Once again, The Nation announces the winners of Discovery/The Nation, the Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize. Now in its twenty-sixth year, the annual contest celebrates poets whose work has not been published previously in book form. The new winners are: Erin Grace Brooks, Anthony Deaton, Andrew Feld and Sue Kwock Kim. This year’s judges are Mark Doty, Marie Howe and Susan Mitchell. Distinguished former winners of the competition, in which manuscripts are screened and judged anonymously, include Susan Mitchell, Katha Pollitt, Mary Jo Salter, Sherod Santos, Arthur Smith and David St. John. This year’s winners will read their poems at Discovery/The Nation ’00 at 8:15 pm on Monday, April 17, at The Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
–Grace Schulman, poetry editor
Not quite putting on what little power or knowledge
pigeons lay claim to, she nonetheless bids them come.
Launched off cornices,
cathedral arches, they glide
through the gelid air in loose spirals, filling the square.
Their wings beat a thin flat thunder.
She’s drifted in from the soot-marbled
housing blocks piled across the Vistula,
making her tram-line pilgrimage among the other pensioners
who haunt the Old Town’s benches.
Strewn about her feet are crumbled bits of bread crust
and each cupped palm she extends offers more.
The birds pullulate around her ankles,
roost on her shoulders. Aloof from the others,
one fatted pigeon mounts the faded
purple beret she wears against the late October freeze.
This is when I steal the photo.
All day I’ve kept the camera hidden inside an overcoat pocket,
afraid reducing Warsaw’s rebuilt bell towers
and cobblestone vistas to thirty-six frames per roll
would give me away as something I can’t help
not wanting to be. Yet I cannot resist the old lady
capped and gowned, as she is, in feather.
She lifts her arms to either side. The unmindful pigeons crowd,
peck along her flightless limbs, mocking her gravity
as they alternately spread and fold their wings.
Or maybe it isn’t mockery, but a mutual love that keeps them
flapping there and holds the woman still,
engenders in that coupling a dream of union,
where one light step might shift their weight to sky.
Hanji: Notes for a Paper-Maker
for Liu Yoon-Young
Shaped like a slab of granite
marking a grave, but light,
airy as “spirit-sheaves” lashed
from bloodroot or star-thistle,
this sheet is not for burial
but making and making of:
a caul of splinters boiled to pith,
broth cast then clotted to blank.
I touch it, feeling grit and slub
silk, rough as braille. Is it
enough, is this what you dreamed
of doing, making absence
palpable as pulp, though you laugh,
seeing I’m shocked at how much work
it took. Sow and mulch mulberry.
Slash trunks down a year later–
chopping slant to sun so stumps
heal, regrow–when their wood’s
tender but strong enough to keep,
no worms gnawing fleam or burl.
Soak, hack the black bark off,
tilt your knife at a sharp angle
to skive the green underskin
without cutting away good grain.
Scald the peeled rods with cotton-ash
so acid softens gnurl and knot.
Pound for hours until they’re ground
to shreds, skeins of unlikely thread.
You show me your blistered hands.
Poor hands. When you strike a match
to fire, I almost feel the skin sting,
kerosene flaming yontan-coal.
I don’t know what it costs you to love
this work. More than sulfur fumes
tasting of slag, flintsparks cracking,
engine-shunt as your cauldron simmers
hollyhock root to solder all
the elements in a strange solution,
an ecstasy, flecks shapeshifting,
hissing milk, spit, quicksilver.
While it smolders you drag
hung mold and slung bamboo-grill,
sieving with steady arms, long strokes
so fiber won’t snarl at the heart.
You wring water, strip your grid,
letting grume clot to the hue
of skull-rot. It’ll bleach in sun
to snow, tusk-tallow, peroxide–
depending how long it’s left out,
on weather–or you’ll dye it
with beets, indigo, sweet potato,
all the colors you have in mind.
In my mind you’ve become stern.
“For what you want to be, nothing
is something from another slant,
a slate, a plot to engrave spirit
in flesh, mirror or window on an O.
Now you know how hard the labor is.
If your words aren’t worth
my work, keep your mouth shut.”
Sue Kwock Kim
Used by the Kind Permission of…
Woken, at six a.m., by the dense mist of song
triggered by the sun’s rising, we recognized
the first trick in that well-practiced sleight-of-hand
morning would unfold for us: those small dots
of clear light placed on the spider’s web outside,
that shallow orange ribbon cut into the sandy drive.
And there were other signs, even when the afternoon
had been reduced to just the single mockingbird
and his sped-up, bad memory of other musics,
that acknowledgments remained unsaid, as when
you explained the discipline, the years of work
that gave such ease to the flippant conversations
in the movie we watched that night, the uncredited
studio-servitude which made possible that careful
choreography of speech–an art as lost now
as that which made the banks of glass flowers
in the Natural History Museum, the translucent
fibrous stalk of the iris, the fretwork of decay.
There, under fluorescent fixtures, a coelacanth,
deep in a silt of ancient brown formaldehyde,
turned its pre-historic eye towards the empty case
you said contained antique sunlight, or could be
a cenotaph for what can’t be captured, as leaves
scratched at the window, pushed by restless air.
Concerning Starling’s Law of The Heart
“…the critical factor controlling stroke volume is the pre-load or degree of stretch of the cardiac muscle cells just before they contract.”
—Marieb’s Human Anatomy and Physiology
House a pump in four chambers,
arteries and veins for pipes, valves
for valves, pacemaker a tap
that won’t quit running. Let it.
This is the sound of hope, deaf
to the world, which in any case
has grown fond of complaining
to itself. Forget the world.
The matter at hand is plumbing–
good plumbing, too–the kind
that won’t clog on its own grief
and biles, nor corrode from
the sour spillage of anyone else.
Say one day disease embraces you
like a beloved, and won’t let go:
Until death do us part. To you,
it will feel that the pump in your
chest has plunged straight out
the window, and of course
it’s a great loss–it’s everything.
But your heart won’t break
or burst. Though it may not
be whole exactly, it will work–
will beat every day of your life
in order to pump down to the last
blessed drop all the blood
presented to it, and even a flood
would make it work just that much
harder. You can depend on it
by law. Frank-Starling’s Law.
Consider starlings, how they sing so
in their river oak that turning at night
from the darkness of Richmond to
Montrose, the blast of fortitude and joy
knocks the breath from your chest,
sets your dumb heart throbbing:
What is there to say? Consider
it said. If my heart were more,
more would be laid at your feet.