Tor House Poetry Prize 2003




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2003 Prize For Poetry Awards

We are pleased to announce that the 2003 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry,  an honorarium of $1,000, is awarded to:

Howard W. Robertson
Eugene, Oregon
for his poem
“Not far from the source”

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

Robert Carter
Chippendale, NSW, Australia
for his poem “Tilt”

Rhina P. Espaillat
Newburyport, Massachusetts
for her poem “Two Crows”

Douglas Nicholas
New York, New York
for his poem “In the Long-Cold Forges of the Earth”

George V. Tucker  
Hollywood, Florida
for his poem “Humminbirds”

The final judge for the 2003 competition was poet Pattiann Rogers.

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.  This year we received over 2,600 poems from 48 states, the District of Columbia, and six foreign countries.

The Winning Poem

Not far from the source
Howard W. Robertson

Shadows sweep past imprecisely as in

dreams of being underwater but able to

breathe down there like the trout that are

hunting the caddis flies fidgeting now on

the sunlit surface of White Salmon River

where it quietly glides under this sturdy

little bridge on which my beauteous wife,

my beastly dog, and I are standing on this

summer morn, Hope and I regarding these

pristine waters only two miles downstream

from their purified source where it surges

at fifty thousand gallons per minute from

far underground out of the porous volcanic

rock, a virgin spring not unlike the one in

which fair Diana bathed when Actaeon the

hunter surprised her from the shadows so

that the goddess transformed the mortal

man into a stag to be brought down and

slaughtered by his own dogs or actually

more like the chaste clarity here in which

dark Dhyana now charms bright Action

and metamorphoses him thereby into me

whom my long-tongued guard-dog Boris

tenderly loves; the undulant shadows just

barely gurgle along the glassy margins of

the gradual current down here where the

stream has flattened out onto its marshy

edges aesthetically in the sunshine while

my wife and I stand light-footed now and

hand-in-hand on this span of witnessing

and observe the motion of morning in

these mountains just a little bit north of

Wovoka Butte in between Mt. Whitman

and Mt. Jefferson with the moonbeams

passing back and forth between us and

within through our clasped palms so that

we converse silently with locutions of

starlight in the vibrant inner darkness, to

wit my own cryptic:  “The brutal angels of

eternity,” then her worshipful:  “The holy

voice serenely singing,” followed by my

mournful:  “An anti-intellectual randori of

sorts,” met by her hopeful:  “The divine as

expressed through these individualities,”

and so on, directing our remarks inaudibly

upstream together toward the source in a

lyrically spiritual syntax that one cannot

translate very well into our pragmatically

articulated language, reverently toward the

sacred void together that is the urge of the

cosmos and the origin of all creation, until

our Rottweiler telepathically reminds us:

“Do not forget the dog,” which is always

sound advice and in this case leads us like

Zhuangzi's sage to lean at our ease on the

sun and moon and stars, to tuck the entire

universe under an arm, to merge ourselves

with the myriad separate things and the

fecund emptiness containing them, and to

accept the world's muddle just as it is.


Howard W. Robertson is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon.  His poems have been published most recently in Hipfish, Nest, Literal Latté, Nimrod, Fireweed and Ergo.  A chapbook of his poems, to the fierce guard in the Assyrian Saloon, is available from Ahsahta Press, and his poetry is included in The Ahsahta Anthology: Poetry of the American West as well as in The Clear Cut Future, an upcoming anthology by Clear Cut Press.  A book-length collection of his poems entitled Ode to Certain Interstates and Other Poems will be published by Clear Cut Press in summer, 2003.  He has been among the winners of various poetry awards, including the Bumbershoot Award, the Intown Award, the Pacifica Award, the Pablo Neruda Award and the Literal Latté Award.

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Honorable Mentions

Robert Carter

I was cutting fence posts when it first struck,
cracking the bark from each log by whacking
with the back of the axe until a surrendered seam
opened up and bled a sticky sap that clung
to what it could before drying.

I remember the sun so heated my cotton shirt
that each time I leaned forward to strike, it patted
my back with a hot encouragement to stomp
and shudder the heel of my boot into the broken
bark, peeling it away like green banana skin.

There was no wind that day and I was proud
to lift the post-to-be towards its final hole. At first
I thought it was the luscious hunger that only the stretch
and strain of body can create, as it rose from belly
to chest as I wavered with the weight.

In the small paddock, through the salt blur of sweat,
I could see a week-old goat who, without any awareness
of his magic, had scrambled and scaled to the top of a pile
of old posts, to poise impossibly on a teetering plank,
testing the world for balance.

Each time the timber scale steadied to still, something
stirred the kid to tempt the world to tilt again –
to bring back another kind of parity. Was it the list
or the balance he loved? He'd found a kind of rhythm
that was neither rest nor fall, but grace itself.

