Heather Altfeld

Winner of the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award in 2017

an excerpt from 903

I.

Shame is the first death.
It finds you at four,
drawing your name on the dining furniture.
Sex is the second.  It is the room
in the house you never knew about, hidden
behind the closet, beneath the floorboards,
a party dim as a whisper
until you pull back the wood
and see the giant open-air market,
with the flying monkeys and the fire throwers
and the gaudy musicians and the trapeze
you will climb and fall from, over and over,
in a vaudeville of pleasure.
Love is the third death, the great detour
around the self, an improbable road
straight up Everest that hobbles you in the knees
and rolls you down, popping wheelies in the snow.

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Fred Marchant on Heather Altfeld

"I never said aloud / which of my children will die first," the poet writes, "but the terror is born every day anyway, / it blooms in the big hand that clasps the little hand." These lines are from "903," a poem that references Talmudic rabbis had counted the precise number of every manner of dying. This poem and its companion, "Helpless Intruders in a Strange World," together compose a spell-binding meditation designed to cope with, if not utterly ward off, the existential terrors that come with mortality. These poems do not flinch at or banish from mind the images of the mortal end we all plummet toward. Instead the poet holds such images up to the light, turns them over and over, perhaps appalled by the arbitrary and capricious feel to every death encountered, be it in war or illness or accident. Yet as these poems pick their way through terror and despair, they are at the same time on the lookout for hints, glimpses, little shards of meaning that suggest there is more to all this suffering than nothingness. Toward the end of the second sequence the poet writes "We cannot stop looking for what we cannot see," and therein we hear this poet's sustaining hope that meaning is always, even in death, on the verge of revealing itself. As Vaclav Havel said, hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world. This poetry enacts the durable hope that our existence somehow ultimately makes sense.

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