Arc’s Poem of the Year Shortlist (2024)


Dear Mahsa

Ava Fathi reads “Dear Mahsa

Dear Mahsa

i.

In Farsi there is no such thing as
I miss you
only,
jaat khalee

your place is empty

ii.

I know they grow tired
of hearing your name

your death
a drop in a blood-flooded bucket
of death

Death, brown
like the skin of a skinned tree

iii.

To remember you is to cut my own wrist
and bleed
To love you is to love
my own pain
my own shadow

iv.

there are preschool girls
chanting your name in the streets
they are calling this
the year of blood

I watch from afar
as their heads crack
like brown eggshells
on uncaring pavement

I watch from afar
as their parents’ weep
tears like wet pomegranate seeds

we watch from afar
as our country seeps
a Persian gulf of blood

v.

I think I know, Jina
though your death is well documented
you were suffocating long before
you died of it

choking on black air and dead fabric
drowning in a body, a name
that was never yours to begin with

vi.

Jina–
in my dreams
I am pregnant, always
with you

every night
I give birth to a nation
singing, full-throated
of freedom

vii.

I must wonder
if I have the right
to mourn you

I who did not know you
I who could never know you

will you let me
reach my burning fingertips
beyond borders, beyond language,
beyond life?

will you let me touch you?

iix.

sometimes I miscarry you
sometimes I cannot bear it

I cut you from my flesh
screaming, and yet–
still born

ix.

before the martyr
there was once
A girl, a girl, a girl

before the fury of the lash
and the sorrow of the noose
you were your maman’s dream
and your baba’s blessing

In the mirror there is
A girl, a girl, a girl
she wears your face
she has stolen mine

x.

I know you grow tired
of hearing your name

let us carry it for you, my love
let us shoulder the mantle of tragedy
let us bear you a nation, ever quickening

empty of life, empty of justice
empty of freedom, empty of hope

let us fill the yawning gorge before us, dear Mahsa
let us fill it with your name
– jin jiyan azadi

Margo LaPierre on “Dear Mahsa

Ava Fathi’s “Dear Mahsa” is a stirring elegy for Jina Mahsa Amini, killed in 2022 in the custody of Iran’s “morality” police. Fathi tumbles language to jewel-like lustre, employing a potent metaphor of pregnancy and quickening to mourn and honour the woman whose protest of the mandatory hijab sparked the movement Woman, Life, Freedom.

Bios

Ava Fathi is an Iranian-Canadian writer from Toronto. She recently completed her Master’s in English Literature with a specialization in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her work, exploring the diasporic experience and imaginary, has been published in Room, The Malahat Review, and Grain, among others. [provided for the poem “Dear Mahsa”]

by Ava Fathi

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Of Eccentric Orbits

Jennifer Houle reads “Of Eccentric Orbits

Of Eccentric Orbits

Sedna was moving so slowly – because it was so distant – that at first we didn’t even think it could be real.

Mike Brown, astronomer and co-discoverer of dwarf planet Sedna, located far beyond the Kuiper belt, possibly in the Oort cloud
Only hours left of this rotation through the dark.
I have stayed awake to read about a selkie
in the Outer Hebrides whose skin was stolen

by an abusive prick. It was Rumi who said don’t
go back to sleep, the breeze at dawn wants to talk.
Listen, Rumi, that’s not my reality. Talk to me

in dreams, dawn breeze. Today, my sons
were wild as badgers, all teeth and frustrated want.
I was the selkie stripped of skin, hands still

chapped from a trip to Whitehorse. I was
raw in their faces saying no and stop. All boys
need to know these words and heed with reverence.

Last week in Takhini’s springs, I longed for a rebirth.
Selkie-led, I thought of Sedna, great Inuit goddess of the sea,
name affixed in space to a strange world, ever, ever outcast,

ever so remote: 11,000 years and more to have her story told,
condemned to orbit, narrowly, one dominant star.
Out there, she gleams red, hinting at what she knows.

Could that be her anger? Passion in seclusion?
A blush whose causes we cannot divine?
Who does she commune with? How does she relate?

Is she bleeding still? Is the dark, its secrecy, her mate?
Version after version: she is forced to wed a wretched bird.
Her father tries to rescue her, but in a storm, heaves her

off his boat and hacks her clinging fingers off to save himself,
and so she sinks, bleeding, to the depths. Utterly alone
in Arctic blacks, she blooms with walrus, whale, and seal

where she’s been cut, and generates a world in which
she reigns, sustaining all of us on her own terms.
Her needs must be appeased, her hair lovingly combed.

