Shane Book

copyright ©Shane Book 2014

I have a home in my son’s hand.
The pier is out, the quay closed at noon.
You can sob, so be it, as if dates, as
though you had an oven of dough
everyone wanted. Day, I’m a over it;
out rowing an O.K. used pear,
sailing your barcode, you shop with the pain
you’re out now, avowing.
Our row cake vice squeezing through
sewer hour, I sail mystery O
sewer! Made on that pall of rat veil
A forms a dream navy
in the unclear I don’t miss saying.

Notes on the Poem

Poetry often possesses the power to sweep us along, even if we don't know where it might be taking us. Shane Book's poem "Janelas", from his 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Congotronic, has just such an effect. How the poem draws us in and along compels us to trust the poet, even if we're not sure of the poem's destination. "I have a home in my son’s hand." evokes a warmth and intimacy from the outset that is inviting, even as the next line "The pier is out, the quay closed at noon." bewilderingly has the opposite effect. And then the lines that following, depicting grief, possibly fear, but intimacy again in the form of sensory comforts ... we still want to continue on. The U.S. publisher of this collection, the University of Iowa Press, includes Congotronic in their Kuhl House Poets series, among other works that are "formally and verbally inventive, adventurous work that takes its own path outside established routes of either traditions or experimental poetry." This publisher also quotes Booklist's review of the collection, with an observation both astute and reassuring: "If certain passages challenge readers ... they always reward with new, unusual experiences of language and meaning." The reader willingly follows "a dream navy in the unclear" and still has an experience that will encourage new voyages through this poet's work.

Preface to the Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2018

Ian Williams

copyright ©2018 House of Anansi Press Inc.

1. The poems you are about to read are
Match the poet and book in column A to the attribute in column B.
1. Billy-Ray Belcourt, This Wound is a World

2. Aisha Sasha John, I have to live.

3. Donato Mancini, Same Diff

4. Tongo Eisen-Martin, Heaven Is All Goodbyes

5. Susan Howe, Debths

6. Natalie Shapero, Hard Child

7. Layli Long Soldier, Whereas



a. At the intersection of visual design and musical orchestration.

b. Expansive, polyphonic, and socially engaged.

c. Unreadable. Should you read or should you look?

d. Embodied, decolonializing, cerebral, and heartfelt.

e. Politically and historically activated, accountable only to truth.

f. Instagrammable. Earwormy. Urgent.

g. The epitome of contemporary lyric beauty.

Notes on the Poem

Regularly as glorious as the poems we celebrate here every week from the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted and winning poetry collections are the ways in which the Griffin Poetry Prize judges pay tribute to those works. Many of the judges' citations, including several we've singled out here (most recently the citation for Jan Zwicky's 2012 shortlisted Forge), are virtually poetic pieces unto themselves. Taking that craft and sense of celebration to a whole other level is Ian Williams' preface to the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize anthology. Along with fellow judges Sarah Howe and Ben Lerner, Ian Williams read (and read and read) and pondered and agonized and deliberated to help produce the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist, from which 2018 winning collections Debths by Susan Howe and This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt were eventually selected. As important as the selection of the winners is the chance to explore the works of the entire shortlist, facilitated in part by the compilation of representative and enticing excerpts from all of those works in the annual anthology. One of the judges each year is the editor of the anthology, and in 2018 that was Williams' role. Judging (!) by the preface, Williams took to this part of his duties with particular relish and inspiration. Unlike the individual citations for each work, the preface can take the opportunity to scrutinize themes or threads throughout the entire shortlist. With downright exuberance, Williams has managed to single out and meld the seven shortlisted works together in interesting ways - often launching into his signature adventures on the page with typography and page layout - all while sharing the dazzling, daunting, humbling and unforgettable experience of being a literary prize judge. The section of the preface we've focused on for Poem of the Week is just one of several imaginative approaches Williams takes. If your copy of the anthology is not immediately at hand, take a look here to enjoy the full preface. It's undeniably a great launching pad into the rest of the anthology, impetus to seek out the individual works ... and hey, maybe even inspiration to jump at the invitation, should you be so blessed to receive on, to be a literary award judge yourself.


