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Arc’s 2022 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.

 

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Voting will close on April 30th, 2022. We ask that readers only cast one vote, and Arc reserves the right to disqualify results that appear to have been obtained by suspicious voting practices.

 


“Apology To An Estranged Friend” by Julie Berry
“BRAIN SPIKE FOR THE SECOND MOUTH” by Cassandra Myers
“my brother, aging in reverse” by Brandi Bird
“A Thirst-bot named Istiqfar” by Khashayar Mohammadi
“The Stars Touch Midnight” by Jade Liu
“Luna Moth” by Catriona Wright
“Shore Leave” by Joseph Kidney
“Aubade in Yesterday’s Dress” by Amanda Merpaw
“or both” by Morgan Christie
“Notes to Future Kin & Past Selves” by Moni Brar

 



Apology To An Estranged Friend


i owe breast you cancer an inoperable apology i terminal
walked away breast from a cancer strong terminal friendship
and a kind inoperable loving breast friend without cancer
an explanation

we worked terminal together as breast teachers and cancer
mothers as terminal mentors it was inoperable so long
ago i cannot breast remember exactly what cancer happened
i remember you terminal even giving me inoperable money
to buy some breast clothes when cancer i was going through
the terminal toughest financial inoperable times

it was radiation years before chemo i could be honest with
myself sick and admit sick the reason i stopped radiation
wanting to be chemo around you was sick i couldn’t bear
to see sick you in a happy radiation loving relationship with
somebody chemo when i sick felt sick so alone i sick think
i knew it deep lonely down inside alone but i sick didn’t
want lonely to admit it alone to myself

i have heard you are sick going lonely through alone a lot
right now i know you are sick surrounded lonely by a big
loving family who are taking good care of you alone

i just dying wanted you to know our dead friendship was one
of the most important dying relationships of my dead life and i
have dying always cherished the good times we shared dead as
mothers teammates friends and dying confidants

i dying loved dead you as much as i could dying love dead
anyone dying we told each dead other the secrets we dying
couldn’t tell anybody else and i’m dead dying dead sorry
i treated dying you so badly




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BRAIN SPIKE FOR THE SECOND MOUTH


Most fish are killed the same way. Latticed from the water. Ice-bedded and left to open
their gills to an empty so final it crushes the wedding arch within them.
The hook hasn’t discovered yet if and how fish feel pain, but it’s confirmed,
with a mouthful of lox, that fish do feel stress.

Five minutes to a few hours of wind-gasping for a fish to submit
to the whites of its eyes. When a fish is wrestling in death’s tulle skirt,
it’s exercising.

                        Ex·er·cise /ˈeksərˌsīz/ noun
1.       activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain
          or improve health and fitness.
2.      regular or repeated use of a faculty or bodily organ

Sex is a form of exercising. A two person jog. Repeated use of everything
that flutters and flatlines within us. To the reel, we wriggle all the same.
Is a fish really exercising if air-breathing is an irregular use of the lung?
Is a body really having sex if it’s holding its breath?

I used to run. For exercise and for release
I can only get in orgasm post-cane. After sweating,
vaginal odour is often described as “fishy”. Before
my legs abandoned me, I thought I had chronic yeast infections
from the trout in my purse.

While trying to escape, fish’s internal bloodstreams waterboard
with rot chemicals. Thrusting through the cellular walls with
a toothpick, skewering flesh. A night market right there in the vein.
A taste that pinches your nose.

After sexual violence comes vaginitis—a smelty fermentation in grief’s vinegar.
Hook, line, and sink her.

Gardnerella vaginalis. Garden, a secret between legs or
in the blood if filleted correctly. I Google, vaginal flora imbalance,
wishing for tips on sunflower aquaponics, orchid resurrection.

Ikejime, translated to, “brain spike”
is a traditional Japanese method for killing a fish.
Death by relaxation, a four step process:

1)         Insert a spike into the brain, killing fear at its slippery root.
2)         Exsanguinate all the red swarming the exit sign at the tip of a blade.
3)         Involuntary muscle spasms occur as the body remembers itself in past-tense.
4)         Send a metal piff through the spinal cord of the fish, a still life of a slow death.

Pelvic physio therapist tells me to relax.
To squeeze a blueberry with skirtfingers.
To think about sex before this wince era.

The throat and the vaginal canal are structurally similar—
a moan burrow. Of pain or pleasure I can’t be sure.
I slack my jaw, to swallow a thick hook with
my second mouth.

Tensing is involuntary to the frigid gel,
doc’s blue latex finger, coaxing me to be the leech I shy from.
My thighs swell and collapse
like they’ve got their own set of lungs.

When the last piff-kiss made a coat hanger of me,
I stuck a rod of Canesten up my twitching channels,
begging to smother the quills bracing for a sprint.

For months it burned so thoughtlessly
my milky creeks turned to gasoline-rainbows in the harbour.
 
Mention insertion and I become snag, tear, yank.

Supermarket suffocated fish rot faster,
on purpose, to spite you,
for all those laps it took—and for what?
to be dashing towards a dead end.

