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Arc’s 2021 Poem of The Year Shortlist

From this shortlist, we are asking you, the readers, to pick your favourite poem and vote for it to be the Readers’ Choice Award winner. The poem with the most votes will receive the $250 Readers’ Choice Award.



Voting will close on April 30, 2021. We ask that readers only cast their vote once, and Arc reserves the right to disqualify results that appear to have been obtained by suspicious voting practices.


“si’ulq, pānī” by Moni Brar
“Medusa Calls the Rape Crisis Line” by Cassandra Myers
“Line of Demarcation” by Jake Byrne
“All Hearts Feed Horses” by John Elizabeth Stintzi
“Gender, OK” by John Elizabeth Stintzi
“Lesbos / lesbos” by Annick MacAskill
“Confidentiality” by Tia McLennan
“OFFERING” by Cassandra Myers
“Things To Do Around Toronto When You’re Black” by Michael Fraser


si’ulq, pānī

she takes me deep
into her people’s land
this stranger turned neighbour turned
friend points out antelope brush and grey
sage unwavering in summer heat
spear grass pierces our skin
as we wade through lamb’s quarters
pulsing the want of seeds
through tufted vetch and shepherd’s
purse capped with rounded clusters
while red-tailed hawks scratch the clouds

into the valley marked by bloodlines
where dreams were swallowed whole
we skirt ponds that give life
to horned grebes, wigeons, and buffleheads
spot a lone merganser and a common loon
too early for blue heron to break
the glazed surface
we revel in the silent miracle of Water
si’ulq, her mother would say
pānī, my mother would say

up the notched hills
to watch wild horses roam free
careless and cared for from a distance
I learn palomino, bay, pinto, appaloosa
they twitch not for us, but for the Sun
xai’ałax, her mother would pray
sūraj, my mother would cry
and for the Moon
sokemm, her mother would ebb
chand, my mother would flow

she takes me deep
onto forest floors I’ve not known
a cathedral of soft light
we count the birds
naks, usil, kałis, her mother would sing ik, ,
theen, my mother would recite
walk beneath the watchful gaze
of red-winged blackbirds and evening grosbeak
there are no willows weeping nearby just
the sound of a black-capped chickadee
making its way home

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Medusa Calls the Rape Crisis Line

the poem is concrete, and the outside is a dense outline of the word ring. only in the center is there other words, which read: you wouldn't believe the labyrinth of services it took to get me here. the average wait times are long enough for me to birth my rapist’s child. i’ve been shedding hairs for longer than this night kitchen i call a home. heaps of my leather in the shower drain from my bitter green pruning. i want it off me. every handprint blooms a new head. under all this soft there must be stone. i didn’t want this gift. i begged to be the granite. to be left alone and locked away but still they came with bolt cutters and blindfolds and wet mouths. how ugly do i have to be before i am the opposite of a prize? even curses are hunted when they have a pelvis. it must be my fault, i opened my mouth to scream and there was only a hiss in the attic during the dinner party. i have a henhouse full of tongues and none of them could say “stop, please, you’re hurting me”. i only unlatched limbs like a jaw eggswallowing an O. they became so hard at the sight of me they just keep coming back for more. ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring

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Line of Demarcation

This is a concrete poem that is strew across the page in deliberate chaos, only short phrases on each line. It reads: Line of Demarcation   			 My cousin was hit by a		train today  						A suburban utility vehicle 						A collective noun. A shattering of glass  						A transference	of 		Kinetic energy 				From one object to another 						There are equations that describe    The way in which     The once-solid  										Pane of 								   Automotive window glass  				  Briefly ripples, as a liquid does Before taking flight				   as birds     do 				        And lacerates a love		that keeps      The blood 	      Inside 								It is true that 	  Whatever does not kill you 		      Does    alter  you		irrevocably 					       There are equations that describe The way in which 	  What	      does not kill you 			        alters you 	  What		        kills you 			        alters you   only    a little more 	  In					  a very particular        Way Watching what	        alters people that 				        you	love 			         Kills you very			           slowly     It is a death that takes		         a lifetime  	  What		        alters you 	  In  The silence between						           hearing of  The accident and knowing  The person							   that 				     you		love	     is still alive 					      There are equations that describe 								  That     It is possible	to	alter matter  With forces greater than     The kinetic impact								of 						a moving	train 	  What forces		      matter 	  What			      matters 		Forces 	  What does not	kill	us binds us  	   In  The weak	force								of 						     A field called 						        Love 								      That slowly 				Kills us surely 						As  The future comes to meet our bodies  With  The velocity									of 						  A	       train speeding	on  Its track 	         Approaching now its final destination

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All Hearts Feed Horses

While the white horse and her rider gallop across the Earth
we take the dog on a Sunday walk through the cemetery
where even these century old stones are crowded with distance.
Many pods of strangers are walking here today, avoiding
one another, quietly smiling or averting their eyes as they pass.
We, we too give every heartbeat the widest berths,
take detours off the gravel paths and over burial plots,
barely scanning the names of these other, dead strangers
as we drink up spring and take photos to share on Insta.
A young woman reads a book peacefully on a bench,
a man lets his two dogs bound off-leash down the paths,
and our dog pees on a tree half as old as this country.