(The answers, by the way, are: 1d, 2f, 3a, 4b, 5c, 6g, 7e)


Charles Simic

copyright ©Charles Simic, 2004

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

Notes on the Poem

When a poem tells an intriguing story, or even a story that seems straightforward at first glance, the poet is often employing that storytelling approach to interesting ends. We've observed this in several past Poems of the Week. Sometimes those ends are very different than the storytelling means, as seems to be the case with Charles Simic's "Prodigy". Another poem with vibrant storytelling bents that we've examined here include "The Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart" by David Kirby. In it, the warm storytelling is presented with a very formal-looking structure to humorous effect. In "shades of Linda Lee" by Leslie Greentree, the seemingly casual, almost tossed off presentation belies a story that just possibly has an ominous undercurrent. Charles Simic sounds similarly matter-of-fact as he introduces the poem before reading it as the Poetry Foundation Audio Poem of the Week in March, 2020. He acknowledges that the poem indeed "tells a story" and "I really didn't have to change very much from the original experience." In fact, the poem's account of a childhood passion for chess told in straightforward fashion also manages to be a tale of survival, with shocking details revealed in almost prosaic fashion. Lines like "I loved the word endgame." mean one thing to the child's story, and quite another, menacingly, to the different conflicts actually being played out in the story. That the child blithely says "I’m told but do not believe" suggests he thought at the time he was being told a very different story than what was really going on. But then he does remember blindfolds and being sheltered repeatedly by his mother, and then those memories connect back to chess where "the masters play blindfolded, the great ones on several boards at the same time." Indeed, how many stories are being told here?


Alice Oswald

copyright ©Alice Oswald 2016

This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the windowsill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement which
break off suddenly as if the questioner had been shot

this is one of those wordy days
when they drop from their winter quarters in the curtains and sizzle as they fall
feeling like old cigarette butts called back to life
blown from the surface of some charred world

and somehow their wings which are little more than flakes of dead skin
have carried them to this blackened disembodied question

what dirt shall we visit today?
what dirt shall we re-visit?

they lift their faces to the past and walk about a bit
trying out their broken thought-machines
coming back with their used-up words

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter
what should we
what dirt should we

Notes on the Poem

Many vital aspects of Alice Oswald's 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Falling Awake seem to intersect in the poem "Flies". Let's take a look ... For starters, quite literally, the collection's title could come from the poem's singular opening lines: "This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence and lie stunned on the windowsill shaking with speeches" To "fall awake" counter-intuitively might suggest attentive meditation and mindfulness. With the titular creatures of this poem, that they are doing so "mid-sentence" and are "shaking with speeches" signifies an intriguing anthropomorphism that has been noted in other selections from this collection. As the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize judges mused in their citation for Falling Awake, "In these poems ... one wonders about the problem of being bound to place, to anything at all." Similarly, a blogger named Alice gives a close and enthusiastic analysis of this poem that circles around the notion that the flies (who are us) and their "trapped buzzing" are connected to being too bound to our past. In Catherine Graham's insightful conversation with Alice Oswald for The Toronto Review of Books, Graham encourages Oswald to expand on the process that resulted in "Flies", and here is her fascinating answer:
"I think my theme is often unfinishedness. I like the feeling that the universe isn’t finished. I believe in the future, I’m not a determinist. I believe that things are open ended and have not yet happened. And that poem is particularly about that because if you’ve ever listened to flies, they do that, they just cut off. They endlessly stop mid-sentence. So I tend to try, when I’m using free or freed verse, whatever you want to call it, I quite often take on the form of whatever I’m describing. So if I’m really concentrating on flies then, I start to speak fly language which cuts off mid-sentence. That’s why that poem does that."
As readers venture through Falling Awake, they will likely find more selections referencing the features and themes encapsulated in this particular poem.

Citation for Jan Zwicky’s Forge

the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize judges

In Forge, Jan Zwicky performs a balancing act of great poise and beauty. An extended set of variations on the theme of listening, the collection pays repeated attention to music – and through it, to the natural world and human relationships. Love and death are topics almost too risky to address directly, especially with this kind of breathless, caught-up writing: the stakes could not be higher. Zwicky addresses them fearlessly, making them meaningful and felt, and borrowing the languages of mystery, even religion, to do so. The payoff is real and extraordinary. Gracefully sustained, her unashamedly lyric verse always feels earned by, and earthed in, lived experience: whether of grief or companionship, those great conditions, or, repeatedly, of a watery world. This is a book gauzy with images of condensation, meltwater, flood and mist. It also manages the rare trick of taking on music’s abstract forms. For all her precision, this poet brings us close to the music of abstraction that lies near the heart of true verse.

