Saturday, February 23, 2019


February 2019 Special Contest Issue
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Cover Art "Delivery Gull" [Ink & Watercolor on Paper] 
Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are the work of our Art Editor or taken from "royalty-free" open internet sources.

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Table of Contents
A Letter from the Contest Preliminary Judge
A Brief Statement from the Contest Final Judge
The 2019 Songs of Eretz Poetry Award Contest Winners
   "Poverty" by Christopher Buckley
   "It's the Year of the Rooster" by B. J. Buckley
   "A Man's Work" by B. J. Buckley
Poetry Review
Cloud Memoir Selected Longer Poems 1987-2017 by Christopher Buckley
   Reviewed by Steven Wittenberg Gordon

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A Letter from the Contest Preliminary Judge
As the preliminary judge for the contest, it was my duty and privilege to read and respond with comments to every one of the more than 350 poems entered and then choose those that would advance to the semi-final round.  Lowell Jaeger took matters from there.  My job was difficult enough, as the quality of the submissions was high.  I can only imagine how difficult Lowell's job must have been to sort through the high-quality poems that made my initial cut.

My preliminary judgments were not made completely blind in that I knew the poets' names.  However, unless I knew the poets previously, I was unaware of their bios, and I did not have their poets' notes.  So, my judgment was semi-blind.

In contrast, Lowell did not know the names of the poets or have their bios until well after he picked the winners.  Poets' notes were given to him only for the finalists he chose and were considered when he made his final judgments.  It is a complete coincidence that the winners have the same last name (there is no relation).  It is also completely by chance that the second and third place winners are the same person, which speaks to the consistency of Lowell's judgment.

This, the fifth annual Songs of Eretz Poetry Award Contest, will be the last poetry contest Songs of Eretz will hold for the foreseeable future.  We at Songs of Eretz are proud to end our contest cycle by recognizing these two outstanding poets.  We hope that the one thousand dollar honorarium for the first place winner and the three hundred dollars in honoraria for the second/third place winner will go some way toward promoting and enhancing their poetry careers.

Steven Wittenberg Gordon, MD
Preliminary Contest Judge

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A Brief Statement from the Contest Final Judge
I agonized over my choices.  The poems I selected as finalists were worthy in many and various ways.  It was difficult to choose the “best,” as all the finalist poems were in their own ways “best.”  In the end, I chose the three which moved my heart most.  

Lowell Jaeger
Montana State Poet Laureate

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First Place

Christopher Buckley
                  la colera de pobre
                  tiene dos rios contra muchos mares.—Cesar Vallejo                                                      

Vallejo wrote that with God we are all orphans.
I send $22 a month to a kid in Ecuador 
so starvation keeps moving on its bony burro 
past his door—no cars, computers, 
basketball shoes—not a bottle cap 
of hope for the life ahead . . .  just enough 
to keep hunger shuffling by in a low cloud 
of flies.  It’s the least I can do, 
and so I do it.
                      I have forgotten to pray 
for the creosote, the blue salvia, let alone 
for pork bellies, soybean futures.  
There are 900 thousand Avon Ladies in Brazil. 
Billions are spent each year on beauty products 
world-wide—28 billion on hair care, 14 on skin 
conditioners, despite children digging on the dumps, 
selling their kidneys, anything that is briefly theirs. 

I am the prince of small potatoes, I deny them nothing 

who come to me beseeching the crusts I have to give. 

I have no grounds for complaint, though deep down, 

where it’s anyone’s guess, I covet everything 

that goes along with the illustrious—creased pants 

as I stroll down the glittering boulevard, a little aperitif 

beneath Italian pines.  But who cares what I wear, 

or drink? The rain?  No, the rain is something 

we share—it devours the beginning and the end. 

