Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award - 2022
The Sea Letters
From the window sunlight pierce the bodies
of clouds. I turn to watch them, all that water
in the sky, trapped in the shape of dolphins,
a family swimming through St. John’s River.
The beauty of a place is welded into us
like that parapet in Cambridge that I still see
in the afternoon of the world, its clay roasted
in fire; the patience of skill, the patience of movement,
something I know about, having been in the sky
for hours. The airplane turns toward Tallahassee
and the fields present themselves, green
and full of pride. The trees, too far from me
to know their names, stand so slender, eyelashes
in God’s eyes, so tender they wave in winds
of beauty, and on the river a tiny boat moves
toward home, leaving in its path a trail of water
on the belly of the world. O stars not yet out,
how I quake in the wake of wonder, all that beauty
so heavy I must take it in slowly or get drunk.
I, too, having walked the antebellum of the south
must come to the same conclusion the woman
on my right came to, the beauty of the world
was built in our blood. The plane taxies and I wonder,
in all the places I have been to why does love greets me
at the door with an effort sculpted by brutal labor?
Will I meet it today? When it says to me, welcome,
will I look in its eyes and say, there is a wall
we all must rest on; I hope you find yours?
And now I walk down the aisle, my hands before me,
a bride, a stranger seeking home. And the world reaches out,
not in the welcome of a prodigal but in the way
eternity swallows us, knowing fully well that we will drink
and not reach the end, still it gives what it can, mourning
our deaths into the summer sound of cicadas.
Major Jackson on Romeo Oriogun
We might believe we know the refugee writers’ relationship to home, language, and identity, topics that result from global conflict and human migration. After all, we have plenty of case studies; as headlines once again call our attention, war plagues us, and no century has gone unscathed from the ravages of human combat and the machinery of violence. In contextualizing the work of authors who dispel any romance that may accompany large-scale geopolitical conflict and resultant human displacement, we speak of the longing of one’s homeland, the liminal and emotionally demanding space between languages, and the arduous process of integrating into new environs. But what if war is not the cause of exile but the repression and policing of desire that sends the artist fleeing in want of a space of existential and sexual freedom. And thus, the exilic imagination in these poems marks a different set of concerns: the allure of strangers in cities, movement and forms of beauty, a “wild sadness,” loneliness that dismantles but also, too, produces music, and yes poetry. The wisdom here is deeply melancholic, and its currents arrive in lyrical tides: There is no rest in exile, there is only the road echoing / in blood, the road echoing in water, and we know it. Reading the poems here, I experienced an indispensable aliveness of speech that made the world around me tangibly felt: “I say to you: the ripples / must know our names, see how they come / toward us . . . eager to hold us / like every city we have walked into.” The achievement of these poems is a gorgeous and unified record of self in motion. As Adrienne Rich reminds us, an awakening consciousness invites the exploration of a new psychic geography, and thus, this poet journeys toward “the only freedom [he] could speak without shame.”