Notes on the Poem

If you've followed the Griffin Poetry Prize Poem of the Week feature over the weeks, months and years (this is week 445 in our uninterrupted presentation of work from or associated with the prize's shortlists), we often use as our starting point the observations of our judges about the collections from which these poems came. These citations are thoughtful, well-crafted tributes that are beautifully compositions unto themselves. The citation for Jan Zwicky's 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Forge is strolls with contemplation and wonder through the work. This striking excerpt from the poem "Music and Silence: Seven Variations" ... "This is your perplexity: was it a hand that reached up, plucked the arrow in mid-flight?" ... isn't that an exquisite "balancing act of great poise and beauty"? As the poem opens the collection, it makes clear that much attention will be paid and much influence will be garnered from music. In "The Art of Fugue" (that musical influence, again), how much more directly, yet still compassionately, can one address death than this? "The dead are dead: parents, siblings, children, spouse. Death comes upon us: blindness, deafness, madness, or the slow gag of neglect. Put your arms around them: they are what is given, as you knew." ... and whether you view "them" as your loved ones or the causes of death, "putt[ing] your arms around them" shows Zwickly fearlessly wielding love. Zwicky's fascination with the "watery world" is indeed evident throughout the collection, but she is also reverent and, as noted before in this citation, balanced: "The water's neither cold nor warm. Your mind has never been as clear." Once you've read this citation, you are eager to take the same journey through this work that the Griffin Poetry Prize judges did. The following are other selected judges' citations that present Griffin Poetry Prize winning and shortlisted works in gorgeously appreciative, often spirited fashion.
  • Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson Griffin Poetry Prize 2001 - Canadian Winner (Judges: Carolyn Forche, Dennis Lee, Paul Muldoon)
  • Born to Slow Horses by Kamau Brathwaite Griffin Poetry Prize 2006 - International Winner (Judges: Lavinia Greenlaw, Lisa Robertson, Eliot Weinberger)
  • Ocean by Sue Goyette Griffin Poetry Prize 2014 - Canadian Shortlist (Judges: Robert Bringhurst, Jo Shapcott, CD Wright)
  • Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo Griffin Poetry Prize 2016 - International Shortlist (Judges: Alice Oswald, Tracy K Smith, Adam Sol)
  • The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus Griffin Poetry Prize 2019 - International Shortlist (Judges: Ulrikka Gernes, Kim Maltman, Srikanth Reddy)
You can find citations for all works associated with the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlists on the pages showcasing the works and poets.


George Bowering

copyright ©2004 by George Bowering

I walkt to the back of the house in the
yard near the garage & saw him in a
white shirt playing ping pong with a patient
or friend or someone else who lived in the
house & there he was.
I sat at the table where we were reading
aloud together & heard him from behind where
he was crying aloud & wearing his pink
leather number on the west coast & I
must tell you he is a star.
Maybe Holofernes.
He tried to grow a mustache & took his
vacation in a classy hotel in bermuda where
he sat & drank bourbon with ice, a poet
taking his own kind of holiday, hooray.
Judy lookt as if she wanted to be him
or be with him or kill him.
I think that all the time he was listening
to the ice in the glass his ear was thinking
One time he placed a bottle of Pinch on the
coat hook on the back of the door in our
clothes closet & we opened & closed the door
for two months before we found the bottle
of Pinch & it should have fallen off many
times so we drank it & later I bought him
a bottle of Pinch in August because the night
before we had been drinking bourbon on his
credit card in the bar where he goes to
drink his own way, the poet.
There he was, on the tape, all over the
country, making personal appearances, Captain
Poetry, listening to the voice of the four
horsemen in the children’s fiery
chamber of verse.

