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2016 Prize For Poetry Awards

Click on a poem title to read the poem, on a poet's name to read his/her bio.  Prize winners for past years can be viewed on prize pages for past years, available here.

We are pleased to announce that the 2016 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry, an honorarium of $2,000, is awarded to:

Ellen LaFleche
Northampton, Massachusetts
for her poem
“Before the sickness, when”

Honorable Mentions, each with an honorarium of $200, are awarded to:

Joan Baranow
Mill Valley, California
for her poem “Believing”

Sally Clark
Fredericksburg, Texas
for her poem “Summer Fruit”

Adele Ne Jame
Kaneohe, Hawai’i
for her poem Faces, Serkal House Exhibit”

 

Joyce Schmid
Palo Alto, California
for her poem “Heart’s Cure”

The final judge for the 2016 Prize was poet Edward Hirsch.

The annual Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry is established as a living memorial in honor of American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). The Prize is underwritten by Tor House Foundation Board member John Varady with additional support from Honorary Board Member Allen Mears.   This year we received over 1,300 poems from 40 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and six foreign countries.

The Winning Poem

Before the sickness, when
Ellen LaFleche

your hair was oak-leaf smoke on our pillow
and even in deepest June the scent of your nape was autumn
(mown hay, sweet corn turning to sugar in the fields). 

before the sickness, when
your mouth was peach cider simmering in a dented sauce pan
and between your thighs was the taste of plowed earth and cedar mulch
and your forehead sweet anointed my eyelids with sacramental oil.

before the sickness, when
your strong spine suppled against my palms
and your vertebrae trembled like ivory wind chimes
and afterwards, in the shower, I soaped the gentle jut of your shoulder blades
and you washed the delicate skulls of my knees
and I brushed away the verbena-scented suds that exploded against your nape.

after the sickness, when
beneath your fragrant nape a lesion ate neurons and bone
and your vertebrae withered on their spinal vine
after the sickness, when 

***

Daybreak,
and the sun looms on the horizon like a rogue planet knocked out of its orbit. 

The sheets I left on the line crackle under its shadow. 

I remember the time you burned the leaves I had raked,
cupping the match like a monk who has dressed himself in gasoline.

Did the monk sit quietly when the lit match crackled against his ribs? 

You sat quietly when the doctor said you were going to die.
Maybe a tremolo in the hollow of your throat,
a slow shiver of your downturned palms.
The cold scrape of your chair against the hardwood floor.

You were a man in a white gown patterned with violets and hearts.
A rogue shadow sat quietly on your X-rayed spine.

Did the monk hold his breath against the fire whooshing towards his lungs? 

You tried to hold your breath but the ventilator made you breathe,
it made you breathe.

The smell of burning leaves is a violet haze on the eastern edge of town.
Drifting smoke bruises the sheets I left on the line.

The blue of this pre-dusk sky has settled in your limbs,
the slow curve of your jaw.

Nightfall,
and the sun crashes quietly into the mountainous west.

***

Because the dead cannot tell us what it’s like to die

That time our yard was a blurred gyroscope of snow
and our driveway a gloss lake of ice.
Your breath:  a momentary ghost on our bedroom window.
Snow dusted the pine needles like heroin powder
and a maple branch snapped off at the elbow.
A blue jay slung a blur of sky across the storm
and somehow,
somehow,
the sun slipped through that momentary blueness.
Your breath on the glass glowed hot with light.
Dying might be like that.

The time we watched the ocean roll, ancient with salt,
with boneless creatures bobbing through the breakers.
The sun lulled our muscles like a hot stone massage.
The waves unfurled their bolts of lace
and you peered into a quahog’s pink-lined jewel box.
Sunset turned the water into Sauvignon wine
and sailboats to palettes of Van Gogh mauve.
But you said there was nothing so beautiful as my white hair
lifting into a squall.
Dying might be like that.

That time in the shower
when you slid an oval of jasmine soap down my right arm,
and then my left.
I slid the mauve oval down your left leg,
and then your right.
You pushed me gently against the shower door.
Our breaths added the smell of Sauvignon to the gathering fog.
After the lathering,
steam lifted off my shoulders like a departing spirit.
Your eyes wept away the soap’s jasmine burn
and for a moment you saw me pass through the frosted glass door.
Dying might be like that.

