White Mice 2023

White Mice 2023

Preface

As the International Lawrence Durrell Society prepares to convene in Athens in July 2024, it seemed most appropriate to center the 2023 White Mice Poetry Contest on theme of “Ruins.”

Destruction is everywhere in our world—major wars with ruthless bombing and loss of life proliferate as we speak—and yet this theme also reminds us of the intertwined complexities of life. Not only the ongoing cycles of yin and yang of Taoism, or the unfolding patterns of planets in astrology, but also the sheer nobility of thought embodied in the Parthenon and other monuments now lost to us. Ruins represent the past—loss, defeat, dissolution, death—yet carry the seeds of new possibilities for the living who experience, learn, and resolve to do better.

The poems responding to this year’s theme feature not only physical or architectural ruins but also shards or remains of inner life—collapsed relationships, hopes, families, a coherent sense of self. In Suzanne Burns’ “Burnt Offerings,” the speaker’s young sister buries objects and burns a book in the family’s back yard “almost as if the pages were newly born / instead of dying. . . .” Dina Friedman’s “Detritus” offers a similar scene, as the speaker’s toddler son adopts a branch of sumac as his pet and strokes “the leaves all gone.”

“In Donegal,” by Deborah Doolittle, paints an evocative picture of Irish ruins covered by moss and shrouded by “thin veils” of mist and “rain in thick curtains.” Partridge Boswell’s “The Poet’s Way” traces a literary wandering to a crevasse near a lighthouse “where three girls downed a century ago.” We are made aware of the speaker’s solitary clambering, “aimless as a poet’s cloud / over landscapes real and imagined. . . .”

In a rare occurrence, William Orem won both second and third prize (all judging was anonymous). “Ptochos,” a prose poem, re-creates a memorable scene in which the speaker is approached in his car on an urban street by a beggar with a prosthetic leg he uses as a “donation bowl.” In “All things await the day of their breaking,” the speaker notes all the breakable objects of our lives yet realizes “It’s how the earth is made. / I wish it were not so.” And then he turns to his marriage—twenty years old this week—with a vow to “catch” “what snaps, what tumbles.”

The first-prize-winning poem, “Child of War by Gabrille LeMay, combines two of the worst human tragedies: the devastation of war and the suffering of a child. In this case, a wounded boy with crutches dreams of rescue, of warmth. The initial witness is a photographer, but then the perspective shifts to a sympathetic speaker who hopes to help alleviate the child’s pain, to overcome the death of his mother and somehow manage to cope with “tidal waves of grief.”

All these poems deal with loss and dissolution, and yet the beauty of the poems, the poignancy of sympathetic observation, brings a humane solace to our contemplation. These endings enrich our lives with connections through time and with a haunting music of remembrance.

—David Radavich

 

First Prize

 

Child of War

Too young to fight, too poor to flee, legions of children
scrape out a bare existence in the rubble of Kabul.

—John F. Burns, The New York Times
Magazine, April 2, 1995. Photographs by
Laurent Van der Stockt.

The photographer stands amid shattered Himalayas
of ash and fragmented masonry:
it’s all that’s left of this city.
Bombed and bombed again, the solid old buildings
crumbled like stale cake to scatter
stones, mortar, chairs, dolls, arms, feet, human
dreams everywhere—leaving crushed, blackened heaps
from which iron wires stick up
like stiffened hairs.

Here and there, stricken walls still stand, ceilingless,
eroded at the tops to jagged peaks;
in pocked, brittle towers, holes gape brightly
where bricks were shaken out like rotten teeth.

Howling gales from the Hindu Kush
slam across the land and through the sun-baked ruins
flinging dervishes of dust into the air—
and threatening to topple the spiderlike tripod
planted in the center of the street: the photographer
wipes his stinging eyes and squints into the glare,
straining to see what he’s been coming up behind:

A small, frail boy on a makeshift bench,
struggling to keep his balance,
looking to the side as if determined not to see

the pole-like prostheses projecting like antennae
from the tightly harnessed stumps
of what had once been his legs…

He sits, alone but for the crutches at his side,
staring away to where mountains meet sky—
that elusive place where all brutality ends…

that magical, tragic paradise
where blessed amnesia begins—

The photographer
takes a single picture, uproots his tripod
and leaves.

* * *

I wrench the tripod sideways
and my Nikon cracks on rocks.
I turn to run in swirls of dust
so thick I look and look again
but the little boy is lost.
Even his bench is lost.
Sucked into billowing whorls of sand
and hissing ropes of wind that snake
like smoke through broken walls:
I will catch him as he falls.

