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2006 Prize For Poetry Awards

We are pleased to announce that the 2006 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry,  an honorarium of $1,000, is awarded to:

Eric Leigh
San Francisco, California
for his poem
"Last of the Midnight Lullabies”

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

Karen Carissimo
San Francisco, California
for her poem
 "Anatomy of a Passing”

Jude Nutter
Twin Cities area, Minnesota
for her poem
 "Four Girls”

Melissa Stein
San Francisco, California
for her poem

Alison Townsend
Madison, Wisconsin
for her poem

The final judge for the 2006 competition was Dorianne Laux.

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 and supported by Honorary Board member Allen K. Mears. 

The 2006 Prize Winning Poem

Last of the Midnight Lullabies
Eric Leigh

Middle of the night, my grandfather calls
stuck again in that foxhole,
his buddy's head shot straight off.

Or he thinks he's still in the asylum
where the only sounds he heard were those
from the past—stray bullets, his own sobs.

Now, when he cries my mother's name,
he does so as if she was a child in danger
and he—the father he never was.

In five minutes, we're on our way
down the same back roads we drove years before,
taking my dad to his second-shift,

those graveyard hours I sat in the back,
my mother telling me to sleep. But there is no
going back to the peace of what was.

When we arrive, my mother kills the headlights
and begins doing what she does best.

There's no wrinkled sheet her hands can't smooth,

no ruined blouse or man she can't rescue
with club soda or her touch.
The truth lives just beneath her perfume:

hold a man long enough and eventually he'll cry,
hold him longer and he'll stop. We find him
on the couch in his tattered robe

and old man slippers, empty bottle at his side.
"Warm him some milk,” my mother says,
and I do what I'm told as she goes to him

and strokes his head, hums him that lullaby,
the one she made up out of his absence
and the nights her mother pulled a double,

out of a need to calm herself and a farmhouse
full of children. Some part of her is still that girl
in worn-through shoes, wandering

from room to room, checking the eyes
of every child to make sure that they're sleeping.
Memory lane is a minefield of twice-learned lessons.

Consider this: it was an early frost just like this one
when he plucked a bees' nest from the ground
to help me kill my fear.

How he peeled back the paper of a cell
and coaxed a worker from its bed.
Impossible still—the way the drone crawled

up his thumb and threw itself to the wind,
how those moments we're woken from
stay with us and stay true.

When he's still, we cover him with blanket.
Maybe now he'll forget enough to fall asleep,
as we stand at the kitchen sink, mining the space

between night and day, ritual and work.
I wash. She dries. We both look straight ahead,
cleaning up another mess, and staring down the dawn.


Eric Leigh received his MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan where he was honored with several Hopwood Awards as well as Cowden Fellowship.  His recent honors include a "Discovery”/The Nation Poetry Prize co-sponsored by the 92nd Street Y and The Nation magazine, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a Rainmaker Award from the journal Zone 3.  His work is forthcoming or has appeared in pages of The Nation, Cimarron Review, Passages North, Salt Hill, and West Branch among other venues.  He currently resides in San Francisco. 

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Honorable Mentions

Anatomy of a Passing
Karen Carissimo

In the aura of fever around your bed,
our talk for a time was airy and easy
in the discourse of the living. Even then
I could see all your lovers rising from each

layer of sensate flesh, ghosts taken by
the virus as it sculpted an armature of a man
fighting his decline, sipping water, lying
prostrate, shrunk to a cusp of pelvic bone, a wan

expanse of skin, sharp dips into the hollows
of groin, cheek, buttock. Your shorn head
rested as you parsed words, your breath shallow
as you recited aloud from the holy book you read

while I continued my ministrations for the sad
mercy of your surrender. We touched hands
and lips, quiet in the knowledge we had
loved fully in the present, yet for you, a grand

afterlife existed, a searing light beyond this room,
and as the voices of men summoned you there,
you let me see your departure, a flight too soon
for my liking. You smiled, almost, for you were

no longer sick, your dark eyes in candlelight
emptied of ego, sunk into an abyss, your soul
a weight I failed to memorialize with my slight
faith. You knew I could no longer hold

the frail reeds of your arms paralyzed by pain,
so forgive me, dear one, that I felt near relief
as I covered your body latticed with veins
and did not cry out, practiced as I am in grief.

