The Joan Swift Memorial Prize is awarded to a woman poet, 65 or older, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. Find the winning poem, and poems by five of the six finalists, below.
My Father, Leaving
Lifting his arms from the bed,
hands floating palm-down, he seemed
to angle for something, or aim.
You wanted to think he was reaching,
he was on the move, and his reach would serve.
Later you’d understand the Lazarus sign
as a sign misnamed, and a jest.
A stranger touches your elbow. Time.
Turning at the door, you see a room
now deeper, a body grown small,
and you walk back
to switch off the headboard lamp—
that soft, wrong, too-public light
that polishes his brow
and makes him look forgotten.
This morning your eyes rested
on his, his on something out of sight.
By his side, the new book about honeybees.
You wanted to think he listened
for wings buzzing in his lemon tree
or concentrated on a broken thing
or had stepped away from his Plymouth
in the darkest field of barley
west of Boston, dark enough
a man could give his daughter her first
sight of the Milky Way.
Stand there unblinking. Let her claim it all,
that dark light, star-shocked,
and the space beyond stars beyond space.
A nurse explained, He has other business
now. But you wanted to think
he watched for his Irish setter’s return
across the drained salt marsh,
eyes on the outer reaches—
or when Hurricane Carol had passed,
that he padded barefoot to the water line,
studied the ocean spilling from its bowl,
watched it foam his ankles
and slosh back, felt it scour the sand
beneath his heels. Then led you
three steps forward, let the undertow
snatch you down, your hand
locked in his. Let you twist,
a streamer in the downwash, silly flag.
Laugh, flail, tumble and scream,
stand up: he needed you to know
gravity’s part of the bargain.
You want to say one more thing—
you want him to help you say it—
but he’s heading out,
he’s in the San Gabriels, late,
far down deep-folded Devil’s Canyon,
scanning the near dark
for landmarks, parsing faults
in the slipped leaves of sandstone and granite—
learning how the pattern dives,
how it pleats and doubles back.
He’ll find level ground,
settle fir boughs he collected upslope,
smooth his bed with papery sycamore leaves,
and then must light a fire,
and wrap his body in crackling silver.
And wait, and reach.
Anne Griffin was born in 1943 in Saginaw, Michigan, spent her early years near Boston, and her adolescence in Southern California. She moved to Oregon for college and has lived in Portland ever since. She is Professor Emeritus at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where for many years she taught studio courses in painting and drawing, as well as seminars on post war art history, critical theory, and art and anthropology. Griffin’s poetry has appeared in Napa Review and in Fireweed: Poetry of Western Oregon.
Voices below the dying woman’s
home. Early morning inlet. Oystermen
row, sharing daily banter. I hear
the splash as they lift and check
seeded nets then ease them down,
the water bitter cold.
On the next beach, her husband
tells me, scavengers hunt
those that break away, bindings freed
by night tides. I have found
feasts there, he brags.
My nursing task, I listen for rattling breath,
find her left lung quiet where human
siphons failed. Folding
I note a wake still rhythmic,
boats offshore, turning toward their harbor
with tallies and predictions.
Beneath us, four hundred mollusks drift
as if in wombs. While down by the Port
they save white shells in mountains,
ground fine for calcium,
mineral of bone and heartbeat. Each piece,
useful. Beach wares she collected
line windowsills, cupped like porcelain
palms although gestures have left her
and rain is moving in
with the hush of vanished voices.
Joanne Clarkson‘s full-length poetry collection, The Fates, won Bright Hill Press annual contest and was published in 2017. Her chapbook, Believing the Body, runner-up for Gribble Press’ award came out in 2014. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including Rhino, Western Humanities Review, Cimarron Review, Nimrod and Catamaran. She received an Artist Trust GAP grant and NEH funding to teach poetry in rural libraries. She is a Registered Nurse and lives with her husband in Port Townsend, WA.
Lecture on Catatonia
You already know visual hallucination is
myelinated in delirium not confused with
catatonia podiumed doctor red-hair-lecturer
tells us within a specific mental illness mantra to
punctuate the audience nail it down she says.
I don’t even know what I don’t know spirals
a coil down a cochlea no longer prescribed
by an arbitrary softness but turns brittle after
fingers stretch a tensile cats-cradle then scatters
years like pulled taffy in a bevy of dissonance.
I speak to my mare who lives in a mindfulness
Silk white hair against bone
trajectory of wind
tributaries of grass
maroon hawthorn berries
a gray teardrop vulva
clusters of melanoma
in a phenomena of stars.
There may be nakedness without hyper-sexuality
the doctor says and she repeats and repeats as
expert both twin breasts jut forward stratified
cones of rust-veined culture instead of rational
teats tucked and nested between tall hind legs.
Wouldn’t that be infinitely… but I will not
stare mildly repulsed while the doctor still talks
an echolalia within a calm voice while displaying
constellation of purposeless movement
that construes sheaves of white paper
I stand in your stall, thumb and
opposing digit to knead out knots
comb and comb and comb
does this provide purpose? I say infinitely
this is all we can do for one another.
