A Selection of Fine Poems from the Winning Writers Community: What Makes Them Great
PRAISE POEM by Stephen Derwent Partington
We praise the man who,
though he held the match between
his finger and his thumb,
beheld the terror of its tiny drop of phosphorus,
its brown and globoid smoothness
like a charred and tiny skull
and so returned it to its box.
So too, we hail the youth who,
though he took his panga on the march,
perceived it odd within his fist
when there was neither scrub
nor firewood to be felled,
so laid it down.
An acclamation for the man who,
though he saw the woman running, clothing torn,
and though he lusted,
saw his mother in her youth,
restrained his colleagues
We pay our homage to the man who,
though his heart was like a stone
and though he took a stone to cast,
could feel its hardness in the softness of his palm
and grasped the brittleness of bone,
so let it drop.
We laud the man who,
though he snatched to scrutinise
the passenger's I.D.,
saw not the name—instead, the face—
and slid it back
as any friend might slide his hand to shake a friend's.
And to the rest of us,
may you never have to be that man,
but if you have to,
Copyright 2011 by Stephen Derwent Partington
This poem is reprinted from his collection How to Euthanise a Cactus (Cinnamon Press, 2010).
QUILTS by Thelma T. Reyna
Mother plugged up the coffee spout
with foil after dinner
to keep the cockroaches out
and laid a pile
of patchwork quilts on the chilly floor
for us to sleep on and urinate.
She hung them on the doors
colorful, stinky banners hanging
room through room
them next night so the most pissed
would be on the bottom of the stack
and we could sleep without the stench
of too much wetness.
coffee sometimes had a baby cockroach
drowned in its bitters. Got through the foil, I guess,
damned little fool,
got through the plug to mess
her brew, as we messed her quilts—
growing kids lying shoulder to shoulder
on the floor,
still peeing, still wrapped in each other's arms
to keep warm.
Copyright 2011 by Thelma T. Reyna
This poem is reprinted from her collection Breath & Bone, which was a semifinalist in the 2010 New Women's Voices Chapbook Competition and was published in April 2011 by Finishing Line Press.
TWILIGHT OF THE SWORD SWALLOWER by Dana Curtis
The metal ground sharp and
sparks: a brand new constellation: “Fire
Opal,” “Ruined Lizard,” “Eye's
Inner Sanctum.” In the sweet
illumination, I work at the saw
cutting fish out of silver
for jewelry or some soon to be invented
weapon. Everything is manipulated,
softened by heat, hair caught
in the polishing wheel, glitter
of new set jewels. Titanium,
treated with flame or electricity, turns colors
no bomb would wear: consumptive nova
bursting myriad blades. It takes skill
to split small things. Let the new sky
bless the new stars.
Evening, what is known
as golden hour, the film crew
rush to get the shot while Seraphim
walk their small mad dogs.
So attracted to the camera's
rigid intent blinking their watery eyes,
spoiled by wingspans: a sexy use
for archaic weapons. Visit me
at my pretty house where I'll serve
grapes and whisper
something no one remembers, hopes
never to hear. Not the inevitable
edge, the intimate comprehension
of swallow and remove, my presence
on a red cushion in the black and white
night. We cut our throats on
the new sky, old angels.
Copyright 2011 by Dana Curtis
This poem is reprinted from her new collection Camera Stellata, which was recently published by WordTech Communications.
COMPOSITE COLOR by Robert Savino
The night sky is black, perforated by bb holes
of light, sometimes under a blanket of doubt.
Perhaps it will change to African American night;
and Indian Summer to Native American autumn.
Why not…ask Crayola!
prussian blue changed to midnight blue
flesh is now peach
indian red, chestnut
and while green-blue, orange-red and lemon-yellow
were retired and enshrined in the Hall of Fame,
pink flamingo, banana mania and fuzzy
wuzzy brown were added to the list.
Segregation has become a tempered memory.
A double scoop of chocolate and vanilla,
once packed like fists of Sugar Ray
and Jake, now melts in handshakes.
Sammy and Frank; Martin and Bobby—
forging connections, a slow crawl
of tap dance steps to gigantean proportions,
a mixing bowl with no sense of separation.
Crayola brands, ice-cream stands,
playful minds, shaded hues of humanity.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Savino
This poem was first published in the Fall 2010 issue of North American Review.
NEWS OF THE NAMELESS by Veronica Golos
I climb marble steps worn to the shapes of waves.
I follow those with the loudest voices.
I am a dry broom
an old man sweeps his floor with; the sunlight speaks in Braille.
All Bethlehem is a child's tale: the crisis-crossed road,
the man in the white robe, the donkey,
the already dangerous dust.
Now the news is full of splinters.
Graffiti scars my palms, my wrists—
I walk through the library of forgetting.
I am my own news and nothing's
Who was he, naked and bound on the ground?
He is gone now.
Disappeared into the crowd of other news,
disappeared into someone's home,
where he sits, hands flat on the table—
pierced by a brilliant sun.
Where is the solider, the helmet, the hands, the threat
that pulled him naked from his cell
as the choker clicked like a timepiece?
Who carries the dead weight, the iron cuffs,
the chair in the center of the room,
the whisper behind the earlobe?
I hear particulates strung along air, vibrating:
What is his name?
What is his name?
Copyright 2011 by Veronica Golos
This poem is reprinted from her collection Vocabulary of Silence, which was released in February 2011 by Red Hen Press.
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Some poems rise above. This month in Critique Corner we are happy to announce a new feature in this series: occasional essays in which we consider why this is so. Rather than revising a piece offered by a contributor, we will, from time to time, offer an appreciative reassessment of poems reprinted elsewhere in our pages, poems that have either won awards, or received significant publication, or been included in award-winning collections.
