The 10 great poems made our editors’ shortlist for the 2019 Poem of The Year. THANK YOU for helping us choose the 1 Readers’ Choice winner!
From this shortlist, we are asking you, the readers, to pick your favourite and vote for one poem to be the Readers’ Choice Award winner. The poem with the most votes will receive the $250 Readers’ Choice Award.
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Snow Day Poem (Heather Birrell)
<a href="#Recognition"Postpartum (Clea Young)
Interview with a spawning salmon on the kagawong river (Sophie Anne Edwards)
Frank Slide (Kate Marshall Flaherty)
Dwelling (Angeline Schellenberg)
The Imaging Department (Sadiqa de Meijer)
This is What Happens (Medrie Purdham)
The Thimble’s Bucket List (Medrie Purdham)
O Death (Sadiqa de Meijer)
Loose Jewels (Emily Vanderploeg)
Snow Day Poem
Listen. February is hard with the world
gone all bridal, but married to what? And
it’s easy to say we are free to whoop and
wander inside our own selves but what if
the toad of tiredness has settled in your heart?
What if all those birds of optimism go
unnoticed and the coffee cups in the cupboard
come back tilted? I would like to offer you
some things: a sob, a slope, a seethe, and a hoarse
keyboard. Your mission, if you choose to accept it,
involves civilization, an urn, a cellar, and a cheeky
bit of chocolate. Everybody is so busy building
platforms these days; do you think they will
finally close the schools? It is confusing when men
who look like they belong in locker rooms begin
singing Leonard Cohen songs to children. Confusing
and exquisite. So, here’s the thing: we have no money
and I still want to buy that puffy, overpriced muffin.
The library remains open. I finally have a lip balm
in every coat and purse pocket. I dreamed that
I protected my youngest child from the blades
of a snow plow. We were on a beach and it was not
a snow plow. The loudest thing I have ever heard was
when my brother-in-law took a sledgehammer
to our old cast iron tub. My kids were often spongy and
submerged in that tub. Once they laughed for hours because
one of them said New York Shitty by mistake. We are all
going to be okay until we’re not. And the fact that humans
can make analogies reminds me of that song about the hole
in the bucket dear Liza, dear Liza. It goes on forever and
the bucket never gets fixed but it’s so much fun to sing
I carry the baby to a clearing,
more marsh than meadow,
but now, in August, it’s thick
with wild peppermint.
For three months the sun has set
as the baby’s lungs open
against the coming night, as if his fury
alone can convince planets
to change course.
I am so tired. The day is all
dappled light and sword ferns.
A raven’s call loops the firs.
I set the baby on the warm earth,
mint flattened by the deer
who sleep here at night.
A maple seed
helicopters onto his belly.
Maybe I should I eat
the roots of something,
climb a tree
to gain perspective.
I turn, walk away from him,
and nothing, inside or out,
tells me to turn around.
Interview with a spawning salmon on the kagawong river
to the rhythm of gaping mouth
seagulls hopping rock to rock
we return to this
some compare gasping mouth
the sudden force flipping tail
to the plight of a minor god
but my flesh is already soft
my carcass i will soon be
orange at the edges
my bones will
become a curved arch
question on river rocks
I prefer the quiet twilight dark night
when all that is heard
is the river splashing tails
a seagull swallows my rotting river
I heard about it before I saw it—
the Crowsnest town buried by landslide—
kids in footsie pajamas, a dog by the fireplace,
the mother-in-law in a pine rocker, the transient
looking for work, the husband saved
by chopping wood somewhere
else that night, helping out a friend,
the one who came back to grief and debris;
young Lilian Clarke returning from a late shift
to the ruin of a town under rockpile. Pompeii,
I thought, just like Pompeii, with the spoon in the bowl
petrified, the hands turned to stone reaching at the door,
the dog curled into statue. A rumble resonating
all the way to Cochrane that night, and up my spine.
We sat in the truck, looking through the windshield like
we were at the ROM, gazing at fake models encased
in a glass box starting a plaster fire, the dog Anubis
somewhere else, scratching a calcified itch,
and rising from the dust and coal-smudge scene,
painted smoke and limestone shale. And I thought of
how the CPR migrants moved those stones
one by one—as in a tomb—its stone rolled away—
to make space for the resurrection of a new town
and a new line, and the few who were spared
praying seven times seven thanks under Turtle Mountain;
the way they blasted rock in a spiral right through
Kicking Horse Pass, and a man, Choquette, running three miles
to warn the train chugging towards buried tracks … Wait,
I thought, I never saw the rubble at all, just
heard the tale of baby Gladys’ survival in a bale of hay;
the laze and drone of truck-hum and bumblebee
put me to sleep as we drove that four day drive
to the Rockies. Wait, I thought, I am dreaming now of
the buried city, some treasury of memory
petrified like a bug in amber, horse bones in the tarsands,
and, look, here is the fossil dog rising from its curled epitaph
coming right out of the dream towards our truck—
that wolfish dog he rescued with one blue eye,
mountain dog, almost a wolfish Saint Bernard
with a small barrel of whisky
and meds under his saving slobbering chin—
the dog in my dreams digging deep in the rubble
for something still alive.
