With great sadness and a heavy heart, we say goodbye to Victor Howes. Victor passed away on January 1, 2018, at the age of 94. All who knew Victor remember his kindness and generosity, his good humor and his erudition. He served many years on the Board of the New England Poetry Club welcoming new members and facilitating writing workshops. He regaled us with stories about the Club’s founders, Robert Frost and Amy Lowell, and members Ann Sexton and Robert Lowell, among others—he was the dear memory keeper for Club. Victor will be sorely missed.
by Victor Howes, from Thoughts after Spenser: Collected Light Verse, 2017
I found a faded King, a King of Hearts,
Between the pages of a borrowed book,
A frayed, worn King, a played-out playing card,
Lost in the shuffle, hardly worth a look.
And with a flip, I flipped him on the face,
This player King, who by convention took
A player Queen, but fell to player Ace.
What glory now, without the servile pack,
The Jacks who followed suit, the cardboard crew
Who honored him? What hand had he been dealt
to live, outlive those other kings who knew
His rank, however keenly they had felt
His rivalry? They left before he came
To this sad pass. They knew it was a game.
Please come join us on Friday, February 2nd for Poetry in the Parlor at The Old Manse in Concord, MA! NEPC’s Jennifer Markell, Ralph Pennel, and Marjorie Thomsen will be reading!
Wendy Drexler will be reading with Susan Edwards Richmond at the Concord Free Public Library on Sunday, December 17th from 3:00-4:45 p.m. as part of the Thoreau Bicentennial. Please join us for “The Tonic of Wildness!”
Please join us for our upcoming reading and open mic on Tuesday, December 5th from 7:00-9:30 pm at Harvard’s Yenching Library! The NEPC First Tuesday reading series, Members with New Books, continues this first week of December with readings by Francis Blessington, Wendy Drexler, Elizabeth Hodges, Mark Pawlak.
Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award, selected by Jennifer Militello
Honorable mention: Lynn Pedersen, The Nomenclature of Small Things
The Birth of Superstition
It’s not hard to imagine: my ancestor—a dry season,
dust like chalk on her tongue—mixes
spit with clay,
traces a river on rock. Next day: rain.
Why shouldn’t she believe
in the power of rock and her own hand?
I carry this need for pattern and rule, to see connections
where there aren’t necessarily any.
After my first miscarriage,
I cut out soda, cold cuts.
After the second, vacuuming and air travel.
After the third—it’s chalk and spit again. I circle rocks,
swim the icy river.
And when my son is born, he balances
the chemical equation that is this world.
Logic is my son’s kite, good so long as you have
something heavier than hope
to tether you.
How to Speak Nineteenth Century
Forget about the nomenclature
of the moon: lunar impact craters, rilles; your voice
translated into fiber optics or beamed pinpoint to pinpoint
on the planet. Here, all words are spoken to someone’s face.
Earth. Seeds. Thresher. Plow. Timber’d.
So unnerving, you say,
having to look someone that long in the eye, just speaking
your mind. Or too involved, in the first place,
the five-mile walk to your friend’s house,
your skirt catching on the field grass.
You need to know not hydrogen, oxygen, H2O, but
water: where to find it, how to dig
for it, how to keep a well from running dry.
Not chlorophyll and photosynthesis,
the word is harvest—the hard “t”
uncompromising as hunger—
sunup and sundown, light.
Forget meteorology, you need to know
bird migration, insect hatches, animal hibernation—
what the falling leaves tell you.
When the blossoms of the apple tree fall, plant corn. In short,
the world is still whole to you.
Each molecule. Each syllable. Each grain.
Pattern or absence of pattern, the way a jet flies
yet leaves a clear trail, I expect time
to reveal an underdrawing,
hatching of shadows, some rough plan
visible through another spectrum of light.
Once, at an ophthalmologist’s office,
through an accident of mirrors, I saw the interior
of my own eye, the retina’s
veins like roots or a web, and then again
ten years later, this time in an astronomy
book—galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters
of galaxies strung out
strands of a cosmic web, the redness
of that image, the light extending like roots
13 billion years in every direction.
Michelangelo could see a figure
in a block of stone, waiting to be freed.
I want his vision when I look in a mirror,
his mathematical principles for depicting space,
his ability to translate three dimensions into stone.
First I’m in two dimensions, a photograph
glued to the glass; then three—I’m somewhere between
the glass and the background. All my houses, friends
come and gone. How would he sculpt me? How far out
of the stone have I come?
