Celebrating local poets

  • Poet Amy Gordon, who is a finalist in this year’s Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest. Contributed photo

  • Jovonna Van Pelt reading at the Great Falls Word Festival in October of last year from the debut of her book, "Unrelated Questions," from Human Error Publishing. Contributed photo—

  • Marie Gauthier Staff file photo—

  • Joannah Whitney

  • Poet Jim Culleny, another finalist in the ‘adult’ poetry category. Contributed photo

  • Poet's Seat Tower in Greenfield. Staff illustration/Andy Castillo—

  • Poet Joannah L. Whitney of Greenfield. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2020 9:16:45 AM

Editor’s note: While the poems included in this article each use specific grammatical style, including intentional spacing elements, newspapers conform to AP Style, which specifies that lines of poetry should be separated by slashes. The editorial constraints of this newspaper do not reflect the creative choices of the poets. For more information, please visit friendsofgpl.org/poets-seat-poetry.

In the nearly three decades the annual Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest has been held, Franklin County writers have submitted thousands of poems. Under normal circumstances, the poets would gather as the weather warms to read their own work aloud in front of an audience and to appreciate the creativity of others.

This year is different.

While the poetry — which has been submitted by dozens of area poets — is as compelling as ever, it isn’t possible to hear them read aloud in person. Mandated restrictions intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 have put a temporary stay on public gatherings.

So, in lieu of a formal poetry reading, over the next few weeks, the Greenfield Recorder will publish the 20 or so finalist poems, which are separated into categories by age. Following the publication of the poems, Hope Schneider, an organizer for the poetry contest that’s now in its 29th year, said a panel will select winners in each category.  

The Poets’ Seat Poetry Contest began in 1991 and has been sponsored by Friends of the Greenfield Public Library ever since. Its name is inspired by Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, which was built in 1912 to honor a local tradition of poets who found inspiration at the overlook. In particular, the tower honors local poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, who lived in Greenfield from 1847 until his death in 1873. 

Likewise, the annual poetry competition is held in memory of Tuckerman.

In the coming weeks, keep an eye out in this arts section, which is published every Thursday, for the work of local poets that have been deemed category “finalists” in this year’s Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest. The following poems are from the “adult finalists” category:

‘Order Up’ by Rebekah Louise Boyd

Draw the ratty curtain across the mess — / the musty must-dos, transition aches, / regrets, disorganized and stacked / tenuously. Cover the crap, lose sight, / pretend nothing will topple.

I tried this morning — went to the garden / carrying the tag sale Tennessee tray / heavy with tea, banana bread slabs / smeared with a restraint of butter, / my pens, notebook under my arm, eager / dog at my heel — but it was too wet, / the slant-day September sun not yet / stretched enough to sop the dew. / And so I returned to the house, peeled away / the layer of teen wreckage at the couch, / lay down a towel and sat to listen: / birds, crickets, dog huff, cars / traversing the bridge two blocks / away — quiet enough.

I woke with a computer hangover — / too long on the screen spreading a sheet / with college-option columns, cubes / of mined data, inserted links — exhausting. / Nauseatingly thorough. / Probably all for naught.

I dreamt of escape hatches, a home / scraped down to the scales, a teardrop / trailer wherein my every sliver had a place, / a capsule to deliver me the Tetons, Pacific swells, / the desert and its altars of red-brown rock, / oven-hot and towering, like apple stack cake.

How is it that I can love this place / and still wish to flee? / I want only to ask what / to put in my mouth, where to squat, / how to best punctuate a poem. / Let me leave behind the spin, / this bunched-up curation of a life — / drive away with it in the rear-view, / hung damp and thwapping / its tedium in the whichaway wind.

‘Heavy Metal’ by Julie Payne Britton

Forged with fire and time / And the chatter of stars / You came out of the soil / In some violent way / Callused hands shaped you / To fit my flesh / Even though the accident / Hadn’t happened yet.

I have a friend who changed the words / Of O Britannia to O Titanium / In honor of her replaced hip. / But how do I honor you? / You hold my pelvis together / With an eight-inch-screw. / You give me legs / To stand upon / You cradle my ankles and elbow / With a starfish claw / And make me whole

You have been here since time began / And will remain long after my body falls  / Away    But for now / I am flesh and bone and / More than that too / In the mornings, I lift my legs / Like a child and sing a prayer / Of thanks - So far, that’s all / I know how to do.

