Since 2021, Mass Poetry is proud to open the Festival with a poem submitted by a community member. The winner of the contest is invited to join us live to open the headline reading the first night of the Festival. The contest is open to any writer who lives, or has previously lived, in New England. The 2023 winner and honorable mentions were chosen by Guest Judge Charles Coe. 2021 was guest judged by Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Weir).
The 2023 Massachusetts Poetry Festival First Poem Contest Winner
Susan Michele Coronel
When My Mother’s Hands Were Called
they trembled in the half-light, eclipsed the knowledge
of ink on brush, the dry mandelbrot of her voice cracking.
Fingers stuffed in jean pockets, wrists flashed against
a crescent moon with the oven still on, paint pots
uncovered, left to drip & dry. My mother was destined
to become a secretary but aspired to be an artist,
eventually settling on teacher, her knuckles
once graceful, now diminished. She buried the birds
of possibility under an umbrella, curtained
them in wheat & marigold. As a young woman she listened
with light on her face but talked to shadows,
picked up ruler, chalk & projector to compete
with screaming kids in her kindergarten class.
I wondered why she wouldn’t adapt her own reflection,
not as puzzles or blocks or empty bursts, but scratches
of letters & numbers shallowing the water, Basquiating
red & black across ceiling & floor. When she touched
windows, regret streaked across her hands as sweat,
hotter with new perception, but that didn’t change
the outcome, palette simpering dry & monochrome.
Beads of water gathered speed, burst like lost loves.
How did she hold her sketches in their prisms?
Can the heart of art be protected even if never created,
even if it once stuck to palms like catchweed?
She was tempted to return to hyacinth & grape globules
but was inundated by distractions,
her own children drumming her back for attention,
swirling along the silver train of her skirt.
A continuous cache of unused paint, dry & crumbling,
peeled off the walls as she warbled by the door,
never peeking through the keyhole of lilac & blackberry
luster. Painting for herself was never an option,
no sliver of solace. Her gift had its limits
but it was never unwrapped, left to slip on the road’s
long curve. The chains of pink faith hardened,
scratching the canvas like a blue phantom.
The 2023 Massachusetts Poetry Festival First Poem Contest Honorable Mentions
Back When the Deer Were Horses and the Horses Were Rivers
The air filling with blue smoke and blue horses whose breath
stokes the kindling, hooves upturning earth, they’re running
again through the streets and the back road paths, towards
your house with the faded wisteria creep, lilac and amber
in the rainstorm and you’re running out of cigarettes, left
your car window open again and someone’s cat has climbed
inside, warm and soft red seats reminiscent of a heart, how
many times we’ll walk next to each other through the pines
before your heart turns and burns into a crisp in the bonfire
your friends are cooler than me, wearing gold bead bracelets
necklaces layered and chokers coated in crescent moons, well
water used to reflect my eyes, now everything is green, soft
as satin goes, your faded elbows in your late father’s coat
I pretend to be your mother in the dim light of the kitchen
I am your sister and brother, too, your cat with the tuxedo fur
I am the company you keep, the worry at the back of your neck
we reach the deck close to dawn, the horses have turned into
swans with blue feathers and algae-coated beaks, did you know
the willow tree is an ecosystem feeding the edges of town
how long until you tell me you don’t love me anymore, who
do I think I am easy to be cared for, am I the host, maybe
hound with its muzzle dipped in the ground, problems with
teeth at my neck and my back memorizes the bark of a tree
we extinguish the farmer’s candle gardens, we climb the roof
we are daring and young and chain smoking deep into Saturday
I wish then daylight was around for long enough to save my
life. I wish I could outrun the river, become soft and sedated
the kind of being you’d leave and think, they’ll make it on their
own, their body fits perfectly into the doorway of evening and
when I finally disappear, all those years later, will you remember
to write to me, will you read my letters, here’s another, I try to
reach back through the legs and the haze, can you hear me
across ribcages and dry ice, buckets of headlights broken and
collected at the side of the road, amber rings the dead deer’s
head in a helmet, hooves so similar to that of a horse, antlers
shaking and coated in beads, I am reminded of the women, I am
reminded of the wounds, the city with its stretches then hums
when my family was still alive they would wave at me out the
balcony of the fourth floor, crying and letting go of their satin
handkerchiefs, the expensive kind, tucked away in the pockets
of guests and mourners, we are at the funeral for the animals
I want to bully myself into shrinking, I want to run across tracks
and turn into a dragonfly, maybe a rope, a promise, a crate of
oranges and peaches, messy and blessed as flesh, sour, stings
the place where you insert the dagger, this isn’t a song or a
secret tossed between ex-friends, this is my life force perched
on the edge of your windowsill, this is me clawing at the phone
booth doors, I’m already raging and ready to race, cross stables
fields of blooms, say it, how you prefer ravishing gardenias
even if I wanted to would I curb my face, cure the heat, sticky
flip flops of my youth discarded beneath plastic lawn chairs, we
throw streamers at the party, eat meat down to the bone, stay
up too late, do I tell you I miss you or do we collect smooth wet
rocks and small seashells discarded from the mussel mud, must
I sculpt the altar by myself, I don’t know how to make a priest
out of squirrel jaws and telephone wires and we all grieve them
the deer with their stories and points and stars, but no one knows
the real reason they keep running out into the road, even though
there is a history of danger and hitting, there is a consolation prize
there is sorry-sorry, a loss space inhabited by flower bearers and a
bishop from the next town over, his heart is a chamber where hide
liquids and bottle caps, enraptured cats, an entire arboretum and
then some, then we have to say goodbye to the horses, someone
must braid their manes, someone must take out the screws, soon
we are singing and losing, I am drying my veins out like frog rocks
you once told me to save my life, I couldn’t protect you even if I
tried to tear down the ribbons at the intersection of the statues, so
many words for sea and moon, not enough for loss or carve my
dear, save the bones for me, save your prayers, your shawls, your
sorries, I will slip in the secret space of love, I will rest until the
earth turns green and hot, screw the evidence, save me the ashes
from the rites, remind me that I can survive tough stuff, violence
and such is the crown on the head of the eldest buck, all red stains
but whose car was it and what happened to the river water, well
where do I return when the lights go out and the barn is sealed.
