Kelsay Books Women's Poetry Contest
First-Place Winner: “At Seventy” by Kathleen Dale $500
At seventy, the thing she wanted
to learn was to dive:
to tuck her chin to her chest, between
her outstretched arms and to fall
headfirst toward the bottom she had both
feared and yearned for since she had
first seen water—the still pool
untouched, unrippled, heavy with meaning
and promise: to feel its cool caress, hear
the bubbles of breath leave her body, see
the illusion of being enclosed utterly by blue;
to know that she could aim her body down,
then up, and it would joyously comply,
her remaining breath buoying her up, up,
up to break the surface of the old familiar
world as if rising from sleep; it was something
like flying, she thought, something like
taking off from one medium and trying on
another, shedding one set of rules for a second:
one which both frightened and enthralled,
a kind of life to which she had always been born,
on the edge of which she has been forever poised.
This poem about an older woman learning to swim also seems to be about an aging person learning to hold space for the blue unknown that is to come for all of us. The poem offers precise details that convey this the secondary meaning. The woman wants to “hear / the bubbles of breath leave her body, see // the illusion of being enclosed utterly by blue.” I like the agency that the woman has, “to know that she could aim her body down, / then up, and it would joyously comply.” It’s such a curious and hopeful view of the next world and what it holds, and I found it at once deeply profound and charming.
Second-Place Winner: “Delicate Things” by Sue Budin $100.00
like the fluted glass or
a sickly child,
but what endures,
perhaps with some brokenness
or early sorrow.
In a nest of twigs
a clutch of eggs
Shells crack. Tiny beaks beseech.
Intricacies of lace, threaded,
knotted, woven, tied
together, a resolute symmetry.
Despite these elegant constructions,
damage happens, then repair,
and then a quick demise
or slow dwindling.
A moth’s wing shatters
in the flame.
An old dog’s leg bends
and cannot straighten.
And my heart that fits
so neatly on my nest of ribs
continues to beat, like the wings
of sparrows, fluttering in flight,
then, at rest.
Unlike the agile acrobat,
I will not tether myself
to a high wire when there is
the sure risk of falling
when even on solid ground,
blood pumping, there is always
that pause between breaths,
when the heart, my heart
then carries on.
This poet had me in the fifth stanza with the old dog whose leg bends and can’t straighten. That was an unexpected entry on the list of delicate things, just beside a burning moth wing. And then where the poem goes next – “And my heart that fits / so neatly on my nest of ribs // continues to beat, like the wings / of sparrows, fluttering in flight, / then, at rest” – I just have to say, that was an incredibly satisfying progression that felt like a journey. It left me ruminating about the nature of delicate things, since almost anything you can think of bears a date stamp of some sort on it.
Honorable Mention: “Still Life with Onions” by Peggy Landsman
Still Life with Onions
Van Gogh ate his paint
he was so sloppy
he couldn’t wait to free his palette
cover his canvases thick
he couldn’t wait for chrome-yellow love
infinite night-sky blue
he had to lick his light fresh.
as I cut onions into chunks—
never delicate, translucent slices
coming down hard at irregular angles
gouging the board
mixing wood splinters in
I think about the unusual way
I’m told I have with a knife.
I bet Vincent tore into his bread
left his teeth marks in wedges of cheese
completely neglected on countless occasions
to clean up after himself.
and what’s wrong with big chunks of onion?
the savage charge of having to eat?
eyes burning, tears streaming
I see through it all—
the last temptation of light.
This poem achieved an odd synesthesia, as I pictured Van Gogh’s yellows and the tooth-marked cheese together. The food imagery was very well done, and so were the textural details. It gave me some fresh, vivid ideas about the artist at work from this other artist, whom I can also easily picture, busy at her stew and her poem.
Honorable Mention “Bones” by Rebecca Brock
My shoulder popped hard last night
when I turned over in bed,
the noise of it a solid sound
and my ankles on the stairs
in the early morning
should wake the children.
My bones seem to be
pronouncing their existence,
their hard tack
beneath my surface of soft—
I feel more and more the absence
either that I had them
once, but more like I can feel exactly
where they might sprout
blossom or grow—
I think it would hurt
and people would stare
but I marvel anyway
to feel the push of these bones
against this casing of skin.
I had the misfortune of suffering a sleep-related injury that resulted in a condition called frozen shoulder, so I think I was exactly the reader this poem was looking for. The effort to come to some sort of détente with the body is one I can relate to quite well, and this poet nailed it: “I feel more and more the absence / of wings ….” Yes, indeed. Every damn year.