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
“OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD” by Isabella Wang
“Things To Do Around Toronto When You’re Black” by Michael Fraser
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, dō,
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
Medusa Calls the Rape Crisis Line
Line of Demarcation
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
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.
Lesbos / lesbos
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.
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.
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.