Editor’s Choice: 2023 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest
1979, after Carolyn Forché
You haven’t heard this one, but we were there. In the bright ugly room
behind a row of bald professors. It was April, and sticky. The plastic chairs
sucked at our thighs. Some dignitaries led her to the podium. She was just
a girl-poet, with her long blonde hair and flowy clothes, and all the easy
romance of being not too old but enough older than us. After the Chair
introduced her, she spoke in a voice so low we all leaned in. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. Some pipes clanked inside the walls.
Outside, through the open windows, frat boys were shouting. We were on
the inside now. We feared the colonel’s spoiled teenage children. The dog,
the American cop show. And— Don’t write about a pistol unless you intend
to use it, we knew at least this from our professors—the pistol on
the cushion by the colonel’s thigh. The poet’s words were candy tumbling
from a table; then, her voice dropped softer: our tongues on the dried peach
halves. Oh, I can tell you this now,
There is no other way to say this:
Metaphor is a tool of the wicked.
Metaphor presses against your skull, your nose squashed to the glass. The
window was never meant to open. The architects made it that way. On your side,
the Chair is paying attention. His nostril hair flutters with each bated exhalation.
The girl-poet will become famous. On the other side, the scene is vivid. An ear
unfurls in a glass of water. The ear is disconnected from the mind. On the glossy
tiled floor, a scattering of amputated ears “to the ground.” Life is a series
of amputations. You are mute as a nun in church. The girl beside you, who
cries easily about ideas, weeps with shame.
How can we go forward in this future? How can we go on?
Karen Rile is the author of Winter Music (Little, Brown), a novel set in Philadelphia, and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver Magazine.