Why I Never Talk About My Mother

Editors’ Choice: 2021 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

When my father remembers my mother has died,
when he realizes he had forgotten, and he cries
— if that’s the word for those great, wracking peals of thunder
I feel against me, holding the hollow tree
he has become as it waits to fall — he shudders
in the sudden storm of memory, and I know
I brought this down upon him,
the lightning bolt loosed from my callous hand.
I decided, then and there, I would never
speak of my mother again. I would lie
if he asked where she was. The dead die
again and again in their remembrance.
It is I who would kill her, the coward with my words.

But there is this: they are also reborn in the forgetting.
I become young again, the little boy he expects
when the nurse tells him I’m here, your son,
here to see you. Maybe he thinks to bounce me
up and down on his knee, a bronco I tried to,
but could never, tame. Up and down
goes time, rushing, fierce in its will to throw me.
But in that moment of his expectation, my mother is alive
and she is young and, oh my, so beautiful.
I never knew how beautiful she had been,
as she is again in his mind
when he hears the words Your son is here.
We are all young, and strong, and not even a little
bit broken. It’s why I lie.
It’s exactly what I wish I could see.

In addition to Philadelphia Stories, Joe’s poems have appeared in journals such as the Schuylkill Valley Journal, Philadelphia Poets, and Apiary. He was the Featured Poet for the Fall 2014 Edition of the SVJ, which has nominated two of Joe’s poems, “Light” and “Forsythia,” for the Pushcart Prize. Philadelphia Stories recently selected his poem, “Hospice,” for their 15th Anniversary Edition. Joe’s first book of poetry, Always in the Wrong Season, is available on Amazon.com.


Runner Up: 2021 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

To read “Plural,” click HERE.

Jessica Chretien is a person and poet from New Hampshire who only recently discovered, after twenty-five years of living, that she likes the sun, the ocean, plants, poems, making meals, reading Critical Theory, crying with gratitude, and being alive. She doesn’t seem able to stop overflowing with wonder and suspects everything might just be okay. This past spring she won the Victor Howes Prize in Poetry through the New England Poetry Club.

On a Day’s Pause from the Rigors of Metastases We Walk Through Laurel Hill Cemetery, You and I

Runner Up: 2021 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

We have returned to see the lion, his human-like fingers
of stone gripping stone where he sits above the river
in the rain, high above us on a massive pedestal. Fall
colors are muted now but still beautiful against the gray.
The river is rising. Bright wet leaves stick to everything.
Our current distance between the dead can be measured
in the peculiar family names no longer heard of—
the Herknesses, the Spancs and Frinks, all folded
into other nomenclatures, other families persisting.
Colossal mausoleums anchor the familiar names—
Elkins, Widener, Lippincott. The die is cast so early
for some, there seems little variance, even over time.
Out over the river I see no evidence of living things.
What I think of living, movement over time. The river
is moving faster and becoming muddier as it rises.
Between headstones, we notice a flash of color—
a red fox with sprays of white on his chest and tail
loping over wet grass between stones and monuments.
He notices us but has little concern. Our distance is
insurmountable and we do not matter. Like everything
he is dead and not dead, living and not living as time only
seems to move. The still air in the empty spaces inside
the mausoleums do not support anything living. The illusion
of death persists. If it is an illusion to the dead, it is quite real
to the living, and not real, of course. I try to will my mind
to images of those underground in various states of decay
but I cannot. That reality is unknowable. Biocentrism postulates
that existence cannot suddenly become nonexistence.
(The pallor of death has left you and yet it is with us.)
Last night, we watched a fire on a large screen television.
A beautiful fire at the base of snowy mountains. Wind
whipped flames higher and we enjoyed it at a cellular level,
something deep in us connecting to ancient advents of survival.
We started noticing the points where the fire was revived
as it was digitally morphed to a return of the robust fire.
The fire was neither real nor without bounds, endlessly
looping for the hours it was created and we consumed it
with our eyes. And what do you make of the notion that
all this may just be a vast simulation? The possibility that all
of existence as we know it is something like a video game
created by greater beings. Maybe we are simply dream factories
firing up pre-programmed sequences of events. Just as the lion
was created to honor a General whose life spanned two centuries
and several wars in a time far removed from us and unfathomable.
The lion, though stately and august, has unmistakable fear in his eyes.
The sculptor could not help himself. Try as he might to create
a representative lion, he kept creating himself. The knuckles
that resemble exposed birch roots—his knuckles. The mouth
articulating awe and terror—his mouth. The tense haunches—
what he sees in his own legs. On our way back to the car,
hidden under a holly tree, surrounded by a manicured hedge,
we stumble across a remembrance in mosaic. Tiny bright tiles
that have been assembled to create a map of this exact location.
You would hardly notice it unless you just happen upon it,
or already know from some divine guidance that it is here.
We are walking past Millionaires row now, I imagine
straight lines leading up to mountains. Well planned grids
of cities laid out in valleys all around the world. Uniform
roads, regulated development, routines and codicils. There is
sense in the thoughts. Order in the musings. Civilization,
even at arm’s length, returning us to the rest of our lives.