The sick, the dying, and the dead feel so far away,
even here, having been for months now abstracted
into dots along the exponential edge of the sickle.
This month has felt like a decade, with life so suspended
and quiet and hungry. The dog hasn’t been happier.
Every dream I’ve had for a month has been banal
but backdropped with the bridle, the muscled shoulder,
the hand of the rider slowly nocking an arrow into his bow.

As we walk, I don’t like to think how close the hospital is,
how taxing the death toll will be, how pointless so many feel
by being shackled to home. I don’t like to think about
watching my downstairs neighbor carry up from his car
a rice-cooker in one hand and a rifle in the other.
What I think instead is that if I were to count every bone
under these stones the number would seem both massive
and so small at once. What I think is that the trees
in the cemetery can still crack jokes to one another.
What I think is that I hope this mausoleum of solitude
will open up and we will be happy and nearby again.
Or frustrated and nearby again. Just nearby again, please,
without fear of stumbling in range of those hooves.

What I think instead is that every horse stops for water
sometime, that every horse’s skin shivers, every tail whips
at gadflies. That even this white horse with this grim rider
was once a foal, and was once nursed, and whinnied.
That even Pestilence himself has a home somewhere


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Gender, OK

Before we head out for breakfast
during my partner’s family’s visit,
I go into the bathroom and unpin
my pronoun from my jacket.

I do this because I don’t want to
field the question: “What does that
they/them’ button mean?”
I leave my pronoun face-down
beside the same bottle of acetone
I used last fall—the night before
we drove to Tulsa for Thanksgiving—
to ceremoniously unpaint my nails.
I don’t wear this part of me out
even though Kansas City is my city.
Instead, they’ll spend the morning
with this character that I play.

This has become the life I was dealt:
being most visible with so few.
At least on the rare visits we oblige
ourselves to make, we can drive south
chuckling as we read the signs warning
their city’s approach in sarcastic tones:
Tulsa, OK; Tulsa, OK; Tulsa, OK.

I suppose, after their visit, the signs
will mean something different for them.
They’ll find in OK home instead
of nervous laughter. And when we’ll pass
through in a month on our way to Texas?
(My nails will be unpainted again.)
I’ll be so warmed and worried
to find a barista in the Tulsa Starbucks
with ‘they/them’ written on their name-tag.
And their name? It will be a color,
missing a vowel, and I’ll just want
to say “Me too,” but I won’t. My throat
is still afraid of the scrutiny so I’ll smile
and thank them for the Americano
and—in my head—for existing.

A pin, a button, a sign to promise
that home is no longer so far away.
How seeing them there will bolster me
and fill me with protective love:
them, well-lit in a place like that,
a place where this part of me stays dark.
Hope, a lit candle dancing between the rain.

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Lesbos / lesbos

Lesbos / lesbos is a poem that is visually arranged in two columns, with the one on the left left justified, and the right side right justified. In the first column, the text reads: On a shining Greek island skimmed by turquoise waters a woman Sappho loved	so brightly all the girls wanted her she wrote so sublimely of	their love when rediscovered millennia later the grey Renaissance men mistranslated her	Ode on the Beloved altered the pronouns so she would sing the yearning for a man and not a woman and the French turned her into a lesson on female friendship the Victorians a prim schoolmarm yet some would know a girl loving a girl	is just another possibility a different phase of the moon these clear-sighted readers would trace with their slim fingers the lines of the Archaic Greek squiggles recreating	the green passion  never lost hidden	in the liner notes of Longinus out of medieval sight but still	eternal. The second column is one line longer, and it reads: In high school the boys would laugh about an island ancient populated by girls girls who loved girls for want of men as if out of turquoise desperation they were lesbos they said an entire island of them Lesbos my face grew hot it was French class I squawked it seemed a stupid fucking joke but the one girl in our school who was out said it was true I thought of my best friend the way my tongue turned to cement before her my eyes shocked my ears blocked as if with the sticky pink barbe à papa we ate at the Western Fair where every humid September we were just that much closer the ground giving out sinking us into a great ocean no island in	sight.

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Now you have full access. I have
updated your address and added
your darkest thoughts to the file.
You must fill out the forms
using only spit and moonlight.
If you forget your password, press
your face to the earth in springtime.
If you cannot recover it
using this method, try lying
in a dim room and imagine
the ocean on a calm day or call
the number at the bottom of the
screen. Though be advised due to
high tides, wait times are longer
than normal. Your code will expire
tomorrow at midnight, dissolving
into a heavy spring dew that will
briefly silver the morning.
If the light is right.
If you are there to see it.


