The Leonard L. Milberg ’53 High School Poetry Prize annually recognizes outstanding work by student writers in the 11th grade in the U.S. or abroad. Read the winning poems from the 2017 contest below.
Nature gives you two loud gunshots & a large lemonade & tells you: that’s it. Learn
to love it or leave it. You decide to learn to love it, & three weeks later another gift;
This time it’s in your state, and without any damn ice. Again, Nature gives you the
same ultimatum. There are two ways out—by bullet or by mouth—and you & I
both know which way you’d prefer.
Bullet holes in Time Magazine pages
from used magazine cartridges
are the numbered dots we connect
for fun. I trace from 6,740 to 6,741
& it’s just July & it’s just deaths
& it’s just America. I grew up with
firearms in my house.
When I was younger, punishment
meant going to the rifle range
with my state trooper
father. Bullet holes
in Time Magazine pages
are the constellations
of my zodiac—I am
not a Capricorn. I am
a Remington. Have you ever
spent time pondering Washington
stars? Remind me
once more. My memory is hazy.
When you’re out here in Michigan, kids
speak in Morse code
& nicknames. When you’re out
here in Michigan, kids speak
in lipstick & fish scales. Out here
in Michigan, kids fly
the confederate flag & you know
it must be about race, because we were
once a part of the Union,
so you must not want to secede.
I can tell you the difference
between a mass & a serial
& a spree, & it’s not the candy. We are
millennials. We know
a cold case when we see one.
New Orleans, LA
BLUEPRINT OF THE SOUTH
Leave it to the birds to be the ones that
can fly. The mantis sits in her rare
position–notice her march along the balsam pear vine.
There’s been talk about the nigger with the gnat
in his eye, he washed up one day on the coast
of the town. Eyes pecked out at the corners,
folk said he came from the southernmost
tip of Mississippi. In the end, his parents wanted him to resemble mortar.
So, they poured his ashes where they claimed his name–
along the roots of an oak.
Now, if you would excuse me
I need to set out to find my own
body, being spat on, and baptized in the sunrise, I’ve realized, that
I opened myself just to be embarrassed in front of you.
People have noticed my change of gait,
the way I lean to the side when the wind blows against my fragile frame.
That’s just the underbelly and the sternum arching to
fill in the gaps, left by my father’s misunderstanding.
Barnacled and black, my body
rocks like a boat in the midst of a hurricane,
rots as the waves continuously peel the rusted paint
off of me like scabs.
This body and many others like it
have been overused for centuries now,
but we aren’t allowed anger or flight
so, in the end, I have to rehab past minds,
along with my own.
A goldfinch rests nearby,
clutching thistle in its claws.
It flinches and trills,
telling me about its day,
and I listen.
It tells me that
it is not graceful
and has never wished
for the exquisite subtleness
of a white chest and crown.
It is flaxen and coal-dipped
with short, fleeting wings.