When bitten into, the fillet spits in your mouth. Its saliva-blood,
a soured death. Improper burial, maiming of a corpse,
revenge of a bubble-starved tongue. Impossible to scale

Ikejime on commercial fishing boats, we stay sour.
Impossible to wring all the stress from flight clotted corridors,
we stay itchy. Refuse not to feel what we succumbed
to the ice bath.


 

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my brother, aging in reverse

for Tanner 


if prison is a country, let it break
open like a clock on the hour. an escape
of green eyes taken like child 
support, german-headed,
and arguing for the past. innocence 
has nothing to do with it. my brother, born 
at the edge of summer, totters 
and falls. our mother screams 
about paternity from the back 
of a pick-up truck and i am not there. 

my brother’s face 
is handsome and young and he turns
eighteen and i am not there. the borders 
of his story are embellished by my voice. 

i am not invited. terra nullius 
in this poem, a prison is a border 
of barbed wire and braided hair. 

our sister drives him there. 

the prairie splits like rubber 
on a tire, burns in front 
of our low-income townhouse. 

the car windows crack in the cold
like a wooden bat on the wall, 
missing my brother’s brother’s 
head. those people, they 
just wanted to protect us 
but we hurt instead. we hurt 
and try on different clothes, 
new cities.

my brother 
on his way to visit his father 
in prison. we don’t talk 
about it. i don’t know 
if he will go. i just know 
the sweetgrass i gave my sister, 
tied with orange yarn, resting 
on her dash for good luck. 

what happens when you are given 
what you never had? a gun 
in the backseat, no seatbelts, 
two AM drug run from kenora. 

this is a story i don’t remember. 

this is the story i’m told.

my brother 
in the background, a baby. he ages 
in reverse. his lips split open on new teeth
and he looks so old. if his story is a country,
i settled there. i was bitten 
by mosquitoes and brought 
back this poem. 





 

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A Thirst-bot named Istiqfar


              sinkholes for thought,                  swept clean
              half my life has been apologies to the left behind
              so                        I pathologize
              What if            I starve myself so rivers can grow
                                          cracked riverbed               thirsting          
                                          am not here I am               thirsting
                                          earning that inner monologue
                                          a reverie!
                                                         brb in 5

                                                         amidst catastrophe
                            WHAT IF I’VE MADE ALL THAT UP?
                                          I begin with sugar
                                          unable to suture
                                          a series of disappearances
                                          a milligram left to the sunrise
                            halfway between mainlining the divine
                            and that oceanic feeling:
                                          a reverie!
                                                         brb in 5

                                          there were poems of war
                                          because they’re always there
                            in an imaginative enough geography
                            religion too can be libidinous
                                   
                                          words richochet
                            shrapnel map the scar tissue into homelands
                            how hopelessly sentimental
                            the infinite as counter-currency
                            and our circumcised will:
                                          a reverie!
                                                         AFK
           
                            Rome Athens Jerusalem.
                                          tribal acquisition
                                                                        unlearning

                                          while lashing at the Hellespont
                                          I doubt if Xerxes imagined
                                          houses raised in Academia

                            facing actualities, we too break the desired
                            and write                          autonomously
(can I picture Muhammad in my mind? is that an unlawful summon?)
                            search search search until eyes are tired
                                          AFK
                                                         brb in 5

                            I spit on circumstance
                            but it lubricates your understanding
                                                         (Fair enough)
                            the thief’s hand: the aestheticized
                                          our thread’s been trending

                            I leave the screen to watch Edward Said on my phone
                            come back to a Thirst Bot Named Istiqfar
Sömêtîmės thèrè árë nö håppy ëndings. Nö mättèr what, I’ll bë lõsîng sômêthing
                                          Orientalism at the algorithmic echelon
                            and within fiction: the scholar’s plight for the implicit

                            a scene set:
                            EXTERIOR—THE ANCIENT RUINS—DAY (voiced by the militia)
Wê sèê õūr dârknėss às á prízéd possession Withöůt mërcy öur dårknèss would plúnge üs înto déspâir
                            and the wandering scholar as the measuring stone
                            at the very heart of the bazaar

                            no matter the speaker, the audience remains heterodox

                            hear hear you tension-less being!
                            you playful heart of the struggle!                      
                            to you…           we were an occasion
                            They cannot represent themselves          
                                          the subterranean speaks
                            They must be represented                       BUT
                            “My people” are dis(re)puted atm
                            caught between two fictions
                            (currently named the “Middle”)
What I need is the dandelion in thë spring. The bright Zéllow thát means rêbirth instead of destruction*  
                            “Me too”
                            a reverie
                            AFK    
                            check back in 5




NOTE: Lines written in Courier font are spam messages from a thirst-bot.


