A SPLASH OF NAUGATUCK RIVER REVIEW
SOME POEMS FROM THE LAST CONTEST ISSUE
Ninth Annual Narrative Poetry Contest Winning Poems, judged by Kaveh Akbar:
First Prize: “Wisteria” by Gail Thomas
Thick trunk knotted around itself, a dozen rusted pipes struggle
to hold the weight. Opulent globes drip, a purple curtain
that rambles toward the house. In its shadow
I posed with our first-born wrapped in white wool.
We poured our youth into this stone shell that tilts
over the road in a village tucked between
cornfields and the Kittatinny Ridge. Vowing restoration
and authenticity after running water, electricity,
and heat, we plastered cracks in horsehair walls,
sanded plank floors, scraped decades of paper and paint, caulked
six-over-six window panes, mortared the chimney, shimmied
a claw foot tub up winding stairs.
And another baby came.
We dug up a cabinet buried in an outbuilding, cleaned it
with a toothbrush to uncover a painted tin ad for horse
medicine. This we haggled over in the divorce.
At the general store gossips told of two maiden teachers
who lived in this house without plumbing,
created a fairy garden of random flowers
among the grass. One woman was seen on hands and knees
each week cutting the lawn with scissors.
At public auction, their goods on display,
I bid on a somber brown velvet quilt they may have slept
under. Years later a wistful fragrance draws
me back to find the vines sparsely
bloomed and running rampant.
Unshuttered and painted the wrong color, the house
lists closer to the road. I want to peer into a deep
window to see the young mother who locked herself
out one night after choosing a truer skin. The future wandered
ahead, trailing sweet tendrils along stony ground
and yes, she followed.
Second Prize: “Dedicated to Neda and All Who Died” by Scott Beal
Dedicated to Neda and All Who Died
Neda Agha-Soltan was one woman shot in the chest
for daring to step into Karegar street
on a day of raised voices
with her music teacher, who held her
and repeated her name as she bled,
one woman who happened to die
in light captured by cameras—for days
people watched her breath evaporate above,
her blood pool below, the coaxing of her music
teacher who couldn’t help her shape any of it into song,
the blast of the basiji bullet opening the coda
into silence, and closing it.
Her music teacher
having offered her comfort before so many eyes
would flee the country, as would a woman
misidentified, her photo published in newspapers
as the victim, and no ceremony was permitted,
men on motorcycles chased weeping cousins
from the funeral, her parents were forced
to remove the black mourning cloth
from their home, the grave desecrated,
tombstone stolen, funeral portrait
chiseled with bullets, no one in Tehran
was meant to remember her name—tell me,
what can any song do?
Imagine you’re banned
in your own country, a musician where the only word
allowed the sound that nourishes you is blasphemy,
and the penalty for blasphemy is death;
whole sonic densities spiral around your spine,
so new chords crunch each time you shift
in your seat, your fingers and lips
implacable. Kept inside,
the song can only die,
and since it’s the part of you most secret,
unwritten in the pious lie across your face
each time you greet a stranger in the street,
if the music inside you goes mute in the vise
of your clenched jaw, what’s left to kill?
What can’t singing do then
but save your life, even if
it can’t save anyone else’s?
When you dedicate the song
to Neda and all who died that June in the Tehran streets,
you know you’ve called down every stroke
of lightning, you’ve put your name to a target and said here
is where to burn the rest of me away, the shell
that settles underneath the song I raise
(or upload past the censors into the void)
into the sky—
Third Prize: “Lives of the Saints (Flatbush, ca. 1967)” by Aaron Fischer
Lives of the Saints (Flatbush, ca. 1967)
At 15, I wanted to be a saint, an odd
preoccupation for a gawky, bookish Brooklyn Jew,
head full of Ginsberg, head full of glue,
more in love with Dylan and Hendrix than God.
The miracles were window dressing: St. Martin
touching the choking boy’s throat with a cross.
Francis regaling the rapt birds. Even Lazarus,
waking to the abrupt light, still in his cerement.
How they tutored me in renunciation,
those penitents who broke their epic fasts
with water by the thimbleful, scraps
of stale bread. How I courted starvation,
the way it made me feel clean, the way
each time I stood the world darkened and swayed.