Underworld (Day Forty-Five)

Don Mee Choi Translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©2018

The dead without faces

run out like patients

when the door of the intensive care unit opens

carrying pouches of heart, pouches of urine

The dead running toward the path to the underworld

turn into stone pillars when they look back and their eyes meet
their past

The dead in their sacks look out with eyes brimming with salt

The dead become pillars of water as their tears melt their bones
The dead, gone forever, departed before you,
pull amniotic sacs over their heads and get in line to be born
and say that they need to learn their mother tongue all over
You’re not there when they awake or even when they eat
When the dead swarm down the mountain
like children who pour out of the door of the first-grade room
carrying their notebooks and shoe bags

a four-ton bronze bell with a thousand names of the dead
engraved on it dangles from the helicopter
The helicopter flies over a tall mountain to hang the bell at a
temple hidden deep in the mountains

Notes on the Poem

This week’s poem launches our Poem of the Week’s new focus on the poet-translator. Over the next few months, we will be featuring material (interviews, poems, essays) exploring the complex relationship between poetry and translation. The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of the very few international prizes that accepts works in translation (under the condition that the work be translated to English). By featuring poems in translation, we wish to highlight creative affinities between our shortlisted poets, as well as translation as an act of creative collaboration. We begin the week with “Underworld,” from the 2019 winning collection, Autobiography of Death (2019), translated by Don Mee Choi and written by Kim Hyesoon. “In the grievous wake of the Sewol Ferry incident of 2014, the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon composed a cycle of forty-nine poems – one for each day the dead must await reincarnation – to produce a harrowing work of shock, outrage, and veneration for the children lost to this disaster. Through Don Mee Choi’s extraordinary translations, we hear the clamorous registers of Kim’s art – a transnational collision of shamanism, Modernism, and feminism – yield ‘a low note no one has ever sung before.’ That otherworldly tone may sound like life itself, the poet sings, ‘for even death can’t enter this deep inside me,'" the judges said. Listen to Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon read poems from Autobiography of Death here.

Black Hair

Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi translated from the Chinese by Yi Lei

copyright ©2020

Black hair like youth
Runs wild in March.
Dark papery leaves fly
Teeming, swarming,
Bum-rushing March.

Black hair in March
Is gentle, strangers’ eyes
Softer. Memory:
A feast on offer. Youth,
Born of the primordial sea—
Embrace me. Drape my skin
Old as clouds
In something suppler.

Black hair
Blown free, rootless,
Wanders the desert’s
Countless tombs, sways
Across a vacant sky,
Whips at fresh mud in rain.
Days blaze past. I have
Lost sight of my own black hair
In the mirror. Let me
Watch it now
For the next thousand years.

Black hair weedy
In dirt-poor soil.
Thirsty, deluded,
Squandering its spoils.
Black hair has no idea.

The story of black hair
Is my story.
When I die, let me drift
Like a dandelion
Of black hair.

Black hair
Like holy water
No way, there is no way
To be saved except to die.
When black hair cries,
Itsw tears snuff themselves out
Like candles.
So will my life cease to flicker.

Black hair
Exhausted brush fire
Fanned by misery
Through the last century.

Black hair, ?Shredded black flag
Of a women’s glory
Ragged and battered
In March wind.
Forsaking dignity
Absolved of chastity
With its pride in knots
Black hair smiles easily
In March.

If waterfall, it will plummet.
If cloud, it will scatter.
Eyes plaintive, wide,
Black hair waits to be spun
By hardened hands
Into rock.

March 25, 1987

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to celebrate the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poets. This week’s poem, “Black Hair,” is from the shortlisted collection, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi translated from the Chinese written by Yi Lei—a collection that “gathers poems of eros and grief, each page bursting with attentiveness to our world.” (Judges' citation) Listen to Tracy K. Smith read the Poem of the Week in a beautifully illustrated excerpt from the Griffin Poetry Prize Winners Announcement Film

Last of the Monkey Gods

Yusef Komunyakaa

copyright ©2012

The moon temple ghosts, swinging on heavy doors.
They ride rabid dogs in the alleys of ill repute.
They decipher the language of crows at dawn
in ancient trees, the blueness of a god’s skin.
They tiptoe power lines, rope bridges around the city.
They throw stones at the ambassador’s sedan.
When afternoon prayers begin, they grown silent,
Lying in each other’s arms, dreaming of clemency.