To launch these new appreciations—as well as bid farewell to 2011—let's take a look at five poems reprinted in the Winning Writers newsletter during this last year in our Recent Honors for Subscribers feature: “Praise Poem” by Stephen Derwent Partington (February 2011), “Quilts” by Thelma T. Reyna (March 2011 supplement), “Twilight of the Sword Swallower” by Dana Curtis (July 2011), “Composite Color” by Robert Savino (March 2011 supplement), and “News of the Nameless” by Veronica Golos (February 2011).
One characteristic common to all of these poems is their artfully selected and occasionally outstanding diction: the descriptive precision of “its brown and globoid smoothness/ like a charred and tiny skull” from “Praise Poem”; the emotional connotation added by the final word in the phrase, “a baby cockroach /drowned in its bitters” from “Quilts”; the economy of “consumptive nova” from “Twilight of the Sword Swallower”—such a big idea conveyed in just two words; the specificity of the proper nouns in “Composite Colors”; the punning “crisis-crossed road” (as opposed to criss-crossed) in “News of the Nameless”.
Diction can always benefit through revision. Ask yourself if your verbs are active and interesting, if there are more specific or less prosaic ways to convey ideas, if your descriptions really help a reader visualize. Take the time to use a thesaurus, especially for adjectives. Words with connotative meanings add layers to a poem.
But beyond diction, each of these poems offers some insight into what works effectively.
Notice, for example, how repetition is used in “Praise Poem”. In the April 2011 Critique Corner, I claimed that repetition is poetry's most powerful device, and warned that, because of its strength, it should be used with care. Partington's recurring construction “who,/though” demonstrates a light touch which unifies the piece and imparts a song-like quality without becoming overbearing. In part this is because it is merely a two-word phrase which occurs mid-sentence grammatically and is enjambed, as opposed to a complete sentence repeated verbatim. To save his poem from falling into predictability, Partington slightly varies the full phrase in the second stanza by choosing “youth” instead of “man”. He also lets go of it in the final stanza—a way of signifying that it is, in fact, the final stanza.
As elegant as I find this particular use of repetition to be, I actually do not believe it is why this poem rises above. Rather it is its “generosity”. In the October 2011 Critique Corner, I defined this quality, in terms of poetry, to mean a sharing of our common humanity. With this praise for a pacifist, Partington offers up a poem that can give voice to all of us.
Which is not to imply that a more personal poem cannot also be generous. Thelma Reyna's poem “Quilts” shows how this is done. As Jendi Reiter wrote about Jack Goodman's “Jubilate Agno” in the February 2011 Critique Corner, the poet “sticks to describing the action in concrete terms instead of editorializing.” In other words, especially with its final line, this poet generously refrains from instructing the reader how to feel.
Though, of course, its generosity is not all that makes this poem rise above. Perhaps obviously in this case, what makes this poem outstanding is its sensory detail. I feel as if I can hear their “brew” percolate beneath the sounds of many kids waking up.
Less obviously, this poem is successful because it is tightly written, every part reused. The coffee comes back, its smell a foil to the stink of urine; the mess of quilts on the floor overlap like the limbs of the children. Yet, despite the clutter it depicts, this poem remains uncluttered in its focus. Reyna understands the capacity of her poem and so chooses to leave the hot plate and bare light bulb and the absence of dad for another piece. Furthermore, she has paid attention to form and selected one that propels the reading forward.
The same can be said of Dana Curtis's “Twilight of the Sword Swallower”. Notice where the poet has chosen to end her sentences. Because she frequently does so mid-line, she can race the reading along in a way that either full stops or predictable grammatical phrase line-breaking would foreclose. In addition, she can take advantage of interesting and surprising enjambments, for instance “sweet/illumination” from lines four and five or “invented/weapon” from seven and eight. Since we don't expect “sweet” to modify light or “weapon” to follow “jewelry”, the line breaks reinforce a sense of discovery in this poem, making it consistently fun to read.
Such challenges to our logic are a large part of what makes a poem a poem. The August 2010 Critique Corner addressed the difference between poetry and prose more fully. There, we noted that the word “verse” means to turn and that such turns are the essence of poetry.
To understand what such versing can lend to a poem, have a look at Robert Savino's “Composite Color”. For the first three stanzas, this would seem merely to be a poem exploiting the rich diction family to be found in a box of crayons. What lends the poem its gravitas—as well as its generosity—is the leap in stanza four to the topic of racial segregation. By landing the reader in a new place, this poem rises above.
Veronica Golos's “News of the Nameless” uses a similar strategy, moving in its second stanza from a personal narrative to a meditation on an unknown soldier. But even before she gets there, Golos shifts perspective line by line moving from the subject of the poet in line three, to an old man in line four, to the city in line five, and so forth. Notice that in this poem, most of the lines end in either periods or commas. The few lines that don't are thereby imbued with an implied buffer of quiet, demonstrating how line breaking can be used as effectively to slow a reading as to speed it. Nevertheless, we find in this poem a sense of surprise similar to that in “Twilight of the Sword Swallower”, on account of its many fresh images. “I am a dry broom” and “the sunlight speaks in Braille” are both original and evocative, elevating this poem.
As we have seen, each of these poems is excellent in several ways—not just one. In particular, it is evident that their authors gave some thought to the best form for their poems, the most effective way to shape the reading of the piece so that it might be faster, slower, or more song-like. Such choices are generally made in revision. Taking the time to reconsider our poems, perhaps to focus them by removing what is extraneous or to enliven the text with startling diction—this is what allows them to rise above.
These poems and critique appeared in the December 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).