As the reader of submissions to the Foley Poetry Contest, all 900 of them, I began with much shaking of the head over weaknesses. If only they had read more widely in ancients and moderns! If only they could get their words to dance! Then came the first run of more artful poems, imaginative and well-formed. So I could relax into the task: to cull the truly striking.
Eventually, though, I came to realize what was really happening with all these pages. Doors and windows were opening into countless interiors. It became humbling for me to read all the theological attempts, the coming to terms with loss, the paeans to the world around us and the sober assessments of it, the wrestling match with demons.
Postmarks came in from India (Uttar Pradesh, Chennai, Kerala), Ghana, Australia, Nepal, Haiti. Twenty-five poems were from priests and deacons, but over 70 from religious sisters. Our elder this time around was Loretta Connelly, age 91, of Smyrna Mills, Me. Our youngster, Mikajla Groel (that’s how her last name appears to be spelled), 10 years old, wrote about animal rescue after the Gulf Oil Spill: “birds in a room, crowding, squawking old ladies,/ waiting to be cleaned,/ like at a hair salon.”
The Foley docket always includes elegies. A poet deserving elegy this year is Ethel Pochocki of Maine, a spirited contributor to America, who died at 85. Joseph Fogarty, O.P., tells of her transforming “weathered clothespins/ capped in snow/ into a chorus line of dancers.” That’s what imagination is about! Fogarty adds: “I sometimes like to whisper/ at odd hours during the day:/ ‘I think I love you;/ I hope that’s okay.’” It certainly is.
A 13-year-old, Lily Sloate, with her “thoughts swirling/ like water going down the drain,” elegizes her young father who collapsed in an ice-hockey game. So poems can enfold a lot of pain. Anto Ide begins, “I did not think of death today,/ a good day for me now.” David Mack, an inmate in Pennsylvania, whose space is “a box no bigger than a monkey’s cage,” describes the “turbulence of my battered mind.” Joan Bastian, O.P., observes: “When I was manic, I could write much better,” and concludes wryly: “Sanity at the price of poetry,/ This indeed is madness!”
Good phrases leap out at you. Loren Mihelich describes an owl, “talons like paper-shredders awash in red ink.” The owl admits: “I work the night shift.” What Harold Buckley sees is this: “Hawks, lazy in the sky/ Like prowl cars/ Uncoop their powers in sudden shock.” William Burke, S.J., speaks for old-timers: “I am a loose-shingled roof.” The wind will have its way, but no hurry! Julie Heckman, in “Oil Spill 2010,” laments the “micro biotic plight,...this un-natural food chain,” bottom dwellers feasting on sludge.
Our first prize this year goes to Mara Faulkner, a Benedictine sister in Minnesota. The three runners-up will appear in subsequent issues: first, Jennifer Lynn Wills for “some things won’t be stopped”; then, Mary Kay Shoen, for “Vowed to this Life”; finally, Barbara Lydecker Crane, for “March 21st.”
The judges, besides me, were William Rewak, S.J., director pro tem of the Jesuit Retreat Center, Los Altos, Calif., and Claudia MonPere McIsaac, professor of English at Santa Clara University. Winning in the Foley Contest is most often by a whisker, and we did much furrowing of brows among finalists. To all entrants I conclude with the Hindu greeting provided by Noreen Kromm: Namaste, “I bow to the sacred in you.”