The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice—
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On . . . 
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.  
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers 
of the working class—Pharaoh Oil, Congress, 
or The Commissioner of Baseball—all who will eventually 
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap 
on the outskirts of Cleveland.
                                     I have an ATM card, 
AAA Plus card.  I can get cash from machines, 
be towed 20 miles to a service station. Where do I get off 
pencilling in disillusionment?  My bones are as worthless 
as the next guy’s against the stars, against the time it takes 
light to expend its currency across the cosmic vault. 
I have what everyone has—the over-drawn statement 
of the air, my blood newly rich with oxygen, 
my breath going out equally with any atom of weariness 
or joy, each one of which is closer to God than I.

"What Lies Within" | Ink & Watercolor on Paper | Jason Artemus Gordon

Poet’s Notes:  Some “factoids” that came over the radio as I drove home one day started me on this poem—those seemingly insignificant pop culture facts the stations add on at the end of a broadcast of dreary national news and stock market reports--these some facts about life in Brazil.  I had been working on a poem on the subject for some time, trying to emphasize the spiritual poverty that often is the cause of physical poverty and our lack of concern for others on the planet, and finally what that might mean for us in any human and spiritual sense.

As with most of my poems, I worked through forty drafts or more, cutting down and tightening.  And I relied as always on longtime poet friends to offer edits and cuts and critique.  This poem took something like a full year of re-writing and going back into it to arrive at the point where I had hoped to arrive when I began.

Preliminary Judge’s Note:  This is a thought-provoking and timely, even timeless, piece.  The soul-searching of the speaker is heartfelt, and the judicious use of irony makes the moral lesson sing.  “Poverty” was first published in Five Points Magazine.  SWG

Final Judge’s Note:  I admire this poem’s soul-searching tone and its refusal to sugarcoat the poverty of pocketbook and the poverty of the heart. I admire this poem’s ambition to say something of importance, something almost inexpressible.  “My bones are as worthless / as the next guy’s against the stars . . . .”  This line will stay with me.  In the Poet’s Notes, this poet says that much of this poem was built around “factoids” heard on the news.  So, here’s a poet who is paying attention to small things and discovering how they add up to important things.  LJ

About the Poet:  Christopher Buckley is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two NEA grants, a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing, and four Pushcart Prizes.  He was awarded the James Dickey Prize from Five Points Magazine in 2008. He won the William Stafford Prize in Poetry from Rosebud in 2012.  His collection The Far Republics was the winner of the Vern Rutsala Poetry Prize from Cloudbank Books in 2017. 

Buckley’s published poetry collections also include:  Star Journal: Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), Spanish Notebook (Shabda Press, 2017), Chaos Theory (Plume Editions, 2018), and Cloud Memoir: Selected Longer Poems1987-2017 (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2018--reviewed below in this special issue of Songs of Eretz).  Among several critical collections and anthologies of contemporary poetry, he has edited, with Gary Young: Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California (2008), and One For The Money: The Sentence As A Poetic Form (Lynx House Press, 2012).  Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader was edited with Jon Veinberg for Tebot Bach’s Ash Tree Poetry Series in 2014. 

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Second Place

It's the Year of the Rooster

and that one knows it,
clarion claxon
cock-a-doodle dueling
with the waning moon.
"Strut" | Ink & Watercolor on Paper | Jason Artemus Gordon

There's a man who would have heard him, once,
and rolled and stumbled weary
out of bed and into boots,
bib overalls and shirt
to put the coffee on, and
while it perked, clomp out
to feed the chickens –
he's travelled long beyond
this kind of waking.
is fierce angel at the gate,
warning off the weasel and the skunk
to take their darkling dawn meanderings
elsewhere. Beautiful
bright bird with his comb blood red
as sunrise, red for luck,
for this morning's new eternity
opening out before him.

--B. J. Buckley

Poet’s Notes:  When I was a kid growing up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, my parents were friends with an elderly couple who had a chicken farm. When we visited, my sister and I were allowed to collect eggs, feed the hens, and hold their beautiful rooster, who crowed frequently regardless of the time of day or night. That rooster and his hardworking old owner were vivid in my mind as I wrote this poem, and it made me happy to finally preserve a wonderful childhood memory in this way.

