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2014 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 Maura Spiegel, Ph.D..

Maura Spiegel has a joint appointment at Columbia University and Barnard College where she teaches literature, film and American Studies. Associate Director of the Program for Narrative Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, she teaches film to second-year medical students, and serves on the core faculty of the Master of Science Program in Narrative Medicine. The co-author of The Grim Reader: Writings on Death, Dying and Living on (Anchor/Doubleday), she has edited new editions of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes for the Barnes & Noble Classics Series.  With Rita Charon, MD, PhD, she co-edited the journal Literature and Medicine for seven years, has written for The New York Times, and has published essays on many topics.  She is currently writing a biography of the director Sidney Lumet (St. Martin’s Press).

First Place

Mid America 1950
© Thomas Lloyd Ph.D.   Department of Public Health SciencesIt was going to be a wickedly hot June day, so Toots Nelson was trying to get her old mud-spattered John Deere tractor to start before sunrise. It turned and sputtered but that was all. Toots said, “Goddamn!” hopped off the seat, released the springs on the distributor cap, and used the nail file blade of her pocket knife to clean the points. She got back on the seat, hit the starter button, and as soon as the twenty-year-old tractor roared to life she set to work. Toots’ place was one street over from ours and had once been a farmstead with an old house, a small barn and some chicken coops on about a half-acre.  By breakfast she had scraped away all of the blackberry briars from a piece of ground the size of a basketball court on the west side of her lot.Toots Nelson was a big, raw-boned woman with a weathered face and a Prince Valiant haircut that came from chance encounters with her kitchen scissors. She claimed to be a veterinarian and did indeed doctor horses, cattle and sheep for farmers in Wayne County. But Toots always dressed like a man, walked like a man, cussed like a man, and chewed tobacco like a man. And no one in our little town was about to ask to see her vet school diploma or proof of her gender. The outside of her tired two-story farm house was sheathed in dusty tan asbestos shingles, just like our place, but hers also had a couple broken windows on the second floor, needed a new roof, and was surrounded by weeds, except where she parked her beat-up pickup. None of this mattered to Toots as she had other things on her mind. Since the local farmers had shifted away from having large farm animals, her vet skills weren’t in as much demand as they used to be. So Toots had come up with a plan to cash in on the oil boom that was seeping into Wayne County.Toots had the largest piece of ground in the neighborhood and her money-making scheme was to build some cabins and rent them to the oil workers who were trickling in from Oklahoma and Texas. Ninth street was just hard packed gravel, but it had the most road frontage of Toots’ property. So she got a load of recycled lumber from Oat Gammon, hired a man who had been laid off at the fuel pump factory, and the two of them set to work building three cabins on the ground she had just cleared. Each of the simple one-story cabins was square, about 20 x 20 feet, had four windows, a front and back door and was covered on the outside with a tar paper that had a yellow brick pattern. They were eyesores as soon as they were finished.

But Toots had misestimated how much building material she needed for the three cabins. When she found that she had a surplus, she decided to build a fourth cabin behind the others, along the alleyway that divided her property from ours. But she only had enough building stuff for a much smaller cabin, and it ended up being about 12 x 12 feet. Like the other three, it had four windows and two doors, with the front screen door facing the alley. By the time it was finished it looked more like a slightly oversized doll house than a place where humans would actually live. Yet this little cabin had a tiny bit of charm, as it was set off from the others and had a scrap of a porch that was about three feet square with an equally miniscule porch roof.

The three cabins on 9th street were finished before Labor Day and were quickly rented to married oil workers who were streaming into town from other oil fields, all carrying cardboard suitcases filled with promises and dreams. The couple in the place at the Center Street corner had a german shepherd that was tied up inside because anytime someone walked by on 9th street it wanted to go straight through the flimsy screen door and after them. The couple in the middle cabin were always playing country music from scratchy 45 RPM records, and the couple in the third cabin were always yelling at one another. So my buddies and I steered clear of 9th street.