Is that why my father threw me in? No. I mean it. No
and stop. Écoute
. Will I have to gift my children so,
by cutting off, by letting go, insisting they build realms?

How could I ever fling them to the sea or feed them to a storm?
For them, I gather tales, their stems and stalks: mermaids,
witches, coracles. For them, I scour the sun, our system full

of oddities. Though, in my sleep, when it is real and sound,
I become as Sedna, sovereign in solitude, fruitful,
if eccentric, traveling alone, an enigmatic body,

remaking my mind, sorting it all out, filtering the brine.
I want to shine for my two boys like open water
under moonlight even as the dawn comes on: orange,

pink, and purple with a slew of urgent needs. But there
is something deep in my vast dark that I must tend to
every night or flail without my skin by hellish day.

The Arc Editorial Team on “Of Eccentric Orbits

We love the way myth, science and personal history orbit this poem’s powerful centre. The gravitational pull of language, elliptical movement of thought, wit and delight in its tones and realities: we could sit under the starry sky of this poem for a long time and not get tired.

Bios

Jennifer Houle is the author of two award-winning poetry collections, The Back Channels and Virga (Signature Editions). A life-long Maritimer, she lives in Hanwell, NB, and has a chapbook forthcoming from Emergency Flashmob Press. [provided for the poem “Of Eccentric Orbits”]

by Jennifer Houle

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In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead) 

Joseph Kidney reads “In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead)

In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead) 

I pulled into a one horse town that was one horse shy
and the song on the radio went oh baby obey me.
Someone giving directions said if you see the church
you’ve gone too far
. An acre of hoods in the car lot
caught the light and shimmered like the Adriatic sea.
Day-drinkers at the bar kept asking what’s the damage?
A child in the corner said the night is always darkest.
I had a lover and she cut right through me like a saw;
to be dead and standing is a variant of majesty.
A red fox flickered through the wild rose and chaparral.
In a field of panicgrass a gutted Ford was browning
like an old banana. Maybe the soul is not so different
from a common grackle, hopping about and foraging
for smithereens from an economy of sacrifice
beyond its comprehension. We should be so lucky
my mother used to say as if willing it in the same breath
as mourning it. I had a lover and she cut right through
me like a song. Not unlike the wind that the falcon scythes
and vaults and is not entirely separate from but rather
a manifestation of that hunger which may not be felt
but can still characterize an element that consists
of what looks like emptiness to the sparrow that breaks
apart in the talons like friable clay. A horsehair bow
made music on a blade. The skies above were spangled
like an appaloosa mare. In the foothills a mountain goat
clambered up the shattered mosaic of slate and shale
with the sound of a coinpurse being plunked on the floor
once and over again. All my sorrows cauterized
into desire. Back at the bar the men exchanged words
like hostages. Somewhere beneath us the sputum-like
oil of bitumen lay dreaming of ignition, of the fires
that will wrap around the earth like foil. In the cemetery
you can walk along the ironwood stelae, reading
about the people who had been translated from this world.

Jennifer Baker on “In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead) 

This highly allusive poem surges with energetic anger against impending disaster amid indifference and institutional, cultural, and corporate denial. These carefully crafted images and lines are so tight they consume themselves, peeling back linguistic and symbolic layers of joviality in phrases like “What’s the damage?”: a folk greeting, a warning, a defense, a shrug. This poem shows us how our language carries in it all the complexities of our wicked problems, turning its eye on Alberta’s petrocultural centre as it disperses through our environment and our lives.  

Bios

Joseph Kidney won the Short Grain Contest from Grain, and The Young Buck Poetry Prize (now the Foster Poetry Prize) from CV2, and was nominated for a Canadian National Magazine Award. His poems appear in Best Canadian Poetry 2024 and elsewhere. His chapbook Terra Firma, Pharma Sea is available from Anstruther Press. [provided for the poem “In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead)”]

by Joseph Kidney

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The Bottle Depot

Tonya Lailey reads “The Bottle Depot

The Bottle Depot

The smell of a morning shaky from the night
before. The only fresh, the breath
of the door swinging open, people coming in
loaded with empties, their ears stuffed
with the crush of cans and bottles bowling.
Shopping carts playing the tambourine
off-beat. And a forklift jerking
back and forth, as if to pick up
on the nervousness.

