2021 High School Poetry Contest Winning Poems

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 2021 contest below.

First Place

Gaia Rajan
Mason, Ohio

Simple Machines

At eleven, I stole a lisp from my parents— slipped

past silent seams of brick, past slouching yards

and surveilling fields, past the stray dog still wearing

its owner’s collar, past the trappings of dead

animals and the splintering lanterns in perfect

hunting lodges, past the people and their economies

of sweat and the gym called Manifest Your Destiny

into the speech classroom’s projector spotlight. There’s more steel

in English than you would believe. In my textbooks,

men invented new machines to turn people

into ghosts, to sheathe all senses in fresh

blood. The woman in speech class asked all

who hadn’t broken their mouths yet to circle

the nouns. Mark the verbs. Buck the horse. Stolen

accent evidence of stagnancy. A cycle

of innovation: pulley into crank into guillotine.

The inventions grew more beautiful, more

deadly: artful casket, gorgeous cage. I learned

how to speak so they could ruin me, an imitation

of a voice. All of this is progress. I excelled

in speech class, my mouth rinsed out clean with white

heat, controlled vocabularies of so much blood. On days

I can’t speak, this is where I go: interrogation

room, gunmetal smile. Grateful machines. The coldest tongues.



Second Place

Olivia Yang
Charlotte, North Carolina

Etymology of Loss

The day my mother died, I opened
my copy of the Tibetan Book of Living
and Dying for the first time. I stroked
each page, the soft fur of age glistening
between my fingers. Perhaps
the deepest reason why we are afraid of death
is that we do not know who we are. It is time now
to admit my mother’s death to be two
deaths, the first in her chamber of body,
the second in a glass room
in my mind. Her departure left a silence
underneath the trembling
of my skin, which swallowed
grief as quickly as a reassurance
that this was anything but finality.
I want to think of death as a metaphor
about empty space. Yet even a ghost will gnaw
at its coffin. When it’s packed too tightly
together, there’s a thickness to dust
I’d never noticed before. Like the birth
day cake I ate at seven — a diabetic sweetness
smudged in icing, recoiling
from the skin of my throat.
I drag the knife across glazed flesh
tenderly, as if to rouse the body
slumbering beneath frosted casing.
A sprig of pale lily rests on my platter –
no, wilts upon a coffin. The light goes out.
The flicker of an exhausted wick lingers, butane
licking the corners of my mother’s withering
lilac lips. I cannot remember
if she was there to witness the feast.
What does death do with the body
it discards? The same that we do
with the things we do not want. Mother,
when I try to capture your face, I can only remember
your cheekbones outlining a mouth
downturned, flushed in the rouge of anger.
When I try to grieve, I open
the same book and highlight with a pen
the words that can border you
in your wake — a cold body still
stuck, clinging onto caking ash.
But what is this? A revival? Or an erasure?
To contain you, I created a room
which was also a ghost. The distance between
you and I — faceless. I keep forgetting
empty space can also be a door
and even now, I wish I could enter
and exit freely.
But I know this is not an elegy
for I still do not know the words
that can contain you.



Third Place

Olajuwon Abdullah Adedokun
Lagos/Alimosho/Igando, Nigeria


What my Biology teacher says:
A plant growing needs light,
& light could be white, or
burning red or Rose green,
or the sunset on a glowing skin,
but light can never be ember black
or greyish ashes of a burnt skin.

We wear silence around our necks
and crawl out of bed into bleaching creams,
to be able to trap light on our tongues,
blame the unshreded remnants of our
inherited sins for every bad dream.

It’s what we name hope, & at the
playground in school argue who
is becoming an Oyinbo faster,
I learn American English, practice
sticky syllables on my cracked tongue
because my language has no
name for a broken boy.

*Oyinbo means foreigner in Yoruba


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