‘Autistic —for Danny,1949-1976’ by Jim Culleny

When you caught that bird in flight, / that was a wild moment, the reflex of it, / as if you’d had the mind and eyes of a hawk, / as if in your world, mysterious to us all, / mother father sisters brothers— / as if in that world you flew above / less bewildered than we, / island brother, / eagle-eyed and quick, / whose aerie was ringed / by an invisible moat

At that time there was not even a name / for your bright, distant, blinking galaxy / so they dredged up whatever seemed useful / from their spent nomenclature: / retarded, they said, / as if a boy who could snatch a bird in flight / had a slow mind. / they should have more accurately called you / distant, as if a galaxy 10 billion light years away, / as far from us as our understanding / of what made you tick

So my mind was no help in knowing you. / Conveniently hobbled I excused myself / from the work of understanding. / Now I see you were in no way slow but / full of crushing frustration, confined by your moat / at the center of your island inarticulate / to the point of slamming your head with a palm / to jar loose what you could not say, / not tongue-tied but mind-tied, / kept by genetic leash from joining / our world of connection, striving to snap it / so that you might join in our jokes / ……………………… ……join in our sadness / or have us join with you in yours

And all the while I circled your moat / in relative freedom. I gazed across seeing you / self-contained to the point of desperation / jangling mom’s ring of measuring spoons / next to your ear, gone in the small joy / of hearing the peal of their teaspoon bells / but……………. / ……….. dropping them  / ………… at the quick flicker of wings / ……..….to catch your bird

‘Nearly March’ by C. D. Finley

when the snow has fallen off the roof and the field is / melting,some green coming through, tufts of it like / rumpled hair, there is a rectangle of white just sitting / on the ground below. It seems out of place looking like / a negative; as if a white shadow, as if night itself had / fallen into the drawer of a bureau. on these days the / hills disappear, the air warm enough to show, the color / of pussy willow, capes of it coming 'round, shrouding / the mountains' shoulders, furring the wild places, / rising later, as if leaving its bed; waking up and / pushing back the covers, the mountains like bedposts.

‘Death to Life’ by Marie Gauthier

When winter ended, / the bushes hung

so brown and forlorn, / I thought we’d failed them—  

more deaths to tally in the ledgers / of moral responsibility—

The missing panicles / of the sumac trees, / more oracles than Heracles.

The cat that faded in days, / more Cheshire than calico.

The carelessness of all / four parents lost—

But when a friend mentioned hers / hadn’t flowered for the first / spring in memory

I began seeing them / everywhere: / leaves of burlap where 

there should’ve been green stars / supernova with blooms.

We found the right person / with the right information / at the dump,

where John, distant neighbor / and master gardener, / told us: wind killed 

the rhododendrons, record / winds and climate change—

more human nature / than Mother Nature.

We could have spun / that thought to further 

conclusions, the acres of death, / imagined all the winters to come.

But the vast incapacitates, / so we turned instead

with the relief of letting go, / relief of being blameless, / or helpless, or hapless

to John’s advice: look / for signs of life, and brook

no weakness—cut it / down to the ground.

‘On Learning There Are NoFurther Treatment Options ForMy Husband’ by Amy Gordon

Stare into the yellow room. / Stand at the edge of the threshold. / Look for clues.

On the table: a pair of embroidery scissors / forged to look like a stork. / Lovely item! So pretty!

Object as metaphor. Must examine. / Stork brings new life. And scissors? / Instrument of the Fates?

A snuff box beside the scissors. / People used to stuff powdered / tobacco up their noses

to makes them sneeze. / O People, how strange thou art. / A candle can be snuffed out,

or a life. Cut  Delete  Start over / Enter the yellow room. / Yellow, meaning butterfly, golden-rod, butter.

Sometimes words are just sounds. / Stork  Snuff  Cut  Yellow / Say yellow. Yellow

meaning a blouse hanging inside / a dark closet, a lantern held in the hand. / I need yellow. I need mornings

crayoned with a child’s yellow sun. / I need to undress from the night. / To wear a yellow blouse.