In that moment, teetering with a log too heavy, a hundred
parts of my life came into balance - the life of thoughts in which
I mostly lived, the sensual strain of ligaments, wild words
I stalked, the sexual smell of earth, the love with others,
alive, being alive – such an impossible thing.

For fifty heartbeats I felt the ease of some perfect balance -
a bliss that I knew would too soon tilt.

A full-time writer since 1986 when his first novel, The Sugar Factory won the Angus & Robertson Fellowship, Robert Carter has published two other novels, Prints in the Valley and The Collectors, as well as a collection of short stories, The Pleasure Within.  He has published poetry in various literary journals and wrote and directed a feature film adapted from The Sugar Factory.  His work has been translated into several languages and won a number of awards around the world.  With special affection for the U.S., Carter was a recipient of a Yaddo Fellowship (NY) in 1988 and his feature film won the Best Film award at the Hollywood Film Festival in 1998.

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Two Crows
Rhina P. Espaillat

Two crows are pecking at the ice above
the skylight, with such loud, percussive speed
they've startled me from sleep. Each is a hand
wearing authority's black leather glove;
they knock in counterpoint. What do they need?
Water, attention? Is this threat, command
or inquiry? Or have these sentries scanned
the dawn horizon looking, not to feed,
but with a guardian's eye? One flies away;
the other pins me with one onyx bead
whose bailiff's glance says anything but love.
Well, sleep is over: he has brought the day.
And the day's thought: what is it he would say
that his companion failed to warn me of.

Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic, has lived in the U. S. since the age of 7 and taught high school English in NYC for several years.  She writes poetry and prose both in English and in her native Spanish.  Her work has appeared in numerous magazines as well as in some two dozen anthologies.  Winner of the 1998 Howard Nemerov Award, the "Sparrow" Sonnet Prize for 1997, three yearly prizes from the Poetry Society of America, the 2001 Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize, the 2002 Barbara Bradley Award from the New England Poetry Club and, most recently, the 2003 "Oberon" Prize, Espaillat has five poetry collections in print.  These include: Where Horizons Go (Truman State University Press, 1998), which won the 1998 T. S. Eliot Prize; Rehearsing Absence (University of Evansville Press), which won the 2001 Richard Wilbur Award; and Mundo y Palabra/The World and the Word (Oyster River Press), a bilingual chapbook that is part of a series titled Walking to Windward: 21 New England Poets.  Her sixth manuscript has won the 2003 National Poetry Book Award sponsored by Salmon Run Press, and a seventh has won the 2003 Stanzas Prize offered by David Robert Books.  Those books, titled respectively Playing at Stillness and The Shadow I Dress In, are scheduled for publication by spring 2004. 

(Photo courtesy of Gaston W. Dubois)

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In the Long-Cold Forges of the Earth
Douglas Nicholas

They say down on the street
there's poison in the holy water,
they say all the hospital locks are burst up on the violent ward,
they say you can lean in at the squad car window
to buy your drugs, they say that Vinnie died
just from breathing the air

Heart like a mirror, heart like a desert,
tell me the way the world will take
here on the forked and shadowed road,
heart like a thorn hedge,
heart like a well

I was just dreaming that the wings of charity
beat in a shimmering rush in among the circling flocks of pigeons
all along the avenue, I was just dreaming
that golden justice was seeping like groundwater
into the courthouse basements, I was just dreaming
that good and ill were thrashing in contention
deep in the pit of the human heart
and that slowly the red dragon began
to tread down the white worm of evil

On the street they say the high sheriff
pimps for his two small sons, they say
the cyanide in the baby's food
was put there on orders from the factory foreman,
they say the Chaplain General
runs a school for torturers, they say
that from the cargo doors of government planes
bitter powders are leaking
to be whirled away in the Santa Ana

Heart like a spyglass, heart like a jailhouse,
tell me the way the world will take
here on the twisting rain-slick highway,
heart like a padlock,
heart like a sail

I was just dreaming that I heard the shiver of the thundering subway
moaning in the bones of my building,
and this is what it said:
The anvil of virtue is uncovered, love begins to smolder
in the long-cold forges of the earth

I was just dreaming that I heard
Arthur sit up on the rough-hewn couch of stone
amid the startled chittering of the bats,
staring at the blue slate walls,
working the stiffness from his strong right hand

Douglas Nicholas is an award‑winning poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications, among them Atlanta Review, Southern Poetry Review, Sonora Review, Circumference, A Different Drummer and Cumberland Review, as well as the South Coast Poetry Journal, where he won a prize in that publication's Fifth Annual Poetry Contest.  His other awards include second place in the 2002 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards from PCCC, International Merit Award in Atlanta Review's Poetry 2002 competition, finalist in the 1996 Emily Dickinson Award in Poetry competition, honorable mention in the 1992 Scottish International Open Poetry Competition, first prize in the journal Lake Effect's Sixth Annual Poetry Contest, first prize in poetry in the 1990 Roberts Writing Awards and finalist in the Roberts short fiction division.  He was also recipient of an award in the 1990 International Poetry Contest sponsored by the Arvon Foundation in Lancashire, England, and a Cecil B. Hackney Literary Award for poetry from Birmingham‑Southern College in 1989.  A native of New York City, he lives in Greenwich Village with his wife Theresa, an artist.

