Forward – Best Young Poets 2006

Forward is a collection of poetry showcasing the work of UW–Madison’s first-year Masters of Fine Arts writing students and the undergraduate winners, honorable mentions, and finalists of the 2006 George B. Hill Program. George B. Hill was a member of the class of 1908 at the University of Wisconsin, and was a writer and editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal. This year’s George B. Hill Poetry Prize winners were selected from more than one hundred contest submissions. The 2006 contest judge was Collen Abel, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.

— Excerpt from the Preface, written by Amaud Jamaul Johnson, assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program

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Selection from Forward

“A Delta of Bone” by Austin Smith,
a George B. Hill Award Winner

May my grave
be the birthplace
of many deer.
Walking a cat’s cradle of trails,
my mind was like the mud nest of wasps:
loud with a thousand stinging thoughts.
I was counting crows,
an act of divination and desperation,
trying to winnow a meaning
from the absolute empire of winter.

And then, as if a manifestation
of the earth’s urge to sing of herself,
a porcelain-white chorus
pierced the cacophony of my mind:
a bloom of bone had grown
up out of the mineral snow,
a seedling sown by the blossoming moon:
one deer antler, rooted
in the ground, vegetative,
branched like a sapling seeking sunlight.
I bent low to pick the strangest flower.

There is no thing of this world
as cold as bone when it has had a night
to swallow the cold of snow
down its throat of marrow,
and there is no thing of this world
as smooth as bone when it has been whittled
and polished by the sandwind of time.
I held the delta of bone in my own.

It was pronged but was one stem at its base,
which was crowned by a corona of calcium.
The place where it had once been rooted
to the sphere of the deer’s mind
smelled like the migrant blood
we harbor in the hostels of our skin.
From this disk grew weathered veins
(an antler, a weathervane)
which ran in mineral deposits
to the four terminal points
(the cardinal directions)
which were dulled at the tips
by the bark of buck-rubbed trees,
at the feet of which the deer must have left
little votive cairns of velvet.
The stalk of bone split into two
and became deltaic
like the Ganges at the sea.

What does it mean
when you find yourself
(and you must find yourself,
having wandered, shamanic,
outside yourself)
holding a length of bone?
it means that flesh,
which is the least of what we are,
has melted like thawed snow
and only that skeletal scaffolding
upon which we hang
the drapery of our living
like a threadbare coat
on a hanger, remains.
When all the antlers have settled
singular through the soft earth,
we will lay upon a great hammock
of woven bone and deer
will bear the weight
of what we have done.

But today the antler I found
that day near an effigy mound
beyond Madison weighs down
my feather-light poems
and decorates my desk
between two ears of Indian corn.
They cannot hear my prayers.
They are deaf when I say
I owe all I am
to the deaths of deer.