Photo by Lynn West
The May Poetry Challenge was for poems about fishing or whaling. Unsurprisingly, most of the poems were about fishing. There are still whalers today, but whaling is not the big industry it was when Herman Melville published Moby-Dick. New ways of lighting homes and streets doubtless saved several species of whales from extinction.
Phyllis Wax and Michael Escoubas, whose poems were used as examples this month, both agreed to serve as judges. I have said before that there is much subjectivity involved in judging poetry. Having two judges judge independently generally provides evidence for that. Each judge picked a first, second, and third place poem (Wax actually picked two poems as tied for third place), but none of the poems selected by either judge was picked as a winner by the other judge. The result is that there are seven winning poems this month. There were other excellent poems submitted, so it was not easy for either judge to make their decisions.
Here is Elaine Sorrentino’s first place poem:
barefoot, slathered in sun block
he stands, rod in hand, at the end of the dock,
drinking in the pine smell, reminiscent
of carefree summer days at Boy Scout camp,
hypnotically casting and reeling, casting and reeling
thinking of nothing… and everything.
Tiny ripples from a lone kayaker
glide silently toward the shore,
dissipating before they reach their destination,
overhead a worthy winged competitor
casts his giant shadow across the water
scanning it for a good fish dinner.
Sweet contemplative time,
rudely interrupted by the snagging of a fish;
the fisherman carefully removes
the offending hook,
and with reverence and apology
sets his slippery intruder free.
Liberating himself from further interruption,
he searches his clunky metal fishing box
for a lure devoid of hooks,
and, securing it to the pole
continues what he considers fishing−
casting and reeling, casting and reeling.
~ Elaine Sorrentino
Wax commented, “I loved this poem! The wonderful visual details took me to the dock, made me see the fisherman. Every word seemed carefully chosen for the poet’s purpose. Examples in the 3rd stanza: “rudely interrupted,” “offending hook,” “slippery intruder,” not phrases usually used to describe catching (or snagging) a fish. This was a quiet, leisurely read with a surprising ending. I felt like I was relaxing there with him, casting and reeling.”
Peggy Trojan also won a first place with this poem:
One morning, in my early twenties
and suffering an emotional disaster,
my father invited me to go fishing.
He rowed us to the middle of the lake
and baited our hooks. He did not say
"I told you so", or utter advice.
Without a word, he offered me,
a secret smoker, a cigarette.
We floated and fished in silence.
By noon, my anger and sadness
had slithered into the water
and lake calm had taken its place.
I learned, on a good day, with luck,
one can come home with a catch
more valuable than fish.
~ Peggy Trojan
Previously published in Thunderbird Review
Escoubas commented, “I appreciated the love, wisdom and gentle pathos of this poem; it speaks redemptively of a turning point in a young person's life set against the backdrop of a simple experience that carried far beyond "just" going fishing.”
For second place, Michael selected:
Is both a monk and warrior.
Standing between sea and sky,
belonging to neither,
he casts his line into deep water
watches waves laced with white foam
as seaweed green and golden
floats by in streams,
sometimes catching in his line,
heavy as a fish might be.
He stares into the ink black water
but can’t see far beneath the surface
where the sun glints back at him
from waves that never stop
rising and falling.
He learns to balance,
to hold himself in stillness
as the boat rocks beneath him
with a rhythm never completely
regular, the odd wave coming
fast or deeper, slow or more shallow,
in random changes that make music
by their deviation from the beat.
He waits with perfect patience
for the invisible fish
to take his bait,
first step in a struggle
much like a dance
full of hope and desperation
that could end with nothing
or the prize pulled up
into bright air
glittering and gasping
at his feet.
~ Mary McCarthy
Escoubas said, “This poet has done a fine job with the device of "resemblances" in this composition as "warrior" and "monk" are skillfully woven into the theme.”
The Dordogne River Valley in France is known as “a fisherman’s paradise” or, more appropriately, for this second-place poem, “a fisherman’s dream.”
I am squatting on the riverbank,
catching you fish for rainbow trout.
Six years old.
Handling the line like a violinist,
you pluck away with each vibration,
picturing the surface of the water.
as a composition unraveling
each note and quaver. Your daughters
are downstream, catching minnows in jam
jars. Shrinking like Hughes' pike, soon
they will be part of the river while you
are lost among the grasses, feeling
the riverbed for signs of a sure footing
even though it's 2020 and Dordogne
has been reduced to something that slips
out while trying to remember a familiar
tune to distract from the shaking teacup
and spilt sugar.
Wax commented that "Dordogne" is a subtle poem, covering a long span of years using skillfully selected details. I liked the unique comparison of the fisher to a violinist, and the emotional punch at the end.
