POETRY PRIZE RESULTS
9-12 FIRST PLACE
Oak Park, IL
COMMENTS FROM CONTEST JUDGE MARIE KANE:
A note to all finalists:
You are to be congratulated on your excellent entries to the 2011 Sarah Mook Poetry Contest. What trouble I had this year in deciding the winners! Because your work was advanced on all levels, my efforts took a longer time than usual to make the final decision.
Know that your poems were read with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed every one of them!
tight imagery, extremely creative language, surprising and inventive
connections, powerful, believable voice, and mature tone are the many
descriptors one can use for this first place poem, "Scaffolding."
In its brutal, ironic, and all too realistic tone, the poem captures
violence in an amazing way in that it concerns what it is like to live
a life where one's belligerent parents prefer one sibling over another-and
not because of good behavior, but because the brother's negative, even
criminal, actions require much more attention than the speaker's 'goodness'
does. This amazing poem deserves first place among all the other very
talented poems in this age group because its rawness is softened with
tender realizations, its bitterness is alleviated with yearning, and
its violence is tempered with poetic triumph and searing honesty.
This creative and apt metaphor reveals the brother's carelessness as if he wanted to get caught-making his wrongdoing all the more sorrowful.
The section continues with more of the brother's reckless behavior, with a clear suggestion of police violence-another reference to harmful and brutal behavior in the poem by everyone else but the speaker.
That the brother "bows his head" as if in prayer is so wonderfully ironic that one almost misses the metaphor-"into a cave of black seats." The understated verb, "pats," and the phrase "plum shadows" also render what occurs to Brandon in language that could minimize the effect, but certainly does not. His only reaction is to swallow "spray can spritz's."
Response to this unlawful action and arrest finishes the first section. The speaker states that he or she "washes holding cell / and yellow paint from my brother's clothes. / Another fine for our parents to fight over." This, then, is the upshot of Brandon's actions: the speaker cleans up after him and their parents argue over paying yet another fine resulting from their son's actions. The concluding line of this section, "Brandon's fingers are wrecking balls," is an achingly honest, powerful, and devastating indictment of one child's power over a family.
With extremely creative metaphors, the second section painfully and truthfully delves into the parents' relationship and its widely differing effect on both children. That the violence in this poem is reflected in Brandon and arises from their father's own violence towards their mother is certainly a possibility:
What imaginative and wonderfully painful language-if one can describe this kind of pain that way. The words are crisp and evocative: "plows," "proper," "crouching," "mahogany soil," and "weeping." That color is a large part of this poem's imagery makes it accessible and imaginative even though the topic is frightening-that the father tries "to convince" his children that this behavior is normal is even more so.
The next few lines map the speaker's metaphorical reaction to this terror-note the marvelous use of "pebbles," "nodding," "wet crawling," "knuckles," and "doorstep of my eyelids':
this language is visual, resonant, and full of tension greatly adds
to the impact of the poem. Also, its visceral nature increases the dramatic
conflict in the poem.
The remaining lines concern the differing reactions of the children to this violence. We have already seen the emotive reaction of the speaker in the above lines; Brandon's indifference is a stark contrast: "Brandon turns up the volume of the TV / and looks past it. / We share ear drums [sic]. Our parent's voices - / nothing but hisses and sparks. / My brother wades in static while I feel the shock." This different reaction is duly noted in the fact that Brandon "wades in static" while the speaker "feels the shock" of the parent's "hisses and sparks." Note the varying verbs of "wades" and "feels": one is of trepidation and even carelessness, while the other is of full-blown emotion.
The next section's importance to the poem is obvious; in it, the speaker alludes to the title, "Scaffolding," and explains its meaning. In the beginning of this section, the speaker concentrates solely on self, taking the poem to the personal that is hurtful in its honesty, but needed nonetheless to fully explain the speaker's feelings. The section begins with the speaker's experience with a poetry reading: "On stage / I am the nervous sway of prairie grass / determined to find my roots." These last descriptive phrases are gentle and evocative; a sharp contrast to the harried and emotional language above. The reader is able to take a breath and enjoy the slowing down of language and the scene.
The speaker continues with more description of the often-worrisome nature of a poetry reading, and then alludes to the title. The speaker begins with "Building poetry on a mic / is dangerous construction. Shyness / is a poor replacement for scaffolds / and parents were never there to secure rafters." Parents should be the scaffolding that "secures rafters" and nurtures children; instead, in this poem, only reading poetry in front of an audience barely supports the speaker. Acknowledging that this is "dangerous construction" and a "poor replacement for scaffolds," gives the speaker more of a genuine humanity that the first part of the poem does not.
The poem continues with more vivid and often painful descriptions of the reading. The speaker's voice is as if "sandpaper scrubs vocal cords / when I breathe. / The ankles of my words tremble." What imaginative and original imagery! The reader can see, hear, and feel the nervousness in the speaker in a realistic way that few poets manage.
When the next set of lines begins, we return to the parents and their lack of care for the speaker, and concentration on her brother. Her parents "miss another show" and the speaker is "parked in their side thoughts / while my brother's felonies blur past me / in a breeze of red / and blue graffiti." Here the speaker is brutally honest in her parent's preference-and not because one child achieves more than the other, but because one child requires more time and attention because of harmful behavior-"felonies that blue past me." That the speaker tries to do well while demonstrating a need of parental support is one heartbreaking aspect of this poem. Even if parents are severely lacking in their behavior toward each other and their children, the poem demonstrates that, even if deficient, a parent's attention is always a necessity for a child.
The poem continues with even more damaging descriptions of the parents. They are seen as:
This is another vivid and original image of "empty can" parents who neglect to attend their child's performance with no "bouquets," but only "un-clapped hands"- a searing irony of not what is there, but of what is not.
Next, the poem shifts to the parents and Brandon. The parents take "another tour of a holding cell / gazing at my brother's canyon arms / slipping ridges into iron cuffs." The verb "gazing" and the brilliant metaphor of arms to canyons with their ridges being slipped "into cuffs" embraces the difficult scene of a son being jailed and restrained in such as way as to almost minimize the effect.
The last lines show what the speaker yearns for regarding her parents and returns to the opening imagery of the poem:
In a brilliant turn, the speaker wishes her actions, "words out of my mouth," could be like her brother's that are "spray painted," and that her fingers (writing those words) "were wrecking balls" as her brother's are as described in the opening of the poem. If that were to occur, then the speaker would triumph over her parent's indifference and even her brother's all-consuming behavior and "tear down this cell / they've been holding me in."
marvelous poem triumphs with its insight, language, honest truth, and
in how it engages our sympathy and emotions. This richly metaphorical
look at one family may haunt the reader far beyond the reading of this
poem. It does more than shock in its minute and careful view of people's
actions and reactions; it reveals the yearning of humanity in a brutally
honest and yet fully realized way. Bravo to this superb writer.
Thank you for the privilege of reading your work.