The offerings of this year's poetry winners have a nostalgic or regretful hue. Two poems are explicitly about vanished features of North Carolina; our winning effort celebrates—in a light, clever way—the wild parrot that once lived in North Carolina but vanished long before most of our ancestors moved here. And another poem takes as its title the oldest mystery in North Carolina—and in the history of Europeanized America, for that matter: the vanished settlement of Roanoke. Other poems also bring up memories: the hayfields of a Midwestern childhood, for example, or an imagined medieval dungeon of language, complete with "ledger, quarter bound in goatskin with moiré silk sides."
The diversity and strength of our readers' poetic efforts over the years in the Indy poetry contest is inspiring. Our preliminary judges Brian Howe and Dianne Timblin reviewed—blindly—a flood of submissions and came up with a short list for our final judge, Raleigh poet and teacher Christopher Salerno. Once again, we're left marveling at the strength of this ancient, and essentially private, pastime—it's a secret that gets revealed every year right about now. —David Fellerath
by Robin Kirk
When Audubon drew them (parrots
gorging on cockleburs), there was
peace in the Carolinas, a few years
before the war. Parrots spring from the
print, pop-eyed, iridescent. A quiet man's
inside joke, since parrots aren't
nice. Parrot: thief, pest, interloper,
corn-stealer. At least, that's what
farmers told us, what farmers say
in the mountains where we saw loros,
raucous as teens, descend on ripe stalks.
Their infamy is global.
Or this: she jabbers like a parrot. He
parrots words. "At least the wolf
leaves us something. The loro
picks us clean." This, though, is memory,
when "parrot" is not feather and hammering
heart, but that insubstantial thing, a thought
in a story or what I tell you
about the image of a parrot, the sad
story of this Carolina bird last
seen in 1904, in a Florida bog, an immense,
green depth where there were no paths.
Call this the parrot's end, or when
we left our loros behind, on the world's
other end. So many times, we've left
what we know. When memory strikes,
it is exuberant, loud as a parrot, sharp as its
livid gleam in this too-soft land, yellow and blue,
in the quick, bloody bite of remembering.
Judge's Comments: In 1958, Chairman Mao declared sparrows enemies of the Chinese state. Huge crowds spent hours keeping the sparrows from landing until the birds eventually died of exhaustion. There's richness in the effort to drive out (from our lands or our selves) the undesirable (however misguided). The emotional complexity of this poem covers that effort in a similar way, and finds resonance. Parrots are aesthetically beautiful. But the Carolina Parrot, to the American farmer, was a "thief, pest, interloper, / corn stealer." And yet, acknowledging this fact, the speaker in here laments, internalizes the loss of the birds ("when / we left our loros behind"). This poem is a response to the imbalance that can stem from eviction. We have our memory to prove it. The poem turns with the volta: "So many times, we've left / what we know. When memory strikes, /it is exuberant, loud as a parrot, sharp as its / livid gleam in this too-soft land ..." —Christopher Salerno
About the Poet: Robin Kirk is an experienced writer who has published widely—in nonfiction, that is. She spent years reporting from South America on human rights issues and has published books on Colombia and Peru. "I went to Latin America to work as a stringer," she says. "But I discovered that part of my passion for writing had to do with injustice ... as a way to help people directly." A fluent Spanish speaker, Kirk has lived in Durham since 1992, and she is the executive director of the Duke Human Rights Center. Her poetic influences include W.S. Merwin, Wislawa Szymborska, Anne Carson, Richard Haas and Sharon Olds, as well as her Duke colleague, the Chilean polymath Ariel Dorfman. Now that she has children, poetry is a major writing outlet, something that can be productively pursued in 30-minute increments. "Carolina Parrot" came about, she says, when she encountered Audubon plates of this bird, which was indeed native to the Carolinas and points south until it was hunted to extinction.
"Cross-section of a Hayfield"
by Julie Greenberg
The hayfield is empty.
The wind shrieks in the window casing.
From the yard, the field is a field of teeth
and the sheets on the line, its playful tongue.
Neither is aware of the rabbits' game.
Hiding behind the shed, the white aluminum becomes
a sail. The wind tugs my hair. I wait
until dusk makes the discordant house quiet.
That summer we found a rabbit
hidden in a corner of the hayfield.
For three summers we looked for the dry bones.
Among the lines, white butterflies drift,
affixing their eggs to the raw leaves.
A traffic of wings and scepter legs.
