3rd Annual Terrain.org Poetry Contest Winner Selected by Suzanne Frischkorn
[when I died they found a nest of snakes in my intestines, their backs]
when I died they found a nest of snakes in my intestines, their backs
embossed in pale rosettes: a tangled ball rolling in a damp lair
spilling through the arteries. when the light hit them they’d go wild
swarming and boiling deeper. in my palms they found the thick calluses
of self doubt: the wads of sticky algae gathered in my lungs
—they wouldn’t find beach-combed nests behind my eyes, or the—
and they’d ponder: what a woman would do to feed such a stock
what tax they levied in secret, what engine, what wick
had lit so fierce a drive the mitosis split.
what ecologist, what mud, what shore-side orchard would
my kids [I’d write in the will] take these serpents and make boots of them
ride blue bareback horses until you’re thrown and trampled everything that ties its shoes
kissing will for-never be only enough. drink eagle’s milk. don’t forget to swallow the
world: see! it’s already blushing: gyres aggregating unspoken dreams, islands rising
the film will cool and crust on tectonic hips. nurdles are flowing. come traffic
the blind lay me in a quiet pyre of cards (all clubs). cloaked in scutes. un-nested release
the last trumpet of a desperate embouchure. they who ponder will sip coffee against
their better nature—they will ask:
what are we going to do with all these contaminated serpents?
what was it like to know it was hopeless in the end? they will know nothing
about the reptilian-neurotoxin-dance the shed skin: splendid
Somewhere beyond the curve of the earth, there is a ceremonial bamboo boat
which is starting to molder. The deep-water fish that follow it nip and suck at the fraying wood with hard lips. On board, the candles have all melted to stiff puddles, trapping in their hard pools tufts of human hair and the blue ash of homemade incense.
The paper wishes, for father’s health, for mackerel, the ones that haven’t disintegrated into the salty water, are nesting among the lost feathers. What the seabirds left of the fruits, rice, and meats are beginning to flower. It’s the kind of flowering that the dead do—crawling out of themselves. The offerings on deck bloom with rosettes of moldy colors; rust, burgundy, violet, three shades of green, so that with time the ceremonial boat becomes a floating garden.
There is a kind of art that is cultivated without intent, which is born and dies without witness. Inevitably, in the humid breath of a storm or the thrust of a rough wave, the collection is capsized. The cargo is met by swarming mouths, the eruption of fins from the water, but perhaps a few bits slip through into the depths. They twirl like shells towards what bottom there is to the ocean: metamorphic rock, colorless muck, or soft piles of skeletons.
Now, all that disrupts the orange dawn is the boat’s half-moon, salt-bruised belly. Abandoned by birds, abandoned by fish, it rocks through the swells like a coconut, a vagabond, a prayer. It trails a dark window of a shadow along the surface. Beneath are the waterlogged sails, rippling and loyal as ghosts.
Poetry Contest Judge Suzanne Frischkorn says…
“[when I died they found a nest of snakes in my intestines, their backs]” and “Somewhere beyond the curve of the earth, there is a ceremonial bamboo boat” disarmed me with their terrible beauty. These poems appealed to me initially by sound, then by language, and finally with meaning. While the first may appear more abstract than the second both of these poems have many layers. Delving into a difficult poem and finding that the effort opens its secret compartments—and here the compartments are all fastened by spring hinge—is extremely rewarding. That there is beauty in the terrible ruin caused by marine debris, that there is usefulness in decay after death—those snakeskin boots!—is something that may cross our minds when cultivating soil, but not often when contemplating the death of “everything that ties its shoes”. The surprises in these devastating poems make the reader think, and then think again. Like the ghost images that linger in the second poem, these poems linger within the reader. It takes a deft hand to create art that works on multiple levels. I look forward to reading more of the poet’s work.
Genevieve Leet wrote these poems on a fellowship to study Thailand’s coral reef decline and write place-based poetry on the experience. Her work has also appeared in Written River and Off the Coast. The 23-year-old poet looks forward to her honeymoon hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with her camera, notebook, and ice axe close at hand.