How easy to keep piling onto peaks,
as if gravity were a rumour or a liver
could be too well-bred to fail. As if I didn’t take
a trip here every week to cash in
on the contents of two big bins. As if I were making money
or being a good wife, tipping the bottle
sorter, the one who disappears
evidence as if by sleight of hand. As if
I only ever dropped off spent bottles
never picked any full ones up. As if empties could become,
by volume, fulfilling. As if our daughters didn’t
know. As if a person could be too young
to smell, to feel, to taste, to hear. As if
the truth of the matter could be deposited
on the lot, not driven home. As if shapelier,
smokier, thicker glass and linen
labels designated a higher order
of drunk and green bins meant
sustainability and there had been no
binge to the purge and no such thing
as falling. And glass didn’t
come from sand
and our time
could not run
out.

Alison Goodwin on “The Bottle Depot

Its lines are deftly crafted, controlling tone and pace in an immersive testimony. Curated images lead to a final metaphor that feels at once surprising and inevitable. The poem, though, is most striking in its voice. Emanating from within dank confines, the voice is sovereign, imbuing “The Bottle Depot” with hope.

Bios

Tonya Lailey writes poems, essays and plays with graphic forms. She lives in Calgary with her two daughters. Her first full-length poetry collection, Farm: Lot 23, is forthcoming this spring from Gaspereau Press. [provided for the poem “The Bottle Depot”]

by Tonya Lailey

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Bad Mango

My mother glides the knife smoothly along the
jacket of a mango. She carves countries from its meat;

incises honeyed borders. Says that back in our country they eat
the skin too. Cook it down, make use of every part ‘cuz anything else is a waste.

Says that’s a good lesson for me. Says I need to practice my Urdu with her
if I want to be any good. Says my mouth curls in the wrong places

like the chew of the rinds. This is another part of them
that is lost within me. They search for my redemption, and I search

too. On Summer suhoor, we sit
in a circle around a kitchen table and tooth golden

flesh free from husk;
knead the fruit until the insides are froth and pulp and poke

holes. What does your Capri Sun have on this?
This is like what we did in Pakistan
they cheer with sugar-tongues. Every house on this block

with its kitchen lights on is a candle at a vigil– honouring a home
lost to the boat or the plane, finding sanctuary

in a reminiscence; a collective mourning around a fridge,
squeezing exotic fruit until they burst. Make sure to set aside the slices

whose yellow has aged into coppered brown, too soft and too sweet
for these mouths. My city tells me that I am like these parts. That I have grown

too well in this country– that I, at least, am “Canadian enough” to pass. That they prefer me
tinged brown in a way that is overly soft and sweet.

My family chops away my over-ripe sections,
proclaims that those parts are birthed from import, that they will rot soon

and don’t remind them of home;
claims that good mangos don’t grow here.

I have to imagine that there is a place
where they eat both.

The Arc Editorial Team on “Bad Mango”

“Bad Mango” is a melancholic treatise on longing and connection. The speaker grapples with an invisible wall—seeks atonement for an intangible fault. It’s a lyrical elegy about fragmentation, identity, and our desire for acceptance.

Bios

Fareh Malik is an author and artist from the Greater Toronto Area. Originally a spoken word poet, recently he was named the 2023 winner of the Austin Clarke Prize in Literary Excellence, the 2022 PEN Canada New Voices Award winner, and his book Streams that Lead Somewhere was the winner of the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry, and longlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. [provided for the poem “Bad Mango”]

by Fareh Malik

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BAMBI’S THERAPEUTIC GUIDE TO RELEASE

1. Find your entropic grudge pavilion

the driver’s vestiges, petrol and knuckle paint.
take directions from a dark purpling branch.
this way to the swamp rave. the salamander roller derby.
mechanical rodeo for shrikes and barn swallows.
tremble arenas raising hairs for luck. invite the zebra mussels,
emerald ash borers, girls with missing front teeth.
nobodies from the rafters. join your fellows. come.
rattle survival’s hollow bell.

2. Enter the furrow, the sweat province

adorn whatever antlers you. a victor’s time-starched cowl.
arrive by a flume of bees. neo-cortico pageantry.
wear your veins on the outside. lymphatic lithography.
hang shock’s chipped banner. nail your plaster to a tree.
want to scream? here’s your choir. we thrash on cue.
you the metronome, penundulating furry.
exiled to vapor. poured out with the lye.

3. To unluggage the mind, tessellate its cloche

enclosed in turquoise, assume a curator’s identity,
all the lights are for you. your skull’s bewitched projectiles.
brambled-limb choreographies. sway the colour of amaranth,
ooze through the night like balsam down a tree’s leg.
flux the memory panoramic. piss out their name.
upon sinew’s contraction, you outwit the hounds.
when our blood pumps, it cheers for you.
Note on the poem

When a deer freezes in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle and survives, it will wander back to its herd where the collective will violently shake with the victim. It is believed that shaking releases stress chemicals pent-up during a fear response, preventing trauma or stress related impacts on the deer.