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The poem is formatted so that there is a line running down the middle of the poem, which almost always breaks a word it is passing through into two pieces. The final line breaks this pattern, with two words that are on either side of the line are touching, as well as being oddly spaced The text reads:  They make me question the r  ing on my finger. The “I do”  belong on this side of a prom  ise. The border - its serrated  edge, trip-wire my wife jum  p ropes monthly for medicine.  She is a stateless doe in the j  aw of a nation playing chicken  with excuses for entry and e  xit but can’t cite my last name.  If only her car could slip thro  ugh the meat of a lie like the  syringe entering the soft cou  ntry of her freckled thigh, never  interrogating the vein as a le  gal host. When my wife and I  are pulled over at the norther  n flypaper, the fence demands  her name tossed towards a bl  oodline wearing the border  officer's face. There is nothin  g borders won’t steal. Splitting  is its birthright. It takes by la  w of shattering. Gorges on hot  cars rusting at its chin. Hoar  ds applications to wipe its oily  mouth. Entry, a map folded a  long the estuaries of longing. A  ticket is nothing but a trade o  f all that crops from my touch. I spin a feast from gold at th  e pit of me to satiate the globe  maker’s need for locks. Her  e, take my Nana’s golden curry.  Take Aunt Audrey’s silk dah  l. Take my father’s homeglazed  khati. Take a slice of our wed  ding cake. Take the buttercream straight from the corners o  f my mouth in the photo. Take  my left breast and its dandel  ion milk. Take my hand writing  down the recipe. But do not t  ake the book where it is written. Do not take my love placin  g that jewel on its shelf. How  can I snap what is drawn in s  and? The officers, with all that  barb in their speech, say he  r name like a chain link curse  and I am pressing oxbow m  oats into my palms waiting  for a drawbridge to wink. I w  ant to go home to my wife  without dialing up her cheek  s. I bring my vows but all I can  carry across is her laugh dan  cing in a voicemail. I blink  away from her face, even fo  r an eyelash second, faster than  a door slamming a wailing a   nthem, but all I’m guaranteed is own hands  r e a c h i n g t h r o u g h  a fence.


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I know the love and anguish of every man
by the name of my father

who drove himself to sleep every Sunday
morning with alcohol, then drove himself

to the edge of the Yangtze River
only to teach me to swim. No, Ba Ba,

I know you. I know you never liked
the taste of alcohol, but to put a roof

over the idea of your future daughter
you chose an occupation that required you to drink

and drink as an elective. The night
pouring out of those bottles with cork tops

became the fog of morning in your head.
The stars contained in fizzling

champagne were stars punctuated your breath,
punctuated every broken syllable

you tried to conceal family in the ER.
Ba Ba, what else have you

given up for me? / How many days does he /
have to go on entertaining clients? Mother would say. /

The life of a business man is an occupational hazard
that dissolves the Ba Ba I had

in all my previous photographs of you
into postcards with foreign stamps

from Thailand, Amsterdam, places
where the stores with postcards

closed so you mailed me their airport brochures.
Mother couldn’t understand why I stole the socks

from your undergarments drawer
and slept with your dirty laundry,

mistook my missing you for her daughter growing up
and wanting to have inappropriate relations with men.

But you were the only man
I’ve ever loved as a daughter—

Once, I begged you to take me with you
on a business trip to Qufu,

woke up to the sight of you
intoxicated on a hotel room floor.

/ Quickly, you say.
Ba Ba slipped and cracked

his shin / over the toilet bowl rim. It hurts so bad.
Quickly daughter / call the concierge. / I picked up

the telephone and asked for four bandaids please,
the way a five-year old can stare upon the deepest gorge

of the human body and not be scared
for once, because she recognizes the bone

as her Ba Ba’s sacrifice, glistening under light and blood
as if to say, / one day, daughter,

I’ll have saved to buy you a future
that is shiny. / And the four bandaids

she has to offer in return for her father’s love
will be both enough and not enough, eternally.

How could I ever repay you? How could I
spare your heart of breaking? The heart

of a business man sells investments for a living,
and the heart of a writer invests through living.

But I could not tell the world of your love
otherwise—don’t be disappointed with me anymore.

I miss you, Ba Ba, and your voice
on the receiving line is nowhere to be heard.


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Things to do Around Toronto When You’re Black

after Gary Snyder

This is where you invite the reader in, showing
wherever you step, clothing is your first language.
Sport the teal blazer so people will nod when
asking directions, and gift shop employees
will refrain from being your personal static cling.
Remember, you are not you, but a race.
Stroll down Philosopher’s Walk reviewing your mind,
and how it will one day abandon you.
Feel Taddle Creek’s underflow twitch the footpath.
Everything about your stride is almost summer.
Jump up during Caribana, catch how bass cracks
open the air it inhabits.
See Sorauren Park’s lit jack-o-lantern parade as the city
slides into November, throws fall through the air,
turns lives back an hour, then departs into photos.
If you’re pulled over, put CBC Radio on,
hopefully, an astrophysicist is riffing M-theory.
Your whole life has been a parallel universe
so you’ll be able to opine. Mention supergravity,
and you’re on your way.
If you come in winter, rewire the cold with smiles,
your frosted breath hinting at the cloud-braided sky.
See how the harbour thins ice buckling along
Centre Island shores, the ferry a pen writing in water.
Picture the CN Tower and Roger’s Center
as an item. The two of them dating for years.
Keep your mind off symbolism as the dome’s
petals open like a white lotus.
Sky-dine at the 360 Restaurant as creation rotates
around you. Stretch your hand across the lake,
tug the horizon, and pull America in.

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