Ellen LaFleche is the author of three chapbooks:  Workers’ Rites (Providence Athenaeum); Ovarian (Dallas Poets Community Press); and Beatrice (Tiger’s Eye Press).  She won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Philbrick Poetry Prize, the DASH literary journal prize, the New Millenium Poetry Prize, and the Joe Gouveia Outermost Poetry Prize.  Last year, her poem “Prayer for the Insanity of Grief” was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry.  She is assistant judge for the North Street Book Prize at www.winningwriters.com.  During a three-month period two winters ago, she lost her dad, husband and brother.  Along with her daughter and son-in-law, she provided hospice care to her husband, John Clobridge, during the final stages of his ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  “Prayer for the Insanity of Grief” and “Before the sickness, when” are two of many poems written in the aftermath of overwhelming mourning and loss.

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Honorable Mentions

Believing
Joan Baranow

I believe in wrapping the baby in the blanket.
I believe in the father jingling his keys. 

I believe in forgiving the son who dented the car,
the daughter who lost her new shoes.

I believe in recess at school, reasonable roads,
neighbors who sleep late on Saturdays,
who lend you eggs for the cake.

I believe in sharing the cake.

I believe in symphonies and rock concerts.
Otherwise, small groups will do—
poetry readings and the like.

I believe in nature’s wallop, floodwaters,
wild lilies, the slipperiness of minutes,
the usual moon and tides. 

I believe, too, in the mania of the many—
countries counting munitions,
subtracting soldiers from the list. 

I believe nothing will change this.
Not prayer, nor uniformed officers.

Peace and terror forever,
like the heart’s swell and cramp,
like our wish to rescue the vanishing wolves.

--after Wislawa Szymborska

Joan Baranow is Director of Graduate Humanities and Associate Professor of English at Dominican University of California. Her poetry has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Paris Review, JAMA, Feminist Studies, and other magazines.  Her poetry book, Living Apart, was published by Plain View Press. With her husband, physician and poet David Watts, she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her second documentary, The Time We Have, is currently in post-production.  (Photo by David Drewry)

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Summer Fruit
Sally Clark

We pick blackberries, dark and sweet, from between
the spiny branches of a saw-leafed bush, his hand and mine
stained and dripping, bending together in the summer sun; 

baskets on our arms, we walk, sandy rows of bright dimpled
strawberries, twist the fruit to roll gently into our hands,
lick the sweet juice from between our fingers; 

we stretch for orange-fleshed peaches, together, calculating
our grip to pick, but not squeeze, rub off a fresh one
on our sleeve and share a half, each, to drip from our lips; 

in the steamy kitchen we strip down, boil, scent the air
with a sweetness you could lick off the walls, fill one empty jar
after another, sparkling in rows of geranium, tangerine, and plum. 

When heat passes and the sun pulls away a bit sooner each day,
leaves begin to fall, flowers die back to the ground, we lean
a bit closer to each other to shelter our bodies from the frost 

creeping into our bones, take a jar off the shelf, pop the seal,
spoon summer’s sweetness into our mouths, look across the table
into each other’s eyes and remember the picking, the pulling, 

the dripping, the rolling, the staining, the squeezing, the steam,
our naked, fiery, sweet-filled summer gardens and smile,
taste the juice of each other’s lips and relish 

our sweet harvest.

Sally Clark’s award-winning poetry has been published in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression Journal, Weavings, Chrysalis Reader, The Binnacle, Bacopa Literary Review, Manifest West: Even Cowboys Carry Cell Phones, Windhover, Lifting the Sky:  Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, Texas Poetry Calendar, Bearing the Mask: Southwest Persona Poems, Poetry and Business: A Journal of Incorporated Verse, Texas Weather Anthology (Lamar University Press), and thirteen gift books compiled by June Cotner and printed by various publishers.  http://sallyclark.info

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Faces, Serkal House Exhibit
Adele Ne Jame

                        In Beirut, we live surrounded by dead people looking at us.
                                                           
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

In Arabic, we say hay fina, they live
within us.  First, there is the terrible silence,
then the sacrament:  a visible sign of invisible
grace, St. Augustine said.  A way to discover
the unknown when the pain is too much,
when it burns the air around us.  Or, there will be
forty days of mourning, a modest affair.  For many,
finally, an image on a poster.  Along a beautiful Beirut
thoroughfare, for example, there are 42 lamp posts
with 42 frames with portraits fading out,
ghostly silhouettes refusing to vanish entirely,
a city, a harbor, a boat sailing away. 

Now standing before the walls of this gallery,
I am struck by Faces, the same face, frame after frame
progressively blurred, worn away by time,
but still looking at us, the dead, the kidnapped,
the missing.  This is a city filled with portraits,
the artist says, the living and the dead side by side.
We wonder with such mourning and commemoration,
are the dead held up from deciding to retire,
can mourning ever be overcome?  I am drawn back,
time and again—though there are fifty exhibits.
Another:  a floating installation of blue neon,
huge and flashing—a full block long that scrawls
in Arabic script the invocation:  Inshallah, God willing.
It trails along the dark underground passage I walk
each day wondering what hard lesson is here for me.
Again I return to Faces, feel the dead one’s eyes,
beyond borders, commanding my gaze, holding it. 

