1,000 apiece for unpublished poetry, short fiction, and novel excerpts; publication not included
Portland Pen Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 7
The National League of American Pen Women, Portland Branch, offers prizes up to $150 for unpublished poems; no website; see our September 1 newsletter for rules or email Joan Henson
Lumina National Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 15
Prizes up to $500 from the literary journal of Sarah Lawrence College; contest alternates annually between unpublished poems (the 2008 category), short fiction, and nonfiction
The Plough Prize
Entries must be received by November 30
Prizes up to 500 pounds for short poems; contest is a fundraiser for the Plough Arts Centre, a UK arts organization
Writers' Circle Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: December 29
Rhode Island writers' group offers prizes up to $200 for unpublished poems by residents of the US and Canada
Heart Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Thrice-yearly award of $500 for unpublished free verse, from a small independent journal that publishes fresh, original and inspiring writing
This poem and critique appeared in the October 2008 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. 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.