Sean Webb says, “ I have received many honors for my work, including fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Utah Arts Council. Recent awards include the Passages North Neutrino Prize and I was the winner of the Gemini Magazine Poetry Open. My recent chapbooks include “The Constant Parades” and “What Cannot Stay Small Forever.” My work has appeared in many publications including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, The Quarterly, Seattle Review, West Branch, and Schuylkill Valley Journal.”


Winner of the 2021 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest

While they are sitting
with the empty seats between them
I am cleaning the flies
stuck, dead, to the toilet seat
in the apartment no one has touched
for four months.

Waiting for me
was the musty damp
of unwashed clothes in the laundry
and two rolls of disinfectant wipes
on the made bed.
Today, this is care:

methods to kill what can’t be seen,
maybe isn’t even there,
packaged neatly
for my arrival in their absence,
and the exaggerated repulsion of strangers
long in advance

avoiding meeting.
They breathe through cloth and plastic
even sealed among the clouds,
as I waste sodden paper towels,
lift a window
for a gust of sound to feed the candle flame.

When they land
their message is the same as if
they’d just pulled up downstairs
or at the grocery store on Harrison.
I can’t tell
if they made it there alone.

I am trying to read out of the air
what I can’t hear: the ticking
of the next second,
the shape of air currents
around missing bodies, the things
those molecules run into,

the pressure drop of a kiss.
The sigh before the mold blooms
already like an aftertaste
as I fold the sheets.

Caitlin Kossmann is a PhD candidate at Yale University in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, currently completing a dissertation entitled ‘The Myth of Gaia: Gender, Ecology, and Community in the Making of Earth System Science.’ A dancer and rock-climber originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, this is her first poetry publication.

Letter from the Poetry Editor

Philadelphia Stories is excited to share the winning poem in this year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry: Caitlin Kossmann’s “Airborne.” This year’s Crimmins Prize was judged by poet Airea D. Matthews, director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College and author of the critically acclaimed Simulacra. Kossmann along with the other winners will be celebrated with an online reading and awards ceremony to wrap up the LitLife Poetry Festival on April 17.

The 2021 Crimmins judge, Airea D. Matthews says that “Airborne” offers “an opportunity for stillness” as it “[reflects] on longing and the quotidian aspects of our cloistered lives.” The absence depicted in Kossmann’s poem is palpable and familiar, but so is the urge to tidy, to care for, and to protect.

This focus on small, meaningful detail is evident in the runners up for 2021 selected by Airea D. Matthews. Sean Webb’s “On a Day’s Pause from the Rigors of Metastases We Walk through Laurel Hill Cemetery, You and I” and Jessica Chretien’s “Plural” draw the reader’s attention to the granular, but build mosaics and colonies out of tiles, ants, years, and days. These runners up will each receive $250 for their poems and are invited to join us on April 17.

Many of the poems we reviewed for this issue speak to the obviously precedented dangers of systemic injustice, white supremacy, unemployment, and disease. The current moment exposes how interconnected and incapacitating such threats are. Widespread grief and frustration have been more than some of us can process in our own writing. Thankfully, poets like those included in Philadelphia Stories’ Spring 2021 issue have been able to offer us their work, helping focus our own sorrow and anger. Reading these poems feels to me like holding the hand of someone a step or two ahead on an unfamiliar path. They cannot answer our biggest questions, they cannot solve our hardest problems, but they can remind us—crucially, unexpectedly—of the points where we connect.

Philadelphia Stories thanks Joe Sullivan for his continued support of this contest and his enduring friendship with Philadelphia Stories. We also welcome Jackie Domenus in the role of contest coordinator and thank Jackie for consistent, helpful, and organized communication with our poetry editor and poetry screeners.  We perpetually thank  Yalonda Rice, managing editor, for her flexibility and patience in assembling the magazine. Above all, we thank the poets who trust their work with us; reading your poems each year humbles us and reminds us how connected we are.

We will celebrate the winning poets of the Crimmins contest and the new poet laureate of Montgomery County in an afternoon reception which will be online, free, and open to the public as part of the LitLife Poetry Festival on April 17. Visit https://philadelphiastories.org/litlife-poetry-festival/ for more information and to register for LitLife.


“Airborne,” Caitlin Kossmann (New Haven, CT)


“On a Day’s Pause from the Rigors of Metastases We Walk Through Laurel Hill Cemetery, You and I,” Sean Webb (Philadelphia, PA)

“Plural,” Jessica Chretien (Concord, NH)


“Why I Never Talk About My Mother,” Joe Cilluffo (West Chester, PA)

“A Black Body Stuffed in a Villanelle,” Jaya Montague (Philadelphia, PA)

“Warning, Do Not Eat Your Fortune: 40 Dating Reminders Every Woman Over 40+ Needs to Hear Now!,” S. Erin Batiste (Brooklyn, NY)

“Dad, Because You Made Me Destroyer of Worlds, Yours, Too,” Judd Hess (Huntington Beach, CA )


Catie Barrett (Ithaca, NY)

Imani Cezanne (Oakland, CA)

Curtis Christler (Fort Wayne, IN)

Dillon Clark (Egg Harbor Township, NJ)

Christian Collier (Hixson, TN)

AE Hines (Portland, OR)

A Kaiser (New York, NY)

Darius Simpson (Oakland, CA)

Lupita Eyde Tucker (Palm Bay, FL)