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Winning Poems for March 2009
Judge Elena Karina Byrne

First Place
I, Raptor
by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

You feed me river rocks, oak bark logged with rain,
a braid of fence wire (grandfather-bone-thin), its barbs
worn to knots. For you, I swallow green bottle stems

the sea has thrown up, blond baleen hair, antler points.
My guts bracket your conglomerate: blood iron, hardwood
ash, pith. Keratin dull as barn windows. Fish-scale mica.

These are the last castings of desire, tossed at night like horns
off some buckdevil. A pockled egg rises from stomach to throat.
I wet it with your laugh, one final drink for you, then hack

a hawk-man pellet. Pwckk! Its heavy oval sinks like a cone
into pine needles. I fly light, easy. You make a rare bolus,
my compacted love. What stranger's hand will break you?

Judge's Commentary:

This dense, strange persona poem, "I, Raptor," emerges within the language of nature and its almost ancient "pith," so that the words themselves are as physical as the things they name. This reminds me of the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo hybrid nature-men representing the seasons or Hieronymus Bosch and the dark "conglomerate" collection of dark images which penetrate the psyche. The final surprise line serves the poem well and startles us into a sudden present tense knowledge. --Elena Karina Byrne

Winning Poems for August 2008

Judge Tony Barnestone

Tsunami Prelude
by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

Salt water curls back - tongue against sky roof.
Mud sucks and hisses, salivary, raw red
gleaming to horizon like a muscle sheath.
It is miraculous, this wrenched ocean, sudden
absence of tide. Even gulls are astonished.
Thin cloud scallops edge emptiness. Blind bivalves
sputter and spout as I cross their wet bed.

Caught among flotsam, barnacled pine-limbs
point fingerbones. Impaled, a child's photo
grins grey, wavers. My own eyes (little changed),
bedraggled hair-bow, missing tooth. No acne yet.
I refuse to save myself. Beside a tampon case,
my jewel-box gapes, pink and broken. It may
have just given birth to something unnameable.

Storm petrels knife into the wind. To my left,
an old man bends toward a stained helmet;
three women on my right drape prom dresses
over their arms - lace bodices, tulle skirts.
Half-buried in silt, an Evening in Paris bottle
reminds me I'm allergic. But today's scents
are kelp, rust, blended fresh remains.

This is too large a harvest for one season.
Diaries with vinyl covers; teen dolls holding
tiny 45s. Worn saddle shoes (brown trim,
not the black I wanted). Oak cane - I know it
from my closet debris. Scattered costume beads,
brooches, safety pins, cracked glass goblets.
Decanter I once gave my dad for his birthday.

I stamp on a wedding ring with cheap
diamond chips. Circular imprint: perfect fake
clamhole. Dried-rose-petal dervishes blow
across cumuli. Ululations (ecstasy? anguish?)
roil heat haze. On the beach, girls' cries disturb
this universe. Freight-train-thundershake.
Tourists yell run in their language. Not mine.

Along a naked seafloor, silver leaps joyous
and unintelligent. When the rro-ooo-ll is called up
yo-o-onder. I'm not sure where I'll be, except not
there. The promdress ladies are gone, nothing left
but a mohair stole. I wrap myself in woolscratch,
recall Nana knitting its duplicate. Senior year.
It scrapes at my skin like an oyster knife.

I lie down, open myself.

We'll drown, the old man reassures me.

Foam gargles toward us.

That's the point.