Nancy Jo Cullen on “BAMBI’S THERAPEUTIC GUIDE TO RELEASE”

Cassandra Myers’s “Bambi’s Therapeutic Guide to Release” arrives like a flume of bees, discombobulating the reader and centering us in fright. “Bambi’s Therapeutic Guide to Release” captures the feeling of the strike of disaster, the panic and chaos, through language that tessellates. And then, at breakneck speed, hurtles the reader like the deer caught in the headlights through catastrophe and toward the promise of recovery.

Bios

Cassandra Myers (My’z) (they/she/he) is an award winning poet, performer, dancer, illustrator, and counselor from Tkaronto, ON. As a queer, non-binary, South-Asian-Italian, crip, mad, survivor of sexual violence, Cassandra’s work has won national literary and spoken word titles including the National Magazine GOLD Award in Poetry and Champion of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. [provided for the poem “BAMBI’S THERAPEUTIC GUIDE TO RELEASE”]

by Cassandra Myers

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Guide to the Bones of the Foot

Elizabeth Philips reads “Guide to the Bones of the Foot

Guide to the Bones of the Foot

Twenty-six bones, twenty-six sorrows
is all you’ll be allotted in life. Use them well.
The navicular bone, shaped like a little boat,
is your mother, floating
the arch of your foot. She is how
you hurry, how you spring off
the earth—and behind and below, your strong
heel, calcaneus, with every step, here
and here, on the path down to the lake,
bearing your whole weight,
that’s your father, anchoring you,
keeping you upright on the steep
incline. All the intricate bones
of the forefoot, phalanges, sesamoid
as small as peas, absorbing the daily
scuffs and kicks, the door that sticks,
the key broken off in the deadbolt,
time wasted sprinting back for the forgotten
wallet, money
long spent.
But today, now, along the shore
your worries relent, the stone that you find
and cup, resembles the cuboid, only flattened—
you don’t know it, but it connects
ankle to foot, silently hooks your stride
to the straight and narrow.
When you throw
the stone, let it skim
the surface of the water, the expanding
rings it leaves in its wake are this infinite
pause.
So many sorrows
yet to arrive. Talus and metatarsal, all the shapes
days take, cunningly
transformed into spring and windlass,
oar and lock—
you don’t have to understand it,
just walk.

Ashley-Elizabeth Best on “Guide to the Bones of the Foot

????????

Bios

Elizabeth Philips is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Torch River. Her first novel, The Afterlife of Birds (Freehand Books, 2015), won the City of Saskatoon Book Award and was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. She lives in Saskatoon, where she is Acquisitions Editor for Thistledown Press. [provided for the poem “Guide to the Bones of the Foot”]

by Elizabeth Philips

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Part-Time Magic

A part-time magician
taught me how to make balloon animals.
My hands have crafted horses,
their bones of air.
I have held the breath of the world
in the form of a bluebird.

By this, I mean the creation
of joy. I mean that I can create joy.
A golden balloon in my hand like a pillar
of light. A golden balloon in my hand
with the gentle intent
of becoming deer.

Loneliness is a solitary creature
deflating in the corner of the room;
its presence made small
and smaller still.
Small
and smaller still.

Part-time magic, part-time mundane—
this is the way of the living.
The wind in the wings
of a dragonfly. Sweeping the floor.
A red fox whispering sweet, green
nothings to the forest. Doing laundry.

The magician died young.
His lungs no longer ballooning
with the breath of the world. The memory
of golden deer held in our lonely hands.
Sometimes a bluebird is indistinguishable
from the sky.

Dee Cao on “Part-Time Magic”

The opening of this poem hits that place of nostalgia in everyone’s heart with its cadre of balloon animals. However, as the laws of physics would dictate, balloons must deflate, floors must be swept, and laundry must be done. “The magician died young,” but is it foolish of me to hope that the magic is not lost?

Bios

Jade Riordan is a poet from the land of the midnight sun. Her poetry has appeared in CV2, The Fiddlehead, Grain, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, and elsewhere. When not writing, she can be found daydreaming about fireflies as living compasses. [provided for the poem “Part-Time Magic”]

by Jade Riordan

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The Opposite of Combustion

Richard-Yves Sitoski reads “The Opposite of Combustion

The Opposite of Combustion

My father’s father treated his children 
as flyover states. While other farmers

saved seeds to wager against apocalypse
he planted as if it were happening,

ploughing brimstone into his furrows.
Dad learned to cope by inhabiting forests

like his presence was the last touch
on an unfinished painting.