 

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The Stars Touch Midnight


and a daughter shudders every self into wolf.
There is always a ritual to these tales. First,
a rupture. The ribcage from the soul. Life reconstructs
like you have never known. Comfort in that

there is always a ritual to these tales. First
you will have to believe in predators
like you have never known comfort. In that
hollow between girl and forest and safety,

you will have to believe: in predators,
hunters, that which wants her will leave her
hollow. Between girl and forest and safety,
a woodsman and his axe are inseparable

hunters. That which wants her will leave her
little, red in the snow, where bootprints of
a woodsman and his axe are inseparable
from her scars. A name recited again and again:

Little Red in the snow, where bootprints of
what we were taught to pray for look identical
to her scars, a name recited again and again
to the howls of the still-living forest reaches for the nascent moon

—So exhale. Don’t look so afraid. Wasn’t it always
a rupture? The rib cage. From the soul, life reconstructs
to the howls of the still-living. Forest reaches for the nascent moon
and a daughter shudders, every self unbreaking into wolf.




NOTE: Title from Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf (1896).




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Luna Moth


You slash your way out of the cocoon,
emerge without a mouth or impulse control,
raring to mate. I’ve been there, honey,
just don’t fall for the first male to compliment
your pheromones. Moonlight confuses things,
and you’re new to beauty. Those silky,
absinthe-coloured wings! That elegant tail!
I’d kill to be that lissome again.
I can tell you aren’t listening. Admire
yourself, darling, while you can. At least
one of us is having fun, up for anything,
oblivious. I finish my tall can of lager
and zip myself into the mildewed tent.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll be different.

 

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Shore Leave

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit


Either it could please—even this, one day—or help to remember.
When the rain fell in sparks and our sails, shredded by their catch
            and puttering, gave in so as not to give out,
            when the wind put its back
into shovelling the sea, in the kind of miracle that crises make
obvious, an ostrich, almost messianic, flew.
With its parboiled legs paddling the air, its grafted
cobra of a neck asquirm, it hovered as the clouds
            unloaded their luggage. It brought
            about the hesitation of emergency, not
that I know why, but I still see the caulker,
his hair like frayed oakum, saying
            but the luxury of it.
            The heavens began
to pay out a little rope, and we made
land just as crocuses were implicating
spring. While some gave thanks and some forgave
I spoke my way into believing that some kinds of pain
perfect themselves into a sweetness, that rivers
give themselves into the ocean as the cost of being
defined by the motion of that gift, which I have also
            given, friends who tripped
            and fell into memory
calling me, like a muse to their poem-to-come,
            to come on in;
            the water’s moving.


 

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Aubade in Yesterday’s Dress



I don’t know how the curtains were drawn,
only that they’re open. Outside,
an inundation of rainlight. Call it
morning. I dress cautious, watch my breasts
reflected in the pane. I heard what you
said, but I don’t like to stay the night.
I know the shape space takes, how to say
thanks after I go. I anticipate the dark,
the backseat of a car, indexing stars
while my dog waits by the door. Where
do you feel most alone? Last night,
after the bar, you walk me to your borrowed
room, take the slow and scenic route
you’ve just learned leads you home.
I too love to linger below a bloom
of yellow lanterns, name trees looming
above. Last night, after the walk, you washed
a glass for me. Poured water to its brim.
I skimmed the edge, feet bare against
tile floor. Some languages surprise me
into longing. Some nights a clean cup
is enough. When I’m done, I press my thumb
to the back of your small teeth, hook
into the soft pulp of your cheek. Your bed
is as good as you said it would be,
and you in it. I like watching your tongue
touch what it means to work, to be taught
to want for nothing or anything
or actually everything. Everyone wants
something. Sometimes more. What about
you? Have you enjoyed your life?
Me? I take my coffee gold and sweet.
When I get home I’ll push my nose
into the beans before I grind them.
Fill a mug, let the steam clean my face.
There’s a romance to what’s ritual. You’re
right, this is a lush street. I’m not sorry
to leave early. Look, the puddle near the lawn.
What I took for birds bathing are books
you left out on the curb. Did you mean
for them to drown? It matters how you care,
even in the beginning. I unlatch the window,
quiet now, hold last night’s glass stained
with my lips up to the clouds. I let drops pool
on the pillow by your dreaming
head while I drink fresh sky water down.


 

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or both


when the hockey coach tried to recruit me
i wondered if it was because i was black
or because i was canadian. because the sport
is a national right of passage or because
black is tough and kick ass. so i asked her
and she said it was because i had great reflexes
and was quick witted. it never occurred to
me it could be neither. or both. but it did occur
to me that she could be lying because i was
born, you see. born in a place my parents
weren’t and born in a body that clashed with
winter. it never occurred to me because if i
wasn’t being asked where i was from, i was
being told how beautiful my skin was. and it
never occurred to me that i’d almost cry
thinking about it on the walk home. not
because of the hockey coach but because of
the timmies i passed. because i thought of that
old commercial when the kid goes and gets
his neighbour a coffee while he’s out
shoveling snow. because it was so magical,
like the way steel glides on ice, to see the
man just take something, a kindness, and
not have to wonder why it was given.


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Notes to Future Kin & Past Selves 

This is a concrete poem that is written in multiple languages and it is not possible to describe it properly in this space.

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