First Place
Tsunami Prelude
by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

Judge's Comments:

The great strength of this poem lies in the care and interest it gives to description, especially in the wonderful and strange first two stanzas. I enjoy the physicality of the receded ocean like a mouth, the tongue of the waves curled back, the raw red mud like muscle sheath. Though the poet restrains him or herself from saying so, implicitly it makes the oceanic force of the gathering Tsunami a godlike thing, a great god tongue coming to lick the world clean of life. The second stanza gives us a picture of the flotsam that the narrator and others are gathering in the bed of the receded ocean---all the detritus of their lives, child photos, tampon cases, and especially that very strange jewel box gaping, pink and broken. It is a strange image of the mother-vagina that has birthed something unnameable. The red mud echoes the Hebrew for Adam ("red earth") and the vaginal jewel box gives us an intertextual echo of the myth of Pandora and just a hint of the Yeats' apocalyptic beast slouching towards Bethlehem. So the creation story of Genesis is joined to the Greek myth of the origin of monsters, which have birthed (it seems) this monster storm. Out of that monstrous beginning will come the apocalyptic end of the poem's little world made cunningly. Why does the protagonist stay on the mud to drown as the water gathers and rolls toward her, refusing to save herself, choosing instead to lie down and open herself? I don't know, exactly. Yet that strange ending, in which the old man reassures her that drowning is somehow the point of it all, has an instinctive rightness to me. Why resist the god-tongue's watery word? Why not drown in god and let him/her wash the things of your life away? What will remain then? --Tony Barnstone

IBPC March 2008 winner - Web del Sol
Judge Fleda Brown

Also Honorable Mention IBPC Poem of the Year - Judge: Kelly Cherry

First Place from
nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize by Fortunate Childe Publications

Carol for the Brokenhearted
by Brenda Levy Tate

Can you hear the whole sky ringing?
I watch you stumble under its alleluia bell.
Your bare feet string a dozen prints
like pearls across the December grass.

These soles are your only stars, girl.
Hours, days, years - every last wound
you’ll ever endure - catch in the silty net
you drag behind, sans mermaids, moths

or seraphs' teeth. Your uncombed dreams
pour down your face, white as salt.
Listen, the sea is shifting in sleep.
It’s Christmas, and you are unparented

again. We both wait in this empty inn-yard;
a few stray gods quarrel behind their curtain.
Since they have been replaced, no doubt
they can discount one more failed prayer,

one more gloria in excelsis. A feather zags
its way to earth. This is only an owl’s trick,
girl. If you pick it up, you will be lost.
Can’t you feel the darkness gathering itself?

Midnight snaps shut, a padlock against hope.
Tomorrow is ordinary, as you must surely
expect by this time. Come into the pub-light
where a solitary barman offers decent ale

and music for all the bruised people. We are
among them, we whose homes and lovers
have blown like scarves over the world’s edge.
Here’s to absent friends, someone says.

I lift a mug; foam spatters my right hand.
A nearby church peals one o’clock and I
almost believe in something. Then I look down
at the tabletop reflecting your face. Its eyes

turn to knotholes, beaten into the wood.
Its mouth is the crack under a door.
You’ve damned me, girl, with a feather
saved from dirt. Now you wear it in your hair.

Judge’s Comments:

I could almost choose this poem for its one line, "we whose homes and lovers have blown like scarves over the world’s edge," but there is much more to like, here. The poem is beautifully controlled by its four-stress lines—it is a carol, after all—but within the lines, many wonderfully strange turns. The tension of the darkness of the two people’s lives set against the ringing alleluias of the season does not include one maudlin line or image. "Midnight snaps shut, a padlock against hope." Metaphor is smart in this poem. This poem is smart and polished. --Fleda Brown

The use of metaphor allows a reader to make associations that would otherwise not occur. --Kelly Cherry

Third-Place Poem for December, 2008
Judges Hélène Cardona and John Fitzgerald

Memento Mori
by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

Hold it to your ear and listen, my father said.
You'll hear the sea. He offered the conch
- one of a pair on the Florida souvenir counter -

and I lifted it against my never-cut curls.
The ocean spoke then (it must have been so,
for who would doubt the word of a navy man?).

Shoal-dance: hiss and boom and mutter.
We claimed both pink-throated ornaments,
set them beside our fireplace, where smoke

bit into their soft bosses. My father dusted
them often at first, then less and less.
He died on a May morning. I wasn't there.