Preliminary Judge’s Note:  "Cock-a-doodle DUELING"!  What a play on words and what a strong, enticing opening to a wonderful poem.  SWG

Final Judge’s Note:  I admire how this poem has its feet on the ground (the man in the poem literally rolls out of bed and puts his boots on to go feed the chickens).  So the poem feels like bedrock reality, and the rooster is waking us to this fact.  Later in the poem, the man has “travelled long beyond,” gone from this world. The rooster is still here, maybe not the same rooster, but the essence of a rooster and the coming new day survives . . . “for this morning’s new eternity / opening out before him.”  LJ

About the Poet:  B. J. Buckley is the Writer-in-Residence at Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she works with patients, families, and caregivers to tell, collect, and preserve their stories.  She has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities programs throughout the West and Midwest for more than forty years.  She lives with her sweetheart and too many cats in a small farmhouse thirty miles west of Great Falls, Montana, where she also enjoys gardening, playing music, and teaching art to special needs adults.

B. J.’s poems have appeared widely in print and online journals, including Green Mountains Review, The Cortland Poetry Review, and December.  Her prizes and awards include Cut Throat Journal's Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, The Comstock Review's Poetry Prize, and The Rita Dove Poetry Prize from the Center for Women Writers at Salem College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Lummox Press published her collection, Corvidae, Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, in 2014.

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Third Place

"Working Woman" | Watercolor & Ink on Paper | Jason Artemus Gordon
A Man’s Work
B. J. Buckley

The day they called the Leiter Bar
to tell us Norma Malli’d had a heart attack,
Joyce said, “It’s ‘cause she’s done a man’s work
all her life.” And all the women nodded,
she ranched on her own, did everything 
herself, it was too hard, finally might kill her.

All those women nodded, young girls
with faces already going leathery with sun
and wind, from squinting into it to see
some lost lamb in the blue sage or to sniff out
if that was smoke in the wheat or just some boy
in a pickup throwing dust – those women who rode
and branded and cooked the damn testicles and
nursed the kids and cleaned up after everything,
who jacked stuck trucks out of the mud,
who learned to pee from a horse as tiny girls
because if they got off they were too short
to get back up again (and they could be
twenty miles from home looking for some
antisocial heifer who ought to be ready to drop),
those women who mostly did what Norma did,
who stayed and kept the ranches when
their fathers died or their husbands ran off
or their sons left, those women who called it
“man’s work”, who couldn’t, somehow,
call that work their own.

I ran into Norma once on the dirt road
behind Dead Man, she was on her hands
and knees in the roadside weeds and wheat,
her face flushed crimson, pouncing like a cat.
She was catching grasshoppers in her heavy hands
and popping them into a can with a lid, and I yelled,
“What are you doing, Norma?” and she said,
“Going fishing, nothing like grasshoppers
for going fishing, half the time the fish
leap out of the water to get ‘em before
you can wet the hook!” So I helped her,
while Norma, who never much said two words,
spoke love for fish and her cows and said
she’d never wanted to do nothing else but ranch
even though she was a girl and was
supposed to want other things, and
here she was doing it and how many folks
got to do that their whole lives,
exactly what they wanted?

Poet’s Notes:  I lived for nearly twenty years after college on a 25,000-acre sheep ranch between Sheridan and Gillette, Wyoming. The Malli's were one of the surrounding ranching families who welcomed and included me in everything from Sunday dinner to docking sheep. Norma was the only sister in a family of brothers, unmarried and determined to have a ranch on her own if she had to... so she did. She was an amazing woman, strong and stoic but with a wicked sense of humor. 

I wrote this poem at Joe's Place, the small gas station/bar/cafe/post office in Leiter about three miles from my house, where many of us had gathered after hearing about Norma having a heart attack. Several others and I had neither phone nor electricity at the time, so Joe's Place was “news central” for many. We all passed the time telling "Norma Stories".  I had just seen her earlier in the week and wrote of that encounter in this poem. You will be happy to know that Norma survived and prospered for many years following, no mean feat for any rancher then or now.

