Wednesday, December 27, 2017

December 2917 Winner - A Holiday Gone Awray

A Woman with a Fish-Pedlar in a Kitchen by Willem van Mieris, 1713. From the National Gallery of Art, London

Thanks to the poets who entered the December Poetry Challenge and to Susan Huebner for serving as the judge.

For a number of years, I hosted a Christmas Eve taco bar for members of my family. The winning poet’s family celebrates Christmas Eve with a very different menu:

Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve

Most years I ignored the curly
fried smelts, fried anchovies,
smoked salmon on rye,
and those sneaky smoked oysters
resting in the appetizer plate
next to the olives.
I simply curled up my nose
when they passed the baccala,
dried, reconstituted cod in
tomato sauce, centerpiece of the feast.
Baccala did not make my "eat-it-up" list.
Mercifully I was not forced to try it.
I would place a few shrimp and
a forkful of tuna in olive oil on my
plate alongside my beloved
artichokes and olives,
(So many olives!) while I waited
to be released to raid the cookie table.
My cousin Johnny, allergic to fish,
usually pushed around a few items
on an even sparser plate until
that year when his system went into
full rebellion. He walked into the house
as Grandma was putting food on
table. The pungent aroma
of our "pescatory" repast,
in particular the baccala, laid him low.
Aunts and Uncles rushed him onto
the porch for fresh air. Grandma
opened all the windows.
We ate Christmas Eve dinner
in our coats that year.

~ Joan Leotta

Note to Readers: Leotta says, “I don't recall what happened with Johnny and the dinner after that, but after Grandma died, we substituted spaghetti with clams for the baccala.

Judge’s Comments:  The specificity makes the poem! And those fishy details, the scene of family gathered to celebrate in a traditional way, and then the zing of the last line—wonderful. The poet captures the differences between happy anticipation and dread when it comes to the differences we all share in observing the season. A Christmas poem with the words anchovies and smelts in the second line captures the reader immediately—good work!

Huebner selected a poignant poem as runner-up:

Christmas Without Him
            after Zuan Quynh, Summer

In the season of winter
growing things freeze
under twin furies
of cold and ice 

In the season of Christmas
wind’s hoary breath bellows
and bells clack furious tongues
Birds scatter

In this season of death and burial
a child’s voice cries from crevices
weary in the white out
as he sleeps beneath snow’s crust

In this season of fathomless skies
days that darken early
a boy’s presents wait
beside a tree with no lights

O summer, where have you gone,
your promise of long days and color
Where are you, my grandson
Why have you gone away

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

Note to Readers: Balistreri remembers reading “Summer” in the Pushcart Prize volume shortly after her grandson, Zach, was buried on December 4th, 2009 (which she says still seems like yesterday). Poetry allowed her to express her own “ripped-apart heart.” 

Judge’s Comments:  This poem mirrors the deep cold we can feel inside and out. The heartrending twist for the reader in recognizing the Him might not be the same child we usually associate the season with, sets this poem apart in its longing for what’s been lost.

The poets retain copyright on their own poetry. Please do not copy the poems without consent.

Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and on stage since childhood in Pittsburgh. She does occasionally cook codfish in sauce--but uses fresh, not the dried that has to be soaked for three days to reconstitute it! And yes, she prepared a seven-fished dinner this Christmas Eve.

Mary Jo Balistreri has two books of poetry published by Bellowing Ark Press, a chapbook by Tiger's Eye Press. A book, Still, is due out September, 2018 by Future Cycle Press.

© Wilda Morris