In fall, summer is still felt on ankles sharply.
The hayfield insists on being held.
At tractor's start, the crows rise on a series of caws.
A new black ring for the gentle haze and a
proper christening for the field.
A constellation of alfalfa blooms explode in measured intervals.
I plant my tarnished coin beneath a stem.
Nowhere else have I felt this sure of distance.
The sun is setting and heavy dusk
brings her rolling up the walk.
The hayfield waits.
Judge's Comments: In "Cross-section of a Hayfield," the play of time across place ripples through the poem, stanza by stanza, season by season, mirroring the light and wind that bathe and trouble the hayfield itself. Exquisite details—of butterflies with "scepter legs," of "a field of teeth," of the setting sun "rolling up the walk"—break through the hush of these stanzas and dazzle. Yet there is mystery here too, palpable and urgent. Near the "discordant" house, the speaker hides behind a shed; a rabbit hides in the field. Then the ritual search for "dry bones." From this emerges a habit of measuring, of counting whatever can be counted: seasons, years, intervals of bloom. And then a single line of iambic pentameter ("I plant my tarnished coin beneath a stem") bears us resolutely to the cross-section's core: "Nowhere else have I felt this sure of distance." To be certain, the speaker knows the physical measurements of this field. But other dimensions of distance—the remove of time, the intractability of isolation—are equally familiar. —Dianne Timblin
About the Poet: As her poem suggests, Durham resident Julie Greenberg has some familiarity with farm country: She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where she studied English, Spanish and history. She also studied writing at the famed writers' workshop. Although she's an Iowan, she didn't grow up on a farm. "Dubuque is different from the rest of Iowa—it's not flat," she says. "But my father lived in the country," she adds, which aided her familiarity with the ecology of the wheat field. "They're kind of creepy places," she says with a laugh. Greenberg is presently in her second semester of her master's degree studies in library sciences at UNC. She cites among her favorite poets Robert Haas, Eugenio Montale and Michael Earl Craig.
"The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island"
by David D. Marshall
Springs follow runs
To brooks and rills
In a land of ancient ferns
Stones made smooth
As shallow riffles melt
(Pines drum where stars
And waters meet)
And a river to the sea spills out
Of a forest into the sky
Vapors against a rising tide
The brack of bone
Against the ebb
Of a cerulean sky
(The crack of
A distant star)
A horse stands over its rider
In this moment at the edge of time
In this strand of river and sea
Where wind sweeps back
The brackish waters
Black and white
(While waves drum out the loam
To sand and spray)
And pebbles smooth
The red ebb
Of a flowing sky
The sun-dried sea grass
Brine-cured bleeding brown
Into the sandy white
("Where is the horse gone?"
"Where is the rider?")
Voices drown in the silt
Of this lost Arcadia
Beneath the painted signs
Lapis eyes raised
Now house saddled crabs
(That flit and pause and weigh
Some imagined concern)
Judge's Comments: There's a certain point where an historically based poem can turn into a Wikipedia entry. Too many facts leave too little room for mysteries. Luckily, "The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island" isn't very interested in facts. It's more like a diorama. There are only calm, composed vantages ("The crack of/ A distant star")—that pierce a misted world, somehow at once tranquil and unstable, where pines drum, skies ebb, a horse stands over its rider. There's little speculation, only a couple hesitant questions and a continual, focused circling of the enigma. A colony could easily vanish into such deep, clear lines as these. —Brian Howe
About the Poet: With this prize, David Marshall has published his second poem; his first was in his native tongue, Spanish. Born in Panama, Marshall moved to the States when he was 18 years old. Now the holder of dual citizenship, he operates an international trading company while living in Carrboro with his daughter, who also lives with her mother, a medical student at UNC. Marshall earned a law degree from UNC and is finishing up a master's degree in public policy from Duke; his résumé also includes two decades in the U.S. Army, including post-9/11 stops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wrote a regular column for the Chapel Hill News while a law student. Of his winning effort, Marshall says: "The creative process is kind of weird. A lot of times I don't know what I'm writing or why I'm writing it. I have an image in my mind ... and I try to figure out where it's coming from. I think the poet Rilke said 'never write about expansive themes...' I try not to do that. I know that whatever universal theme there is is going to be grounded in something. As it was developing, I realized what I was describing was an early experience I had when I first came to the United States, when I took a trip to the Lost Colony island ... it was magical to me that these colonists from another world landed here and were subsequently 'lost.' What does 'lost' mean?"
by James A. Hawley
On the eighth day, we settle down to work the crosswords, noodle
the acrostics, search for all the possible anagrams in "Overcoming
Problems", inscribe the names of all the people in all the villages
& where they live & how much they earn & what they owe & what
they have & what they haven't. This is called "qualitative easing."