The monkeys are no rounding up street boys.
At least, at first, it seems this is true, but in no time
The boys learn to single out a monkey in the throng
& wrestle him to the ground. He may try to bite
& to scratch, to howl, & cry ceremoniously, to plead
with the one word he knows, but then the fight
goes out of him when the rest of his great clean
returns to jabbering & the sacred picking of lice.

The boys zap him with a small laser gun.
A garnet of mute bells is tossed into the dust,
& chants go aeons back to the beginning & die.
The fearless illumination goes out of his eyes.
The boys tag him. He rises to wander freely.
As naked unholiness crawls into the night,
they’re wrestled one by one to the ground
& castrated for the music of coins jangling in a pocket.

Notes on the Poem

This week, we celebrate our 2021 Lifetime Recognition Award Recipient, Yusef Komunyakaa with “Last of the Monkey Gods,” a poem from his 2012 Griffin-shortlisted collection, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “Like the chameleon poem described by Keats, Komunyakaa draws in his work on a deep well of empathetic imagination, peopling his poems with an array of characters for whom ‘truth’ takes on wildly different hues. His poems tell a story, too, about the synthesis of disparate influences: the Southern idiom of Bogalusa, Louisiana where he grew up harmonises in them with a literary language seasoned by a lifetime’s vast and attentive reading,” writes Griffin Trustee Sarah Howe in her powerful tribute to Komunyakaa. In an exclusive Griffin interview, Komunyakaa answers Howe’s brilliant questions on a literary career that spans several decades and that keeps evolving. Stay tuned for this week’s release on our website and social media channels!


Yusuf Saadi

copyright ©2020

At metro Joliette with my jolicoeur,
we walked to the depanneur,
discussed dasein while buying
a Perrier and a block of beurre.
Outside, minus twenty-three,
with windchill it’s real fuckery,
your back pockets warm my fingertips,
your cherry ChapStick so summery.
Take me to the everglades,
a place where flowers never fade,
but pans inside your basement wait
to fry us scrambled eggs, real buttery.

Blue sunrise on my palms, a peignoir,
a neighbour grows peonies in a baignoire,
I dreamt a homeless peintre
revealed Hochelag in a Renoir
Make love inside these old maisons
until condos sail across the St-Laurent,
The vieux-accent is extinct,
And the cordonier’s window plein noir.
Morning flurries, très légère,
someone’s shovel scrapes fragile air,
a chasse-neige is herding cloud,
The hunched man salts his spiral stairs.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to celebrate the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poets. This week’s poem, “Joliette,” is from Canadian finalist Yusuf Saadi’s shortlisted collection Pluviophile (Nightwood Editions). “Where other poets find moon, Saadi sees ‘moon's kneecap,’ where others see mere daffodils, Saadi asks: ‘Do daffodils dissolve in your / unpractised inner eye?’ This is the poet who is unafraid of play: ‘Outside of Kantian space and time, do you miss dancing / in dusty basements where sex was once phenomenal?’ This, too, is the poet unafraid of the daily grind, of ‘writing poetry at night / with the rust of our lives’. Pluviophile is a beautiful, refreshing debut,” the judges say. Listen to Yusuf Saadi read the poem of the week in a beautifully illustrated excerpt from the Griffin Poetry Prize Winners Announcement Film here.

The Sturgeon’s Lover

Joseph Dandurand

copyright ©2020

In the deepest part of the river
there lived a great sturgeon
and she swam along the bottom
and fed upon the dead who had fallen.
She was about three hundred years old
and when she was full, she came to
the surface and jumped as high as
she could and all the males came
to her and she kissed each male
and let them have her. Months later
she quietly went to her favourite part
of the river and there she released
her eggs in the millions and then began
again to swim the bottom and to search
for any new bodies that had fallen
from upriver, which she feasted upon
with her old softly kissed lips.

The legend goes that a fisherman
had fallen into the waters and was drowning
when the great sturgeon came to him
and asked him for a kiss. He agreed
and the two fell in love and together
they would feed upon all the food
at the bottom of the river. One day
her eggs came to life and created
the people across the water.
The people lived there for centuries
and the sturgeon and man would visit
from time to time, bringing them food
to survive the cold wet winters
until the people too walked into
the water and fell to the bottom
as the man kissed his lover.