Sky the color of a dead eye
hangs in frozen sheets that loom
like grief above my head:
my legs are trapped in lead…

I want
I want
a magical horse
to gallop me up to the sky—
my arms embracing his surging neck
the stones the dolls the bricks no longer
bashing their way through my head—

Some wood for fire I am cold
—wild—
my lungs burnt out by dust I cannot
find my shattered lens it cost
so much
My mouth on fire
my tongue seared dry
gasping hauling
red-soaked ropes
I raise my fantastical tent—

Flaming shards of window sash
slap out like molten knives—
my tent in hell
its ropes on fire
my entire flimsy orphanage
exploding in crimson mist

I pound the stakes with bloodied fists
the boy lies screaming on the ground
his crutches shoot up in a blast of flame
to ricochet off in the wind—

My tent now tightly raised I call
Come in, my child—come in…

* * *

Come in, my child—come in.
Come in out of the wind.
Join hands with me that we may fly from here
deep in the warmth of our dreams,
where the sapphire-studded Amu Darya
flows in freedom and grace—
and where roses that bloom on its velvety banks
grow as big as your face!

We will ride as one on the finest steeds
from the stables of Kataghan,
whose bridles are trimmed in hammered gold
and bits that flash white in the sun…

We will gallop up into the mountains,
where fleecy sheep and snow-white goats
doze upon carpets of jade…
where rolling skies of lapis lazuli
and tumbling hills of blood-red rubies
stretch further than eyes can see—

Listen to the wind in the distance:
it brings the songs of the leopards, cheetahs, and wolves
and the scents of all that you crave…
We will ride that wind through amethyst shade
and burst out into that golden place
where melons, figs, and wine-swollen plums
will drench us in fragrant waves:
beauty and food and joy enough
to last us the rest of our lives…

* * *

The rest of his life is coming
brutal and swift. He is homeless,
cast adrift: a sea of flame
beats against the borders of his sanity.

Brutal and swift, he is homeless,
his mother dead…overwhelming agony
beats against the borders of his sanity
and down where his legs used to be;

His mother dead, overwhelming agony
shoots from oozing stumps; the metal stilts
down where his legs used to be
are what he wakes to shrieking…

The oozing stumps, the metal stilts
are all he has left;
are what he wakes to shrieking,
thrashing in his nest of sooty bricks…

They’re all he has left…
He stares ahead, numb from crying,
thrashing in his nest of sooty bricks
and sending tidal waves of grief into the morning;

He stares ahead, numb from crying,
cast adrift on a sea of flame—
and a tidal wave the size of
the rest of his life is coming—

* * *

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

—from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

—Gabrielle LeMay

 

Second Prize

 

Ptochos

Somewhere far out North Capitol Street, urban twilight, waiting in my father’s red Plymouth while my date ran into a glassed-off building—I think she worked for a law office there, I think she had forgotten a contract oath—it’s been decades now. I remember the lust of a young man’s breath, mouth sticky, adrenaline making my finger-ends tap; whatever struck the window was loud. Too startled to respond with anger, I cranked down the glass (car windows had rotating handles then) and saw the beggar holding out a prosthetic leg. Pink, scuffed plastic, not even the color of his skin, his other hand rudely gripping the Plymouth’s roof while he balanced, dancing, on the living foot. Having nothing else, he was using the scooped-out part where the stump fits as a donation bowl. Inside its mouth, a scattering of resentful coins. I added some dollar or two without comment, wanting only to escape the odor, this moment, wanting only to close the window glass against my shame. Then, later that night, naked, and entering her: my hand, reaching into emptiness: my empty hand, reaching into emptiness.

—William Orem

 

Third Prize

 

All things await the day of their breaking

for Lauren

All things await the day of their breaking.
Every object friable this jelly jar

in your fingers, holding its scoop of purple
February morning

that China cup eggwhite dish
on the papered shelf contain
within themselves anticipation

of their crack, shatter
splash,
the glittering; the sigh. Each stone floor

yearns upward toward each dropping plate.

It’s how the earth is made;
I wish it were not so.

Marble tiles and vinyl sing all day

of the wine glasses’ rosy approach.
But you and I, my own—

to me married twenty years this week,
to whom this human song—

risen together and warming a muffin,
squeezing shoulders in good-morning fog,
can mend these bits:

what snaps, what tumbles,
let us vow,

again this starting year
and all of that to come, we’ll catch.

