The Walrus Foundation is delighted to announce the shortlist of the fourth annual $4,000 Walrus Poetry Prize and $1,000 Readers’ Choice Award, generously supported by the Hal Jackman Foundation. Celebrated Canadian poet Sue Sinclair will choose this year’s winner from the short list compiled by The Walrus magazine’s poetry editor, Damian Rogers. Read the poems and vote below.
The Walrus Poetry Prize Shortlist
“Onakawana” by Debra Bennett
“What was Once Russia” by Lynn Crosbie
“Vortex Fluid Device” by Kayla Czaga
“Westward U-Haul Gothic” by Claire Kelly
“Sloth” by Dan MacIsaac
“Mercury” by Sara Peters
after Joseph Boyden “The wonder and danger of the mighty Moose River”
By Debra Bennett
Islands so big they look like mainland,
sturgeon large as man nudge rocks, turn
them with snub noses, suck up crayfish.
Poplar, aspen, thick along the shores,
above, osprey glide. Loggers know if
they harvest trees by the river they’ll
create mass erosion, kill off fish,
and the animals who hunt them, but
they want it still. They say they will get
it from the Cree. William’s camp,
where Onakawana slips into
the Abitibi, forest and river
giving us what we need: moose, pickerel
and pike. This is where I bring my son, to
reconnect when teenage years threaten
to unground him. There’s magic in
the Mushkegowuk, the Moose Cree
homeland, part of my son, and me.
What was once Russia
By Lynn Crosbie
“The CCP or whatever,” my father says, anxiously. “I’ve been here for fifteen years.”
I remind him that Francis is almost fifteen—his limp little legs unable to get up the streetcar Steps today, my baby, I said, lifting him up—
So it can’t have been that long.
Summer is shuffling forward: in the park we are glanced by a yellow Frisbee and green ball and every day
My mother calls with a smaller voice, to tell me something that Dad said,
“Did I tell you he wrote a poem?” she says and “Do you want to hear it?”
She tells me:
Birds and bees and buffalo weeds.
And today: “Did I tell you your father said he is sitting in front of a big blackboard?”
that it is dark and everything is erased. He can’t remember anything.”
“Oh!” a young girl cried when I lifted my sick baby.
“Oh no,” I think, very quickly before the eraser speeds over,
she is telling the days of his dying—
The spongy rectangle leaves something like sky-writing’s passing,
a faint impression of something urgent in its blown out clouds.
Vortex fluid device
By Kayla Czaga
In California, chemists are unboiling eggs
to cure children and vaccinate cancer.
I am unwriting poems, letter by letter
to cure sentimentality because Benjamin
quit writing and what is any of us
doing if he’s not out there ghosting
the language? What an awful way
to talk to someone you don’t talk to
anymore—write a poem and maybe
he’ll get it. Of course I’m too selfish
to unwrite my poems. Everything I say
in poems is a lie, even that, and what are you
gonna to do about it? The English language
has between 0.6 and 1.3 bits of entropy
per character of message, meaning
I’m predictable, meaning here’s where
I tell you my father taught me long division
on the cardboard centre of a toilet roll.
The Californian chemists have clean
names like Gregory and Stephen. They
have made expensive hamster ovary
options obsolete by doing something I don’t
understand involving a vortex fluid
device to unfold proteins. You might
think this means we can go back to
before the egg was cracked, the two of us
hungry in your kitchen with sleep-grit
in our tear ducts, and a Jumangi stampede
of wildebeast mashes our proteins into
your linoleum. Maybe we go to Wannawafel
for waffles and never have that fight.
You might think this, but the entropy
of the universe still increases, said
one of the scientists in an interview.
Westward U-Haul Gothic
By Claire Kelly
b/c we’ve no cd player though we packed cds.
b/c I’m being driven through Manitoba in a benadryl haze.
b/c Manitoba goes on and on in its miraculous flatness.
b/c despite the flatness I keep thinking of Brontë’s moors.
b/c the wind shunts the u-haul like poor dramatic structure.
b/c back and forth—the rising action of open fields, the falling action of
b/c the climax of rumble strips.
b/c near Portage la Prairie a black oil train that is Heathcliff is about to
take the dangerous turn that is Catherine.
b/c the train takes the turn murderously slow and keeps going.
b/c the plot that is Heathcliff leaves but can’t actually leave the moment
that is Catherine behind.