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George V. Tucker

When I was nine Grandpa chased
splinters in my finger with a steel needle.
I didn't understand the second invasion of my skin—
probing after something sharp with something
sharper. He held my wrist
fast as a vise. I bit my lip.

Walking on the riverbank, I stepped
on a rusty fishhook—a welder's
arc pressed to my heel. I soaked my foot
in river water until I could walk home.
A week later, he locked my ankle between his iron knees.
I flopped like a trout while Grandpa cut
into my flesh with a Gillette Blueblade,
flayed and washed away black blood with
blue-fire alcohol. I screamed. Oh, hush, he grunted.
Told me in two days I'd have my foot off if
I didn't sit still.
I tried, but his carpenter's fingers, used to nails
and creosote, felt like dull knife blades.
When he finally showed me the source of the problem,
a ¼” piece of rusted steel, I didn't believe him.
You're still alive, he said. The red streaks faded.

Grandpa put down his own dogs when they got the mange—
a .22 bullet and a shovel. His cheeks were dry.

The day Grandma died, we sat in the yard, our
cups of coffee set on the stump of a 40-year-old
mimosa he'd cut down three weeks before, a tree
Grandma had planted on their 4th anniversary.
It was rotten, he told me. His lips were loose
as rubber when he blew on his coffee.
Kiln-dried persimmon's the hardest
wood there is. You can wear out drill bits on it
, his
eyes blood-webbed. I reminded him how
Grandma carried me out here
summers, spread a quilt in the mimosa's
shade. You called the humminbirds ‘flowers,'
and once a bee stung you.
Must've crawled up your diapers.

“I'll miss her,” I said.
                                  We can plant more trees
, he said.
“I don't want any more trees.”
                                                 You will, son.
While I drank coffee he told me he could
identify any kind of wood. He'd never been stumped.
Not once. I laughed.
I didn't ask the question in my mind.
He wasn't like me, no, not at all.
One time, these old boys tricked me.
Brought me the heart of a basswood tree.
“What'd you think it was?”
                                          The heart
of a basswood tree. But I wasn't sure.

I thought, Grandpa has the heart of a basswood tree,
hard-handed man, tough enough to turn nails.
He pointed over my shoulder, and I looked up
at a ruby-throated hummingbird, hanging in
the air as if it'd been nailed there.
The books say they don't make any noise,
but they do
, he said.
The bird's heart beat more times in that moment
than mine would that day.
It stared at me, then slid away through the thick air.
Grandpa wiped his cheek with the back of his hand
with a sound like sandpaper.
I loved your grandma more than you can imagine.
He threw an arc of coffee, muddy
rainbow, to the dead grass, and went to his workshed.
He returned with a rusty 2-man saw
and we cut the stump down to the ground.
By the time we finished I couldn't tell
the taste of sweat from tears.

George V. Tucker grew up in the Ozarks of Arkansas, where he learned how to dowse for water and the right way to kill a chicken.  He is currently working on his Master's thesis at Florida International University.  The poem "Humminbirds" is dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, Ralph Willard Reeves, who never tasted a mango.

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Pattiann Rogers, final judge for this year, has published ten books of poetry, the most recent being Song of the World Becoming, New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001 (Milkweed Editions: 2001), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and an Editor's Choice, Top of the List, by Booklist.  Her sixth book, Firekeeper, New & Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions, 1994), was one of five finalists for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize awarded by the American Academy of Poets and was one of Publisher's Weekly's best books of the year.

Her poetry has received the Hokin Prize, the Tietjens Prize, and the Bock Prize from Poetry, three awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, two Strousse Awards from Prairie Schooner, the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and five Pushcart Prizes.  Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry of 1996 (edited by Adrienne Rich), in Best Spiritual Writing (1999, 2000 and 2001) and in many anthologies and textbooks.

Ms. Rogers has been the recipient of two NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship.  In May 2000, she was a resident at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy.

She has taught at the University of Texas, the University of Montana, Washington University of St. Louis, Mercer University (as the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer-in-Residence), the University of Arkansas (as associate professor from 1993-1997) and Vermont College.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Ms. Rogers graduated Phi Betta Kappa from the University of Missouri in 1961.  She received her M.A. from the University of Houston in 1981.  She is the mother of two sons and a daughter-in-law, and lives with her husband, a retired geophysicist, in Colorado.

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