Kelli Russell Agodon

Winner of the Lyric Poetry Award in 2019

At Times My Body Leans Toward Loss

You don't remember seeing the deer give birth
on the highway, so when I said, I worry about things
I can't control, you told me the pitchfork
I carry in mind stabs inwards,
                             like the day was sun-filled, but what I saw
was how I bumped the planter of Gerber daisies
and the moth fluttered up into the beak of a bird.
Death and dinner. A minor accident and something dies.
Like the woman who drove to work crying in her car
and when I saw her, she waved, a reflection in the glass,
the good fortune of having a job to drive to, but the collision
of sadness in the left ventricle of a heart. Who can hold
a knife without thinking for just a second, which vein
                             is the most useful
to slice into? Most everyone, you say,
as you dull-down the ends of my pitchfork, most
everyone, you say as you unlock the door to our house.



Ilya Kaminsky on Kelli Russell Agodon

I am so impressed with the wonderful quality of submissions for this award. As the contest is anonymous, I have no idea who the authors are. But their talents are obvious. So, although I was asked to only provide the citation for the winner, I can't help but do so also for other poems as well. There is so much absolutely terrific work here. I am grateful for the chance to read these poets' words:


Kelli Russell Agodon's "At Times My Body Leans Toward Loss"— While I was impressed by many poems submitted for this competition, this particular poem struck me as something complete, as the world of its own, with its own laws, and its own conflicts, and caritas. There is real strangeness here, yet, it is in no way mere strangeness for the sake of strangeness. The oddness here simply mirrors the oddness of our world, both the natural world, and that which is inside us. I am not a neuroscientist. I cannot tell you exactly in which ways the human mind moves. But it strikes me the mind's motion is not unlike the movement of this poem: "You don't remember seeing the deer give birth /  on the highway, so when I said, I worry about things / I can't control, you told me the pitchfork / I carry in mind stabs inwards."


Michael Dumanis' "The Empire of Light" — there is a sense of realism in this poem that challenges itself, makes fun of itself, and deepens along the way, and unlocks something altogether remarkable:  "The baby pulls my wrist into his mouth. / The baby wants to eat my face. / So does the dog, the one that I don't have, / who lazes at the razor-edge / of vision, whose curved shadow, when I'm still / flat on my back, opening up / like a gift the new morning, clouds…"


Anita Olivia Koester's "Elegy in Amber" — there is a marvelous relationship between the specific and the strange in this poem. I was thinking of Shklovsky's idea of ostranenie as I read lines like "She remembers / thinking, that trees wept because they had / too much time to think." Beautiful.

Sarah Gridley's "Practical Transparency" — I admired this poems music and its lyric surprise. I loved learning that "Just as the sun starts reading the wind, / dots of green are coming in. / What thaws, softens."

Charlene Fix's "Saint Kitchen" — this poem gives us such an insight into our knowledge—and memory—of what light is, what it might be: "Now with the back porch down, light floods the kitchen, / falls to the table, skimps bowls of tomatoes and pears, / anoints the cabinet's glass doors, penetrates to dishes... / I remember when a child leaning into, growing toward, the light" This is a delight.

Devon Walker-Figueroa's "My Materia" — this poem extended what I thought I already knew about our moment's devotional poetics: "maker could live in the sacrament of the mind / a little longer (the hymn that is being / forgotten begins Be Thou—"

Benjamin Paloff's "You're a Fratricide" — there is an interesting mix of lyric and myth in this poem, swaying back and forth between the two: "Abel dreamed, you can tell yourself / of murdering / his brother, too. And what happens / in sleep / is as clean as a stone after rain."

Malachi Black's "For the Suburban Dead" — this poem seems to know quite well what a narrative can give, and what it cannot, under any circumstances, give us.  And where the narrative fails, lyric lifts us up as "books should / lift up from their shelves and become doves." And what do we learn? We learn, perhaps, that "the only reparation is to live."

Clare Jones' "The story behind the fire ban" — I was quite moved by the lyric sway and tilt of this poem: "An island doesn't happen every day. / It visits us in dreams, a spider web, resisting rain."

Taije Silverman's "Poem Without Antigone" — I love the strong "I" of this poem how it remakes itself changing with chance it gets, and yet remains: "the verb through which I existed / having been translated from a past / so definitively past that the dead / felt no need to apologize. / History like a pigeon among pigeons."

Noah Warren's "Wall Mice" — there is a real intensity of character in this poem. Or rather, there is that inimitable strangeness that intensity possess: "I understood myself / as a man who preferred to write / on cocktail napkins, because they'd tear if he got too invested. / In that one, I kept my father apart from my loneliness."

Sophie Klahr's "Harvest — I loved the surreal moments in this poem ("Nebraska talked in its sleep in my mouth") and its surprising music (See // a hawk, a fox / at dawn / a bite, a burn // an aperture"

Leslie Williams' "On the Sixth Day — this poem vibrates with the music of the real; it vibrates with this music so much that real changes, becomes dream-like here: "The bats fly in and out of caves ultrasonically devout / like kids bursting out for recess / ...Earthworms feel all the new cattle moving overhead."

Alice Gribbin's "The Rocks" — I found some real wisdom in this poem: "You cannot make a metaphor of war. /....The dead need us here, loving them. / Why else do we sit all day in the sun."

Anna Maria Hong's "Maiden" — I love the anaphoric repetitions and the surprises of this poem: "My father became a red bird after dying: singer-soldier-doctor-door /....Storyteller, sing firmly."

Amy Dryansky's "SOS" — this poem gives us a classic elegy for the brother, and yet, in a way, it also becomes an elegy for the self: "I have to keep reminding myself / he's gone. Or because he was, I have to keep forgetting."


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