Karen Carissimo has poems forthcoming in North American Review, Atlanta Review, and Puerto del Sol. Her poetry has appeared in Cimarron Review, Nimrod International Journal, The Southern California Anthology, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She has published fiction in Green Mountains Review, and nonfiction in The San Francisco Chronicle. She is a recent graduate of the Masters of Professional Writing program at University of Southern California. She lives in San Francisco, California.

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Four Girls
Jude Nutter

on the overpass in bikinis, caught
behind the net of the chain-link fence, and I'm
wondering whose idea it really was
to stand there virtually naked and wave
at and catch the traffic coming both ways.
I doubt they are even aware of the bikini's
tragic history—how Reard insisted
he'd named it for the island, not the bomb
blast, but then admitted he was cashing
in on a hot topic, even so.
But this is history and it's not fashionable,
especially when you're young
and virtually naked with so many men
moving beneath you. These are girls
who have recently discovered
that the bodies they have are the bodies
men want more than they
themselves do. And such beauty in itself
is not dangerous but it puts them at risk
as they flirt and turn like the spinners
and spoons my father taught me to use
to lure the perch and the pike up
into air and daylight. That's what I was
as a girl—a quiet magician, casting beguilement
and false promise over the water. And the one
lure believed by many to be
the most devastating was my favourite—
the Syclops with its life-like, side-to-side waggle,
multi- flash and vibration, with its wire
strand soft as boot lace—springy, with no memory.
And who could fail to love the head of a fish
ripping like a polished axe head through the skin
of the water. And all these men moving
under them in sports cars and hatchbacks and suburban
utility vehicles are wearing even
the promise of their large hands like expensive
accessories. This is what they imagine,
these girls: hands that will reel them in,
unfasten them and have them raking for air. And then
spill them back into the wet
coffin of their lives. They will learn to confuse
sex with salvation. I've done it, too. All my life.
And it's made me lonely. It's history and it's
not fashionable, but before they were born
Bikini Atoll was removed forever, vaporized
by Bravo in fifty-four. And while the islanders
of the atoll still remain homeless, marooned
on a distant island with no reef
and no lagoon when in the past they'd sailed
their canoes as far as the eye could see,
these four girls in scraps of fabric named
after a literal hot topic are spinning slowly
above a slick, wide spine of traffic. Looked at.
Desired. Forgotten. And I'm pressing on
in second, sliding through the belt of shadow
under the overpass. Remember, a lure
is crafted to respond to every
eddy and swirl in a current. In my mirror the girls
are slim silhouettes. And how small they become.
How precious and precise. Out of their depth.

Jude Nutter is from North Yorkshire, England.  She moved to the United States in the late 1980's and spent 10 years homesteading on Wrangell Island in Alaska.  Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three years in a row and received several national and international awards, including the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry.  Her first full-length-collection, Pictures of the Afterlife, was published by Salmon Poetry, Ireland, in 2002; a second collection, The Curator of Silence, is forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press.  In November/December of 2004 she spent eight weeks at Palmer Station in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation's Artists and Writers Program.  She currently lives and works in the Twin Cities area, Minnesota.