Soon after it was finished, the little cabin on the alley was rented to a single oil field roughneck. He put a beat-up bench seat from a worn-out school bus outside next to his cabin’s tiny porch. I was just learning to ride a second-hand bike that I had bought with money my Mom had paid me for pulling weeds when the roughneck moved in. Mom told me that until she said otherwise, I could only ride in the alley behind our house between 9th street and the train tracks. So I rode up and back, up and back past the little cabin. On every warm summer evening after the roughneck got home he cleaned up, put on a clean white T-shirt and Levis, sat on his school bus seat, played with his three-legged rat terrier, drank sodas and smoked Lucky Strikes. Each time I rode by I was mesmerized by his physical presence. Other than seeing Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan at the Saturday afternoon movies, I had never seen anyone like him. He sat quietly by our shared alleyway, with his gaze both present and far away. On each pass, I could not take my eyes off the web of veins and muscles that spiraled down his arms. At about 5’9” and 140 pounds, he was one half James Dean and one half Bruce Lee.

For a few days we just nodded at one another, with me riding and him watching his black-and-white rat terrier sniff among the volunteer marigolds that grew by the garden fence behind Toots’ place. One warm summer evening when thousands of fireflies were doing whatever fireflies do on warm evenings he said to me as I passed, “Hey Kid, do you know how to make a firefly ring?” I stood on the bike’s Bendix brake, hopped off, said not a word, but looked at him as if he was Jesus Christ, incarnate. He said, “Hi, I’m Archie, and this is my dog, Fritz”. What’s your name?” I had to think for a moment and then I blurted out, “I live over there!” pointing across the alley, not realizing that I had forgotten to mention my name.

Archie went inside his cabin and came out with an empty and clean Peter Pan peanut butter jar and its lid. He handed it to me and said, “Here kid, go git half a dozen of those fireflies.” In a minute or two I had a dozen, with their yellow tails blinking away like miniature suns in the jar. Archie took one out with his left hand and carefully placed it upside down on the denim on his left leg. With his right hand he reached into his back right pants pocket and pulled out a gleaming black and silver object the size of a large cigar. In one continuous motion, the object came forward and leapt to life as its steel blade sprang out. I had just seen my first switchblade knife, drawn and opened by an American samurai. The knife was an artistic extension of Archie. Just like a piece of blackboard chalk was an extension of Mr. Langford, my third-grade teacher. But every school had loads of Mr. Langfords. Unless you lived with a trapeze artist or met an oil derrick roughneck you just weren’t going to meet a 20th century American Samurai.

Archie said, “Now watch what I do.” He waited until the firefly’s light glowed brightly and, with a surgeon’s precision, he deftly cut off the very tip of its light with his knife. Then he released the firefly and the firefly flew straight up, away and joined its kin. Then he said, “Show me your pinkie.”  I did and he pasted the still glowing yellow light on my pinkie. He repeated this five times, and all of a sudden I had a magic glowing ring on my pinkie. Archie said, “Pretty cool, ain’t it?” It was getting dark and I heard Toots cussing at one of her dogs and then I heard my Mom call for me from our kitchen door. I still hadn’t said more than one sentence. Archie said, “Come back over some time in the daylight and I’ll teach you to throw a knife.” As I was walking my bike through our gate I saw Archie take the lid off the peanut butter jar, and the rest of the fireflies burst out and headed to the stars.

Judge’s Comments:
The narrator of this splendid story introduces us to Toots Nelson, busy before dawn with her tractor, on a mission whose purpose remains unexplained until we get to know her a bit. Only slowly are we taken to the story’s sweet spot: as Toots builds the cabins, the story seems to construct the narrator’s memory before our eyes. “The roughneck” moves in with his three-legged dog, and takes up residence in the child’s imagination, embodying for him, all the mysteries of manhood, from Tarzan to James Dean. The boy’s evening bike rides bring us into the summer world of a 1950’s childhood with tender grace.    

