Each March, I am floored by the talent that floods my inbox as poets from the area submit their verse to the JMRL-WriterHouse Adult Poetry Contest. This is the fourth year that JMRL and WriterHouse have partnered to offer this contest, which accepted entries from March 1-30.
The contest this year was judged by the esteemed Henry Hart, current Poet Laureate of Virginia and Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary. The winner and runner-up were announced at the Poetry on the Steps open mic poetry event on Thursday, April 25 at JMRL’s Central Library.
Hart selected poet Ron Berube’s “A Differential Calculus of My Feelings” as the winning poem, and Clay Moldenhauer’s “Make Fire” as the runner up. He had this to say about the poems:
I decided “A Differential Calculus of my Feelings” deserved first prize, and “Make Fire” deserved an honorable mention. “A Differential” is a moving poem about a traumatic event. The image of “the rabbit dying in an eagle’s claws” intimates that both people in the ambulance are undergoing a painful ordeal. The poem is narrated in an artful and engaging way. The voice gravitates toward a formal iambic pentameter line. (“The best of what was promised, never guessed” is one of several blank verse lines.) Yet the voice is not stiffly formal; it can be humorous and colloquial, despite the painful situation. The narrator, we learn early on, is: “amusing myself / By guessing where the hell we are.” At the end, the narrator does a good job of describing an elderly couple who have grown remarkably close over time—so close that the narrator can say (once again in iambic verse): “More often lately when / You think, I answer; when I sigh you wake.”
I chose to give an honorable mention to “Make Fire” because the poem is another engaging narrative. In this case, the narrator gives concise instructions for the performance of a simple, but profound ritual. The narrator resembles a priest telling a supplicant to do certain things (primarily to make a fire) in order to transcend human knowledge and meanings. The goal of the ritual is to transport the supplicant into a kind of mystical state so that he or she can “Bless whatever comes” and “Give thanks.” This is a noble goal!
And now for the real deal –
Ron Berube (2019 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest Winner) with
“A Differential Calculus of My Feelings”
Listening in the ambulance to the insistent siren,
Trying like the rabbit dying in an eagle’s claws
Just to enjoy the ride, amusing myself
By guessing where the hell we are
From my compromised position of all
That’s flashing past. The roof of our house
Needs replacing, traffic’s backed up as usual
On the bypass, there’s your office building,
Where’s your car? Clouds are massing
Gray behind the mountains west. You’ve been
Hurting more than you’ve been saying,
I can tell, afraid to scare me by complaining,
Just as I am you. More often lately when
You think, I answer; when I sigh, you wake.
I’d thought once at our age we’d have seen
The best of what was promised, never guessed
How much distance we could cover simply
By moving closer to each other. Sometimes,
Says the eagle, I’m surprised myself.
Clay Moldenhauer (2019 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest Runner-Up) with
At water’s edge,
Bare feet in mud,
To empty sky.
Wonder at nothing
Ponder on nothing
Already a puzzle.
Orient to nothing
Bless whatever comes.
They too will be Gods
Snake, turtle, Crow,
Offer power and pain
But it’s up to you
To make fire.
Like the first time.