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Melissa Stein

kayak flipped us and the current
dragged us through its rocks, arms sealed
at our sides, it was a blast, meeting it all cranium-first,
like academics, frothfoamgrit and the taste,
what was it, asphyxiation, psychedelic Escher
in blackwhite cubes, tableau enormous, picnic
tablecloth but undulating, spiked into color—crimson, canary—
until that last blow, ledge flat against
my mouth-hole, my whole body
condensed to one blinding exclamation point,
white protrusion of bone— white petals and light,
pearl-solid, luminous, all fourth-of-July and scattered,
pipe bombs bottle rockets Christmas crackers, oh,
what a party, annihilation, till the blue blue blue
palm sweeping my forehead, the hair from my forehead
and the ache of return, to the tenderness
of paint sable-brushed against silk, powdered
throat of the foxglove, flushed curve spiraling
into a conch, velvet crowning the doe's nose,
arms embracing the cello's hips, shoulders,
and what shudders from them, coaxed
or forced, distracted out of, with that bloodwhite flap
blinking at me from your cheek
and something in the eyes, maybe trout or bass or salmon
thrashing upstream, yellowglimmer and sickened,
we're not going to make it, we'll make it, we're stranded,
washed up on this hurricane shore, held together
by blood sticks and mud, oh paper, oh desks, oh treatises,
we weren't immune, on those banks, sky flat as anything,
a willowlike spider tree bending over us,
I focused on its branches, on the branches
of the branches, how comical that word twig,
surrounded by thousands of jokes as blood darkened
the silt like a cave painting

Melissa Stein's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, North American Review, American Poetry Review, Many Mountains Moving, Seneca Review, Northwest Review, and many other journals, and have been included in several anthologies. Awards include the Spoon River Poetry Review Editor's Prize, Robert Penn Warren Award, and Literal Latté Poetry Award, as well as residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Djerassi, Ragdale Foundation, VCCA, and Montalvo. She is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco.

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Alison Townsend

Not down. Not underground. And not abducted, exactly,
since he calls her up and asks if she wants to come along.
A rainy November afternoon, guys playing games of one-on-one
in a neighbor's barn after school, safety in numbers, her best
girlfriend along, though the friend will abandon her later.
Not down. And not through darkness into some underworld
of the body. But up, the ladder to the hayloft creaking
beneath their weight, the hay itself glowing, as sun breaks
through one dusty window, the dribble-dribble, thunk-thunk
of the ball and the other boys' voices receding below. Up and up
they climb toward the soft gold that smells like last summer's fields,
green she whirled through in another life, playing Kick-the-Can
or Statues with her sister and brothers. Up and up, her skin
a drum her blood thrums, each cell taut, her hand stretched
toward the boy (he is only a boy) who climbs, backlit before her,
so intent she hardly feels the needle of wood pierce her palm --
pay attention, pay attention -- while she pushes down any
misgivings -- the joking boys, some kind of cards
with pictures they passed back and forth but wouldn't
let her see. Pay attention, pay attention. And still
they climb. Until they are at the top and he hoists
her up into what she wishes would stay their own
fragrant realm forever. Not these dry kisses, this
hurried push and grab, her underpants tearing,
something like a stick inside her, the smallest
happiness fading. Though she is happy to be with him
isn't she? Happy this popular boy with the loud
voice and skinny pony-tail has chosen her. Happy
to walk home alone with him afterwards in the rain,
his arm over her shoulder, his black London Fog draped
around her, cloth that blots out the light of the world.
And the rain. So good on their hot skin. Washing her and
washing her the way she will later stand in the shower an hour,
sluicing the scent of him off her until the water runs cold.
Until she is something like herself again, curled in the narrow
bed of her body, legs pulled up inside her nightgown for warmth,
a pulse of pain throbbing in her palm, sliver
of wood she shuts her fingers over, makes a fist around.

Alison Townsend is the author of two poetry collections, The Blue Dress and What the Body Knows. Her poetry and creative nonfiction appear widely, in magazines such as Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Margie, Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Southern Review and Water-Stone.  Work recently out or forthcoming in anthologies includes Best American Poetry 2006, Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework, Kiss Me Goodnight: Poems and Stories by Women Who Were Girls When Their Mothers Died and PP/FF, a collection of prose poems and flash fiction.  She has won many awards, most recently a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Lorine Niedecker Award from the Council of Wisconsin Writers.  She teaches English, Creative Writing and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and lives with her husband on four acres of oak and prairie savanna in the farm country outside Madison.

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