I wasn’t there but I remember it well.
My memories have the cogency of dreams

and lend themselves to archetype.
They create my thoughts the way

family traits construct a face, dollops
of belonging to something edgeless

ladled into bowls over centuries. Only
no-one asked if I wished to partake.

Put another way, what is family
but a fuse coiling upon itself, coming home

to an unlit end, ovum un-sperm-sullied:
on one side of creation everything

that can burn, on the other what a fire is
before it is. But ask again in one hour

and I’ll have grounds for a new theory.
All I know is that like the world

I’m getting hotter and aching from soil erosion.
I should hydrate but I just walk the yard

with a head full of what goes on in a furnace.
For like my father I’m in a mood black as a shark’s eye.

I need dousing as much as he did,
he who should have wandered the shore with me,

as we rippled tide pools with our toes, studying
the living constellations of the bracing brine.

For then we could have learned from each other
the opposite of combustion. For then we could have

said Hah! through our shared smile,
to think a whole ocean begins this way.

Rusty Priske on “The Opposite of Combustion

“The Opposite of Combustion” gives a look at someone trying to manage an underlying anger while recognizing that same emotion in his father and wanting to do things differently. It doesn’t give us a solution but the poem illustrates acknowledgement and a desire for something else.

Bios

Richard-Yves Sitoski (he/him) is a songwriter, performance poet and the former Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, ON, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. His work has appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, Train, The Fiddlehead and elsewhere. His latest full-length collection is Wait, What? (Wet Ink Books, 2023). [provided for the poem “The Opposite of Combustion”]

by Richard-Yves Sitoski

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Bios

Ava Fathi is an Iranian-Canadian writer from Toronto. She recently completed her Master’s in English Literature with a specialization in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her work, exploring the diasporic experience and imaginary, has been published in Room, The Malahat Review, and Grain, among others. [provided for the poem “Dear Mahsa”]

Jennifer Houle is the author of two award-winning poetry collections, The Back Channels and Virga (Signature Editions). A life-long Maritimer, she lives in Hanwell, NB, and has a chapbook forthcoming from Emergency Flashmob Press. [provided for the poem “Of Eccentric Orbits”]

Joseph Kidney won the Short Grain Contest from Grain, and The Young Buck Poetry Prize (now the Foster Poetry Prize) from CV2, and was nominated for a Canadian National Magazine Award. His poems appear in Best Canadian Poetry 2024 and elsewhere. His chapbook Terra Firma, Pharma Sea is available from Anstruther Press. [provided for the poem “In Which Alberta Plays the Old West (Not So Much in the Way That Angela Hewitt Plays Bach as in the Way That a Dog Plays Dead)”]

Tonya Lailey writes poems, essays and plays with graphic forms. She lives in Calgary with her two daughters. Her first full-length poetry collection, Farm: Lot 23, is forthcoming this spring from Gaspereau Press. [provided for the poem “The Bottle Depot”]

Fareh Malik is an author and artist from the Greater Toronto Area. Originally a spoken word poet, recently he was named the 2023 winner of the Austin Clarke Prize in Literary Excellence, the 2022 PEN Canada New Voices Award winner, and his book Streams that Lead Somewhere was the winner of the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry, and longlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. [provided for the poem “Bad Mango”]

Cassandra Myers (My’z) (they/she/he) is an award winning poet, performer, dancer, illustrator, and counselor from Tkaronto, ON. As a queer, non-binary, South-Asian-Italian, crip, mad, survivor of sexual violence, Cassandra’s work has won national literary and spoken word titles including the National Magazine GOLD Award in Poetry and Champion of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. [provided for the poem “BAMBI’S THERAPEUTIC GUIDE TO RELEASE”]

Elizabeth Philips is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Torch River. Her first novel, The Afterlife of Birds (Freehand Books, 2015), won the City of Saskatoon Book Award and was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. She lives in Saskatoon, where she is Acquisitions Editor for Thistledown Press. [provided for the poem “Guide to the Bones of the Foot”]

Jade Riordan is a poet from the land of the midnight sun. Her poetry has appeared in CV2, The Fiddlehead, Grain, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, and elsewhere. When not writing, she can be found daydreaming about fireflies as living compasses. [provided for the poem “Part-Time Magic”]

Richard-Yves Sitoski (he/him) is a songwriter, performance poet and the former Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, ON, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. His work has appeared in Arc, Prairie Fire, Train, The Fiddlehead and elsewhere. His latest full-length collection is Wait, What? (Wet Ink Books, 2023). [provided for the poem “The Opposite of Combustion”]

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