Lynn Pedersen is the author of The Nomenclature of Small Things (Carnegie Mellon) and the chapbooks Theories of Rain and Tiktaalik, Adieu. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Ecotone, Southern Poetry Review, Slipstream and Nimrod. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives in Atlanta.
Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award, selected by Jennifer Militello
Honorable mention: Jenny Molberg, Marvels of the Invisible
Marvels of the Invisible
With your new Microset Model I, you will discover marvels of the invisible.
—Instruction manual, 1950s
The night I find my father’s toy microscope
in the hospital-cold of the empty house,
I dream of him, a boy in 1964. He crosses the yard,
kneels beneath the sprawling live oak,
and fills his specimen jar with fire ants.
His father, in the garage, sings softly in German,
mounting the head of a deer shot
that winter; its antlers blossom like capillaries.
My father is six years old. The light
spills in as he bends over the microscope
and folds a single ant onto a plastic slide. The body,
almost sickening in its translucence,
curls into itself; the bright red thorax, close up,
is butterscotch. Pressed beneath the plastic,
the antennae shiver and are still.
Half a century later, my mother’s breasts
are removed. In the waiting room, my father
takes a pen from his white coat pocket,
and clicks open, and clicks closed.
When someone in the family asks
a question, he takes a walk. I go with him,
and we wind through orange-tiled hallways.
He shows me the room full of microscopes.
I imagine his eye, how it descends
like a dark blue planet,
and his breath as it clouds the lens.
He shows me the refrigerator
where they keep the malignant tissue.
He shows me the microtomes,
the biopsy needles, the organ baths.
In the recovery room, we listen
as my mother’s new systems of blood vessels
shush through a speaker in the room.
My father comes in quietly,
places a white orchid beside her bed.
The large white blossoms are hands
cupping the empty air. Suspended there
is everything that came before this:
the day my parents met,
the wedding, each of the three children
so different from the last. His hands,
that know, like breathing, every inch of her.
He matches his breath with hers,
as they do each night
in the slow river of a breathing house,
and beneath her skin, her blood blossoms.
I want to see, somewhere,
the hot, cocooned unfolding
of metamorphosis. The caterpillars
are flown in from El Salvador,
or New Guinea, and inside
the dewed glass, shadows
of men in white coats cloak
the tic of emergent wings—
What of the future do you hold
inside yourself? See: if you take a scalpel
and puncture the chrysalis,
it will explode—yellow goo
of cells, burst cells, amino acids,
proteins, here a bit of gut,
here a bit of brain.
A thing builds a shell around itself,
dissolves, becomes another thing.
The way, when you are wrecked
with love, you take only what you need,
you, liquid version of yourself,
all heart cells and skin cells—
here a trough of heart,
here, gutter of liver, channel
of hearing or touch. What remains,
as with the caterpillar, is memory.
See, we melt entirely.
I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
The oldest scientist asks, If we are all
creatures of transformation,
if we are never quite the same,
what are we
when we arrive at the moment of death?
It is easier to think in death
that I am me, but dying. See: 1668.
The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam
dissects a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici.
And though we now think
turns to soup, to river, to ash
and what’s passed is past, he unfolds
the white sides of the insect and reveals
two wing-buds, tucked
tight inside the skin.
Now, as I watch the knife
pierce the chrysalis,
a river of cells swelling through
and out, I remember
what my father once said,
that what you see is only a fraction
of what you can believe,
and against the edge of the chrysalis,
embryonic half-wings twitch
without a body, waiting
for their slow decay, and then
for the next body
that opens itself
to the risk of flight.
When you take away the children
the mother is empty. Her round head
shrouded in red, her lips thick
and pursed, her cheeks rouged
with big circles of flush. And her eyes—
she is keeping her inside secret.
The matryoshka’s arms, creased
with plump, hug
a glossed rose. Sprigs
of cornflower and baby’s breath.
If you look closer, a thin line
cuts the rose. This is where
the mother is broken.
I have discovered the mother
inside the mother. Her eyes
are dark like mine. She doesn’t want
what is inside her. Her arms:
thin. Her collar: drab.
Her lashes: straight.
Her flower is not a rose. This mother
fits better in my hand. When I pull
her open, she creaks.
The last mother has no arms,
no dress, no collar.
But she is smiling.
She breaks willingly.
I twist her open
and find myself. Each mother
becomes my daughter and I become
each mother. I hold myself
in my hand. This is my secret—
I have seen how small
I can be. I will put
the wooden child back inside me.
And the woman inside me. And the woman
inside me. And the woman inside me.
Jenny Molberg’s debut collection of poetry, Marvels of the Invisible, won the 2014 Berkshire Prize (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Poetry International, Best New Poets, and other publications. She teaches at the University of Central Missouri and co-edits Pleiades.
Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award, selected by Jennifer Militello
Winning Poet: Anna Rabinowitz, Words on the Street
THE TIME WAS THE TIME
Torn by worn-thin profits stitched to
the excess access of the brilliantly clothed
was our national pass-time
Of Purchase, Plenty fashioned The Holy Scripture
a clutch of lust bespoke Currency
trapuntoed with gold,
stockpiles of Excel sheets dense with deceit
Unbridled riches galloped the streets
Rabid appetites hungered ceaselessly
We were helpless
We wrung our liquid hands
This Time was the Time the Future
Our leaders declared
: THE END OF PENDING
Infants hugged their afterbirths
Children, like troublesome details, were marooned
within gaps of being with nowhere to turn
Adults counted their leg-lifts, folded up
and plunged to the sea
Ever on its way, language dispatched well-worn
slogans to refresh the old finery
The official Wampum, streaming falsehoods and cant
Scavenged for needles, thread, insider seams, scraps to patch
frayed cloaks unraveled by Crave
Our bodies once gravid with Eros and Be
now Bodies Prosthetic, bewitched by Procure and Amass
out out rage
day and night
we had ignored the barbarian
gross, groping, gaudy, green-eyed Greed
day and night fair game
we played the game
too late Rage too late
Plenty neither satisfied
nor derailed the Great Reckon
Time out it’s time this time
EPISTLE TO THE OMNIVORES
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
…O belly, O stinking bag filed with dung and corruption.
At either end of thee, foul is the sound…
Spawner of Sin
Gula, voluminous voluptuary, never gets her fill
Too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily,
Spawner of Pride
Haggler, tippler, intriguer of feast
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
Be not among winebibbers: among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.
Spawner of Sloth
Gula,* worn by hungers
Fullness of bread
Food and drink, with thee she schemes to live
Crapulous and unfulfilled
Discharge, phlegm, mucus running from the nose, hiccups, vomiting and violent belching…The increase in luxury is nothing but the increase in excrement.
Spawner of Greed
And like a Crane his necke was long and fine,
With which he swallowed up excessive feast.
Spawner of Lust
Flesh made safe
Death tied to the stake
Gula plays hostess at tables laden to groan
SO, WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
GREETINGS! WELCOME! TAKE A SEAT!
THIS LETTER TO YOU!
Break bread with malignant maggots
gnats and flies
Beef gleams in the feast’s corpulent dusk
trout bathe in béchamel
succulent hens bask in béarnaise
pots de crème triple crème crème Anglaise
legs of lamb adorned with mint rosettes
pork roasts recline on polenta cakes
crustaceans wade in bouillabaisse
stuffed tongues boned hams breasts of veal
tureens of consommé bordeaux and beaujolais
sausage ropes coiled like salacious snakes
THIS FEAST IS YOURS
Father, is it because there was nothing
to combat your desire to lie down
because we couldn’t render you
less spent by the relentless
drone of duplicate days,
because only an infrequent
visitor or a brief interlude
at the radio for the latest news
could distract you from submission
as you mounted the soft mound
of your bed and sank into sleep
Is that why
remember not at all
the anniversary of the day
you curdled in the dry silt
archived forever in the want,
the lascivious, lustful
want, the insatiable succubus
that had pursued and
finally seduced you
What was it — that lovemaking,
that invincible consumption
a search for a splendor nowhere to be found
a pose repeated and renewed
in the ineffable
posture of diurnal sleep
a rehearsal for death
a ploy to gain entry
sooner than assigned
to the wickless night
How could we, —
at five, at eight, at thirteen, —
invade the ur-nuptial bed
how make our presence felt
our need known
This morning when the grackles arrived
I lit the Yahrzeit candle, a week late this time
and as it puddled in the glass
observed the raucous, chattering birds
Father, they apprentice themselves to survival
clutch their perches, contort
their heads into impossible arcs
to snatch seeds from the feeder
incessantly peck and explore the garden
From a distance they appear jet black
But if you take a closer look
They glitter in navigable light—
blue to purple, green to bronze,
a blaze of golden eyes.
Anna Rabinowitz is an NEA poetry fellow and librettist. Her fifth volume of poetry is Words On the Street. Two previous volumes, Darkling and The Wanton Sublime were re-visioned as a chamber opera and an operatic monodrama, respectively. Darkling has been translated and published in German. Anna is now creating a theater piece based on Words on the Street.
Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize, selected by Sara Backer
Winning Poet: Krysten Hill, How Her Spirit Got Out
Never your bird, never finch,
never graceful feathered thing.
