DG judged the FreeFall poetry contest this year. The winners were just announced in the current issue (which also contains the interview Gabrielle Volke did with dg plus a short Gabrielle wrote). Some of the poetry entries were very good indeed.
First place went to Catherine Owen for “Reincarnation Redux.” Second place went to Mark Sampson for “On Choosing a Mattress.” Third place went to Leslie Timmins for “Caravaggio to his Critics.” And honourable mentions went to Leslie Timmins again for “What is Served” and Catherine Owen (again) for “Solace/No Solace.” DG read the poems blind and did not know the names of the winners til the announcement was made. (You can listen to the first and second place poems read by their authors here.)
Here are dg’s comments as they appeared in the magazine. FreeFall is edited by Micheline Maylor—you may remember her poem “Bird at the University” published earlier on these pages.
Good writing, poetry or prose, dares to make large statements, to teach us about life, to parse existence and tell what is valuable and what is not. The top three poems I read for the contest all made this leap into the oracular. They were also all clearly aware of being inside a tradition of art; they spoke knowingly to and of other works.
First place goes to “Reincarnation Redux” which I adored because of its subversive (it uses the word) anti-sentimentality over the death of a loved one who, the poet imagines, has been reincarnated as a fly. The poem takes a sly, knowing jab at Jack Gilbert famous poems mourning his dead wife which are lauded in America but are also a bit self-pitying and, yes, sentimental. (In the one mentioned here, the poet imagines his wife coming back as the neighbour’s Dalmatian.) This poem sweeps away bushels of easy literary emotions and stock stances. It renders a lot of other poems impossible and thus is incredibly refreshing (also very funny).
My vision, I console myself, if it’s not as faithful or warm as Gilbert’s
has, nonetheless, a numerical advantage; even in wintertime one finds that flies
are quite populous, cleaning their delicate subversive limbs on windowsills.
Second place went a lovely, playful poem called “On Choosing a Mattress” which takes that very homely act and turns it into a meditation on the great passages of life. For what important act does not take place in bed? Conception, birth, dreams, nightmares, love, insomnia, death? The poet cautions the buyer to choose well and each stanza imagines out some important possible scene. Compression, image, and the insistent, rhythmic parallels drive the poem forward in a mysteriously dramatic arc that leads, yes, finally (and amazingly) to redemption (from a mattress!) in a delightful run of puns.
A mattress must be able to hold
the regrets that keep you from sleep
the wrongs you have done to others
These are your true weight
A mattress must be forgiving
but firm enough to bear it
I gave Third place to “Caravaggio to His Critics” which is a Browning-esque first-person bio-narrative of the painter’s spectacularly wayward life. The poem gathers speed and, well, poetry as it moves toward an ending; lines shorten, the language grows more charged and prophetic reaching toward the last luscious stanza (note the lovely step “of skin/Of skin”).
No, life is cruel, a coil of snakes,
and we made only of skin.
Of skin, sweet fools,
that scars and thickens
in our wars with each other
when all that matters
is the shedding,
stripping myself away
to come closer to Him.
Two honourable mentions went to delightful poems that seemed, yes, as estimable as the winners (but choices have to be made).
“What is Served” is a terse, delicately precise poem on the image of a Bloodgood Maple late in autumn. There is some lovely, precise descriptions (leaves like lanterns in “a late and private garden”). But then the poem turns sombre, reminding us insistently of loss, painters in their old age, lovers fled, and the words rock gently on through the repetition of “cups” to blood and bone and gods.
An entire plane angled, tipped to pour
into our own bone cups
the blood of trees,
as a god feed a god and we one of these.
“Solace/No Solace” is a prose poetic work themed on the word “solace” which appears 23 times not counting the title. The poet does some cunning leaving out of things like capitalization and punctuation which gives pretty little effects such as the doublet “no solace no solace” in the second line where, actually, one sentence ends and another begins. The poem’s knowingness is signalled in its epigraph from John Ashberry and carries forward in the self-conscious and rhythmic recursiveness of the word “solace” toward another of those doublets “being worthy being perfect” and on to the lovely ending:
can be generous and without criteria and lasting like a quality of light.