Preliminary Judge’s Note:  What a fine tribute to the working women of the West.  The narrative is engrossing.  The imagery is stark and beautiful. “A Man’s Work” was first published in Woven on the Wind (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).  SWG

Final Judge’s Note:  One of my teachers along the way measured the worth of poems by their “reality quotient.”  This poem has a high one.  It’s an ear-catching narrative well told.  The opening is the perfect scene to draw the reader into what’s to come.  I love the stanza where Norma is grubbing in the ditch for grasshoppers. I love that the narrator jumps into the grasshopper hunt with her.  It’s so vivid that I want to jump in, too!  LJ

Artist's Note:  There is a method to the order in which I list the mediums used in my pieces. In "Working Woman", I list watercolor first because I used watercolor first and then applied the ink on top after it dried. Usually I do it the other way around. While employing this "reverse" technique might result in the loss of some precise details, I find the resultant gestural quality quite pleasing.  JAG

About the Poet:  Ibid. 

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Poetry Review

Cloud Memoir: Selected Longer Poems 1987-2017 by Christopher Buckley
   Reviewed by Steven Wittenberg Gordon

Cloud Memoir: Selected Longer Poems 1987 - 2017 (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2018) is a book of about 150 pages of densely packed poetry by Christopher Buckley, the winner of the 2019 Songs of Eretz Poetry Award Contest.  The collection is available in hardcover for about twenty dollars wherever books are sold (Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, &c). It contains forty-three poems with an average length of two to three pages per poem (few are shorter; some are longer).

“You reach a certain age . . . you talk to yourself more often . . . recently I’ve been asking myself what ever happened to my long poems?”  Thus, Christopher begins his brief introduction to the collection. He goes on, “ . . . I’ve often felt, however immodestly, that the longer poems often were the strongest . . . .” I have not yet had, what I anticipate would be, the pleasure of reading Christopher’s shorter poems, but it is difficult to believe that they would be stronger than the longer poems contained in this collection.

The poems are contemplative and autobiographical, as would be expected from a memoir. But this is a poetic memoir--more difficult to compose than a standard prose memoir (go ahead and try--I have). However, a successful poetic memoir (and Christopher’s is certainly successful) will always come closer to the true life story of its subject than its prosaic counterpart, being able to utilize the various tropes and devises of poetry to advantage to better portray the emotional milieu surrounding the anecdotes and musings of the life in question.  Here, for example, the reader will learn not only the mundane fact that the poet attended a traditional Catholic school but will experience the boredom, fear, doubt, and frustration that doing so entailed, not to mention the broad questions of faith and episodes of rebellion that it inspired.

The word “cloud(s)” appears in every poem, providing a nice unifying thread.  Clouds are used as metaphor for many different things in the poems--from the stuff of angels to the passage of time--but sometimes, the clouds are just used as clouds.  Another theme that binds the collect together is that just about every poem is a metaphysical examination of, in the words of Douglas Adams, “life, the universe, and everything”.  At one point, the poet jokes that he would have been an astrophysicist rather than a poet but for the math.  

Christopher is acutely aware of his mortality as he poetically looks back on a life that included living in California before it was fashionable and travels to Europe. The poems are sprinkled with passages in French, Spanish, and Latin--just enough to add a little seasoning while avoiding the dangers of pseudointellectualism.  The reader will follow the poet’s life (in no particular order--the collection is not chronological) from his simultaneously rebellious but obedient youth to his frankly existentialist young adulthood to his more philosophical and accepting older age.  

As Christopher is not that old (he is past retirement age but could easily live another twenty years or more, God willing), it would be interesting to see how his current poetic memoir might compare to one written two decades from now.  I predict he will come full circle--accepting as truth the religion drummed into him in his youth while still, if only a little, rebelling against it.  Perhaps we shall see.  In the meantime, I invite readers to enjoy Christopher’s current poetic memoir--one I am glad to have read and will most assuredly re-read periodically.

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