Thursday, August 27, 2015

August 2015 Challenge Winners - Grief Poems

Art by Susan Florence, from the cover of her book,
When You Lose Someone You Love.
Used by permission of the artist.

There were a number of very moving grief poems submitted for the August Challenge. Writing poetry can be a good therapy for grief. It is not unusual for adults who have never written poetry before to do so as a way to express the loss of a loved one. Thank you to everyone who submitted a poem this month, and to Susan Florence for serving as the judge.

The three winning poems are quite different, but each express grief in an effective way.  

The third place poem is a sestina written by a repeat Poetry Challenge winner. For a sestina, the poet selects six words and uses one to end each line in stanza one. The same words (in a specified order) end the six lines of each of the first six stanzas. All six of those words reappear in the final three-line stanza, three as end words. For this poem, the poet altered the form slightly by adding an extra word to the last line, a word of affection which results in an unexpected rhyme.

To Uncle, in Memoriam

The man was more than uncle
To my half-orphaned son.
To his office of obstetrics and women held to duty,
He added more than medical expertise.
There they received from brother a sympathetic ear
And for all, a sealed confidence won.

Look upon his order, through more than temperance won.
Recall the discipline of your uncle
Who never tired to lend his ear
And many times upheld you, Son,
Nor shirked his calling’s expertise.
This he held to highest form, nor fell from daily duty.

If ever a day you lose that sense of duty,
Remember then how Uncle had his honor won.
Remember how in simple, confident expertise
He maintained the trust of many, an uncle
Who found the time to fish with you, my son,
And many a lesson furnished to your thirsting ear.

Your undiminished, searching ear
Sought and needed the vision of this uncle’s duty. 
(An unforeseen hiatus, a father absent from his son.)
More than once by his example you won
Your sense of right and wrong, imparted by this uncle,
This one who never failed to share his expertise.

But how can another’s expertise
Soothe our reddened eyes, when ears
No more would catch the voice of Uncle?
He’d served his time, he’d done his duty.
The hearts of all he’d won
And all our hearts were broken, as surely as my son.

A sunny day, the coffin lifted by cousins and my son.
An honor and a tribute to an uncle’s expertise.
And for my son, a victory won,
A tune within the ear
Of all that life requires: a duty
Learned by sunny days shared. “Oh, Uncle!”

The lesson won was more than duty,
More than expertise that bent the ear.
‘Twas love imparted to my son, love from his beloved uncle, dear.

~ Carole Mertz

About this poem, the judge said, “I have never written a sestina, because they are too mathematical and too much work for me. So I applaud this poet for her work and keeping the theme of all her son learned from her brother, the uncle in this poem. She kept to structure and kept to a story of duty and love.”

Second place goes to a free verse poem.

“Hold it firmly, but gently”
for my brother Bob Kell: I will be forever grateful for your dedication to our mother

In the picture my mother is holding a cardinal.
She cups it in her old woman’s hands.
Her hair, lit by the Alabama sun,
shines silver against the deep winter woods.
Ivory jacket over her azure shirt,
she is a study in darkness and light.
So radiant,
so eager to take her part.
Almost eighty years old, she is banding birds.

The words she wrote on the back of the picture
seem to be her instruction for me.
I first saw them twenty years ago
and I’m still ferreting out
what bird I am meant to band,
what hold is the right combination
of gentle and firm.

When she died three years ago
I myself was put on hold
revisiting pictures and cards,
the captured images, the slanted words,
still waiting for more instructions.

She doesn’t look at the camera.
Her attention is all for the bird
alert and poised in her wrinkled hands

Her mouth opened in pleasure
this moment
before the release.

~ Barbara Ruth

Susan Florence wrote, “The metaphor of this poem with the older woman banding a cardinal and then giving it release is wonderful. Also the description of her 80-year-old mother in the photo and the landscape brings me in. For me the title describes exactly how best I should treat my life.”

The first place poem was written by another repeat winner. It is a modified ghazal.

Grief Ghazal Variation

A sudden wind strips the Ailanthus leaves.
A cold half-moon rises.
Voices recede like distant waves.
The six-year cicadas have stopped singing.

Lights and shadows race across the bedroom
ceiling then disappear.
The air purifier no longer hums.
The six-year cicadas have stopped singing.

A moth pulses in a web of silk behind
the torn window screen.
Empty picture frames gather dust.
The six-year cicadas have stopped singing.

Puppets can’t dance anymore. Your turtle
and its plastic island are gone.
The blue wallpaper peels and fades.
The six-year cicadas have stopped singing.

~ Jenene Ravesloot

Here is the judge’s response: “The theme of this poem is of melancholy and loss and even though each line can be read on its own, the theme is emotionally the same, as is expected in a ghazal. The line images are all evocative and haunting, showing us loss, never telling…like the moth pulsing in a web of silk. Lovely. The repetition of the cicadas that have stopped singing in their six-year cycle expresses so well a life cut short. This poem is strong and each line images how grief feels. It is a beautiful poem. I know ghazals are couplets in structure, but by saying “Variation” in the title, I think this works.”

If you live in the Chicago area, you can hear Jenene read at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, August 30, at Brewed Awakening in Westmont, Illinois (details posted at

The poets retain rights to their own poems. Please do not copy and distribute the poems without the consent of the poets.


Jenene Ravesloot is a member of The Poets’ Club of Chicago, the Illinois State Poetry Society, Poets & Patrons of Chicago, and the TallGrass Writers Guild. She has written three books of Poetry: Loot: Stolen Memories & Tales Out of School, The Chronicles of Scarbo, and FloatingWorlds. Jenene is a member of The Omniphonic Poetry Trio, a poetry and music band with Tom Roby and Lem Roby. Jenene has led many workshops with Tom Roby at various Chicago Public Libraries. She has published in numerous print and on-line journals and anthologies. Some of Jenene’s readings can be viewed on YouTube. Several of her poems have been made into video poems by members of The Poetry Storehouse and Pool.

Barbara Ruth is a published photographer, memoirist, essayist and fiction writer, as well as poet. She was San Diego Area Coordinator of California Poets In the Schools for many years and last year a featured writer/activist at the biannual gathering of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. Her work will appear in the following anthologies in autumn of this year: QDA: Queer Disability Anthology; Stories Of Our Lives: Women and Health; and Slim Volume: This Body I Live Inside. She lives in San Jose, CA.

Carole Mertz enjoys writing essays, poems, and reviews. She loves Steve Werkmeister’s lines, published here, of how great it feels when a poem seems to “click.” “It’s like striking a ball off your foot.” (see poem “Advice to a Young Poet,”  the winning poem in the July Poetry Challenge).

Susan Florence is also the author of a gift book, When You Lose Someone You Love. The book, designed with illustrations of nature and water, was written with few words. It is intended, the author says, “as a caring gift to give someone after they have lost someone they have loved. . . . even many months or years later, because the ones we love live on within us forever." It can be purchased through either of two websites: or  and click on Journeys Books.

© Wilda Morris