Today I am in the family room, clearing my half-
life rubble, those trinkets never fully paid for.
My lost sailor rises from his water rest,

a bubble seeking light. Hold it to your ear,
he murmurs. I study the remaining shell,
pitted with ash acid, patterned with worm

burrows among its turrets. It looks starved.
I raise it to a lobe; my gold stud presses
where neck and jaw collide. Skull tectonics.

What sea still moves over these old reefs
and reaches? Just the eddy of my own
blood - personal undertow that sluices bone -

salt and iron doomed as any rotten vessel.
Heaven forgive my unbelief. I strain to resurrect
a single current here, flood and pull now silent

beneath a nacre sunset. Invented waves dry
in ruined chambers. My father retreats, a tide
ebbing through his deaf labyrinth. I cannot call

after him, nor even wring a prayer to wash
my aragonite dead.

This poem flows with a wonderful rhythm. Great use of language for a story that is both personal and universal. --Hélène Cardona and John Fitzgerald

Winning Poem for December 2007
Judge E. Ethelbert Miller

Ruth in Ward 3A Imagines Herself as a Tree

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells

Before first light, I slip into a spruce --
its roots (and mine) old ropes that tie the clay
to bind me gently, while the stars infuse
me with a balm of resin, salt and spray.

My blood is balsam now, and moves as slow
as sunrise. With a prickling in my chest,
the alto sap upwells and spreads; its low
ring-singing stirs the shorebirds from their rest.

Below me wheel the herring gulls and hawks
that drift toward my cliff. A willet cries
above the pearling tide, and on the rocks
a stranger's cat holds morning in her eyes.

I shed my bark as dawn releases me.
Tomorrow, I shall dream myself the sea.

I like the title of this poem and how it works with the sonnet structure. One is pulled into the world of mental illness and it's the world of nature as well as imagination. This is a poem of transformation and a rejection of restrictions. Ruth is able to escape the hospital ward. The closing couplet makes this poem a winner. I want Ruth to believe she is the sea tomorrow.
--E. Ethelbert Miller

Note: The lady who inspired the above poem passed away from pancreatic cancer in March, 2008.

2nd Place Poem, April 2008 - Judge: Patricia Smith

Also Honorable Mention IBPC Poem of the Year - Judge: Kelly Cherry

Spring Dance
by Brenda Levy Tate

Route 22 ripples to an axle beat as the red pickup approaches.
Puddles pulse, wheels veer, water arcs like a tide
parting before the F-150's tire hiss. Beer cans snicker
beneath ice-wire-wink.

Sleet coats cables, gone by noon. Pavement's a mosaic –
broken headlights, embedded pennies. Mouse bones crunch
under Goodyear studs.

First tractor out of the yard wallows with a pulmonary
wheeze in muck stubble. Field's black, twisted
as abandoned shirts. An old collie three-legs it
down the chain track because that's what he was born to do.

In a heifer-gnawed grove behind the loafing shed,
deer scrabble snow crust under bare oaks;
limbs scratch cloudskins. Mated robins drop
sky bits onto dull moss. New melt trinkles
and plishes off the gambrel-roof barn.

On the porch step, farmboy smooths his trout filament
between forefinger and thumb, feeds it into the Shakespeare
with a handful of hope.

The day flows around him -- river and rock --while mother
sings from her clothesline, "Fare thee well, love,"
hazel gaze a salamandrine fire that burns what it touches.

He listens, furrows deep as plowed dirt
above his eyes; matches reel spin to wash-pulley creak.

Milkroom radio chatters about foreclosures, lost soldiers
and protests against a mine two counties away. Fishhook
snags the little fellow's thumb.

Long driveway rasps its monotone; gravel shoulders shrug
still-frozen clods into ditches. Muddy Ford swerves,
bumps over brushcut lawn, halts beside a lattice arbor
where rambling roses will soon explode like ruptured hearts.

Woman-song stops. She turns - sliced lemon smile -
carries her laundry basket, sets it down carefully.
Then she straightens to confront the truck, but won't glance
at her son. Not even once.

Out on bleeding earth, her husband inhales the dark
diesel, whistles off-key. "This will be no ordinary April,"
he assures his crippled dog.