Notes on the Poem

George Bowering has used his poetry for, among many purposes, working through thoughts about death and loss. The poem "bpNichol" from Bowering's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize collection Changing on the Fly does this in the intriguing fashion that is a signature of both poets' work. In his 2019 essay collection Writing and Reading, Bowering touches on connections between grieving and wielding (or not wielding) words:
"Through my life, it seems, best friends and former girlfriends have been dying. Apparently after the poet Red Lane died on my twenty-ninth birthday, I was not talking to people much for a year. When Greg [Curnoe] died I flew across the country for his funeral. When I heard bpNichol had died I continued to play the ball game I was playing. On it goes. But I continued to write. I really can't say how much the writing was part of the grieving. In Greg's case, it would seem that it was at least a major pathway."
In "Pale Blue Cover", another selection from Changing on the Fly, Bowering reminisces with wry affection about another friend lost, writer Matt Cohen. Interestingly, the poem focuses on Cohen spontaneously taking a plane ride across Canada, just as Bowering remembers doing for another friend's funeral. Although he claims not to have thought much about it at the time, Bowering clearly eventually the processed the news of legendary poet, publisher and performer bpNichol's death. Verifiable stories, fanciful notions, muscle memories of how bpNichol wrote and spoke were all stored for later. What does the reference to Holofernes mean, we wonder. Since "Judy lookt as if she wanted to be him or be with him or kill him." and we know that Holofernes met a grisly end at the hands of Judith ... well, let's tuck that one away for further contemplation. So, perhaps "bpNichol" the poem was a kind of pathway in bpNichol's case, too. It takes some decidedly whimsical turns along the way, stopping perhaps appropriately here:

Lima Limón :: Infancia

Natalie Scenters-Zapico

copyright ©2019 by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

I want to be the lemons in the bowl
on the cover of the magazine. I want
to be round, to be yellow, to be pulled

from branches. I want to be wax, to be
white with pith, to be bright, to be zested
in the corners of a table. I want you

to say my name like the word: lemon.
Say it like the word: limón. Undress me
in strands of rind. I want my saliva to be

citrus. I want to corrode my husband’s
wedding ring. I want to be a lemon
with my equator marked in black ink –
small dashes to show my shape: pitted & convex.

Notes on the Poem

We can be captivated by a poem in so many ways, at so many levels, from appreciation of the craft, the structural aspects, the technical wizardry, to engagement in the thematic, be it topical or historical, to astonishment at words on the page exuding surprising emotional heft. How about the exhilaration produced by words evoking potent sensory impressions? Let's look (and engage other senses, for that matter) at how a crisp selection from Natalie Scenters-Zapico's 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Lima :: Limón achieves this. Among the many Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted works we've celebrated with Poem of the Week selections, we've been blessed with many that wield language in ways that connect vividly with readers' senses. Examples include "When You Look Up" by Jan Zwicky, "At Ursula's" by Derek Mahon and "Poppies" by Yusef Komunyakaa. Scenters-Zapico's tantalizing poem "Lima Limón :: Infancia" joins that most satisfying company. As the poem opens with "I want to be the lemons in the bowl on the cover of the magazine" we experience a burst of brightness imagining that magazine cover, made more brilliant by the likelihood that the image is shining from clean, glossy paper and is somewhat idealized in presentation. Either the bowl of lemons is accenting some furniture or other decor, or is part of a health, beauty and/or lifestyle article. The poem continues with the vigour of a lemon's colour, scent, taste and texture, with the repeated "I want" punctuating each phrase introducing different features of the fruit. However, from that perfect, glowing initial image, the poem moves from more conventional associations to considerably less so, more unpleasant, more abrasive. The lemon's pith is not one of its most desired components; online cooking advice observes "This part is bitter and can add an unpleasant taste if you include it in a dish by mistake." Zest from the rind, in moderation, is refreshing ... but "in the corners of a table"? When the insistent "I want's" come to "I want to corrode my husband's wedding ring" we realize the poem's narrator may have very pointed reasons for focusing on the thornier attributes of this dichotomous fruit. As the poem closes, we've moved from the breezy early reference to "round" to now reveling in odd, asymmetrical shapes and textures of the often idealized lemon image. The ones on that magazine cover are probably airbrushed, anyhow. But this progression from bright and idealized to disagreeable still venerates the astringent aspects of the lemon. Acknowledging the lemon's acidic power, the poem's narrator and we the readers, willingly welcoming sensory overload, are still nourished and cleansed.

