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2013 Literature Winners

Prizes are awarded yearly to authors of prose or verse works that are considered to be of exceptional artistic and humanistic merit. An outside judge determines awards, which range from $100 to $200. This year’s judge for the Kienle Competition in Literature is Elizabeth Dolan, Ph.D.. Dr. Dolan is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Health, Medicine and Society Program at Lehigh University. She held the Senior Fellowship in Literature and Medicine at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, where she earned her Ph.D. in British Romantic-Era Literature. Her research and teaching explore the representation of suffering—including illness, slavery, women’s oppression, and poverty—in both eighteenth-and nineteenth-century literature and in contemporary illness narratives. She is author of Seeing Suffering in Women’s Literature of the Romantic Era (Ashgate 2008) and serves as the Book Review Editor of the Keats-Shelley Review.

 

First Place
Tibetan Sky Burial
© Derek Reighard  MSII

Do not delay the vultures now—
no, not on my behalf.

I have awaited daylight
since the morning dawn bloomed black,
since my grandfather’s insides turned tumorous.

I am not afraid for him. The strident teeth
that once terrorized his paper-thin skin
have eroded into quiet tufts of dust.

Above the Drigung Monastery today the sky is clear,
a cloudless panorama for a soul in flight. Even the
mountains seem to recede and make room.

Solemn monks assemble on the ancient stone
landing, summoning the scavenger birds with
incense of juniper sprigs and cypress wood.

Yogin-butchers begin breaking my grandfather down,
his leathery frame short work for sharpened blades,
his bones crushed fine and entrails splayed.

For a moment I am certain the body
rearranged before me isn’t him,
isn’t anything.

With bold cacophony the vultures strike,
tearing at tendon like common carrion—
a frenzied mass of shifting wings.

The gift of this body comes free of beauty’s strings.

Through the relentless work of beaks
my grandfather is rendered weightless,
a proud impermanence in earthy grasps.

The heavens crowd with bloodied feathers
as white clouds offer rain:
Benediction.

 

Judge’s Comments: 

This astonishingly beautiful poem is set in the Himalayas, at a Buddhist Monastery founded in 1179. Because Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the body is no longer needed after death, and thus, in this ancient ritual, it is offered as a gift to nature. In this poet’s intricate rendering, an act that might seem violent or gruesome–the dismembering of one’s own grandfather–becomes sacred. Listen to the vowel sounds and the rhythms of this poem as you read it aloud. The first two lines sound the “o” and “ow” of lamentation, but maintain a steady two-beat rhythm that gently expands into three beats in line three, capturing the growth of the grandfather’s tumors in sound. The poet introduces an end rhyme just as the Yogin-butchers begin their work: “blades” and “splayed.” As the body separates, the poem tightens, preparing for the vultures and the acsention of the soul. Three-line stanzas structure the poem, yet the first stanza has only two lines. The single line–”The gift of this body”–serves as a third line to the first stanza, but stands alone to encapsulate the speaker’s own feelings. The final two stanzas leave the personal perspective behind, moving the reader into the sacred as the body disappears into the clouds. Nature opens early in the poem to accept the soul and then at the end of the poem, sends down rain, a “benediction,” as if in thanks for the soul it has received.


Second Place
After All
© Domenick Moore   Patient

The park bench on 82nd Street groaned, sounding like old men shuffling around the marketplace. I sat in front of the Met, my lunch in my lap. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city, I watched masses of Very Busy People spreading out like the Diaspora, assembly lines of taxis jockeying for position.

That’s when he introduced himself.

You could see the street on him; it’d crept its way into every line and crease worn throughout his face and hands. His hair was an early gray, a Byzantine nimbus radiating around him. He looked both sage and wild man, left too long on his own; Rasputin in the Big Apple. The smell of alleys and cheap whiskey rose from him, an acrid odor that wouldn’t be ignored.

“Ahem. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alvin.” A courtly bow was followed by an unceremonious flop of his tattered red hood, but the man — this Alvin — continued unmolested. “How you doin’ today?”

No words came, though my eyes still worked, as though I could puzzle out this man’s sudden, magical appearance by blinking. All I’d expected from the day was the museum, nothing more — hours spent meandering among some of the world’s greatest works of art, guarded by men and women that wore scowls more comfortably than their polyester blazers. Screaming children that would have been better served by a day spent with a sitter. Adults who scoffed at Pollock, Miro, and Gris, muttering under their breath that their kids drew the same crap every day at daycare, but you didn’t see anyone throwing millions of dollars their way.

