Landing in Iceland by Oscar Wergeland, 1909
Who would expect that a winning poem in the category of body/body parts would reference the ancient Vikings? But here are the Vikings, living again, so to speak, in Guy Thorvaldsen’s poem. Maybe, considering his Scandinavian name, I should not have been so surprised.
Off my Chest
In the basement,
I belly up to the air conditioner,
hump it up two flights for the renters.
With each step, my chest groans
like the hull of a Viking ship
in the North Atlantic.
But the Vikings were smart,
their clinker-built ships
designed to yield and give,
not fight, the waves.
My ribs give
little these days,
old knots twist my interstitial gristle,
popping and creaking
like worn oarlocks,
residuals of a life in motion–
clambering up eighty-foot high pines,
diving full-out on the soccer pitch,
and then to work–
decades of pounding in kegs of nails,
lifting stud walls, shouldering
the dead weight of steel girders.
All this noticed
as I lie down for the night,
cough and hack out the day’s dust,
ancient shards of fiberglass insulation.
My wife and I lean
against each other, feel
our traveled hearts and lungs rattling
in their boney cages,
still itching to know each other better,
get even closer,
listening like children,
for signs of the new land.
~ Guy Thorvaldsen
About this poem, the judge, Kate Hutchinson, said: “The speaker provides a clear-eyed and poignant look at his aging body through the masterful use of an extended metaphor – a Viking ship. In stanza 2 we come to understand all the ways the man’s body, like an ancient wooden ship, has been lashed and worn over the years. This is a body that has seen hard work through decades of carpentry – and we are given a condensed list of all that has entailed, the ‘pounding,’ ‘lifting,’ and ‘shouldering’ hardware and lumber and steel beams. Uses of effective alliteration and assonance add to the poem’s tone, such as in the line, ‘old knots twist my interstitial gristle.’ The final stanza works beautifully to bring closure to another hard day of physical labor – and to the poem – with a glimpse of the speaker finding rest at last, with his wife, still harboring a childlike wonder at what tomorrow will bring, as they lie in bed listening ‘like Vikings’.”
Second Place goes to "Vigil."
I held my father's hands
while he died.
By the thumb, wide faded reminder
of the axe at seventeen.
Crooked finger, broken by the mower.
Myriad silver scars.
Calluses softened now.
Fingers that routinely hit
two computer keys,
drummed the table when impatient,
Knuckles aged boney,
veins dark and visible.
At ninety-eight, the vellum skin
Hands that skinned deer, built houses,
crimped pie crust.
his firm grasp warm in mine.
When a thousand stars exploded,
he squinted hard,
and let me go.
~ Peggy Trojan
“Vigil” was first published in All That Matters in 2018.
Hutchinson explained her selection of “Vigil” as a winning poem: “In this short poem, the speaker lovingly describes for us the final moment with his or her father, using a description of the father’s hands to catalog his life. In a list of carefully crafted phrases, we come to know much about this 98-year-old man whose large and now blotchy hands once wielded an axe, hit computer keys, built houses, and made pies. The ‘myriad silver scars’ on his hands, noted in stanza one, find an intriguing echo in stanza two, at the moment of death ‘[w]hen a thousand stars exploded.’ The poem’s ending line will resonate with many of us who have lost a parent, when we realize we are now utterly on our own.”
Although not published here, we want to give a shout-out to Karen Havholm, who received an Honorable Mention, for “After Shoulder Surgery.”
Winning poets retain copyright to their own poems.
Congratulations to the winning poets, and thanks to the judge, and to everyone who sent a poem this month.
Happy National Poetry Month!
Check for a new challenge on May 1.
Kate Hutchinson recently retired from a 34-year career of teaching high school English in Chicago's northwest suburbs. Her poetry and personal essays have appeared in dozens of publications and won numerous awards, both regional and national, as well as three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her latest collection of poems, A Matter of Dark Matter, was released in 2022 by Kelsay Books; her previous two books include Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity (2015, THEAQ Press) and The Gray Limbo of Perhaps (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Kate is active with several local poetry organizations, including serving as contest chair for Chicagoland Poets & Patrons and as assistant editor for the literary arts journal East on Central in Highland Park. To find more of her work and information about her new book, visit: https://poetkatehutchinson.wordpress.com/
Guy Thorvaldsen’s poetry has appeared in, among others, Alligator Juniper, Forge, Magma 69, Zone 3, and Poet Lore. His first full-length book, Going to Miss Myself When I’m Gone came out in October 2017 through Aldrich Press. He is a journeyman carpenter, English Instructor, and contributing poet/essayist for community radio.
Peggy Trojan, age eighty-nine, published her first poem when she was seventy-seven. Her recent release, River, won second in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook contest in 2021. It also won an award of Outstanding Achievement from the Wisconsin Library Association. Her new release is a collection about her father, titled PA. She is the author of two full collections and five chapbooks. Her books are available on Amazon.
© Wilda Morris