14th Annual Narrative Poetry Contest Winning Poems, judged by Lisa Kwong:

First Prize: Gloria Heffernan

At the Blind Poet’s Reading, I Contemplate Deafness		

I tell myself it’s the acoustics.
The auditorium is vast and the single microphone
no match for the twenty-foot ceiling. 
But the shrill siren of tinnitus 
conspires with what the doctor called
 measurable hearing loss.
The poet’s words are muffled
like footfalls in new snow
leaving me alone with my thoughts.

The poet’s service dog reclines on the stage
a few feet from the podium.
She sleeps for much of the reading.
She’s heard the poems before.
My attention drifts to her twitching
feet as she runs through a dreamscape.
I find myself wishing she would bark—
just a few deep contralto woofs
to tell me that some things will still
ring out clearly like a bell on a buoy 
or geese in an October sky—
something to assure me that 
I will still hear music,
even if it is forever underscored
by the siren that never ceases.

As the poet talks of Milton,
I think of Beethoven.
I wonder what it might feel like to stand
on the beach in Maine and feel waves 
that I cannot hear lapping at my feet. 
I think of the times I have begged 
my rambunctious nephews 
to be quiet for just a little while,
dreading the time when I will
have to beg them to speak up.  

The poet finishes his reading 
and the audience erupts in well earned
and blessedly loud applause. 
The dog awakens instantly,
rises to her feet,
all senses engaged as she returns
to the poet’s side. 
I strain to hear the tapping 
of her nails against the wooden floor
as she escorts her master 
down the stairs. 

Second Prize: Diane DeCillis

Eating Grief

After a scene from True Blood  	  
The toasted, buttery aroma of pecan pie wafts 
through the screen door. Sookie follows the scent 
into the kitchen where she finds her grandmother 
lying on the cold linoleum, hemorrhaging 
from stab wounds—her body lit by a shaft of sun 
cutting through the pretty lace curtains. 
She blankets herself over Gran, her white 
blouse soaking up the last precious drops 
of family blood as she tenderly strokes 
her brow, cups the waning warmth of her face.
Gran, who raised Sookie after the sudden death
of her parents helped ease her granddaughter’s 
pain, a young girl who feared being swallowed 
by the whale of loss—the emptiness burrowed 
deep as a secret grave. 
After Gran’s funeral 
after friends, neighbors gathered with cakes 
and casseroles, the house emptier than ever before, 
she wrestles with desire to close herself off, 
the urge to seal the heart’s mouth until it resists 
its own nourishment. 
             		Alone in the kitchen, 
she removes the pie she’d hidden in the back 
of the ice box, studies it, picturing the care 
Gran took, her thumb delicately fluting the soft 
dough, each pecan carefully arranged.  
Full of the glut of grief, she eats—slowly, 
deliberately, each spare forkful, each hard 
swallow—she eats until the last 
of Gran’s pies is gone. 


Third Prize: Gail Thomas

Laika and the Polar Bear

My love won’t watch a movie until she checks the website,
Does the Dog Die? People dying, no problem.

I grew up watching Old Yeller with my father
who never cried, weeping movie tears on the couch.

Then there was Laika, the Soviet street dog who survived
the centrifuge test and could eat and shit in a small space.

When Sputnik 2 launched, her heart beat three times faster.
By the fourth revolution, heat sensors failed and Laika died.

Newsreels blared her contribution to man, but not her end.
In four years Yuri Gagarin launched from the same pad. 

Researchers say 700 species on every continent suffer loss
of habitat, from tree frogs to snow leopards, chipmunks to elephants.

Laika’s scientist trainer says, We did not learn enough
from the mission to justify the death of a dog,

while a polar bear claws her way onto shrinking ice. 

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