Is lightning yellow? / I had a teacher once who wrote / lightning and lightening on the board.

Don’t confuse these, she said. She stood / with chalk, like Zeus ready to strike us dead. / Then came the test. Even as I wrote the words

I was afraid— more afraid of her / than of walking in an open field / during a thunderstorm.

Here the yellow and blue / carpet’s patterned with white / chrysanthemums—in some cultures

the flower of weddings; in others, / of mourning. Chrysos means golden / and Mum is the name I called

when I needed my mother. / Mum’s the word. Shh, listen. / The window’s wide open.

He is mowing the lawn. / Trees cast black lace on the grass. / I look through a pair of binoculars.

Light curves the lens of glass / through which I spy. / How small he has grown.

Am I looking through the wrong end? / I sit down in the yellow room. / I write lightning.

‘Distilling’ by Miranda Ryan

As I get older / I matter less.

I see this.

When I was young / this would have bothered me greatly.

Now, it hardly matters.

What is important is my yellow house / and the peace it keeps.

Long ago, I surrendered rulership / to the cats.

Their regalness is sublime. / Their superiority cannot be denied— / So why insist?

I do not matter.

If I could muster cat-like command / of the room, I would ask for nothing more.

They are doubtless creatures, / and when a foot stamps upon the step / they move in unison to the door.

My days, my days pass in peace—

If I had known how life would distill / I could have asked for so much less.

‘the long program’by Jovonna Van Pelt

with my partner / i prefer / enthusiasm over technique. / this approach does have its drawbacks – / the Russian judge is typically severe / i'm hopeful that the French will understand. / his creaking back / my aching knees / each move requires more patient effort / the years of wear and tear test our endurance / but / do not discount / our familiar intricate steps / the easy recovery from accidental elbow / or the sublime finish – / we stick the final landing with a flourish / every time. / artistic impression balances the technical score. / laughing, we advance / comfortably / into the next round

‘Anatomy of Long Division’by Joannah L. Whitney

“One Nation, Indivisible,” starts the day. Hand over heart, in unison / The slate at the front of the room wiped clean of yesterday’s struggles / We could be warriors, the way we chant against the start of the battle

Miss Deere occupies the front of the room .She is too young to be weary / though every other person in the room is sure she must be one hundred / the same age my mother claims when asked. Other mothers laugh

So we laugh too, one hundred must be marvelous—so many candles to blow out! / The mothers stay home all day, probably watching TV and talking strolls with their strollers / Okay, and the laundry. There is a lot of time between, “Don’t forget your lunch” and

“Wash your hands for dinner” or “Go help set the table” / Work, work, work—it never ends, that’s what they say / When they stop in the grocery aisle to look at a new baby, asking what’s on sale

They don’t know the half of it. Figuring out the numerator / And the denominator and what to carry to get to the end / Of this year’s large numbers, what goes into what?

Sometimes, homework comes home with a gold star / Usually the ones about words and sentences / Arithmetic is so hard, there is hardly ever a star of any color

What would you carry, if this were your battle / From the middle row, watching the clock tick, tick, tick / As Miss Deere faces the board using white chalk to draw the problem

‘Triumph, quiet, like a pebble’ by Joannah L. Whitney

Tossed into water on a summer day / August, when it is hot, and noon, is good to spend / By the kettle pond, its deep water cool, reason enough / To brave the leeches hiding at the edges, in the waterweeds.

That sound of a small and hard thing hitting still water, / It is too hot to carry on with any vigor, the sun is high / And beating, and this tree, leaning toward its reflection / In the pond has shadow enough to be relief / Waiting for something to break, the heat, the water surface

There are enough pebbles to make a chore of this / Each slow toss followed by listening, trying to parse out / Which insects fill the air with their buzz / And some, like the blue darning needles landing to rest / On the tuft white threads of frayed jeans, make no sound at all

Going home would mean chores, and sweat/At the breakfast table, there was talk of the length of grass/And the need to get on it before the storms cast for tomorrow,/Leading to a long walk through scrub fields/Collecting all of the right sized pebbles along the way

That is what pockets are for, on a day like this / Emptying milky white and shades of yellow / Stones, smaller than stones, just the right size to toss / Making that soft plop, and water rings to mark the time, / Satisfied that this is the how to win the day.

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