But no death portraits here, I think, of the seven
in my family gone missing on the road
from Beirut to Damascus.  After so long, deemed
wartime casualties.  Nothing but thin air
between the living and the dead, except a story
the single surviving sister told me once:
picture a family, one of many thousands,
hollow-eyed and starving, when an empire,
having chosen the wrong side during the Great War,
was collapsing.  They fled the high Chouf mountains,
walked across the desert dreaming of date palms,
wild almonds, a city refuge, but one by one,
they collapsed until only three remained.
The sister, age nine, left to search for desert water,
the older brother stayed behind near a great rock
to protect the younger, perhaps his name was David,
beautiful blond boy with curls, four years old,
she said.  But when the sister returned, somehow
the young boy was gone, must have wandered off
when the older one fell asleep as the desert stars
traced fire across a coal-black sky.  They searched
and searched, calling his name for days thereafter—
all their lives, really.  Tried to imagine his life
as someone else’s son, someone else’s brother.
They published his portrait in newspapers
that carried his face far across the Middle East.
At last, she said, warring Bedouin tribes
on horseback used to steal children in those days.
The mourning, the molten fear in her eyes—
all that breakage, a whole litany of eyes caught
in that lucid blue, requires us as yes-sayers,
though more alone than ever, to speak of
our silent companions, who, like a shimmering fire
in the bruised air, are around us everywhere.

Note:  Description of exhibit:  Faces and ruminations from Provisions,
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, visual artists and film makers.

Inshallah installation: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larson.  Both exhibits: 
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates International Biennial, 2009.

Adele Ne Jame lives in Hawa’i and teaches poetry at Hawai’i Pacific University. She has published four books of poetry, including Poems, Land & Spirit (Sharjah Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates and Bidoun Press) and The South Wind (Manoa Books and El Leon Literary Arts). Her work has appeared in American Nature Writing, Ploughshares, Nimrod, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Kanto, Manoa: a Pacific Journal of International Writing, Beirut Literary and Art Journal and in several Arab American anthologies including Inclined to Speak. Her poems were exhibited as broadsides at the Sharjah, United Arab Emirates International Biennial. She served as the Poet-in-Residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has received numerous grants and prizes including a Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, Academy of American Poets’ prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts in Poetry award, and the 2015 Elliot Cades Award for Literature.  www.adelenejame.com

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Heart’s Cure
Joyce Schmid

                        1.
Flutter is a dainty word.
It’s kind of sweet,

and brings to mind

a hummingbird,
a monarch butterfly,
a baby quickening, 

the run-away excitement
of a new love.  I try
to hypnotize myself 

with flutter, flutter, flutter,
not to think
about a tiny spot inside

the isthmus of your heart
that makes it flutter,
not to think 

about a catheter snaked into you
to burn your heart, and brand it
mortal.

                        2.
There’s nothing beautiful about this wait.

The only beauty was your face—blue eyes, blue gown—
before the nurses wheeled you in.

Oh God, please guide
the catheter that brings the fire.
(Is this the very moment when you burn?)

Almighty, Everlasting God,
may this oblation
be pleasing and acceptable to Thee.

                         3.
God rolled the stone away
three times.
The first time

was the hardest.
You were torn
and bruised and tired, 

wires wound and bound
around your healing bone.
The second time,

a tiny metal meshwork tube
undammed your blood.
The third time, only yesterday,

a catheter engraved its mark:
a burn ablation
deep inside your heart, 

and you walked forth again,
translucent, bright,
backlit in miracle.

Joyce Schmid’s poems are published or forthcoming in Chautauqua, Canary, Atlantic Review, Poetica Magazine, Blueline, and other journals.  She has a B.A. in History and Literature from Harvard, and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.  She studied Russian Literature at Columbia University, where she won the Pushkin Prize two years in a row for translation of Russian poetry.  A native New Yorker, she lives in Palo Alto, CA, with her husband of almost fifty years, and practices as a psychotherapist.

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Prize winners for past years can be viewed on-line:

2015 Poetry Prize winners
2014 Poetry Prize winners
2013 Poetry Prize winners
2012 Poetry Prize winners
2011 Poetry Prize winners
2010 Poetry Prize winners
2009 Poetry Prize winners
2008 Poetry Prize winners
2007 Poetry Prize winners
2006 Poetry Prize winners
2005 Poetry Prize winners
2004 Poetry Prize winners
2003 Poetry Prize winners
2002 Poetry Prize winners
2001 Poetry Prize winners

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