Award Winners

Cecil Hemley Memorial Award - 2007

Yerra Sugarman


                               [July 7 2003, Coma Ward, Reflection]

What do we call it,
    the light that prisms and keeps
                      opening its monarch wings, and won't
    fold them or let them be
                      pinned down even as grief
            fastens itself to us—regardless of this;

    that lunatic light polishing the shell
            of a house, handfuls of room, a teaspoon full—

    the light's indifferent ardor keeps perusing—pitched
            far from the mouth
                     of a sink, where a woman stood—stands still,
            perhaps—rinsing peas

    in a plastic colander, now in an archive of heat
lit by another wick of light.

Light is its own architect. Its own
    contractor dismantling chambers

         of the heart to make it an aviary—its own
     wrench—converting hallowed space for hollow bone

                   and wingspan. It is its own
         sickle threshing the violets

    of shadows from feet. Its own
general and chief, whose strong jaws reveal something
        like pearls inside the shell
of an empty room.

    What to call the silence

          whose syllables are spades,

    whose flushed skin is an orchard's flushed skin?
       The sweaty crooks of quiet's elbows itch
    from the fruits' fur. The steam of Turkish coffee
riding the light between the trees,

    bandaging their lesions with light's gauze
                  where the bark has sutured itself
        and ladders lean cautious as tongues
testing the hot tea of dark leaves— 


How to say the wounded days try
                   to be faithful, that they're not
               staunched, yet beautiful,

the sheerness of their iris and plume,

mandarin and thistle, though the sky keeps
               falling, bleeding through rice-
                             white clouds, falling;

to say memory—mint she'd planted
              still growing on its sill—
                        dull coins of it in paper cups;
                how dahlias flowered

              near the tomb; a star's
                   a searchlight; the night a torn dress.
                         July—we word our days. We name them
                   willow ash,

                 ache of bells,
                   cars ablaze, exile, the living dead,
              armies of boys—fire stroking their faces, children.

And our sentences bare themselves
                to stay perched
                            on the lines of our salt

                sharp pages, to stay steady, be luminous.

                            But what happens
when language can no longer bear us?

Michael Palmer on Yerra Sugarman

The Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, I read, is for "a lyric poem that addresses a philosophical or epistemological concern." Epistemology, of course, involves the study of knowledge and its justification and speaks to notions of reasonable belief, certainty, evidence, and so on. These are the "subjects" of philosophy, and as such best suited to philosophical discourse (which may or may not be to some degree "poetic" in style). Questions about being, knowing and believing, however, lie at the heart of lyric subjectivity; they inhabit lyric poetry not as "subjects" but as motivators of its naming and unnaming, its call to the other, its interweaving of presence and absence. Poetry, it might be said, enacts through words such dramas of meaning and mortality.

The prize-winning selection, a "day" from Yerra Sugarman's "Journal: Rai'ut Coma Ward, Tel Aviv-Yaffo, July 2003," begins with the question, "What to call it..." and ends with a related, apposite question:

But what happens
when language can no longer bear us?

The poem articulates grief and loss by indirection, accumulating sharply etched details of the quotidian to evoke absence and silence; to evoke, in other words, the unsayable. The darkness of the confrontation and its final cri de coeur stand in paradoxical balance with a poetic language almost overcharged in its sensuous appeal. "Light" forms the leitmotif, "light that prisms," "lunatic light," "light's gauze," "light's indifferent ardor," "Light its own architect," and the poet's sentences are ultimately called upon to "be luminous" that is, to cast light upon both the past and the dark of the "wounded days." The free-verse lines are deployed with great skill, and the lyric-elegiac tone eloquently encounters the dust storm (sand storm?) of history.

As a concluding note, I would be remiss not to commend enthusiastically the strikingly impressive poems submitted by the two finalists, Timothy Donnelly and Meredith Stricker.