Today we do not fish for sturgeon
as their numbers have been decimated
by overfishing and loss of spawning
grounds. Whenever I catch a sturgeon
in my net I let her go and she always
turns back and smiles as she flicks
her mighty tail and splashes me.
My son always laughs as I stand there
stunned and wet, while the great sturgeon
slowly swims away and turns back
to blow us a kiss. We both wipe
our lips as the great sturgeon
falls to the bottom of the water.
There, waiting for her, is her lover.
He kisses her one last time.
She cries as she begins to eat him.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to celebrate the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poets. This week’s poem, The Sturgeon’s Lover, is from Canadian finalist Joseph Dandurand’s shortlisted collection The East Side of It All (Nightwood Editions). Inspired by his fishing experience on the Fraser River, Dandurand writes of a sturgeon who feeds on the dead and falls in love with a man. Dating back to more than 100 million years, sturgeons are now on the edge of extinction. Through his "tragic, wonderful gift of storytelling," Dandurand's poem pays homage to this great fish, who reclaims her river. Watch this conversation between Joseph Dandurand and our Trustee Ian Williams and to hear more about the poet's process and connection to Kwantlen oral stories. “Dandurand is a member of Kwantlen First Nation, located on the Fraser river near Vancouver. His origin and roots are the sources of wisdom and myths, which he masterly embeds in a drama of a dysfunctional modern society. His crystalline clear and remarkably multilayered poems are written in an unforgettable voice of someone who is telling a story in order to survive and to go on. A story of a man who has become a sasquatch, through writing” the judges say. Listen to Joseph Dandurand read the poem of the week in a beautifully illustrated excerpt from the Griffin Poetry Prize Winners Announcement Film here

Oxygen (from Obit)

Victoria Chang

copyright ©2020

Victoria Chang

Oxygen—died on March 12, 2012. At
first, it came in heavy green canisters.
Then a large rolling machine that
pushed air day and night. When my
mother changed her clothes, she
had to take the tube out of her nose.
She stopped to catch her breath, as
if breath were constantly in motion,
as if it could be chased. I’m not sure
when I began to notice her panic
without the oxygen, in the way we don’t
notice a leaf turning red or an empire
falling. One day, it just appears, as if
it had been there all along. Like the
hospice staff with their papers, bags
of medicine, their garlands of silence.
Like grief, the way it dangles from
everything like earrings. The way grief
needs oxygen. The way every once in
a while, it catches the light and starts
smoking. The way my grief will die with
me. The way it will cleave and grow
like antlers. 

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week continues to celebrate the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poets. The announcement of this year’s winners is an occasion to delve deeper into the work of all our shortlisted poets. In a recent interview on CBC's Q, Canisia Lubrin mentions gratitude for the “conversations” created by the constellation of the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted books. When juxtaposed, thematic threads and images begin to surface: the underworld, grief, a celebration or mistrust in the lyrical “I”, and the rhythmic summoning of ancestry, to cite but a few shared concerns among this year’s shortlist. This week’s poem is from Victoria Chang’s shortlisted collection Obit. “In this book ‘grief takes many / forms, as tears or pinwheels...’, ‘dying lasts forever / until it stops’ and ‘our sadness is plural, but grief is / singular,’” the judges say. Listen to Victoria Chang read the poem of the week in a beautifully illustrated excerpt from the Griffin Poetry Prize Winners Announcement Film here.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort and The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin Win the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Wednesday, June 23, 2021Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin (McClelland & Stewart) are the International and Canadian winners of the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize, each receiving C$65,000 in prize money. The other finalists will be awarded $10,000 each.

Continue reading Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort and The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin Win the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize”

Grief After Grief After Grief After Grief

Billy-Ray Belcourt

copyright ©2018

1. my body is a stray bullet. i was made from crossfire. love was her last resort. his mouth, a revolver. I come from four hundred no man’s lands. 

2. “smell my armpit again/ i miss it when you do that.”

3. his moaning is an honour song i want to world to. 

4. one of the conditions of native life today is survivor’s guilt. 

5. it is july 2016 and the creator opens up the sky to attend a #blacklivesmatter protest. there, she bumps into weesageechak and warns him that if policemen don’t stop killing black men she will flood america and it will become a lost country only grieving mothers will know how to find. this, she says, is how the world will end and be rebuilt this time. 

6. haunting is a gender. gender is another word for horror story. 

7. “i can hear him screaming for me, and i can hear him saying, ‘stop, honey help me.’” 

