2020 Poetry Judge
Ed Bok Lee, Poetry
“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
Ed Bok Lee – the 2020 Hal Prize poetry judge – uses this quote by Novalis to explain why he started to write poetry.
Lee is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Mitochondrial Night. The son of North and South Korean emigrants – his mother originally a refugee from what is now North Korea; his father was raised during the Japanese colonial period and Korean War in what is now South Korea – Lee grew up in South Korea, North Dakota and Minnesota. He was educated there and later on both U.S. coasts, Russia, South Korea and Kazakhstan.
His honors include the American Book Award, Minnesota Book Award, Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice) and a PEN/Open Book Award. He teaches at Metropolitan State University, and for two decades, he’s taught in programs for youth and people who are incarcerated.
Lee is the winner of an American Book Award and a PEN/Open Book Award. Publisher’s Weekly writes that he “strikes a dizzying balance between the organic and the cosmic, the intimate and mythological. In these poems, time collapses to address historic events that influence the now and the yet-to-come.”
“Daytona Beach at Dusk”
by Kathryn Gahl
on the world’s most famous
beach devoid of people and cars in January
years after you and I fled here,
young and lost, walked past
Coppertone bodies bellies and biceps
muscle cars bubbling with mufflers
cascading waves we heard as
only the young can
not knowing then our dreams
were destined to collide
your bottle, my pen forever trying
to write the sun
squint to see unborn babies
on the rim who would
arrive a decade later
to me without you
and then in time immemorial, a grandson
squeezes my finger. I am completely gone.
There’s an irresistible force of heartsong daylong
a blaze of noon until out of nowhere, the news—
he is gone. Impossibly dead.
A toddler forever tangled in my soul.
I gulp air. My pulse thumps. Time goes granular.
But then he returns, pure presence, when I am near
water: fountains, rivers, lakes, the end of the ocean,
forms on the move, shifting, shaping. Holy water.
The wind blows cool today.
Raw wind, raging wind, bone lonesome.
I tighten my wool scarf and tremble,
doused in an oceanic roar of grief
knowing you, my beach walker of long ago, are dead too
and I am left here with
ancient waves brushing the sky
baby-blanket-blue, smoky lemon, a smudge of lipstick pink
loyal constellations on the edge of lavender,
the uncertain purple curtain as Poe said
heralding messengers of the gods.
And, I listen, hearing tempo in the pendulum of time
for I am alive, breathing between octaves of loss, echoes
of melody and refrain, windsong nightlong
a neverending vibration of
longing—another name for love—
pounding the shore
Judges Comments: “Daytona Beach at Dusk” is a “bone lonesome” poem, full of “muscle cars bubbling with mufflers,” longing, love, loss, and the preeminent passage of time. Here, vulnerability achieves a sublime kind of power, as when the wind seems willing to listen. – Ed Bok Lee
“The time to leave the room where I’ve been growing hair from my face”
by Jose Oseguera
—after Forrest Gander’s “Loiter”;
for Joe Gyomber
The hair that shrubs under my nose and ivies under my jaw
and down my neck is long enough to grab,
scraggly yet too sparse to gather as wool.
It is patchy like my father’s—
archipelagos and peninsulas of crabgrass follicles—
thicker at the chin than at the cheeks.
Gently, my son submerges his 6-month-old fingers
into the dark manes and grips suddenly and firm,
a sharp whisper to my nerve endings:
“Tell me when it hurts, and then, try to forget about it.”
These vestigial whiskers are strong, dry and gnarled but never dead,
stubborn weeds that line his way; he mouths and soaks the shag—
Christ thirsty for the sponge on the hyssop—
as if doing so for long enough will eucharise their sour wine into mother’s milk.
On their coarseness, he usually falls asleep within minutes,
but I hold him for minutes still: minutes that slip their microscopic bodies
between ours, regardless of how close we hold one another;
minutes that leave without saying goodbye;
and though I’ve nailed down plenty of them in pictures, they’re minutes
whose empty husks remind me, months later, that they’ll never return.
The hair I’ve been growing on my face is all he knows,
unaware that the comb over I wear from ear to ear
is not what a beard is supposed to be,
and I am not a man, or a parent who bathes and dresses him for bed
as Mary Magdalene prepared her Lord’s body for resurrection:
I am a pangea, a person whose gaps he’ll have to learn to ignore,
a mass of everything he knows outside the womb,
anamnesis of the time we were once one substance—
he, the vinegar and I, the mother.
