Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Poetry Challenge Winners - Caregiver Poems

Mary Jo Balistreri with her father, Wayne Horton, on his 90th birthday

Both judges for the June Poetry Challenge, Caroline Johnson and Maryann Hurtt, agreed that the poems by Mary Jo Balistreri  and Joan Loetta were the winners. There were three honorable mentions: Elaine Sorrentino (“Forecast”), Deetje J. Wildes (“The Hospice Volunteer”) and Annie Jenkin (“Breaking Bad News”).
The Space Between Us

In a land where stone takes one breath
every thousand years, I watch my father sleep.
Rivers of his body rise and fall,
skin, map-thin at 93, arteries bottle-necked, narrowed.
Heat sears day, dims distant sand dunes to a mirage.

His eyelids twitch, a leg muscle contracts.
He awakens with a start—perhaps currents
strange and powerful burrow
through his memory’s alchemy and pass
between us, this landscape that throbs
with ancient rhythms and ancestral pulses.

Half asleep, he shuffles to the door, brushes my arm
aside and steps into the sun. He whistles and waits.
A quail in elaborate topknot and desert fatigues
struts from under the orange tree.

The bird calls back but stops, sociable only at a distance.
Dad knows not to move. In a few minutes,
she takes her nine offspring
in the opposite direction, legs spinning
like pinwheels. He watches until they’re gone,
the way he used to watch me.
Later, he strolls among other affections—oleander,
bougainvillea.  His fingers brush the vine of flowers,
and I remember his gentle touch as he lingers
by blooms of deepest pink.

            We rode on the Aerial Bridge. He held me tight
            against his chest, patted my back, soothed my cries.
            It will be okay he said over and over
             as we rose higher and higher.

Now that memory jolts like an alarm. He leans toward
the cacti, spiny seeds of bursage, lifts his head to the sun.
Like the fresh smell of creosote after a rain,
love’s brief moments stun.
I take his hand and we walk to the house,
inhale the fragrance of Here. Now.
Breath that takes me forward,
breath that will take him home. 

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

This poem was first published by Minerva Rising.


Joan Leotta and her mother and grandmother on the day of Joan’s confirmation

The Conversation

“My daughter comes and goes,” Mom says.
“I am your daughter,” I announce.
I stand by her straight green chair
and take her hand in mine.
Her head turns toward me
But her eyes stare without focus.
Bending toward her, I ask.
“Would you like a drink of water?’
“My daughter comes and goes,” she answers.
From her pink plastic pitcher,
I pour the water into a cup.
I pour until I am empty.
I place the cup in her hand,
closing her fingers around it, one by one.
She raises the water to open lips,
but tilts the cup too soon.
She wants to drink,
but cannot find her mouth.
I mop the spill and get more water.
I raise the fresh cup to her lips.
She smiles, sips, and slips her hand over mine.
“My daughter comes and goes,” she says.
“My mother too,” I answer,
hug her hard and kiss her.

~ Joan Leotta

“The Conversation” was originally published in the Fall 1997 issue of The New Press Literary Quarterly. It was also published in Canopic Jar in 2016.


Joan Leotta is a writer and story performer. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Algebra of Owls, Postcard Poems and Prose, Red Wolf, and more. Her first chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, is out from Finishing Line Press. Her website/blog is now focused on interviews with the editors of magazines that publish short stories (genre), to better inform other writers. visit

Caroline Johnson has two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork. In 2012 she won the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Poetry Contest. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her poetry has appeared in Red Paint Hill Journal, Encore, Uproot, The Quotable, Kind of a Hurricane Press, Blast Furnace, Origins Journal, Naugatuck River Review, and others. She leads workshops for veterans and other poets on such topics as Poetry and Spirituality, Speculative Poetry, and Writing About Chicago. Learn more from her website at

In another life, Maryann Hurtt was a hospice nurse for thirty years. She lives down the road from the Ice Age Trail near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, where she and the Muse chase each other. Aldrich Press published her chapbook, River, in 2016. She is co-author with Cynthia Frozena of Hospice Care Planning: An Interdisciplinary Guide. Maryann's father read her John Muir stories when she was little. He and her mother taught her early on to hike, swim, bike, and love anything wild. Maryann’s poetry has been published in Blue Heron Review, Portage Magazine, Verse Wisconsin and elsewhere. Check out her website:

Mary Jo Balistreri says reading the poems in the Poetry Challenge each month is one of her pleasures. Reading in general, and gardening bring joy, as do being involved with family and friends and participating in poetry readings. When she was caring for her father, once an avid reader and gardener himself, she found they could connect at these points. He liked being read to and enjoyed being outside with his birds and flowers. Mary Jo has published three books of poetry. Her work is found in numerous journals and anthologies. Please visit Mary Jo at