b/c the rest is straight tracks and bad music.
b/c I wanna take a ride on your disco stick is the best lyric we’ve heard for
more than an hour.
b/c a late spring storm coats the side-view mirror in ice and the prairies
behind us are muddled.
b/c at Gladstone’s Happy Rock the crows are bullied by magpies.
b/c I can’t remember why smaller birds hate crows.
b/c the crows are now Heathcliff.
b/c at the Saskatchewan border the clouds clear.
b/c here I don’t know what Catherine is, maybe the ice melting, maybe
remembering that there was ice.
b/c all day the crows have a hard time of it.
b/c a boat unzips a river and I don’t know which river it is.
b/c 28 crows decide size is of little help and must rely on guile.
b/c when they’re not flying, the magpies wear wife beaters.
b/c Saskatchewan, up here, is not so flat and has more trees.
b/c it is not how I pictured it, these rolling hills, a horizon
b/c driving west into the sun feels too deliberate.
b/c in the evening light the telephone lines are white spider silk.
b/c ah, the voice of Catherine that is never unfiltered runs through those
lines that are slowly becoming obsolete.
By Dan MacIsaac
Icon of verdigris
and pale lichen,
pelted with algae,
ark of beetles
and moon moths,
mute as a burl.
of red hibiscus
like a robber.
By Sara Peters
One summer in my youth the young girl with the solar system tattooed on her face ruled the Town, and I spent all my nights wishing she would hitchhike to my parents’ farmhouse, kick down the front door, and find me. Lying on top of my quilt I listened for the girl so hard I could hear the tomatoes from our garden drying out in the oven. She fucked all of her friends rotationally, catholically; she fucked the grimy transients who slept rolled in plastic; she fisted the Town councilor who had been fired for using too many words in her speeches. The young girl’s mother had given her a fanciful hippie name and as a child she took a more conventional one, but she could not remain an Amy for long. Her attention could only be captured by the ugliest, most violent, bravest, or most beautiful actions. And it was devastating to watch her blast down the streets, embodying all the inexpressible parts of myself.
I was so full of fear, I felt it from my toes to the ends of my hair. Sometimes I was convinced the fear had existed before I did, for I had been born to a legacy of poverty and filth. In conducting even the mildest conversations with other people, I felt like I was calling up for rescue from the bottom of a well.
Every morning I believed I could hear the good-hearted Townspeople rising from sleep and bending over to touch their toes. I could hear their eggs poaching; I could hear the rich oily flavor being extracted from their coffee beans. And in my youth, I measured their dignity against my family’s degradation, for after my father left the Town paid for nurses to care for my mother, and these nurses quickly grew lazy. My mother made distressed noises when they removed her shirt too roughly, and there were often food stains left on her face. Most days she was left propped up with pillows in front of a TV, vomiting as she was shown clip after clip of nauseating violence.
Watching this used to cause me such pain that I longed to find the girl, chuck my body at her dirty feet, and beg her to lock me in armour. So I’d look for her in the holiest part of the Town: the very edge, near the water, which was the source of disembodied, polyphonic singing. But the singing would always cease as I approached, and hours later I would wake cold and bruised in a field, with no memory.
I wanted to join the girl’s army, if only she would let me. But she left after that summer, while I stayed and conformed to the Town’s punitive geography. Now, I imagine the girl being sewn into a wedding dress. I imagine her being sewn into a shroud. I imagine her being sewn onto my face. I am far too old to be imagining such things. I try to capture the attention of others like her, though I know they will gradually see me with perfect clarity, and find me laughable. Often, my life feels like a record of obsessions. I stand next to girls on the bus and I hope a sudden brake will send them tumbling against me. When seated I pretend to fall asleep so that I may slump onto the shoulders of the girl sitting beside me, only to wake immediately with a start, saying oh pardon me I’m so sorry, I didn’t know I was that tired. And she responds kindly and absently, for I look friendly and middle class, now, in my trench coat and dragonfly hairpin and mint-colored nails; she doesn’t yet see me for who I am, and I wonder, can I be reborn–
Voting has begun! Cast your ballot here before October 1 to help decide the winner of the $1,000 Readers’ Choice Award.
The Walrus Foundation extends its deepest gratitude to the Hal Jackman Foundation for its generous support of the Walrus Poetry Prize and poetry in The Walrus magazine.