Winning Poems

Basic Training

My father was a fierce soldier
but not at the front.
He battled for cash, using
jeeps from the motor pool
as taxies—bloodying the faces
of his non-commissioned enemy
that threatened his enterprise.

One day he lost control speeding
to a train depot—the jeep launched,
spun— ejected his body.
There was surgery; they stitched
a steel plate into his head—
sent him home with severance
and a medical discharge.

He was lucky—and so was I
to be the son trained up
with his tales of glory:
like his thrashing a bull
of an anti-Semite Oakie,
or sucker-punching a sergeant
who called him a queer-ass pussy.

I believed this tough bastard,
my father. Why not?—
there were photos of him
posed stern and handsome
in khaki fatigues, helmeted,
with a rifle slung
over his shoulder. I couldn’t see
his feral eyes nor the cut
of his arrogant mouth.

No time for play or gentleness—
my father was busy fitting me
for war. From packages wrapped
in camouflaged paper
my uniform grew.
First canvas leggings and a webbed gun belt,
then a cartridge case and a holster.
The last of it was a plastic helmet liner
that wobbled when I walked
no matter how tight I cinched
its leather strap under my chin.
Straighten out,
Cut your hair, Be a man—
beat and beaten, his drill went on.
Sit-ups, hard gut, jaw set,
I was lost in his macho-bullshit—
trudging miles, years
on a forced march to crazy.

And still later, after the old man
got a transfer to the after-life,
I took up his position:
the sole defender
of an island, armed to the teeth,
afraid of the world.

Violence singed the air,
and I inhaled deeply.
Crossing lines, my rage
concealed in self-pity—
I shot the bitch of tenderness
at point blank range.

I’m sick of this life
fixed like a bayonet.
It would be pretty to believe
in the miracles of lions and lambs
and swords made to plough
the soil of a giving earth.

So I’ll tell us both I was saved;
that God, or some gentle woman
helped my soul shed its darkness
to see all the children broken
by war, by fear
by the crush of ignorance,
find their place among the stars.

Walking the Steere Hill Preserve

Once there were orchards
freighted with abundance
and windfalls of red and gold.
It was a slow time of hands
and horses bearing crates
piled high on wagons held
steady over ruts and stones.

I walk the old farm road
past meadows of indiangrass
and Queen Anne’s lace swayed
by their elegance. The sky
is lavender and swallows
lighten me with their curving
grace. The sun tastes fine.
I think I can fly.

But gnats think otherwise,
and I fall then retreat
to a path through the woods.
Not much light but lots of quiet—
pine needles underfoot and tiny white moths
falling like a weird snow.
One finds my palm and rests
nearly weightless, profound
in its inconsequence.

My breath gives it motion
but not life. One go-round to a customer,
I say to the trees, to my moth
with its golden eye,
and its dead and dying tribe
scattered among the leaves.
I let the moth fall—
then backtrack to the meadow.

First place winner Ira Schaeffer

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