Excellent description, grounded in observed details. Dynamic verbs charge the poem with energy. --Kelly Cherry

               No Gone Cat - for Sam

InterBoard Poetry Competition
First Place Winner, May 2004 - Judge: CJ Sage

      Brenda Tate
      (The Critical Poet)

I almost sleeping when he come. He say,
“Cat, why you not look up? Eyes see all
that be, until breath stop. Watch with eyes.”
When I open, he shine like morning, right
here in scary place. Two-leg mother
with me, talk touch, talk touch. I not
try stretch out claws, even after
she hurt my ear and trap me tight
for bring where are other sick ones.

“She love you,” Sun Cat say, “so she
want help you better but not time now
for her do that.” He stand close and then
I sitting beside him with no sore ear,
and ribs not breaking under. Puss on
table lie quiet, black-white like me.
He big fluffy boy with paws curled
and hay in tail. “What barn cat be this?”
I not want new enemy and he mighty
long fur but no move, him. Red earstick
and face shut off. “He be you, name Sam.”

Now I not smartest scratcher in litter box
but I know me and not-me, and him not me.
He stiff as shavings frozen in stall when I
dig for cover pee. He a dead old buddy.
I with friend who glowing all around.
It dark everywhere but Gold Mister jump--
just like that--off table in air. “Hurry,”
he call me. “You not my only today.”

And we outside, where is car and Two-leg
mother. She cry water salt on box in arms
and other two-leg carry cage but it empty.
We watch her go away and I very sad
for I remember she have love me.

“You tell goodbye,” Gold Mister speak
and surprise me. “Where your barn is?”
Before I answer, we there. Stray tom stand
in loft where I like fight him. “No,”
Gold Mister tell me though I not talk this.
“His now. He need home; you have fine
other place. Not worry about him more.”

Tom my enemy once but I no problem
for him now. Farm dogs run, maybe smell
me. They stop in path and grin so I tell
what happen. Hope they figure out.
“You gone away?” young stupid one ask.
Grey-muzzle lick at shadow and understand.
“We meet soon,” I tell her. How I know?

Others not outdoors but we are in house
and not through window, either. “They
allow see you this one day,” Sun Cat
explain, so I say we miss each other.
I make sorry for not always be friendly.
I mean son-of-a-tabby sometimes.

Car in driveway and Gold Mister
show me strange thing. Two-leg mother
dig deep deep deep, toss earth stones roots
and put plastic bag at bottom. It have
paw press against, white like Sam foot.
Wet in there so she shovel throw sawdust too.
“That from pile beside window where I napping
in winter.” Gold Mister not speak. “Why I
leave her? Just young fellow; needed here, me.”

He spin bigger than fireball that fall
from summer. “Job done,” he roar. “You get
her ready for bigger sorrow.” I understand
what he mean. She have ancient woman-
mother who very sick. She lose me, learn
get strong. But hard not tell her I watching.
She never even hear meow or feel tail brush,
before snow cover not-me. “You visit back
one time,” is all what I allowed. Then he
tell me stare at sun, no see home anymore.

They aster flowers where we hunt today. Old
cat mama near, even Siamese friend find me.
Gold Mister teach me how go back,
be some new kitten when I finish learning.
But this good place and I happy Sam now.

Judge C.J. Sage’s comments: “As is appropriate for most things made to last, ‘I No Gone Cat, You Just Not See Me’ is not a poem with which the reader falls in love at first sight. Instead, as she gets acquainted with the poem, the reader falls in love slowly. This poem’s heart and body, its innocent diction and its carefree syntax, attract the reader not directly, not by the seriousness of the subject—though the subject is serious—but obliquely, by the uniqueness of presentation and the subtlety with which the story is told. The story of this poem is a common one, but the approach to telling the story is so unusual that it makes the old story not only fresh but compelling. Furthermore, the poem is at once somber, lighthearted, and here and there even funny.
Rather than set oneself up for an ‘I’ve read poems on this topic a hundred times before’ response, the poet commands attention and rereading; the poem’s structure insists that the reader return again and again, and on each return the reader gleans more from the poem’s utterances.
A suggestion for the poet: If I were pressed to give one criticism, it would be that the use of the word ‘ancient’ in the piece seems the wrong word choice, the wrong voice. I’d go with something more simple, like ‘old,’ to remain true to the speaker’s voice.
A suggestion for the reader: Read this poem slowly, several times. It gets better with each reading.”