Alvin was an anomaly.

I shrugged. “I’m good?”

Laughter literally shook Alvin from head to foot. Sunlight streamed through his gap-toothed grin and my mother’s piercing voice rang out in the back of my head: “Never make eye contact with the homeless. That’s just asking for trouble.”

But I’d read the statistics — a little more than 50 percent of all homeless suffer from some form of mental illness. I was well aware that if only one thing in my life had been off by even the merest of degrees, it could be me walking around carrying my life in a plastic bag. I usually took every opportunity to give what I could. Here I was with a ham sandwich and a bed waiting for me back in Pennsylvania. There was Alvin with more fingers than teeth. He didn’t seem to notice, though.

“Hey, that’s good, that’s good. How could you not be happy on a day like today? You in the greatest city in the world and the sun’s shinin,’ birds singin.’ Makes you happy to be alive.” Alvin breathed in deeply, stretching his arms like an eagle preparing for flight. He smiled again, teeth like tessera, mouth like a long-abandoned mosaic. Every time he exhaled, I found myself trying to decide if I was smelling Wild Turkey or Old Granddad.

“Exactly,” I said, unable to disagree with such a shining endorsement.

Alvin did a little jig of a dance and clapped his hands.

“All right, lemme tell you my gig, lemme tell you my gig here. I sing. That’s what I do. I sing songs, an’ if you like what you hear, you can give me a lil’ somethin.’ You know, whatever you got.”

Guilt turned to regret as I looked at Alvin. As sweet and beguiling as he was, all I had was an empty wallet and an overpriced sandwich.

“I’m really sorry, Alvin. I spent the last of my cash on this ham and cheese sandwich.” I reached to pull out my wallet, prove I wasn’t just handing him excuses instead of a few dollars. Alvin just shook his prophet’s hair and smiled.

“Hey no, man. I dig. That’s what happened to me. Ham and cheese sandwiches, man. Like a drug. Couldn’t stop buying ‘em. One day, I just couldn’t pay the rent no more.” A pause, then Alvin reached out, clapped me on the shoulder. “Just kiddin,’ man.” He wiped an invisible tear from his cheek and hooted, this barn owl of the streets and underpasses.

The thought came to me, and I was embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner.

“I have an idea, Alvin. You sing — any song you want. Doesn’t matter to me. If I like it, I’ll split my sandwich with you.”

Alvin fixed me with a sideways glance, not speaking. The ambient sounds of the city — traffic, pedestrians chatting, a squirrel racing up a tree — seemed to expand in the sudden vacuum left by his silence.

“You sure, man?” The words were sotto voce, as though we were passing sensitive information. “Yo, it’s one thing to ask for money. It’s another to take a man’s food out his mouth.”

I tried to follow this odd logic, hoping the smile plastered on my face masked the confusion in my eyes.

“I’m positive, Alvin.”

His eyebrows knitted. Shades of red crept up beneath the stain of the street. He began to wring his hands as though trying to stay warm. Finally, he nodded once.

“Thank you, man. That’s really sweet. Just for that, I’m gonna sing you a Marvin Gaye tune. You dig Marvin?”

“I love Marvin Gaye. Who doesn’t?”

As simply as that, Alvin was swept up in a wave of frenetic energy, all fingers snapping and grinning.

“Yeah, man. You gotta dig Marvin.”

Alvin cleared his throat by means of warming up and opened his mouth. The first note sung was like an enchantment — the nervous energy dissipated, the eccentric street dweller disappearing like a glamour. Years seemed to peel away, shaking loose from the wrinkles and folds. The cologne of cheap booze magically evaporated. This new man before me channeled the spirit of Marvin Gaye. Alvin’s rich tenor soared and swept, dipped and dropped. It flowed, wrapping itself tightly, but softly, around me as goosebumps crept across my skin.

“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you cryin’. Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dyin’. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

When the song finally ended, Alvin held the last note just a little longer before letting it drop gracefully away. Realizing I’d forgotten to breathe, I sucked in a lung-full of air and shivered, enthralled by this virtuoso in a distressed infantry jacket. For his part, Alvin stood there waiting, unaware of the effect he’d had on me.

