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.