Name it my mare demands I say
in my language we call it grooming
where everything under the sun
boils down to the same…
let me finally say my mare
I am not what you think especially
when I was thirteen and bound my breasts
never found an easy way to live in my own…
even then look this woman I am flawed but
again you say call it by name I can’t
This lecturer lists a continuum of underlying attributes
severe depression without
or with psychosis dementia
Your head turns brown eyes white mane
lean until my cheek noses a scented swill of
I am plaiting the behind of you hum breathe
your mantra seeps its oil into my nettled brain with
autumn vinegar and ferments a cider of red-apples
Penny Johnson lived on the “West Side” in Washington for thirty years and has lived in Central Washington for eight. She was born in 1951, and received her BA from The Evergreen State College and MFA from Goddard/Port Townsend. Several times she was a featured poet in Bellowing Ark, and has published in literary reviews including “Pawn to Infinity, Spectacles, City Primeval and Spillway. She won the Kirkwood Award for Short Fiction through UCLA Extension. Her work is included in the WA 129 anthology and has been awarded third place in the twenty-third Yakima Coffee House Prize.
Ferlinghetti at the Rotary Club
Gary and I read Ferlinghetti
at the Rotary Club in 1969. Christ
climbed down and so on.
This was arranged by Mr Metz,
A.P. teacher in the fledgling days.
Short, fussy man with a spitfire brain and snarky tongue
who lived with his mother as the times dictated.
We were embarrassed by the men in sad suits
oozing bonhomie and aftershave,
so “establishment”, when we were trying hard
to become hippies. They wouldn’t have a clue
how to find A Coney Island of the Mind.
At least it was Ferlinghetti, pocked
with West Coast anarchy, free love and patchouli,
which suggests there was a wild river and a rebirth of wonder
running beneath the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Mercedes Lawry has previously published poems in such journals as Poetry, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, and Prairie Schooner. She has published two chapbooks: There are Crows in My Blood and Happy Darkness, and was a finalist for the 2017 Airlie Press Prize and the 2017 Wheelbarrow Book Prize. Her manuscript, Small Measures, winner of the Vachel Lindsay Poetry Prize, will be published by Twelve Winters Press in 2019. She has received honors from the Seattle Arts Commission, Jack Straw Foundation, Artist Trust and Richard Hugo House, been a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and held a residency at Hedgebrook. She also publishes short fiction as well as stories and poems for children.
The body in surrounding air defined by its relationship to that air as the image of Amelia at eleven in her straight-backed ballet pose poised as if to levitate slightly above the wooden floor as though gravity no longer fully applies can’t compete with her youth and discipline and delight or Egon Schiele’s Reclining Nude with Raised Torso the same quality of body in space drawn with such tenderness that the curls of her hair the roundness of breast and shoulder reproduced on the wall calendar comfort me a hundred years after he sketched them how art enriches this battered earth our poisonous particulates transcends in purity of line and intent if only for the moment our endless permutations of evil the body humming with what we might call divine what a run we’ve had what a run
Matvei Petrovich Bronstein
There is the ability to look into what we call empty space and visualize and calibrate its true nature and there is the pot of beans neglected while you scribble at the kitchen table as it boils up and over to congeal around the burner in a crusty sludge the shift between deciphering the loops of quantum gravity and the grave political landscape in which you also exist the one in which the surviving prisoner recalls that Matvei distracted them with lectures on science while they waited for the next round of interrogation and blows and that he knew the most poems by heart of any prisoner
Meryl Natchez’ books of translations include: Poems From the Stray Dog Café: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev, and Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her poetry collection, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Her work has appeared in American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, Comstock Review, Pinch Literary Review, Lyric and others. She is on the board of Marin Poetry Center and blogs at www.dactyls-and-drakes.com
After the volcano lesson, rocks appeared
from our pockets, lunch bags and desks.
Igneous, said the geologist, igneous, igneous
—I thought ignoramus—
with bits of mineral packed like poppy seeds in bread,
glitters of mica, feldspar, olivine, hornblende,
spotted, streaked, coarse grained or smooth.
There was always a boy flashing a geode.
We set on their own shelf the not-rocks,
the concrete or slag disguised as rocks,
the fragments of brick or glass tumbled in a stream.
We can be fooled;
we can take one thing for another.
With a pyramid of quartz found in the lake
and kept in a jewelry box with a pop-up ballerina
spinning to Chopin until metal fatigue
dropped her sideways like a dying bug,
I held conchoidal fracture, vitreous luster.
From my house on the lake shore,
I watched the sleeping volcano
that held up the horizon,
its white snow veined in blue
like the rocks. It had flowered here once
and left behind the mysteries of form
created under heat and pressure, now
rocks rounding and tumbling each other under the waves.
Dry, the shoreline rocks dulled like winter sky
but in the water transformed
with washes of red, green, pink, black, white,
agates dressed as opals, minute crystals hinting
of diamonds in greenish peridotite,
secret stories, children’s stories—
The ballerina who danced herself to death,
the whale hoarding rocks and a wooden boy in its belly,
the witch who ate lost children,
the boys who urged us into the woods.
The lake sucked at my feet digging into the pebbles
and the long way they travelled to be here.
Sherry Rind‘s poetry books are The Hawk in the Back Yard (Anhinga Award) and A Fall Out the Door (King County Arts Award, Confluence Press). Chapbooks are The Whooping Crane Dance and A Natural History of Grief. Her manuscript The Long Fall was a finalist for the 2017 Airlie Press Prize. She has received grants and awards from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions, Pacific Northwest Writers, National Endowment for the Arts, and Artist Trust.
Lillo Way is a finalist for her poem, “Flying.”