 

Second Place
Unsubscribe

© Julie Baird   Patient

It took her 20 minutes to open the email.
She opened all other messages.
Deleted and archived.
Responded and replied.
This message stayed bold.

Your baby at 24 weeks!
A familiar and generic heading met her.
Garish turquoise and an informal greeting.
Statistics and estimated measurements listed.
You feel like you’ve swallowed a volleyball!

What was the difference, really?
Between 23 and 24 weeks?
A single digit.
Seven days.
Hardly a breath.

Lungs and brain are developing, taste buds too.
The baby’s skin is thin and transparent.
Your baby is the size of an ear of corn!
What fun.
24 weeks, it read, the age of viability.

Such a simple word, viable.
She mouthed it, tasted it, chewed it, and spat it out.
That word was the difference.
Between 23 and 24 weeks.
Between life and death.

Her eyes scanned the message until they found it.
Her cursor hovered above the word.
She glanced out the window at the fields around her.
Tractors were mowing down the cornstalks for silage.
She clicked Unsubscribe. 

Judge’s Comments:
“By indirection, find we directions out,” says Hamlet. In this remarkable poem we are taken unawares, circuitously–by indirection–to the heart of loss. The ordinary task of scrolling through email, opening to the cutesy language of a weekly pregnancy update is transformed with the reader’s sudden recognition of what has occurred: this woman has just lost her baby, in the small space of a week before the baby was “viable.” In rendering this enormous sadness through the tiny action of unsubscribing to a website, the poet has allowed us to glimpse the sharp edge of her pain.

 

Third Place
Noncustodial (doublet Haiku)
© Chelsea Mansure  Patient

Cartoon channel left
on so he never returned
to a still, dark home

but a toy here, a
crayon drawing there, pouncing
when the door opened.

Judge’s Comments:
The reader of this magnificent “doublet haiku” enters the space of the poem with wonder, as the poet has created a world and circumstance with so few words.   What drama has befallen this house?  We surmise the loss–and imagine the one who enters and experiences “the pounce” – not of a child, but of painful traces. The words of the poem belong to a child’s world, and they vivify the emptiness that now occupies the space left behind.

 


Honorable Mention
Maggie

© Molly K. Hans   Chaplain Intern

Maggie viewed her new badge with suspicion. It did not come with a GPS. She wandered and got lost for the first seven-and-a-half minutes of every call, on every shift, for three months.

On the other hand, it was a sweet passport. The badge opened doors – literally. She couldn’t always remember the difference between MICU, PICU, NICU, SICU and KICU (a tired practical joke for new chaplains), but she knew that when she waved the badge, a whole bunch of doors would swing wide open:

“What’s going on? I’ll tell you what’s going on. I had 13 overdue books and an overdue baby in my belly. I took the 18-month-old with me. I left the three-year-old at home with my husband’s brother and hot-footed it to the library. I’m gone for maybe 20 minutes. In that time, the three-year-old and the 36-year-old get into a fight about the music she wants to listen to. I’m not kidding. I wish I were. She goes upstairs to her bedroom, opens the window and starts screaming. He runs up after her, whacks his head on the banister, and bleeds all over. A neighbor hears my daughter screaming and calls the cops. They show up. Her uncle answers the door with blood all over his hands. She’s still screaming. I pull into the driveway, and fall while running to the house. So now I’m waiting for an  x-ray to see if my ankle is broken. I’m waiting for an ultrasound to make sure my baby is OK. The girls are here because my husband is out of town and I couldn’t leave them with Uncle Junior. Child Protective Services is out in the hallway. I’m as big as a house and I have to pee. That’s what’s going on. Do you have children, Chaplain?”