A Boneyard of Flesh// Post-War Trauma
“my joy is a dead language”—KHALYPSO
yet, a nameless gravestone rolled between cold war & now.
a maddened apparition, manifesting from the boys’ quarter of my pain, of each
bullet-eaten cave by the roadside—razed down to a crumpled papier-mâché.
my brother, ulcering out of my grip the way a blood-soaked font detaches
from the page of medical record as a pulsing illness, or a budding lump.
tonight stinks like an open sore. & in the wild gift of event, a scar
shapeshifts towards healing. violence scrawled in its wake.
& styling its way into turbulence—it thunders through a ribcage.
there: the hurt, bruised to whitening. there: the chewed carnivorous
water—yawning a boneyard of flesh. the shore is language dead enough
to drown in, to squeeze to a thorough blot & punctuate with rumpled bodies
of my race. their negritude, whitewashed into effervescence.
our crude & grief-infested dialect like yellow bile, unsettling the tongue.
post-war, a fragment of our surname drown in a bulletproof soil.
brother, deboning the wild knit of concrete. he yanks off a body from its loamy
existence, & the air reeks of Ma. a boy ago, he grieved the dry season
of his infancy into a bonfire with no bones to hawk the flame.
amusement parks grew less amusing—slaughter driven by the urgency
for blood. carousel, racing same way into the tummy of an ambulance.
the killed are smuggled in body bags on trolley, headed for nowhere.
grief grows surplus & doubles over with loss. a lad, foisted to a
stretcher—brandishes his dislodged wrist
& grieved a purple sore boomeranging everywhere across town.
what bullet colors my accent? the impact, too sporadic to chew a whole
lineage. what language meets a bomb halfway between beauty & boom?
lights-out: a soft shadow loiters the lone street, scavenging the bloodshot
yard for tampon. & in a sleight of hand, unshelves a pregnancy test-kit.
a sergeant pounds her from behind—as if I mean, without a gun.
[prenatal]: she binged slowly on the fat bile of loss. gloom, trellising her insteps.
[postnatal]: she craved fish stew on empty cartridge, bullet-shaped torso of
a lamb—marred in gunpowder. see how sorrow makes a carnivore of us.
beware of me. grief burdens my core. a fetus once there has gone missing
& not one blood to show for it.
say: the ancestors have no hand in our woe. say: their spirit misjudge the bullet.
resurrect their ancient loin, for each fallen shape to plead in cold-blooded language.
say, I was the voice peeling the wind, there’s the probability you’d find me un-alived
by a missile or near miss, or vowel explosion. my tongue: a dead language.
phoneme, plastered to my cheek. its cruel alphabet—liquifying my gum,
as sadness foams in maritime rage.
the saltless blessing, roaming in my mouth like rotten carcass.
in the year of disaster, your ghost come home to roost on the eve of May:
an earth-shattering sound—headed towards chaos. at the crack of dawn,
you’re a boar leaping toward light: a violence dead on arrival.
in a country that speaks fire, ‘my joy is a dead language.’
a dark accent, scrubbing grief on pink tongue.
the colonist’s verb keeps revamping more corners for us to die in.
I wear my mouth in reverse, & gun a pronoun down in one shot. cheers to
how we self-identify with hurt: a bullet for dodged bullet—in this ghastly language.
say, you find harm to outpace. thank the fitness of foot,
thank the femur & the calcium that fills it with tonight’s horse race.
there, my dead relatives unfurling like a peeled chorus.
their unrehearsed glow—putting light to guesswork.
dear brother, happiness is a far cry from here, & at the rough edge lies
a matchet moon—the way the sky slit supplication into sore throat.
you shape out, voiceless from the onslaught.
see, what troubles your larynx: medieval’s wreckage.
a cannon ball, gunning for your lung.
Samn Stockwell of Barre, VT, “The Transmigration of Souls at the Donut Shop”
Samantha DeFlitch of Portsmouth, NH, “I am a Parking Chair”
Emily Joan Cooper of Peabody, MA, “Upon Quitting My Job”