2020 Laureates’ Choice - Group Three

How They Keep Us Safe

They keep us safe, the nurses in this wing.
No plastic bags, so we won’t suffocate,
Clothes hooks too weak to bear a woman’s weight.
They set strict rules on which clothes we may bring:
I may wear sweatpants, but they cut the string.
Our shoes, our belts, we forfeit at the gate.
They’re trained to monitor and medicate
The low, pernicious urge in us to swing.
But we don’t trust a nurse, or let them in.
If you should wake in darkness with a cry,
Desperate to talk, and hopeless to begin,
Don’t seek the warden in the hall. Instead
Wake up your roommate, crawl into her bed,
Pour out your fears, and let her lay them by.

Sarah Paulos
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

At Sea

Scholars dispute it because the brushed waves
are ragged, the ship a slip of what Bruegel’s hand
could do when young,
but Mother—who believed
this stormy sea was his last painting, mariners
desperately rolling barrels overboard before
Leviathan’s toothy maw—
sighs: Lighten the load,
voice edged with what’s already in the room,
even this end the beginning of something—
ninety, a busted rib on top of other ailments,
she’s chosen to quit drinking and eating, an airless
drowning as her throat closes down—
but still
wants to talk Bruegel, translate his painting,
her hand pins down mine as she rolls over
to whisper: don’t let anything weigh you down.

David Sullivan
Santa Cruz, California

Masking Conditions

Coyotes lope down finance district streets,
as traffic signals cycle for no cars.
Nature advances as people retreat,
quarantining themselves behind closed doors.
A virus — from the Latin root for poison
hangs in twilight between living and inert,
mirroring us in our isolation,
suspended, waiting for the world to restart.
Infected by apocalyptic nightmares,
feverish conspiracies gone viral,
we shoot snake oil, build castles in the air
out of fearsome black clouds of denial
that there’s chaos in the fall of a sparrow,
that butterflies churn sunshine into snow.

Michael Waterson
Napa, California

Everything You Loved

“The soul can forget nothing that it has ever loved” –Paulinus of Nola

In heaven you remember everything
you loved and get it back, only more of it.
The food is richer, and the pleasant sting
of crawfish bisque reminds you why you love it.
Your cats are furrier.  You see Mustique
And Mustang and Morocco without paying.
Jane Austen writes a novel every week
And Handel’s music is forever playing.
Then as a bonus, there’s a place apart,
a sapphire edge of heaven where the sun
is sheltered by the sky’s protecting hem,
where all the men who ever broke your heart
are now in love with you.  And here’s the fun:
you spend eternity rejecting them.

Gail White
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Reveries While Walking the Mesa on the Hottest Day of the Year

Down there the city quietly burns up,
heat crying agua, agua, rising waves
visible, ghostly swelling from the map
of desert lands below. Nothing else moves—
just air, possessed, alive, as if the stacked
spirits interred over eons have been
released into the atmosphere, and cracks
of matted canyons are portales seen.
The rocks tell stories. Seas once thrived in lands
now dry, and temperatures increase with each
sad day. Could this be how the planet ends,
with barren fields, waterless, as we watch
the world wither to dust? How long till we
become the ghosts and join eternity?

Scott Wiggerman
Albuquerque, New Mexico