Sam passed away in March, 2004, from a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. This is fairly common in cats, often striking young, apparently healthy animals. Sam wasn't yet four years old, a big fluffy guy with attitude. I have other felines but will always feel that empty space where Sam resided, like a tongue prodding the gap left by a lost tooth. I'm as well aware of his absence, as I was of his larger-than-life presence. - Brenda


Sam's Little Buddy, Gollum - Extra Toes, No Tail!

March 2007
Judge Pascale Petit

3rd Place
Show but Never Tell
Brenda Levy Tate
(Pen Shells)

In the Guller house, terrible things
were done to all the children.
I once lived around the corner, down
a mud road where the youngest
son sometimes walked. His name
was Charlie and I knew something
had to be wrong with his brain.
Nice ponies, he'd tell me, staring
past the edge of his own boyhood.
Ay-uh, them's real nice. He'd grin
so wide I could count every one
of his tumbledown grey teeth.
He was eleven then, and growing.

In the Guller house, brothers, cousins
and uncles didn't wait for the girls
to get their periods. None of them
stayed virgins much past five or six.
Except for the cripple, who had stumps
for legs and arms. They used to park
her on the step just to get some sun,
like a plant kept too long in shadows.
Neighbors said she didn't mind, she was
a vegetable. I had no opinion on that.

In the Guller house, they ate cow-corn
stolen from a field across the highway.
The farmer hooted and slapped
his knee, because they were filching
his cattle-food and he figured it
was funny. I never saw any garden
in their scraped-raw yard. Battered
cars buried the lawn, and junk trucks
made fences. But the social services
and public health station wagons shone
in the dust. So did the small daughters.

In the Guller house, a nurse hesitated
at the threshold with her medicine kit,
while Charlie's father was breeding one
of his nieces on the kitchen floor. Hold on;
I ain't done yet! he grunted, and finished.
The nurse told everybody, but this was
the 1970s. Incest was just a family affair,
except for the babies. Every once in awhile,
they got taken away. Charlie became
a man--with two kids by his sister--
before a Guller finally screamed, loud
enough to disturb the sweet community.
She was thirteen. They tried to shut her up.
By then I'd moved to another county.

In the Guller house, two hundred years
lie black as a dirty stove. The rape-
room is gone: part of a chicken coop.
I suppose the cripple died; Charlie
and his kin should still be in prison,
although probably they're not.
The laughing farmer's dead, too. Lost
children drift in the convenient dark,
names without faces, because it's easier
for the rest of us. Good people still
drive past the ruin, shop and work
and age. Harsh January air cuts
across the South Mountain and sandblasts
an empty driveway--the same wind
that abrades me now. But I've never
been hard-blown open, a broken door,
a Guller child.

This is more than a narrative poem telling us a shocking family tale. It's hard to write convincingly about child abuse especially from an outsider's perspective, but the narrator's tone here is just right, a tactful observer who ends by describing him or herself through images, as someone who's "never / been hard-blown open, a broken door." It's this ending that enriches the poem, so that the final draught blows back up through the whole story like the wind in Munch's The Scream. The language is low-key and evenly paced in its steady recounting of the horrors of the Guller house. Simple, stark statements such as "two hundred years / lie black as a dirty stove" and "battered /cars buried the lawn" paint a vivid picture of the place. What shocks is the calm way we're shown how commonplace the sexual abuse was, so much so that visiting nurses would stumble upon it as they went about their work. The narrator is abraded by the sandblasting wind of memory and what has been witnessed but does not over-dramatise the facts. --Pascale Petit



All poems and photos (c) 2002-2008 by Brenda Tate.