Cecil Hemley Memorial Award - 2016
James Davis May
Instead of deer or turkey in the yard,
this morning we find Ed Smith,
or a man who says he's Ed Smith.
Elderly, dressed in a khaki jacket and pants
with a white Polo tucked partially into his belt,
he sits beside me now on our deck
while inside my wife calls the sheriff
to see if anyone is looking for him. No one is.
He knows nothing except the name,
not even how he got here or why
he would be walking at all just after sunrise.
I ask him if he saw the cows in the meadow
along the roadside and he says no,
that he didn't come that way, but I know
it's the only way he could have come.
I ask him if he's married and he says no,
then maybe, and I catch myself
manufacturing a sort of condescending pity,
condescending in the way that all pity is,
thinking of him as a body with no self,
a ghost in reverse, an orphaned memory
of someone else's grandfather now lost
and unaware that no one knows who he is,
including himself. In the old stories,
the dead forget themselves and walk witless
through the underworld like boats
adrift and pilotless, and maybe that's why
we invented the self or the soul or the spirit,
some indelible quiddity that cannot die,
because this, to be forgotten by everyone,
even our own minds, seemed—and it is—
inexcusable, the worst sort of indignity.
But maybe this spell will break, and the hero
will return, however briefly, to talk with the sheriff
who'd otherwise be bored this Sunday
in a county where nothing happens
except for things like this. Maybe a wife
will be found, or a son or a daughter,
who will laugh when picking him up, the laugh
the acceptance of what cannot be changed.
So my wife and I wait for that someone
who will know what to do, leaving Ed Smith
to sit quietly in our chair, without questions,
his hand tapping his knee to the rhythm
of a song that he's remembered or imagined
and isn't there but seems to be beautiful.
Laura Kasischke on James Davis May
This piece speaks to the unknowability of others and, more troublingly, the unknowability of the self. Without family, community, context or memory, who are we? Are we anyone at all? Yes, this poem insists. We are. We exist if we are seen. We wander here, yes, lost, but in the often comforting company of other wanderers. This is a poem full of shifts and epiphanies, but these are so subtly offered as to work on the reader in an almost subliminal fashion. This is a truly moving poem, but never sentimental. It is too full of curiosity for that. It is a poem that will stay with me forever—its gentle suggestion, its careful observation, its tone of authority sweetened by its unabashed admission of confusion. Like a resonant one-act play, a candid photo, an intense but overheard anecdote, or a songlike soliloquy, there is simplicity and mystery here. They heighten one another. They are the tools of poetry, used here by a master of the craft.