Elliot K. GoldmanGoldman
(click me)

Steven RatinerRatinerDorian BrooksBrooks

Voices of laureate's second annual contest

UPDATED, Dec. 8: Because it does not have all of the answers, or perhaps because it tries to have them all ...

because it offers comfort -- or upset -- for a defining moment and then moves on ...

because its words play with such seriousness, poetry is passion worth pursuing.

So as many as 50 people, crammed into the Robbins Library Community Room on Thursday, Dec. 1, to see whether they could catch the spirits expressed, no doubt as balm in the current national climate of confusion.

A number of spirits materialized, all winners in the second annual test of Arlington poets announced by Miriam Levine, the town's poet laureate since July 2015, and judged by Susan Donnelly, author of eight collections of poetry.

Quote bar, red'MILKWEED'

"Do you love your life?"
my friend asked. And if

we hadn't been walking
through September fields

with cobalt skies
sifting gold around us,

and if I hadn't just
pulled a milkweed pod

from its stalk,
split the ripe pouch

and run my finger over
the little silken fish-scales –

each brown seed
ready to fly –

I might not have known
how to answer. As it was

I plucked a few tufts
and turned toward her,

then opened my palm
near my lips and blew

lightly. She nodded
and we walked on

as I kept repeating
my reply.

-- Dorian Brooks

Hear their voices

Listen a bit to each -- and watch their words, hear their voices.

Dorian Brooks has a calm presence, like her descriptive lyric "Milkweed," which won first prize.

"This poem," Donnelly writes when the winners were announced, "stayed with me throughout my reading of entries, clung to my imagination as it were, like the milkweed seed itself.

"What strikes me most about the poem is its silence. After the initial and very large question, 'Do you love your life?' the poem is all gesture. It lets us see the replier's gestures: splitting the pouch, touching 'the little silken fish-scales,' opening the palm, blowing lightly.

"We can then envision the way milkweed seeds travel, their light-filled beauty, their purpose and fragility, their randomness. We understand that this is a fine way to describe happiness."

Originally from Minnesota, Brooks was educated in the history of science. She is also interested in Native American issues and history. She is the co-founder of Solidarity with American Indians, based in Arlington, as she is, with her husband and three cats.

On the score, she read a poem for Standing Rock Sioux, perhaps prescient, days before the Army Corp of Engineers gave North Dakota protesters relief. "Waiting for Winter" from her book [ital] The Conquering People includes the line: "I carved sunrise into coins" and concludes "How many times must I die by my own conquering hand."

You could hear a sigh from those listening.

Taught poetry 25 years

Steven Ratiner reads with a rich voice of performance. For the past 25 years, he has taught in more than 250 poet-in-residence programs throughout New England. That includes one at Stratton School when he inspired my daughter Emily to pen a poem that is still on our wall at home.

"It's nice to read in your own home town," he told the audience, a trace of native New York City in his accent.

Then, he declared to laughter, he is "one of only 14 Americans who has never taken a selfie."

But he is not shy about including the idea in his poem "Selfie with God," which include this droll line: "He moved, thus the blur ...."

And a suggestion of his relation to the Maker: "... while I hold at arm's length."

Ratiner's second-prize winner "Fathering" is more personal.

Quote bar, red'FATHERING'

After the stroke, when language
froze over in this throat, he had a hard time

with the snow — He couldn’t say,
and the sky wouldn’t stop saying —

We went walking, and the tracks
in our wake — And the cardinal-

red calligraphy scribbled between trees —
And the ticking like Morse across hat brim —

And the time I was certain his hiss
was about to coalesce into Steven —

And the dream I kept having: moon-
slick trail rising between birch ribs, breath

becoming smoke, ink becoming breath —
Writing these words across the page —

And even before the sentence is complete,
the footprints filling up with white —

-- Steven Ratiner

"This beautiful and delicate poem accomplishes a very difficult task," Donnelly has written. "Using dashes in a powerful way, it forces the reader to hesitate, to search for words, to imagine the feelings of the stroke victim. 'He couldn't say, and the sky wouldn't stop saying—.'

"A very visual poem, yet it uses a palette so white and snow-driven that the red of the cardinal stands out in it like blood. The father's language has frozen in his throat, 'he had a hard time/ with the snow –.' Yet the poem is full of suggestions of speech: the 'Morse across hat brim,' the cardinal's 'red calligraphy.'

"By the poem's close, the son becomes the father by means of his dream, as his written words become footprints 'filling up with white.'"

Bird takes flight

The offhanded offering by Elliot K. Goldman exhibits the breadth of Donnelly's choice. His "Quietest Bird," the third-prize winner, dodges like dust drifting over random objects.

In his 20s, in a tweedy jacket, his head topped with a cap, which he kept on, Goldman delivered his lines matter-of-factly.

