Eliza R. Snow Poetry Contest Winners

By Michael Umphrey

Listen Download Print Share

In the Shadow of the Sun

First Place
When I knew him, my grandfather prayed
with his body, feeding cattle or training a horse,
holding to the promise that all this
is momentary, a shred of the work and glory
ahead: “Live difficult,” he said, then laughed.
“It won’t last long.”
His faith glittered
like salmon in a silted stream. He waited for decades
in fields where labor was patience, one way
of fighting the wars of want that warped the temporal
sensorium where he was held like a falcon
in a gunnysack—currents of sky, his blood told him,
were out there. “As man is,” he told me, “God
once was. As God is, man may become.”
He stood
his distance from the world, as tired and virile at times
as Moses, watching young children learn by touch
the sharp edges. They wanted games with easier rules,
planning fun till the fun ran out, then starting over,
older, with less room. Each time with less room,
a game they denied choosing getting tighter.
They laughed at him, my grandfather and his
peculiar gait, his old way of being in no hurry,
certain of infinity, living as he did
amid life vaster than Earth, visions sheering
through the brevity of flesh with unerring trajectories
that spoke to him of Light the sun blocked
with its puny burning.


Second Place
Once elegant in white, she stood beside
The man she chose to build with; years would flow
Until she held his photograph and cried.
His death forced hand, not heart, to let him go.
She kept their hand-built home; as days would pass,
She hung the portraits, watched her babies grow,
Saw their reflections in her polished brass,
Then one by one, she let the children go.
Alone, she named old photos one by one,
Blessed loved ones with the care she could bestow,
Found pleasure in a grandchild’s eyes—then done,
Her family must do the letting go.
Together, husband, wife, can now begin.
Their final and eternal gathering in.

Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees

Third Place
“Without body, parts, or passions,”
The wise beards sage—
Over-leavened wisdom,
Worldly weight the gauge.
Shunning holy manna
To gnaw at hollow bones,
Preaching graven imageless,
They feed their flock with stones.
While the child of humble heart
Who hungers through the night
Cries, “Feed me, O my Father!”
And he is fed on Light.

The Jigsaw Puzzle

Honorable Mention
With shaking hand she scanned
many-hued blues to find
the piece with leaf to fit
into its proper place;
The search ends empty, so
the grandma-fingers dig
into the puzzle box
extracting more new blue
“No! None of these will do!
This one shows bark and dark,
and here, straight edge suggests
a ridged borderline, but false.
The border’s done.
Perhaps I was unwise
to try with failing eyes
to tackle taxing task of
fifteen hundred piece.”
With magnifying glass
the hunt and turn resumes
over and over—
until in evening hour (when
daylight’s long since dimmed)
she finds the piece with leaf
and neatly locks in place,
and smiles—
“That’s all I’ll do today.”
Then donning flannel print
in place of jersey knit
she slumbers off to sleep,
deep. …
Or so the story goes
the last day of her life,
the twenty-first of May in 1928.
Now as I kneel today
at temple altar,
this precious grandma mine
(the Master’s jigsaw piece)
be locked into her place.

The Reunion

Honorable Mention
They come from miles around—
the old, the young, the
black-haired children with laughing faces,
there on the wide-open Hopi land,
with few trees to shade them
from the heat of the summer sun;
sudden gusts of wind play tag on the dusty earth,
sweeping it up into silent crescendos,
then dancing away as quickly as they come.
I come invited from my white-man’s land
to the semi-circle of trucks, with
tailgates hanging down like huge, flat tongues
from gaping mouths.
I watch the young racers come across the
warm, dry land from the old place to here
(as tradition dictates), where they
now live in new, modern homes.
I have sat with them in their ancient kiva,
watching the purpose of life unfold
as colorful kachinas dance to the beat
of the old one’s drum.
(Now the young ones dance in a new civic center,
to the beat of loud electric guitars.)
You, my Indian daughter, have brought me
into your traditions,
as long ago I brought you into mine;
we have laughed and cried together,
we have made bread together—in your outdoor oven,
as well as in my electric one.
And again I am one with you …
I am the brown-skinned woman standing over hot stoves,
stirring thick milk gravy to be sopped up
with fat biscuits and round, flat fry-bread,
while yellow roasted corn and paper-thin piki
wait to be consumed.
I watch as you teach your young children
some of my ways and some of yours,
sweeping up silent memories
to keep them from dancing away.
We are not of one blood, but surely of one heart …
the tie that binds together those who have drifted apart.

[photo] Photography by Craig Dimond