Now, as he dreams in my arms, we are one again:
a land in this world whose fragments are stable enough
to keep him still while he grows—
all for the moment when he comes alive on his own.
Judges Comments: In The time to leave the room where I’ve been growing hair on my face, “The hair that shrubs under my nose and ivies under my jaws”. . . forms “archipelagoes and peninsulas of crabgrass follicles” as we follow the trajectory of a new parent richly inward. – Ed Bok Lee
“Sanibel Island Haibun”
by Jessica Dionne
When we find out I’m not fertile we drive to Florida. We each have two Big Gulps from one rest stop to the next. You play Trevor Hall and ask me if alligators can look up to the sky. We pass hours of morass and salt marsh, the air pickles. We look forward to motel ice buckets and A/C. I want to remember the heft of your hands on the steering wheel—the way they tap away the miles—how your fingers fever my thigh when you reach for me over empty cups. We read out billboards as they blink by: Family Fun… Jesus Provides… 88 Item Buffett… and I am reminded of my lack, how diffusive, radial. The key-card takes two tries but the Key Lime Inn is clean enough. One brochure on the nightstand tells of how Sanibel got its name—a map abbreviation—Santa Isybella, claimed in honor of the Queen after a Spanish explorer believed he discovered the Fountain of Youth. The woman in the mirror looks tired. You read another, Sanibel Island: World’s Best Shelling Beach. Under Top Tips for Shelling you find #10: The best shells are stirred up after a storm.
Under the old pier
indigo sea urchins thirst
for a spring of youth.
Judges Comments: In Sanibel Island Haibun, heartache and humor go on a necessary road trip to where “indigo sea urchin’s thirst.” – Ed Bok Lee
*listed in no particular order
by Klara Kobylinski
Tobacco quids pushed into soil in a corner pot
watch Saint George’s sword grow tall
now with leaves a strangely gutted purple,
now patched with feral fruit.
A ringing mycelium feeds the muted wash of undertones
like the not-black darkness behind lids
where blooming, aqueous saturations sharpen and wake.
(Time)-by-(time) attention stirs networks
reaching and alert—
lambent are the ends—the beginnings—of roots.
A tangled erosion bends terra-cotta around the earth
in the way of a tempered instrument, cool.
The crumbling is slow, shuddering,
shattering without the violence of despoliation.
Between —firma and —cotta, a limber pathway spreads two systems
into one great drape of folds
and it is the distracted mind that thinks only of the kneading push
between hot fingers and burning chew and loam.
by Amy Phimster
She opens the door
and moves outside, glances at the men
from the power company.
Looking up, the sky is clean, black power lines
crisscross against the cumulus clouds.
She breathes in her life, fills her lungs with it.
The truck is sitting off road on
the curb, looking disjointed, two tires up, two tires down
with the two men beside it.
There is a tall white lift cart.
The men have come to repair a transformer.
She knows the man in the cart moving
up, the air still and crisp like lake water.
He reaches his hands high touching the silver box,
a wasp nest. Suddenly a fire starts,
like a flash on a camera
but it flames and its color is like burned butter.
It’s densely quiet
so quiet, his partner doesn’t hear it.
Stillness breaks into the hot light
the light hot
to his touch.
The passage is unexpected
and the white light blinds her for a moment.
by Jocelyn Boor
Lightning is the moon
falling from the sky,
flashing as it hits earth
roaring and startling those
who fear ends
who quake and prefer
a timid rainfall
of fleeing mice.
Fireflies are the moon
rising to the sky,
signaling as they climb
singing and reviving those
who determine beginnings
who stand and prefer
a fierce cascade
of resolute eagles.