Verso 32.2

Dionne Brand

copyright ©2018 Dionne Brand

My ancestral line to John Locke. When he wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in 1689 he had already been the Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations. No one disputes this. He had, too, investments in the Royal African Company, whose holdings along the Gambia included forts, factories, and military command of West Africa, etc., … etc., … No dispute here either. These statements – an essay on human understanding, and the board of trade and plantations – these identifiers can lie beside each other with no discomfort, apparently. But as I said, I am a soft-hearted person. I cannot get past this. I am just a lover with a lover’s weaknesses, with her manifest of heartaches.

Notes on the Poem

In the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted work The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand scrutinizes in unique and lyrical fashion how writing happens and what it produces, in part through an ongoing dialogue between a poet and a clerk who keeps secure watch over the poet's work. Along the way, Brand tackles eternal questions around how art is realized and received. Verso 32.2 is part of a contemplation of whether or not works can and should be separated from their human, fallible and sometimes cruel creators. Verso 32.2 is part of a series within The Blue Clerk that references shameful and racist connections in the lives of poet T.S. Eliot and philosopher Plato, as well as philosopher and physician John Locke, whose "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" is mentioned here. Brand's narrator struggles with how Locke can create a seminal work contemplating the foundation of human knowledge and understanding, and blithely juxtapose that with his involvement and championing of organizations and causes that persecute and harm human beings. "these identifiers can lie beside each other with no discomfort, apparently." the narrator declares with understandably bitter rage and weariness. "I cannot get past this." she declares with heartwrenching bluntness. But when she goes on to state "I am just a lover with a lover's weaknesses, with her manifest of heartaches." does that mean she still loves Locke's stirring works? Or can she not get past his heinous acts and associations to still love his work, or can she not get past reconciling the two? If that's the case, we're asked as readers to consider whether or not she should ... Contemporary musings on the dilemma of needing to separate the work from the ignoble creator so one can still admire the work can be found everywhere. Recent examples here, here and here illustrate that it is both a constant issue and a perennially unresolved one. But something more critical than just musing is necessary for what Brand's narrator raises here, isn't it? The narrator's "I am a soft-hearted person" could be construed as ironic, surely. And surely this is no longer an either/or, particularly where the works and achievements, the tributes and monuments to the creators, the explorers but also the oppressors all demand urgent reevaluation.

My Hand and Cold

Natalie Shapero

copyright ©2017 by Natalie Shapero

Of surgeons putting their knives to erroneous

body parts, stories abound. So can you really blame
my neighbor for how, heading into the operation,
he wrote across his good knee NOT THIS KNEE?

The death of me: I’m never half so bold. You will
feel, the doctor said, my hand and cold –

and I thought of the pub quiz question: which three
countries are entirely inside of other countries?
I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES
FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing,

one if not. The second list was longer. So much

that I might call her, if she were never to bear
the name, never turn to it, suffer shaming, mull its
range and implications, blame it, change it, move

away to San Marino, Vatican City, Lesotho.

Notes on the Poem

Natalie Shapero's "My Hand and Cold", from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child, keeps the reader feeling off kilter, even apprehensive, over the course of seven brief stanzas. Let's examine again how she does it ... and why. Shapero achieves much of the suspenseful sense of the poem by upending and fracturing expected sentence structures. She starts in right away. the unnerving opening sentence amps up the alarm by throwing up frightening imagery - surgeons, knives, erroneous body parts, no less - right off the bat. Starting the sentence more conventionally, with the phrase "stories abound", would have softened or delayed that shocking effect. Clearly, that was not the intent. We're so intrigued with parsing what the doctor says - which explains, but not entirely, the poem's title - that we're again out of sorts, a bit distracted. We're not necessarily paying attention to or wondering why the poem's narrator is having this interaction with the doctor. It starts to dawn on us when she asks the cryptic question (why is she thinking about a pub quiz at a time like this?) "which three countries are entirely inside of other countries?" ... and then is driven home, with a new intensity of shock, when the narrator posits her two lists and ponders one longer than the other. Has she been trying to distract us ... or herself? Examining this a second time, is your reaction different than the first time we looked at this poem?