Donnelly gave credit: "Who could resist a poem the first line of which is 'I drew up a plan to be king of the world'?

"This lively and often surreal poem takes a lot of chances, pushes the envelope, yet keeps its own kind of control throughout. Along the way it treats us to such phrases as 'a room temperature sort of love' and 'A hand made of ice, that melts when I hold it.'

"There's comic despair here, an up and down emotional range, but the writer handles these plunges and updrafts well, always keeping hold of the kite string."

The handwritten design of his website -- www.elliotkgoldman.com -- suggests a casual approach. It does not say he is from Holliston, MA, and moved to Arlington from New York City.

Drop-in workshops help

Quote bar, red'THE QUIETEST BIRD'

I drew up a plan to be king of the world,
where I spin around so that it's always day or always night . . .

Here's how it happened:
Leaned in for a kiss approximately 23.5°
Eyes closed, puckered mouth.
Kicked in the shins and my feet fell off.
It left a sour taste in my mouth.
Am I the first person?
I can catch a leaf in my mouth when it falls from a tree.
Later that night I slept in a tent to be covered in fabric.

I have 2 pockets full of rocks.
I killed one, and I cried over my body.
Like an elephant with a sack of confetti strapped to its back.
And I just keep mumbling:
"I do and it does."
23°C fingers,
A hand made of ice, that melts when I hold it.
It's horrible.
Like woodpecking.
Like hand-drawn wallpaper.

When I think about it:
Our fingers were sticky,
but a room temperature sort of love.
Essentially chocolate milk.
I forgot the words to It's a Small World.

I'm sad. So I went for a run
and discussed my motives behind
slaughtering a pigeon
and my armpits cried
It's raining, my hands getting wet instead of my head
and then I fell asleep holding a glass of iced tea
and woke up with body squiggles.
I want to "Try a Trampoline!"
And have a "one thing ice cream,"
and eat Peanut Sauce Jello.
Fist in the air, drowning your fish!

But instead, I stubbed my toe and laughed,
pretending I had friends,
like, Hello Happy.
A giraffe is licking my face, but peeing on my shoes.
Uncomfortable sorrow and shoe grease.

-- Elliot K. Goldman

Beth Kress, one of two who received honorable mention, reflects the benefits of attending some of the twice-a-week drop-in poetry workshops on the third floor of Robbins Library. Throughout her tenure as laureate, Levine has conducted them. Read a feature story about one of them >> 

Kress, who grew up in Chicago and teaches in Lexington and at Lesley, read "On Simonton Road," bringing to life an old farmhouse in rural Maine.

Of the lyric, Donnelly writes: "... there is great poignancy in this outwardly simple narrative poem about a day in a life with young children.

"It has a nostalgic tone, as though despite the total recall of the details: shoe-tying, Cheerios sprinkling, peeling stubby crayons, this day was a long time ago and its gentle activities are being remembered with pain at the heart.

"What takes the account beyond the mundane is the way the writer frames the story with the outside weather and the landscape, the 'mammoth snow drift' at the beginning, the barn door creaking at the close. The poem pivots on the line in the penultimate stanza, 'Then what? A sudden tiredness tugs at me.'

"Whole volumes could be written by young mothers about this lonely midafternoon feeling!"

Range of verse

David Hummon, the second getting honorable mention, is a professor emeritus of sociology at Holy Cross.

Poems ranged from an 1859 painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to one about where he lives, on a spring morning at a two-decker on Broadway, East Arlington The 87 bus flies by, and the poet feels "so alive."

Hummon, who moved to the lectern with a cane, wrote a poem it. Donnelly calls it "a well-executed sonnet in which the cane becomes an extended metaphor for the ages of man.

"With its occasional childish behavior, 'it hides ... or throws a tantrum falling to the floor'; the writer wishes it had been a prime-of-life walking stick 'rough and manly, tall and hard'; its actuality is 'crook-topped,' a 'bent shepherd's staff.'

"Yet using it for walks with his wife, he has made a bargain with the cane, to 'tread lightly on my pride for coupled life.' As the poem ends, we understand that the cane is autobiographical -- the writer has shown that the cane is both 'me and not me,' both 'worn' and 'strong.'"

Before reading, Hummon said: "It's lovely to be able to share these with you -- and my grandson."

When Hummon had finished reading, the tow-headed boy bounded up to hug him.

"There are a lot of good poets in this town," wrote Donnelly, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry. She offers poetry classes and consultations in Arlington. She judged from among almost 200 submissions.

Introducing Levine was Liza Halley, chair of the poet laureate committee and the librarian at Thompson School. She is working on collection of poems.

Cosponsoring the event was the Book Rack, and food was provided by Food Link.

Sept. 20, 2015: Listen in as our poet laureate conducts a class

Dec. 6, 2015: Some glimpses behind 3 winning Arlington poets

This news feature was published Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, and updated Dec. 8, to correct spelling.