13th Annual Narrative Poetry Contest Winning Poems, judged by Destiny O. Birdsong:

First Prize: Kevin Neal

let the bones guide you

let the bones guide you, he says. thick as cotton in 
his mouth. his tongue stuck in a way that he can’t 
make any good words. the little catfish flapping; a 
bird unaware it will never fly, Case knife blade slips 
into its soft yellow underbelly—guts pop like 
streamers. he extracts the mud vein careful as a 
surgeon. the hopeless gnats beset his painted hands 
with their brave or dumbest. this is the deal i made, 
with this god, shirt filthier than a sweatrag, cutoff 
jeans—stinking. he always stinks real good in the 
heat. get a good sharp knife, he says, and let the 
bones guide you. the cicadas get going now, cycling 
like mowers, you can feel them celebrating the kills 
we’ve made. the good meat floating in a pail of 
saltwater. a mourning dove on a wire in the distance, 
praising us with its hollow throat. the piles of 
discards swarming—halfway to rot. i thread my 
catfish off the stringer. in all this, something sincere; 
its eyes hold the glint of knowing death is close, the 
red prick hole on its mouth from my hook already 
closing, the sudden stillness when i lop off its 
ventral. and our surprise, even though we know it 
coming, of its pink flesh blooming in the sun.

Second Prize: Joanne Epp

After Work
Liese Pauls
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1935

That’s me, there in the middle,
second row from the back. These 
are all the girls who come 
on Thursdays, our half-day off. 
We have our little Bibelstunde
and we sing. Then coffee and fresh
Zwieback, our talk relaxing
in the familiar German: Tina says
her cold is better, Nettie’s sister has
another baby; Anna—as always—
says what a nuisance her mistress’
youngest boy is (not like the big boy,
he’s such a good one).

And I tell about my employer,
the doctor, how he took me 
to his office last Thursday—
no regard for my day off, what
could he want with me?
The girls go quiet then, look
down, stop stirring coffee.
Until I say, the eye doctor, that’s 
where he took me. To get glasses.
I explain, it must have been his wife
who saw me darning socks, 
bending close over my stitches.
The girls still say nothing. 
They’re speechless as I was— 
fumbling over what to say, how
to answer this kindness. 

Bibelstunde: Bible study (literally, “Bible hour”)
Zwieback: small double-decker buns made from a rich yeast dough


Third Prize: Janet MacFadyen

Petitions from the Alzheimer's Ward

People wander the lit hallways muttering 
in stocking feet, asking for the way out. They pad 
into the room where I sit and doze and sing 

to my dying mother — pick up the bed stands, wring
curtains hazed in unnatural light, their past lives 
welling up like a murmuration of starlings.

I have heard them at the edges of sleep, milling 
about like customers cordoned off at a bank.
Their voices jolt me awake, a whine in my ears

of mosquitoes asking for money or blood. 
One entreats me for the passcode, one weeps
inconsolably in the corridor, one strangles me

with my own purse until I cough up 
some ancient tale in a guttural tongue. Now 
there is no unhearing these messengers.
O my bewilderers, my flesh and blood, I sing 
the only songs I have, shielding my eyes 
with my hands, I the sleeper, I the usherer, I 

the water-minder. Under my watch
the hive has lost its coherence, the fine root 
networks of the elders tear from the earth, compassion 

broken, hearing broken, accountability 
broken, as we drift in the eddies of deep forgetting. 
How can I reach the old mother who yet

still lives, out there on the shoals of a sea, 
calling, calling her children home at this late hour
to teach them how to grieve? 

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