As I wrapped foil around one half of the sandwich, I sighed. “Good Lord, Alvin. That was amazing.”

“Thanks, man. You know, it’s just somethin’ I do.” He held the sandwich in one hand, reaching out with the other; he had a firm grip. “Thanks for this. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

Alvin gave me a little salute with the sandwich and was on his way. I watched him walk his little jig, eventually blending into a crowd, becoming just another part of the city. I took a bite of my half of the ham and cheese, the spicy mustard drawing tears from my eyes.

“Man,” I said with my mouth full, to no one in particular, “can that guy sing.”

Judge’s Comments: 
Read this beautifully wrought short story for the movement it captures–from the crowds flowing through the streets of New York City, to the “frenetic energy” racing through the homeless vocalist Alvin’s body. This sense of movement makes the moments of quietness and transcendent stillness even more powerful. First Alvin lowers his voice when the speaker offers to share a sandwich, as if aware that something unusual is about to occur. But this is just a prelude to the magical way time and space open up around the two characters while Alvin sings. This exchange–half a sandwich for a song–transforms an interaction between two people on the street into a communion both sacred and social. Together the singer and his auditor create a momentary masterpiece outside of the walls of the world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Third Place
Abra Cadavera

© Yehoshua Laker  MSIII

The face is stark. Raving. Had.
Frozen, with grime. Constricted, in time.
Mortal; unmoving. Supine; reproving.

My face is dark. Staring. Sad.
Liquid, with emotion. Transfixed, at the notion:
Mortal. And moved. Erect; and improved.

Her chest, deeply gashed. Her stomach: collapsed.
Her heart failed within her. Her blood did but hinder.
A life force off track. A resource attacked.

My chest… abashed. My stomach: unlatched.
My heart quailed within me. My blood stirred with pity,
Faced with the Fact. A moment compact.

Thin; black; hairs. Barren of cares; unknown to tears.
Swollen legs and thighs. Stained knees and cries.
Ankles, of shorn support. Feet, of mean comfort.

Sin; hope; fears. Riven with wonder; senses asunder.
Frame that will teach us. A figure to reach us.
Aware of a life. A mother and wife.

Her life, though aborted — her death, made supportive.
An act of magnanimity. To live for posterity.
The circumstance was tragic.
The moment is magic.

Judge’s Comments: 
All first-year medical students encounter their “first-patient” in anatomy class. This musical poem, full of symmetry, compares the speaker with the cadaver and honors the gift of her body. Look at the way alternating stanzas mirror each other; listen for the rhyme within and between lines. This is the connective tissue between cadaver and student. The first stanza describes the physicality of the cadaver; the second the physicality of the student. The third and fourth stanzas capture the working of the stomach, heart, and blood—first in the cadaver and then in the student. In the fifth stanza the student speaker records signs of the female cadaver’s vulnerability, then his own in stanza six. The final six lines address their connectivity and acknowledge the way the donation of the body transforms a “tragic” death into the “magic” of learning.


Honorable Mention
Hunger

© Erica Bates   MSIV

The sweet elderly woman on five presented looking pregnant, abdomen distended with ascites. It had been collecting for a while, but her husband has had two heart attacks and she takes care of him. She came in when she couldn’t bend over anymore. Her husband visits every day. It’s just the two of them.

“Eating okay?” A routine question for a routine discharge.

“Oh yes, I am eating very well now. But you know, the portions they send up here are so big! I couldn’t possibly eat it all. Last night they sent up a pizza, a whole round pizza, this big!”

An exaggerated gesture. I’ve seen them in the cafeteria, six inches across.

“So sometimes, you know, I give the rest to George to finish, because I’d hate to see it go to waste. But I always tell the nurses how much I eat, so I don’t mess up your records.”

Eyes down, waiting for censure from a student doctor less than half her age.

Her husband returns, holds up her prescriptions. “These pills she needs…do you know how much they cost?”

Judge’s Comments:

A lifetime of loving sacrifice emerges in this economic “short short” story. Hospitalized for ascites, or accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity that is often a sign of serious disease or even organ failure, the elderly woman shares her hospital food with her husband. She says that the food they bring, a six-inch pizza, is too much for her. But if you read between the lines, you discover in her husband’s question about the cost of her medicine a confirmation of their poverty. She gives her husband her food so he won’t go hungry.

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