Maybe litany molting
what it can’t heal. Maybe pinwheel
started with breath, whispering
I love you or today, I will try. Maybe knife
to core the apple of my eye, a blade that wants you
blind. Maybe red kitchen where the kettle is hoarse
from heat underneath, where I boil my tongue
to be rid of its stutter, maybe humming
while it sweeps the bodies of dead
wasps from its windowsill, but never your bird
sitting pretty and ornamental.
Maybe a well-lit room that hurts your eyes
before it swallows you, or an opening
of skirt holding onto the hips of a woman
that wears it well, or a cavity
in the yard where I want to lay
the language of better love, but never
your canary, parakeet, sweet
feathered thing that lives
just to sing for you.
Acknowledgement: “This Mouth” originally appeared in Word Riot.
Women Who Go Missing
I’ve watched women leave with nothing
but love in their full-roomed eyes.
Walk right off their porches
dragging their nightdresses into a night
that knew how to mimic the dead
they loved more than themselves.
I’ve seen them abandon their gardens
not because they failed
to coax the hearts of plants
from the ground like magic, or because
they didn’t know what they neglected
would overgrow and strangle, but because
they knew if they didn’t leave, they’d kill
what they couldn’t afford to nurture.
Nothing plants you deep enough.
The soil you’ve grown in is too much
Mama’s smothering face. You gasp
in the mulch of her strewn guts.
Some days it’s easier to stare into the violent
swinging dark and take it.
You want to stop writing to what disappears,
open windows that look like the outlines
of black women who go missing. You understand
Hurston’s shaky shelf of fragile things,
and also what falls from it. You wish
for Lorde’s throwing knife
to hide in your hair. This world is full
of weapons. It’s hard to take care of
what comes to flower, scatters
after a mad wind. Even your mean
great grandmother who lived to be difficult
never knew the trees she made
from the seeds of her body were better
than any strangled sonnet, clenched harder
than any hand working against her.
You come from a braided clan of women
who held their tongues with their teeth.
You tasted their blood in your sleep,
women who planted their visions
on the tongues of their daughters.
On Askew Street, didn’t she have a garden
in the middle of concrete teeth and sirens? Didn’t
her husband sigh when she put on her boots and short-shorts
and with her ass out toward the street give
the marigolds a drink from the hose, fix the slouch
of tulips? Even Mrs. Eddy tried to outgrow
the hips of her roses, but didn’t know how
to make her soil the right kind of dress.
Didn’t the neighbors say, How country, and Who
this heifa think she be? Didn’t she just go about her business,
smile at their husbands, call them ladies by their first names?
Weren’t they always a temperament of color
she could curl her heart around, softening what made living hard?
Wasn’t it the one thing she didn’t need us for? Weren’t we jealous?
We kicked their heads apart, dyed them in motor oil, blamed stray cats.
Even then, didn’t she say Girls, I want color at my funeral?
Didn’t we keep our promise? Didn’t your purple dress
stun the mourning out the day? You were always her Iris
standing against a dull brick house. Sister, I couldn’t tell you then.
Aren’t we here, remembering how even the bees were drunk?
They wandered into the house like displaced uncles. Hell, the flowers
didn’t stay put in that small plot. Snuck out at night
into our own kitchen windows.
Women in my family do not trust their dead
to plots and cherry wood coffins.
They play them on the inside of their eyelids when they pray.
Projectors run their memories in blind, white light.
Spirits fall out their mouths in scriptures.
It’s hard to tell who’s speaking. They keep them in
glass jewelry boxes locked on coffee tables.
Frame photos of their open caskets and call them
Mother and Father. Wear their second sight to bed.
Converse at 3am. Call this counsel.
What the women in my family do with the dead is their business.
My aunt married a corpse who built coffins in my heart.
Told me I didn’t want his dead man sadness.
Sometimes, caught him with white marble eyes
he let me borrow from time to time.
The women in my family give the dead
to their daughters. My mama gave me
her dead mother’s name. I’ve drowned in her
dresses, tried on her smile. My mama is looking
for some stronger dead woman in my eyes.
I don’t tell her that Grandmother comes to me in dreams.
Grants me time in the garden of my childhood.
Collects fears that slip from my eyes.
They’re withered peach pits when they fall
into her waiting apron.
She shows me a place to bury them,
near a dogwood where I buried my baby teeth.
She promises they’ll come back
as something I can eat, a fruit so plump
it will feed me a lifetime.
We stare at the disturbed earth and wait,
but I wake before the harvest,
the squirm of trees rising in my stomach.