We keep the ledger, quarter bound in goatskin with moiré silk sides,
in the cellar, along with the jars of pickled antecedents & shrunken
headlines, seek the meaning of "dungeon" in the Old Norse "dyngja,"
a pile of manure, a woman's workroom, a place of stench or sacrifice.
We cut a bream into serving portions—solay! Another typo at the
printer's shop & de Morgan's theorem which states that the denial
of a conjunction is equivalent to the altercation of the denials & the
denials of an alteration is equivalent to the conjunction of the denials,
Shakefork. We are damaged goods & we know it, relegate in our new-
found homeliness, tierced in pairie sable, gules & azure. The control
towers have been mistaken for observatories.
Judge's Comments: How often is finding a lump actually a good thing? Not very. But this small poem is rare in a number of ways. It's filled with exotic textures both linguistic—the Old Norse "dyngja," the gules and azure—and tactile, rustling with "goatskin" and "moiré silk." It cranks up just after creation and winds down somewhere after the fall. Along the way, it sweeps up word puzzles, ledgers, typos and theorems in a babble of human noise. "We're damaged goods and we know it," a state to which "Lump" responds by unleashing vigorous post-lapsarian energies. Solay! —Brian Howe
About the Poet: James A. Hawley is a repeat winner from last year's contest, in which he took third place. The Wake Forest resident, who has lived in Arizona, California, Central America, New York and Chicago, has since published more poems, including one written in Nahuatl, the present-day form of the Aztec tongue. Hawley lost his job at a sign company last summer and has since been using his non-job-hunting time to send out more poems and apply for writing fellowships. "The longer I beat my head against these various walls, the more I realize that the writing is the easy part," Hawley says. "The hard part is getting this shit into print, and one can spend a helluva lot more time trying to publish than the actual writing. And here you get into the whole capitalistic production and marketeering aspect of the biz, which I abhor and revile and for which I have little patience or talent: If you don't schmooze, you lose. I will add that that's the nice thing about the Indy's contest: It's all anonymous and the choices are based solely on the merit of the work." Hawley's recent work has been published in spinewriters, The Salt River Review and a British journal called The Delinquent.
Christopher Salerno is the author of Whirligig and a new book, Minimum Heroic, selected by Dara Wier for the 2009 Mississippi Review Poetry Award. His poems can be found in journals such as: The Denver Quarterly, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Jubilat, American Letters and Commentary, Carolina Quarterly, Octopus, Free Verse, Asheville Poetry Review and The Bedside Guide Anthology. He is co-curator of Raleigh's own So and So Series, and co-editor of So and So Magazine. Currently, he teaches writing at North Carolina State University. He won first place in last year's Indy poetry contest.
- Photo courtesy of subject
- Brian Howe
Brian Howe, an Independent contributor, is a Durham-based journalist, artist and poet. His poetry and sound art have appeared in such outlets as Fascicle, McSweeneys.net, MiPoesias, Effing, Cannibal, Octopus and Soft Targets. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including This is the Motherfucking Remix (with Marcus Slease; Scantily Clad; 2008). He's given readings at series spanning the Triangle (e.g. Durham's Minor American and Raleigh's So and So) to Brooklyn (e.g. The Stain of Poetry and Burning Chair) and points outlying. He is a member of the N.C.-based Lucifer Poetics Group and he edited a portfolio of their work for TheFanzine.com. He maintains his multimedia project, Glossolalia, at glossolalia-blacksail.blogspot.com.
- Photo by James G. Lewis
- Dianne Timblin
Dianne Timblin lives, writes, and edits in Durham. Her poetry has appeared in Phoebe, Rivendell, minor/american, Fanzine, Foursquare and other journals. Recently, she contributed to Kate Schapira's collaborative book project TOWN, which has just been published by Factory School in its Heretical Texts series. Among her various writing and research projects, a recent favorite was writing about Hessler Court, the last remaining wood-block road in Cleveland, Ohio, for Forest History Today, the magazine of Durham's own Forest History Society. She currently works as an editor at Duke University Press.