“Opening Night at the Symphony”
1916 President Woodrow Wilson ordered “The Star Spangled Banner” played at appropriate occasions
by Kathleen Serley
Like a bell, the French horn rings out the first few notes,
the man next to me struggles to stand
trumpets answer the call, the audience lifts as one,
and what I can’t see is how mowing down twenty people
in a shopping mall makes a body feel better
how sending my neighbor back moves me ahead
Violins come in to ask if our flag is still here
I flatten my hand over my heart,
the man beside me lifts his hand in salute
cymbals crash just as we all sing
and what I can’t see is how a wall will keep us safe
how holding children in detention makes us brave
Drawn in we clap over the last few notes
awakened to the sheer joy that we are here
and what I want to see is joy like that
taken with us from this opening night,
no-strings-attached joy shared
with all of our neighbors, all of our days
“Other People’s Stories”
by Marguerite Packard
Today I cried for another woman’s story
not because I thought myself like her
or because the story was sad
she had written beauty
ugly truth and stunning lies
and all those letters squirmed on the pages
like fish laying on beach pebbles
that never die
never stop flapping their gills for life
or sticking like popped bubblegum
to the corner creases of my mind
by Bryan Daniel
There are moments when I am overcome
With the notion that I messed everything up
In all the ways that matter –
Screwed the pooch, lost the game,
Made the wrong decisions
For the wrong reasons,
Went all in on an obvious bluff,
And despite my most formidable
Rationalizations, have no one to blame
Days spent in a dark cloud, lost and rambling
Among the cracked earth and the dead grass
Wearing the scars of arrogance.
The branches are tired and worn, the fog rolls
In off the water, the compass finds no north.
Would that I could go back! Would that I could
Show myself the abysmal depth of my ignorance!
The minutes become hours, the hours days; every moment
A reminder of the failure to choose wisely.
Hope? Hope is for fools who have not suffered enough.
Tomorrow? Another word for the continuation of misery.
Love? Go sell lies somewhere else.
And yet, there is this bloodletting,
Which may serve no other purpose than to release the
Infectious malaise ravaging body and soul, which may
In turn mark a turning point towards recovery.
by Joanne Nelson
Loud and happy, Connie, Lisa and I chased
each other through backyard lawn sprinklers.
Then, costumed in our mothers’
oldest bath towels headed for the sun
warmed front sidewalk. We rested.
Cheeks on folded hands. Imprints
of our hip bones, forearms, thighs
visible each time we moved our towels
to another, dryer spot.
We traveled down the block this way
stopping only at the corner. The curb the end
of our freedom. Too soon our always busy
mothers called us in to peel potatoes
or change the baby or fold the laundry
We’d shake the fine grit from our towels,
say our goodbyes, return to our mothers.
Only our damp imprints remained. Those shadow
selves, with their girlish whispers of desire,
their plans to leave the block behind.
“The Winter Dad Turned Basement Archeologist”
by Sylvia Cavanaugh
Dad strips the ancient drop-leaf table
splayed upside down.
I’m ten and the long dark seeped
into our narrow row house
like the way Dad never spoke much
which frightened me
but sometimes he sang
Dad brushes a chemical slop
across old paint the color of tuberculosis
or maybe just sin.
He sings It’s been a hard day’s night
and Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
as he knifes the blistering goop aside.
Once Dad proclaimed that sin is inevitable
making that weekly Saturday drive to the church
Our lungs have become the atmosphere’s
He and I lean over the table
and strain to decipher the hieroglyphics
of swirl and trail
in the revealed scripture of walnut wood.
The air of Wisconsin’s spring feels thin and sharp
like the fumes of solvent.
On solitary walks I scrape back the layers.
“When An Artist Drew an Owl’s Portrait”
by Thomas Davis
A response after seeing Rebecca Job’s painting, “Glow” —
This started as an ekphrasis poem, but, as with most poetry, carved its own path during the writing process, metamorphosing into a poem about a pastel, “Barn Owl,” I saw my wife draw.
A full moon, bone white as fine china, shines
through young white pine needles branching into night —
but she isn’t aware of the night’s moon, or its darkness.
A box of multi-colored pastels, half used down to the nubbins:
and she leans over the hand-crafted dining room table,
big light overhead,
staring at black paper,
eyes where her spirit is.
Inside her stillness you can feel the feral predator,
alertness tense with consecrated concentration,
and then, as if her prey is shocked,
fate suspended in time,
her hands blur, her whole body moving,
as lines slash into blackness
and smear color, movement
into an owl plunging claws silently
toward an unseen mouse.
In less than a thousand heartbeats,
as the round moon shines,
the barn owl is frozen into black paper,
wings flared, large eyes swimming
with claws, silence, wings, death,
by Kathleen Serley
Once you called me to talk
about school and girls
your plans to join the army
just do it
now’s your time
your dreams of a commission
if I had a dream
I’d live it
now you call me to report
that you’ve been house shopping
approved for a loan
I used up
you are deploying in spring
you want to think of your wife
in a home you plan
to return to in winter
Now I drift
in my home I wait
for you to call me