Are You There, Plath? It’s Me
You frigid, New England diva of death
with your affected tea-time voice hanging
around like a nasty Boston winter,
how exactly do I eat them,
men I mean? Is this safe?
Can I eat women too?
Your kind of woman is a spreading jaw
around the boy I like in gym.
When I’m daydreaming,
I imagine eating him
like snakes eat mice on TV.
Yesterday, the pet constrictor in Biology
mistook my teacher’s hand for a man.
It clamped its mouth and wouldn’t let go.
The teacher just stood there, dumb
and nobody ran for help.
My love would be large like your Ted in my stomach.
My body would stretch around it like a garbage bag.
Sometimes, I dream of baking
my mother into a pie. Do you?
What kind of fruit would you use?
A group of us made a book club of you.
We blew out our voices
to sound like you.
We were wondering if we could be
your debutantes coming out in the season
of our simmering self-hate?
Our volcanic tempers
only a mother could blame when we went off
and found their good knives in their clean kitchens?
Can we come to your debutante ball
in pristine beekeeping suits?
Our fathers are big bastard bees who never raised
their heads to see how we’d grown.
Our mothers are pitchers of fatigue
that never stop pouring their dreams into our glasses.
Our houses are too quiet.
Can you teach us how
to make grief a swarm that stings?
O Sylvia, when your poems poured
from blue tongue into our mouths, we took it
like big-headed baby birds.
We wove your cynicism into our vocabulary
to exhaust our underpaid English teachers.
O how we filled the weird wells
of journals to be as wounding
as those overreacting poppies in July.
And our mothers,
our poor, poor mothers who cringed
when they saw you, with your tight, mummy mouth
on the back of The Bell Jar
that we tucked under our arms
like cute leather clutches.
O you prim lady of gloom.
You white, crazy moon.
We are hooked hearts thrown
into the sea that catch everything.
We are an army running for the tide
We want to polish vicious!
We want murderous throats!
Affairs that resemble bright birds in death spirals!
We want our hurt star-shaped on the top of gaudy Christmas trees!
We want to name our crawl spaces after our mothers!
We want parades of swollen papier-mâchéd cadaver floats,
to sit on top and wave like Miss America.
Acknowledgement: “Are You There Plath? It’s Me” recently appeared in City of Notions: An Anthology of Contemporary Boston Poems.
Krysten Hill, educator, writer, and performer, has showcased her poetry on stage at The Massachusetts Poetry Festival, Blacksmith House, and other venues. She received her MFA from UMass Boston where she currently teaches. Her work can be found in apt, Word Riot, The Baltimore Review, B O D Y, Muzzle, PANK, and elsewhere.
Firman Houghton Award, selected by Sam Cha
Winning Poet: D.G. Geis, “Psalm 152 (A Song of Ascent)”
Psalm 152 (A Song of Ascent)
Dying of Parkinson’s
my mother’s handwriting
As if determined
to erase themselves,
the words conspired
to see what late crumbs
could be shaken loose.
How at the end
her mind faltered,
like an engineless plane
or a misbehaving child;
and lovely Lois
the kindness stuttered
right out of her,
a resentful tremolo,
too old and far gone
to renege on any deal,
nor competent to choose–
the microscopic postcard
of her life
not even worth
the stamp it took
to mail it.
And mistaking me
for my dead father,
about their sex life,
the loss of her studio,
and her inability to paint–
not to mention
of her children.
And how God,
like an inattentive husband,
half-listening, had yawned
at her Fred Astaire lamentation
the way sleepers on waking
rub their eyes,
and go back to sleep
It was no substitute, her prayers,
for the real thing;
like an alcoholic’s
it only pointed
to the greater loss.
Like my poor father, predeceased.
Glad, I’m sure,
to finally be rid of himself–
his catheter snaked
into the darkest corners
of his bladder,
a urological Frankenstein
from mismatched bits
of a jigsawed stomach,
haunted by the shadow of a tumor
large enough for a radiologist
to tell time by—
grateful, I’m sure,
for the whole mess
to go up in smoke
like one of his cheap cigars.
sparred for 65 years,
familiarly and without ceasing.
Their rope-a-dope marriage
went the distance–
a draw by any honest referees’
To love, I learned from them,
is to contend
even to the bitter end.
they can have their barbed colloquies
and in peace.
At last a meeting of two hearts,
He in one cool corner
of their columbarium niche;
she wedged, quite comfortably,
in the other.
D.G. Geis is the author of Fire Sale (Tupelo Press/Leapfolio) and Mockumentary (Main Street Rag). He divides his time (unequally) between Houston, Galveston, and Dublin, Ireland.