8. i am trying to figure out how to be in the world without wanting it. this, perhaps, is what it means to be native. 


2: from Lilting (2014, dir. Hong Khaou).
 see :h ttp//www.cbc.ca/news/canada/Calgary/rcmp-gleichen-christian-duck-chief-excessive-force-1.3521620

Notes on the Poem

For National Indigenous Peoples Day, our Poem of the Week is “Grief After Grief After Grief After Grief,” by the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian winner, Billy-Ray Belcourt from his collection, This Wound is a World (Frontenac House). Of This Wound is a World, the judges said: “Blending the resources of love song and elegy, prayer and manifesto, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World shows us poetry at its most intimate and politically necessary. Mindful of tangled lineages and the lingering erasures of settler colonialism, Belcourt crafts poems in which “history lays itself bare” – but only as bare as their speaker’s shapeshifting heart. Belcourt pursues original forms with which to chart the constellations of queerness and indigeneity, rebellion and survival, desire and embodiedness these poems so fearlessly explore...This electrifying book reminds us that a poem may live twin lives as incantation and inscription, singing from the untamed margins: “grieve is the name i give to myself / i carve it into the bed frame. / i am make-believe. / this is an archive. / it hurts to be a story.”

A Wake

Liz Howard

copyright ©2016

Your eyes open the night’s slow static at a loss
to explain this place you’ve returned to from above;
cedar along a broken shore, twisting in a wake of fog.

I’ve lived in rooms with others, of no place and no mind
trying to bind a self inside the contagion of words while
your eyes open the night’s slow static. At a loss

to understand all that I cannot say, as if you came
upon the infinite simply by thinking and it was
a shore of broken cedar twisting in a wake of fog.

If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you
will return to me what I lost learning to speak.
Your eyes open the night’s slow static at a loss

to ever know the true terminus of doubt, the limits of skin.
As long as you hold me I am doubled from without and within:
a wake of fog unbroken, a shore of twisted cedar.

I will press myself into potential, into your breath,
and maybe what was lost will return in sleep once I see
your eyes open into the night’s slow static, at a loss.
Broken on a shore of cedar. We twist in a wake of fog. 

Notes on the Poem

This National Indigenous Month, we celebrate voices and poetry that speak to the pluralities of Indigenous identities. Following Jordan Abel, this week’s poem is “A Wake” by the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian winner, Liz Howard from Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (McClelland & Stewart), a collection “filled with energy and magic, suspended between competing inheritances, at home in their hyper-modern hybridity” (Judge’s citation). We also invite you to check out Liz Howard’s latest book, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos (2021) (McClelland & Stewart) “Invoking the knowledge histories of Western and Indigenous astrophysical science, Howard takes us on a breakneck river course of radiant and perilous survival in which we are invited to ‘reforge [ourselves] inside tomorrow’s humidex’. Part autobiography, part philosophical puzzlement, part love song, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos is a book that once read will not soon be forgotten.“ Learn more about Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent in this Jacket2 interview. Listen to Liz Howard read from her collection for the Griffin Poetry Prize


Jordan Abel

copyright ©2016 Jordan Abel

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week comes from Jordan Abel’s third book of poetry, Injun (Talonbooks) Canadian winner of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize. Composed of found texts excerpted from western novels published between 1840 and 1950, Injun displays, through various poetic tools and techniques such as cut-up, pastiche, erasure, and visual poetry, the anti-Indigenous racism permeating Western discourse and literature. Structured around five sections, “Injun,” “Notes,” “Appendix,” “Sources,” and “Process,” Abel subversively re-appropriates academic conventions, diverting their function and troubling their authority. In this visual poem, found in the “Notes” section of the book, we see a stacked repetition of the word “whitest”—a linguistic technique known as concordance line. Abel’s found lines, when collaged together, unsettle and force the reader to confront whiteness and Indigenous erasure head on. As Amaranth Borsuk and Sarah Dowling note, “the transformations Abel enacts upon his source texts mirror the violence settlers enact upon Indigenous societies, but his book’s insistent contemporaneity and vitality—indeed, its beauty and lyricism—demonstrate the myriad ways in which Indigenous peoples persist and endure." We also invite you to also check out Abel’s newly released memoir, NISHGA (McClelland & Stewart) a groundbreaking autobiographical work that collages poetry, art, and archival documents to speak “about intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession, and the afterlife of residential schools.” (Abel, CBC, 2021)