Judge’s Notes

Prairie Fire - - MÉIRA COOK -

IN A LETTER TO OS­KAR POLLAK, Franz Kafka fa­mously de­clared his pref­er­ence for books that act as an axe to break up the frozen sea within us. I had good cause to recall this quote in early Jan­uary when I first re­ceived the short­list of poems for the Bliss Car­man Award. I was in my usual Jan­uary funk—chilled to the bone, weary from the dark­ness, half-heart­edly bat­tling my la­tent hi­ber­na­tion in­stinct. The frozen sea was very much within me when the win­ning poems of this com­pe­ti­tion flashed out like Kafka’s axes. These four poems made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my cheeks flush with blood. They did what poems ought to do—they woke me up.

“An­nie Pootoo­gook” by Natalie Ap­ple­ton is star­tling in its clar­ity and pre­ci­sion. The poem grounds us in the con­crete, in the proper noun, the fish sticks and frozen din­ners and the side­walk out­side the Mur­ray Street mis­sion that demon­strates an at­ten­tive­ness to the vis­ual per­fectly matched to this med­i­ta­tion on a lost light of vis­ual art. Ap­ple­ton’s poem ex­presses emo­tion without sen­ti­ment, res­o­nance without cloy, com­pas­sion without pity, leav­ing us, just as with Pootoo­gook’s last draw­ing, sus­pended in love, in life.

Angeline Schellenberg’s “Warm­ing Up” pro­vides a daz­zling dis­play of lin­guis­tic play­ful­ness and wild in­ven­tion. Where Ap­ple­ton em­pha­sizes the vis­ual, Schellenberg teases with sound. Her poem suite is a bravura of jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion, and her in­stru­ment is lan­guage. She plays vari­a­tions on the ver­nac­u­lar; riff­ing on the as­so­cia­tive and al­lit­er­a­tive links be­tween words and images. Yet, the slight dis­junc­tion be­tween im­age and word trans­forms this suite into a glo­ri­ous ca­coph­ony.

“Just a Man” by Mol­lie Coles Tonn is an in­can­ta­tory med­i­ta­tion on soli­tude, on be­ing, al­most, not there at all. Wield­ing a hard-boiled lyri­cism, the poem es­tranges the reader from her sur­round­ings, lur­ing her to this spare and won­drous is­land where a Cal­iban-like fig­ure names his world into be­ing.

Fi­nally, I would like to (hon­ourably) men­tion Kerry Ryan’s “Bed­time Story,” a sar­donic take on moth­er­hood that per­fectly bal­ances the poignancy of the new mother’s anx­i­ety and ex­haus­tion and the sly wit that be­speaks sur­vival.

Now it is sum­mer, and the sleepy un­der­tow of Jan­uary is a mem­ory. Nev­er­the­less, these poems still show how awake we weren’t be­fore we read them. Read these poems now, feel your blood move.

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