We humans are a species obsessed with naming and categorizing . . . everything! Such specificity, although useful, sometimes takes us away from our interconnectedness with nature, the universe and each other. Math, science and the arts are modes of representation and translation strategically separated by form and direction. All structures of knowledge are communication sign systems governed by rhythm, which gesture toward--but thankfully never fully capture--the miraculous. In our quest to know, name and own our environments, grown people sometimes blink away wonder--that precious experience of awe that makes our jaws go slack, heads tilt, eyes glaze, hearts flutter, balance falter, and breath reverse to a halt. "Wonder," according to Trinh Minh-ha, "never possesses the other as its object. It is the ability to see, hear, and touch, to go toward things as though always for the first time . . . to un-give in giving, to give without obligation or debt involved and, without expecting any form of return." It is the path to recapturing the magic we surrender to experience.
Each of the finalists selected in The Independent Weekly's 2004 "Writing Down the Bones" poetry contest--a contest named for a guide to writing by Natalie Goldberg--honors this sense of wonder. The more than 500 submissions made this year's contest particularly competitive. The title of the competition effectively gathers 2004's winning entries at the crossroads where the mystical and mundane meet. Connecting them are memory, yearning, sacrifice and resistance. The "bones" are the rattling skeletons of our pasts, experiential artifacts we wish to cleanse, broken fragments we dare to mend, and the systems we impose to make them meaningful.
"Portrait: Arley, Alabama, 1930s" re-collects the everyday acts of resistance that structure one woman's rural southern lifestyle and reminds us that unlike bones, the connective tissue that animates bodies wears away with time, leaving hollow spaces that matter. "In a Blind Man's Hands" expresses the futility of trying to make disparate pieces fit with no ability to perceive the shape or design of the outcome. "This is How" shows us that even after being made whole, once-broken bones keep a record of the fissure.
Like scratches on a vinyl album that cause it to skip and repeat, a break remains a feature of a bone's identity, sometimes causing a dull pain in response to environmental stimuli or use. "Pine" covets a settling in the bones, liberation from tendons that keep bones bound to conditions beyond their control or desire.
There is an ache that troubles each of these poems. They speak to a longing for a unity to make divergent parts more legible, a way to "read" the bones, to interpret "the thick wet silence," "crumbled. . . yellowed parchment," lives "besmirched by our undoing," and "mark[s] of rage/ subsided."
"Hunting Season," however, represents a different type of bone. Like a smooth shark tooth rescued from warm, wet sand, this poem is a treasured remembrance dangling at the collarbone and stoked in moments of peaceful nostalgia.
W. H. Auden once wrote:
A poet's hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.
The poems compiled here are lavished with imagery, rhythm and language that mark their specificity. With a strong command of voice and clever word choice they clearly invoke different regions, textures and economies. They summon "chittlins and fat-back," "sassafras tea," a morning so cold "your breath froze solid/ to the sunlight," "how one day soldiers/ torched his village," "a field of wheat, windblown at dusk" and "glass bottles of Mountain Dew,/ . . . Pall-Malls, and 104.7." These are concrete images rendered honestly that we can twirl around our senses and savor, or allow to tumble the combinations of our memories and open forgotten doors.
There were many other commendable poems the judges and I delighted in reading but were unable to include within these pages. On behalf of us all, I humbly thank and applaud all who submitted. You engaged in an act of daring by sharing your work with us. As fellow poets, we recognize and value the power in that.
Be sure to join us for an upcoming reading celebrating our 2004 contest winners. (The April 17 event has been canceled; look for the rescheduled date in an upcoming issue of the Independent.) The reading will include an open mike for our audience members, so start compiling your favorites!
Patrick Herron is a longtime resident of the Triangle and a native Philadelphian. The 2003 Carrboro Poet Laureate is also currently a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill and research assistant at Ibiblio (www.ibiblio.org). Patrick is the author of the chapbook Man Eating Rice and recently completed work on his fifth book manuscript, How To Make Poems Like Me. He is also the creator of proximate.org (www.proximate.org). More than 80 of Patrick's poems, essays, and Web art works appear in journals such as Exquisite Corpse, Jacket, Fulcrum, in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, in the electronic collection of the New Museum, and in the anthology 100 Days (Barque Press). When he pretends to have free time he works on organizing the upcoming Carrboro Poetry Festival, www.carrboropoetryfestival.org (Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6).
Howard Craft is a poet (Across the Blue Chasm) and playwright (The House of George). Howard has worked as an artist-in-residence in the Durham and Wake County schools, and was a founding member of SpiritHouse (www.spirithouse.org), a nonprofit cultural arts education organization. Howard is also a winner of the Independent Weekly 2003 Indie Triangle Arts Award.
Renee Jacqueline Alexander was born and raised in Charlotte, N.C. She received a BA in English literature and an MA in Communication Studies from UNC-CH, where she founded and edited sauti mpya, the first African-American literary magazine to be published at the University. In December 2003, she released her debut poetry collection, Akoma, Afena & Aya. A Fulbright Scholar who recently completed 10 months of ethnographic research in Portobelo, Panama, Renee currently resides in Chicago where she is a PhD candidate in the department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. She has conducted poetry readings and/or workshops at the University of Panama, Panama City, Panama; Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia; and UNC-CH. She will lead a poetry workshop in association with the Taller Portobelo Art Colony in Portobelo, Panama this May.
Editor's Note: To continue in this tradition of poetry, an often undervalued form of writing, we've decided to regularly incorporate it into our pages. Beginning with our May 3 issue, look for our "Poetry Picks" entry in the Arts and Entertainment section. And if you'd like to submit a poem of your own, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org , with "Poetry Picks" in the subject line.