One of the third place poems brought humor to the contest:
Catch of the Day
She wriggles into
her most alluring outfit
fishes through her closet for
striking heels to
accentuate her legs
fastens padded underwires that
lift perky bobbers
pulls on Spanx to
tackle slack figure
casts a side eye
at her reflection
checks all lines
from every angle
dances a little jig
He reels when he sees her
gulps the bait
heart flip flops
trolling memories of
the first time
she hooked him
a half century earlier
thankful she strung him along
never released him
for a bigger catch
They drive into
for the Friday night special--
fish fry at the local tavern
~ Christy Schwan
Wax, who selected this poem, said, “‘Catch of the Day’ hooked me with the first line. The use of fishing terms throughout kept me chuckling. It was a lot of fun to read. “
The third place poem selected by Escoubas is more serious:
Tiny Birds, Salmon, an Old Man & His Rivers
he's old now
still dreams of salmon and rivers
the woman he loved
what seems forever ago
he thinks they really were so similar
but today he sits wheelchair still
stares out the nursing home window
waiting and watching
like his days in the drift boat
and how those fish
& now these tiny birds
fill him with recognition
a reason to breathe in
~ Maryann Hurtt
“Innovation and love are standout features in this poem where simple words blend skillfully paint a portrait of an old man's treasured relationships and memories,” according to Escoubas.
Last, but not least, is the second third-place poem selected by Wax:
Neither Brian nor
I were ever chosen
as anyone’s buddy, even after becoming
First Class Scouts, so we paired up
by default, whatever the adventure.
Loners by nature,
we paddled past
the rest of the troop, around Arrow Point,
to an inlet on the north side of Catalina.
Fins fastened and snorkels cleared,
we glided into the sapphire pool
noiselessly as seals. Far below,
red and yellow starfish clung to rocks
sabled with algae. Golden kelp
rose like trees from the blue-black depths.
drifted above purple hydrocorals,
each a setting sun in an amethyst sky.
world down there!”
laughed Brian when we broke the surface.
Fearless, we dove
for the bottom.
A rippling octopus scoured the rocks
for copepods and crabs. A giant sea snail
combed the bottom for decomposing
detritus of sea life. A jellyfish
drifted upwards, translucent as glass.
I turned to show Brian, but saw only
a pale blue wall, twice my height,
and a single dark eye fixed on mine.
A nameless terror
held me in thrall,
though I needed air, and soon.
I couldn’t move. It was as if
the world and everything in it
was peering out from that lashless eye,
plumbing my depths. For what?
I kicked my fins
and clawed for the surface,
bubbles streaming from my mouth.
Rising past the
monster’s side, I saw
a great white predator
swimming straight toward me.
I would fight, of course,
but I would lose, that much I knew.
I would never reach the surface, never
draw another breath. As I raised my legs
to give my attacker one good kick
before it took my life, I felt
the whole ocean rise up beneath me
and shoot me into the air,
the great blue’s flukes tossing me clear
before crashing down
on the white shark’s fin.
“Shark, shark,” called Brian from shore.
I swam for safety,
as fast as I could,
all the time knowing
I had already been saved.
~ Bradley Steffens
Wax explained her choice of this poem: “Vivid descriptions of colorful exotic underwater life were a highlight of “Great Blue.” I especially liked “rocks sabled with algae” and “purple hydrocorals, each a setting sun in an amethyst sky.” As the diver went deeper I could feel his terror at the danger that he encountered.”
Each poet retains rights to his or her own poem.
Congratulations to the seven winners! Check back on June 1 for a new Poetry Challenge.
Michael Escoubas is the author of a chapbook, Light Comes Softly, two full-length ekphrastic collections, Monet in Poetry and Paint, and Steve Henderson in Poetry and Paint. His most recent book is entitled, "Little Book of Devotions: Poems that Connect Nature, God and Man," which reflects on 2020, the year of the Coronavirus. Escoubas is Editor and Staff Book Reviewer for the highly regarded literary and cultural arts online poetry journal, Quill and Parchment.
Now retired after thirty years working as a hospice RN, Maryann Hurtt lives in Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine where she hikes, bikes, reads, and writes. Once Upon a Tar Creek: Mining for Voices will be out later this year. Tar Creek's water is orange and she is passionate that its story be told.
Mary McCarthy is a retired Registered Nurse with a lifelong love of writing and art. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, most lately “The Plague Papers” edited by Robbi Nester, and “The Ekphrastic World,” edited by Lorette Luzajic, as well as the latest issues of Earth’s Daughters and Verse-Virtual.
Christy Schwan is a native Hoosier, rockhound, wild berry picker, and wildflower seeker. She is pursuing her “encore” career as a poet/writer. She lives in Wisconsin where she enjoyed quiet sports: snowshoeing, kayaking, canoeing, and loon spotting.
has won the monthly poetry challenge at wildamorris.blogspot.com.
Bradley Steffens is a poet, novelist, and award-winning author of more than sixty nonfiction books for children and young adults.
Peggy Trojan's recent release, River, recently won 2nd place in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Contest in 2021. River follows her marriage and her family's journey through her husband's Lewy Body Dementia. Peggy Trojan's poetry books are available on Amazon.
Christian Ward is a UK based writer who can be currently found in One Hand Clapping, The Crank, Sein Und Werden and The Pangolin Review.
Phyllis Wax writes in Milwaukee on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. She loves to walk on the nearby breakwater, to be surrounded by the lake yet have wonderful views of the city. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, both in print and online, with subjects ranging from social issues to nature to jazz. Three of her poems are included in the recently released Lullabies & Confessions: Poetic Explorations of Parenting Across the Lifespan (University Professors Press).