Don McKay wants to know: What are you, empty or pregnant? I am growing smaller and larger at the same time.
My infant latched, and the door between my heart and his mouth flew open.
Garden, from the root gher “to grasp, enclose.” To mother may mean to give life or to smother.
A bur is a room, a hut, a vessel. A daughter is a prickly seed that clings.
The second week of our marriage, my husband told me he needed to be alone.
I have not mastered the sacred art of witnessing.
When my son was 10, he said, I’m glad I don’t have to think about girls yet. Except you, Mommy. I want to think about you.
It fascinated me, the way my mother’s clothesline fit perfectly in the pulley. When I turned 40, time began unwinding, the beginning growing closer.
I tried to give my daughter what I didn’t receive as a child, but she didn’t want it.
Jane Kenyon’s lover’s empty pillow was plump, cool, and allegorical. Sleepless, my husband has taken his with him to the sofa.
Between scared and sacred, a small sea churns.
I touch my arm with the hot clothes iron. The skin wrinkles.
On the pale underside of my son’s wrist, a birthmark that says eat.
We dust the house with snowfalls of skin, with feathers.
My daughter brings me bouquets of dandelions, petunias from strangers’ gardens.
When we cleave to each other, does it mean to cling or to sever? Kenyon’s and her lover’s night-clothes twine and untwine on the line.
I love the thoughtful way my son selects MiniWheats, lines them up in rows. He eats them in ascending order of sweetness.
We are collectors, McKay says, with our heads full of closets, our hearts full of ovens.
After 15 years, the smell of sour milk can still make my breast ache.
I am always looking for the third child I never had.
Marriage is a mirage, then a marinade.
I treat my family like dirt: waiting for what will grow.
A woman told me, in her language, the word for love and the mouth of a river are the same.
In a hymn to heaven, art is the verb to be.
Notes for “Dwelling”:
Don McKay’s quotes are from “Astonished” in Strike/Slip (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), and “Song for the Song of the Common Loon” in Paradoxides (McClelland & Stewart, 2012). “I have not mastered the sacred art of witnessing” is adapted from Jónína Kirton’s interview with Betsy Warland on roommagazine.com. References to Jane Kenyon are based on “Alone for a Week” in Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2005).
The Imaging Department
Why was the clock in a cage?
There should have been whistles and sweat,
a floor the colour of North Atlantic storms, lines of a subway map —
but it wasn’t a gym. The air had wavelengths, a synthetic lemon smell.
We were on the same side, everyone for themselves.
Were we dangerous, would we rage at it?
We held the coffee cups with trap door lids.
Someone’s sneaker blankly tapped the air.
Half of the colon and most of a lung, is what one woman’s husband
had removed. Their son said, You’re half empty space.
This was now; they eyed their flat phones.
The father could have risen like a thick balloon, quietly thudding
the ceiling, smiling shy licorice teeth.
A woman in pastels came in. I’m going to butcher this name, she said,
so I stood. She led me to the table where they’d view
that clockwork part of me. Lie still, real still.
They started the cold IV. I’d read of a man who, during his lethal injection,
jerked up three times to say, It don’t work.
And wanting not to think of him, I studied the ceiling’s
print of hands, naïve and bright. So someone had been there,
attempting a signal, in this room of leaden aprons and electric noise,
radio reporting a larger city’s traffic. Dear mother,
I wished you were my country again, when my ears didn’t ring,
when my eyelids were still knitted shut —
and then I heard them say, That’s it. When I turned
I saw it pulse in dark and grainy currents
on a screen. Nothing like a valentine
or dove — uncatalogued
marine, perhaps, and blunderous,
This is What Happens
The indigo lens flare says
the photographing friend was behind a windshield,
was less invested in the decapitation, waited,
closing the door against dry twigs trifling as raffia,
while this guy held the deer head in that way,
dangling from his glove, large ears and nose together
forming something trefoil: a sad, suede trillium.
This is what happens when you bastards
fuck up my car. He means dying against it like that,
a saltate body on a spree, spending itself
all in one place and on his polymers.
Sidewinder Road (was that your name?), I give you up,
especially in memory, under a bus; I can’t have you.
Round communal sink, smelling like Galapagos goannas, goodbye.
Post office raffle, fluoride treatment, school assembly piano acoustic blur,
St. Lawrence filmstrip, maple tree spigot, Swedish dodgeball, no more.
Banner from Ontario’s centennial, I reject you a hundredfold.
Resource room kisser: no. Goodbye, hotly-contested school morning prayer.
This is a scene I didn’t see. But he captioned it, said he stoked
a roadside barbecue in the dead of night, might as well make dog food.
No more union suit, the crotch a sagging hammock slung from knee to knee,
no soggy graveyard field trip, no boy who walked down the hallway
peeing in every lined-up boot. This was a boy with both “rose” and “heart”
in his name; I renounce even my original semantic shock.
Canada Fitness flexed arm hang, I let you go. Substitute teacher
browbeating the garlanded child who spoke no English
for tracking mud into the gym, goodbye. And goodbye, child who cried
the way a rabbit cries. This guy sat beside me then, and then and then.
