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The Connecticut River Review Poetry Contest Results!

•First Place

If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the
butterflies it would engender.
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
By John Blair

Nabokov the blunt chrysalis of his consciousness

ruptured like a cyst whispered a certain butterfly
is already on the wing as he died in a Swiss hotel
his mouth filling like a chalice with moth scales
and chimera butterflies in confused shoals wavering
over the opened flower of his dying; it’s all about
fragility and possession butterflies or the imagined
girl-child he caught between his fingers (An inquisitive
butterfly passed Humbert thinks dipping between
us so much three-syllabled longing in his heart
that the girl herself grows wings) or about ruin
the thin membrane of a pupae splitting inside a mind
inside a body laid on its back so that the dew of benediction
might bead on its lips and its coppered gaze to God might
manifest in some kind of rebirth into a creature winged
and damp from fevers of becoming;
all last words are questions we ask the world
as it abandons us when the only real questions left
to ask are why and for how long? (there are things that
are hard to talk about Nabokov writes in a letter
to his wife you'll rub off their marvelous pollen
at the touch of a word) and the world of course
never answers so we satisfy ourselves
with the practical minutia of ecstasies Humbert
with his Lo (And she was mine, she was mine, the key
was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket, she was mine)
Nabokov attending to his own sufficient death
(the subsiding spasms of its body he writes
the insect pinned to the cork by his fingertips
the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating
the hard crust of its thorax) as it settled like a flurry
of bright invisible insects onto the raptures (wings
beating against the glass of a jar) of his last breaking

Commentary from Leslie McGrath, Contest Judge: Through shimmering lyric language and
a sophisticated visual pattern, “A Certain Butterfly” explores the issues of death and rebirth by
using Vladimir Nabokov’s dying words as armature. This poem is both a joy and a jolt: “all last
words are questions we ask the world/ as it abandons us.”

•Second Place

By Barbara Jennes

On Saturdays, our father loaded

his disappointment of daughters
into the back of the Chevy
and drove to the hardware store,
alleging a need for
glazier’s putty, galvanized screws,
a longer plumbing snake.

What he needed, really,

was to be among men -
men who smelled of sawdust and turpentine,
who worked with cold-cracked hands,
who holstered claw hammers
in ready loops on the seams on their pants,
whose talk was as straight and gravity-true
as a plucked plumb-bob line.

While we three plunged our hands

into bins of roofing nails
or collected fanned hands
of paint-chip cards,
he stood, arms akimbo,
rocking from heel to ball,
punctuating loud chatter
with even louder guffaws,
fraternizing with men who did not
sit behind desks all week,
aping their spitting, their sweating,
their swearing –
longing to belong.

Our father did not belong,

not there, not anywhere,
not really: he was an outlier who
knew things, recalled things –
an almanac of esoterica.
He could retell Civil War battles
as if he had stood
at the edge of Antietam,
knew the gauges of railroads and guns,
could name the craters of the moon,
the rifts and trenches of seas,
the genus and species of every
native New England tree.

What he did not know

was how to love and be loved
by this churning trilogy of little girls,
this Ezekiel’s Wheel
of elbows and knees,
not devils but not sons,
not a damnation but neither
a deliverance from aloneness,
from standing at the edge
of Antietam, day after day,
not a Yankee, not a Rebel,
not dead, not quite alive.

Commentary from Leslie McGrath, Contest Judge: In “Not”, a daughter looks at her
father’s life with a perspective colored by rare compassion for a man among women. One of his
three daughters speaks: “not devils but not sons,/ not a damnation but neither/ a deliverance
from aloneness.” This is a lovely poem about acceptance.

•Third Place


By Hajjar Baban

at every moment which means I like to know

the time in Sulaymaniyah too, though my father
is in the States making, with his own hands
his home whole again, though he has only
been twice since I’ve been born, back.
My father, mostly clear currently, sunrise
at 4:41 AM, once a decade, sunset
at 7:13PM waxing gibbous moon phase,
taught me nothing about what the air
feels like though I know running water
privilege, the waterfall captured and glossed
memory of a place, at one time
neither of us knew by name.
I forget, he pretends to.
I never learned, he convinces me
to have never been given the pen.
I pick at my thumb, he offers the hurt
a reason to return. We avoid mountains.
The sun resists the ground. I sit back
and check— today is today in both
that land that may still exist and the one
which keeps his daughter running.

Commentary from Leslie McGrath, Contest Judge: Sulaymaniyah is a town in Kurdistan, the
ancestral home of the speaker’s immigrant father, more an idea than a reality to her. In this
beautiful poem, the speaker’s father has done the double task of the immigrant, honoring both
places he calls home “making, with his own hands/ his home whole again”.

•Honorable Mention


By Katherine Szpekman

The first snow fell last night.

This morning, the front yard shows signs
of a squabble, a frenzy of footprints,
followed by a large dark space
where something rested, or conquered,
or surrendered.

Hard to say what the pauses mean.

Hard to know when to give up,
and when to fight.
Next to me, wrapped in our bed,
your father told me he heard the door bell
ring at three a.m.

So frightening, the not knowing,

in the darkness, the snow falling.
Have you put on your snow tires
my darling daughter?
Have you a winter coat and boots
like we always made certain you had?

I used to dress you impossibly warm.

Zipped, snuggly in your parka and snow pants,
that hat with the silly tassel,
and mittens plump and always
just a little too big for your tiny hands,
finished off with a large scarf I wrapped

around and around and around

your neck as if your head staying attached
to your body depended upon it.
You would wait until I had fully dressed you,
and then, you would tell me you had to pee,
and I would work backwards, peeling

off one article at a time,

unwrapping you like a present
because that is what mothers do
every day, every time, just because.
There you would sit on the sofa,
and as I inserted your elfin feet

into the purple rubber snow boots

and drew and tied the laces tight,
how could I imagine
that you were preparing
to walk away from us
with not so much as a glance.

How could I have known

all the snow and slush,
all the frost and bitter cold,
would accumulate silently
all those years,
slowing the rhythm of your heart

until it froze into a weapon

you would hurl back at us,
like blocks of winter ice
that fall from the overpass,
as we drive under,
suddenly hit.

Commentary from Leslie McGrath, Contest Judge: In the haunting “Preparing for Winter” a
mother addresses an estranged daughter, knowing she will not get an answer to what went
wrong with their relationship, describing the rhythm of her daughter’s distant heart slowing
“until it froze into a weapon/ you would hurl back at us”.

•Honorable Mention

By Carol Tyx

Like sculpture
it works by removal,
the speed dependent
on the materials,
a quick slice for
goose down, thick
gouges for heavy
glumps, head-on
pounding in case
of ice.

Like working in clay

you have to put
your whole body
into it, the heft
and hoist, the pressure
thinning what’s left,
a light glaze dazzling
and difficult.

Like painting
it matters how much
you dip at a time,
too much and it’s
dripping everywhere,
too little and nothing
to show for it.

Like a poem
it’s line by line
descending down
the drive, laying
it out as you go,
where you stop
altering where
you start the
next line.

Commentary from Leslie McGrath, Contest Judge: This surprising poem uses the extended
metaphor of shoveling snow with making art, giving the reader a new perspective on both.

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