“Chaplain, I could have told you my wife was going to pass away yesterday. Coulda put on the calendar 27 years ago. Those three letters killed her. Listen to me, now. Catherine decided to go back to school. We had three teenagers still at home. It was just one community college class, but she was hooked and she kept going. Fell in love with art history so much that she wanted a Ph.D. No one made it easy. No one. At Bethany, they told her she had to take gym. She was 52. They failed her three times before they gave her a D just to get her out of their hair. At Penn they told her to go back to her garden club. She took German and French. Then they changed the requirement and she had to take Dutch, too. She learned how to use the computer – and swear at the same time. But she did it. She always said by the time she got her Ph.D. it would be stamped on her tombstone. She took her last test – hooked up to an oxygen tank – day before yesterday. Ph.D. I was proud of her, but, I’ll tell you, Chaplain, I hated to see the sun come up on that day.”

“How did I meet my husband? Preacher, my whole family met him at the same time! Preacher, do you know about smelt? They’re teeny silver fish that run in the late spring. People go out to where the rivers feed into the lake and they take big nets and scoop up the smelt as they go rushing by. Fry ’em and eat ’em, skin, bones and all. All the men go smelting in the spring. Well, Harold was our paper boy. He liked me, but he didn’t know me. Daddy claimed that bringing in the paper was an important job. Harold would watch me scoot out every morning before breakfast. One day I went to get the paper, and there it was in the driveway, ‘Please be my Valentine!’ inside a big heart. All spelled out in smelt. Harold thought I’d see it first and get a good laugh, but Daddy had to make a house-call and backed the Oldsmobile out of the garage. All over my valentine. Harold was waiting behind the lilac bush. So first he met Daddy. And then he scrubbed the driveway. And then he met me. And that was 57 years ago next week.”

“They’ll tell you nurses make the worst patients. It’s not true. Ministers are the worst. They sound nice on Sundays, but they sound like sailors when they see a syringe. Soldiers are the best. So far from home and so grateful for someone who reminds them of Mom. In Vietnam, I took care of these boys. And they were boys. When they called out for Mom, I’d try to get them onto my lap, as best as I could, or sit next to them so I could cradle their heads on my shoulder. I knew they weren’t going to see their moms on this side of heaven. I always hoped they’d feel my heartbeat while someone held them one last time.”

Judge’s Comments:

The chaplain’s badge gives Maggie access to parts of the hospital she had not known before, and it opens other doors to her as well, as people share parts of themselves with her through their stories. This glorious piece brings to mind what Martin Luther King referred to as “the miracle of personality.”  The voices here ring out with the urgency to tell––and to be heard. This lovely writer listens beautifully, and her listening in turn invites such rich telling. These stories carry the grace of gratitude, and each one delights us with surprise––each one a miracle of personality.

Honorable Mention
Let Her Soul Float Like Clouds Across the Sky

© Allison Weinstock, MSI

Let her soul float like clouds across the sky,
A tiny light that flickers through the night.
Freeze her as a memory in your eye.

A young child, confident that she can fly,
Shakes with innocence before that long fight—
Let her soul float like clouds across the sky.

Paralyzed by the thought of death so nigh,
She dons a fierce façade to make the flight.
Freeze her as a memory in your eye.

Yet, far away, she crumbles to the cry
Of Spring’s past flowers and Winter’s fresh might.
Let her soul float like clouds across the sky.

I conjure a calm, brave front for her; aye,
My futile attempt to ignore our plight.
Freeze her as a memory in your eye.

Praying for Death’s austere peace to come, I
Now drink to faint music of the child’s light.
Let her soul float like clouds across the sky.
Freeze her as a memory in your eye.

Judges Comments:
This stunning poem is a villanelle, one of the most challenging of poetic forms.  Notice the complex repeating rhyme schemes and the two delicate refrains.   Here the poet is drawn to a series of elaborate formal constraints to achieve a poignant exhortation: the poet seeks both to release a soul “across the sky” and to “freeze her as a memory in your eye.” The villanelle form invites an inflation of language that is not typical of free verse, and the effect is magnificent. 

 

 

 

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