We were children together. We learned in woods like these or woods
unlike these, for this is not a space. You know,
I only came here to see if he had flourished,
didn’t expect this flash in boreal darkness, mutilation,
sear of reflective matter on his coat,
a photo already six years old
and all the charge of it extinguished.
The Thimble’s Bucket List
To be a bucket. I mean, would a thimble aspire to be a bucket? Like a housecat to a sabretooth, like a leaf to a canopy: to grade up. To contain — yes! — an abundance.
To cap the digit of a falconer’s glove, to anchor flight’s first manoeuvre. To be needled by nature.
To be ornamented. To be indistinguishable from a crown in bird’s-eye-view, a trick of scale. To be stolen by a magpie. To line a nest, and to be overgrown there, sighing so much for the monarchy.
To be the subject of a child’s brass rubbing, metallic pastel on black.
To play a shell game with two others and a pearl.
To be the mortar to a pinch of cure.
To be lost while on a picnic. To stand empty in a crosswind, whiffling in the prickings.
To decorate a sundial, pepper the light in a garden. To learn increments of time, finally, that are not seconds.
To line the keyhole of a piano, to resonate. To name a note as the threshold of all trembling: maybe the middle b-flat. To know the child prodigy who played scales with one hand while catching flies with the other, stuffing their bodies into the keyhole. To be exactly that carnivorous. To be carnivorous to music.
To visit the Bayeux tapestry, reading the linen from the finished side. To see the horse, the hawk, the man, the war, the conference, the king, the fording of rivers with shields held high over heads.
To shield the storyteller. To let her put her hand in the Mouth of Truth and not mind the scorpion.
To jamb the torturer’s tong like a stone in the beak.
To fence, knowing intimately the poignant strategies of the foil.
No, instead, to work.
To settle into detail. To work a dorset-wheel button, spoked with a hundred stitches. To keep revisiting the centre. To be touched again, again, again, again, again.
Are you there,
in the long asphalt sigh of tires in the rain,
and under the bark of the old maples, eavesdropping,
smelling softly of pencil lead—
is it you who causes those small, metallic implosions
when the mail comes up the street?
You’re a mute bell, you lower,
and then there’s no air.
And you’re the faint, falling bodies
of the midges, their plumed antennae,
their charcoal, undulant, funnelling swarms
over the shrubs at dusk.
You make such awkward entrances sometimes.
Or you leave the party and don’t even tell anyone.
I’ve done it before.
And I’ve rigged games so I couldn’t lose,
and found myself ugly and lonely.
You’re the gravel sediment, and a vast thirst,
and a lock. The constellation of holes in the rice
when it’s cooked. You want to hold us,
but you press too close.
You in rehearsal, or you on a rampage.
When water streams in contradicting currents to the grate,
its houndstooth ridges are your fleeting eyes.
Or are you always there, a cover of umber glass.
And you shatter, and then there’s no air.
Mum, remember your moss gardens
gathered from the bush by the railroad tracks?
You’d take the dog with you, Puli or Vizsla
bred for that other life we might have known,
seen on Super 8: wild boar in the hills
of Miskolc, smoke from the hunters’ fire,
zsírós kenyér and carved bone pipes.
But Grandpa took after his mother
who owned the movie theatre, before
the Russians came, put her money into loose jewels,
later sewn into his pockets before he fled in the night,
so that you could make shrines upon the supper table:
Your mother would water them and they’d stay alive for weeks.
Grandpa paid somebody to tend his mother’s grave,
while we, the ancestors, stayed busy an ocean away.
Who washed the stone, lit a candle in a red glass jar
and prayed on All Saint’s Day?
Today your mother is ash, feeding the moss
of three gardens in York Region
as I stroll Nefelejcs utca, peering in at the flower sellers.
I would choose chrysanthemums (she always said
they were funeral flowers). Csókolom kívánok
the gatekeeper greets me, mistaken for a local
mourner. Temető tourist, we never lost anybody
in the wars, only minds and fortunes
but those can be rebuilt.
The last Thanksgiving before she forgot
how to bring a fork to her lips,
Grandma smiled at me, held my hand,
looked at our matching crooked fingers and said,
“We were so worried that the Russians would rape us”
— she who stood on her head daily, studied psychology
at sixty, stretched strudel dough by hand,
preventing tears by twisting round her rings
made from those loose jewels
glinting on my twin fingers,
as I read inscriptions on cracked stones.
Édesanya, when did the payments stop?
The grey-green lichens grow thick and brittle here
and it is 1983 and I am born
and it is 1963 and you are making moss gardens
and it is 1943 and my grandmother is hiding
in a basement, afraid, for three months
and she doesn’t know that she will have
a daughter who gives her living things
or that even as ash she will still be
tending our gardens.
Notes for “Loose Jewels”:
zsírós kenyér: bread with lard, raw onion, and paprika.
Nefelejcs utca: Forget-me-not Road, Pestszentlőrinc, 18th District Budapest
Csókolom kívánok: formal greeting, ‘I wish to kiss your hand’
Édesanya: respectful endearment, ‘sweet mother’