—William Orem

 

Honorable Mention

 

The Poet’s Way

—Sheep’s Head, West Cork

…wends from walled paddocks through a mute glen of sea grass curried
by ceaseless susurration gleaning secrets from a pentameter of countless
steps who’ve passed here one to the next …and by the time you reach

the lighthouse and peer into a tidal crevasse where three girls drowned
a century ago and so added their names to the cliffs’ brutal beauty…
and see the stray lamb suckling his stray mother where the land ends

and wonder how sheep could wander so far in a shepherd’s dream
and what moved people to farm such rocky desolate slopes where
wind tears at mandrake roots, and why still they try—unless perhaps

the gale’s plaintive howl reminds them every moment to joyfully toss
their entire life into the scales of fate…and by the time you pass a small
shrine tucked into the cliffside—Our Lady of the Wayside—her open

arms and beatific gaze imparting succoring grace to any wayward
traveler in need of rest or strength, plodding hungrily up to the car
park’s stone café to brave the tour bus crowd after communing all

day with metaphysics of wind and sea—the solitary self, a high cairn
set in stark relief against the sky…straining, reaching out to touch
what’s either light in god’s face or the backside of just another cliché,

before your soul can get its bearings and shrink…you leave their safe
complacent numbers behind to amble final miles on legs gone slack,
your sun- and salt-lashed face glowing transfigured by forces no mill

or pen can harness, your spirit untamable and wild as white horses
galloping across the bay…it’s impossible to say where exactly,
which view among hundreds, what beauty too breathless to be held

or loss too sad to retell, what stretch of rock or dirt or bog sacrificed
itself to the gust that blew your heart open, which stile you clambered
over, meandering unmown fields of farms perennially on the edge of ruin,

trusting a well-trod thread as your head wandered aimless as a poet’s cloud
over landscapes real and imagined…fingering scales laden with the weight
of unshorn wool, turning your back on numbers and stones when the nurse

weighs you from birth until your last appointment’s intake, every measuring
up a gathering and scattering until even that staunch superstition fades
and falls away in the joyous mournful moan of your mother’s selkie

voice drifting out with the tide. You toss your entire life in anyway,
shattered and unrecognizable to anyone but you, burnished clean
of every bright path, tried or true, the fleet shadow of every thought.

—Partridge Boswell

 

In Donegal

So much moss covers what was lost.
Old men unearth the turf one shovel

at a time. Mist descends in thin veils.
Rain in thick curtains. Nothing is

certain. Not even the dirt beneath
the feet. To be in Donegal

is to dig deep, dream big. The sweep
of clouds along the mountainsides

cling like sheep; all those empty hearths
and roofless walls could make you weep.

—Deborah Doolittle

 

Detritus

My son parades a sumac branch,
insisting it’s his favorite pet,
a mouse without a name.

He covers her with rotting leaves
and reads a book he’s memorized
while wind blows off the crumpled leaves

detaching from the mother branch,
an end to sunny, leafy days,
November gardens marked by space

the light too scant to see a face.
Detritus. The child
who came before its time

preferred an evening tinged with ice.
I asked that being, why didn’t you cling?
The nurse said it’s a natural thing

to bleed away what can’t be saved:
a slippery fish, a broken dish.
No form, just guts. The smell of rot.

My toddler strokes the woody knob
he calls his sumac mouse’s eye.
No face, no nose, no teeth, no hair,

the leaves all gone, he feeds it air.

—Dina Friedman

 

Burnt Offerings

She buried the Ouija board in the side yard
close enough to the cat to pause
at the memory of orange and white fur
before erasing from her mind an answer
she didn’t like to a question I never heard,
an unceremonious witnessing, a flat,
narrow coffin just big enough
for game board and planchette.

Witchy sister who believed
in the cleansing power of both moon
and earth next buried a ring she found
in a parking lot, blue-black sapphire heart
lit with a burning white star.
For thirty days of her self-imposed exile
ring became neighbor to both cat and board,
my sister the grave keeper of things
loved and maligned

as I wondered if the yard could hold
all her banishments when the next night
a spirit compelled her to burn a novel
she made me promise to never read, something
about pets being buried in a pet cemetery,
as she started the flames with an old lighter,
pages folding in on themselves
before lifting from the earth, leaving
behind the board, the bones, a menagerie
of every cursed object,
almost as if the pages were newly born
instead of dying, this possibility of life
extinguished as she stomped out the fire
while planning the next.

—Suzanne Burns