Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Poetry Letter No. 1, 2023, Part I, Poems - 2022 Annual Contest Winners and Les Bernstein

Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled, 1978


The three prize-winning poems from the CSPS Annual Contest 2022 were published in the California Quarterly Vol. 48, No. 4, guest-edited by Deborah P Kolodji in December 2022. Since our print-only journal is not published online, I decided to copy the three winners and add some honorary mentions from the contest, so that their poetry has a wider reach. In Newsbriefs No. 4 published in that CQ, I listed the honored poems and cited the Judge’s comments.

FIRST PRIZE: Jeanne Wagner – “Dolores Street” 

SECOND PRIZE: Susan Wolbarst – “After” 

THIRD PRIZE: Claire Scott – “Ariadne Auf Naxos”


1. Claire Scott – “S & H Green Stamps”

2. Claire Scott – “Motel Rooms of Last Resort”

3. Claire Scott – “The Sea Squirt Loses its Mind”

4. Susan Wolbarst – “Where’s Ginny?”

5. Claire Scott – “In the Revised Version: A Different Mother”

6. Sunny Yim Alperson – “Husband’s Urn”

JUDGE’S STATEMENT: “I am proud, honored and humbled to have been selected as the judge for the 2022 California State Poetry Society Annual Contest. The poems submitted reflected an amazing diversity of subjects and styles, and the caliber of the work submitted, overall, was outstanding. I congratulate all the Winners and Honorable Mentions, and thank and commend everyone who entered. I wish you all continuing success in your poetic endeavors.” ~Frank losue, 2022 Annual Contest Judge.

Mr. Iosue also commented about the winners: “The mark of a truly outstanding poem is its capacity to elicit sensations, emotions and intuitive associations that grow richer and more inexhaustible every time it is read. To my mind, these three winning poems all share that quality.” He was also quite surprised that he awarded the third prize and as many as four out of six honorary mentions to the same poet, Claire Scott. The contest was judged anonymously and Mr. Iosue had no way of knowing that these poems were penned by one author; in fact, he selected them because they were so different from each other! On behalf of the CSPS, I’d like to express my gratitude for his insights, hard work and dedication. He reviewed over 120 poems, reading through anonymous submissions multiple times.

In addition to Annual Contest poets, this issue of the Poetry Letter features three poems from Les Bernstein’s book Loose Magic. Among five books reviewed are: Shadows Thrown by Laura Ann Reed (Pauline Dutton), Saffron Skies by William Scott Galasso (Maja Trochimczyk), and Juliusz Erazm Bolek’s Ogród /The Garden in Polish and English (Jan Stępień), with two sample poems translated by Anna Maria Mickiewicz & Steve Rushton. Two book reviews are by Michael Escoubas, shared from Quill & Parchment: Synergy by Kathy Lohrum Cotton & Michael Scott, M.D. and Alice’s Adventures: A Modern Version of Lewis Carroll’s Classic in Verse by Paul Buchheit. The book reviews are posted separately in Part 2 of the online Poetry Letter. 

The illustrations come from surrealist paintings by Zdzisław Beksiński (1929-2005) - one of the most famous contemporary artists. His nightmare imagery of dark dreamscapes reveals a fascination with death and destruction. A famous film director Guillermo del Toro described Beksiński’s work as follows: "In the medieval tradition, Beksiński seems to believe art to be a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh – whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish – thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life. They hold within them a secret poetry, stained with blood and rust.” Beksiński’s untitled paintings are open to interpretations by viewers and have been associated with visionary Romantic and surreal ideas, or with inspirations by Eastern mysticism. In 2001, the artist bequeathed his entire artistic output to the Historical Museum in Sanok, Poland where he was born. Currently, the Museum has the largest collection of his works in the world: several thousand paintings, reliefs, sculptures, drawings, prints, etc. Enjoy!

~ Maja Trochimczyk, CSPS President


FIRST PRIZE: Jeanne Wagner – “Dolores Street”

Gorgeous! This is one of those poetic gems that grows more lovely and evocative with every re-reading. Minimalist, but rich, in detail...simple and concise in its execution...with a gently unfolding, unassuming grace and elegance of perception. A poem of organic beauty and subtle power, it is a delicate “emotional thumbnail”...An unforgettable chiaroscuro snapshot in words of a fragile and haunting “psychic landscape.” The exquisite imagery; the heartfelt connection to the aesthetic substance of the poem; its nuance and resonance... and the absolutely breathtaking final 3 lines!...To have infused and compressed so much subdued intensity, and transformational perception, with such concision and craft, into only 13 lines of poetry, is truly special and rare!...and makes this poem, for me, a minor masterwork. A truly exceptional poem, and very deserving of being the 1st prize winner. Congratulations on this wonderful work!


My grandmother always said 

she was lace-curtain Irish,

like the curtains that hung in her house,

made of dimity or lace,

fussy as old-fashioned undergarments. 

The windows myopic with gauze.

You could feel the night caught in their nets,

hear the foghorn’s muffled two-note 

blues as it sang to the ships

as they sailed through the Gate.

I wanted to tell her light

is what darkness dreams of.

Pull those curtains down and let it in.

                                                    ~  Jeanne Wagner, First Prize

SECOND PRIZE: Susan Wolbarst – “After”

JUDGE'S COMMENTS: An absolutely beautiful and haunting poem...based on a true account of a failed suicide attempt...The power of the simple, direct emotional intensity, and the immediacy of the poetic occasion of this work, is truly moving and memorable. There is a bare-boned genuineness of feeling, and a palpable sensory immersion in the moment of circumstance, that is, at the same time, heartbreaking and uplifting. The lack of any stanza breaks, and the compositional decision to primarily use short, declarative sentences for the narrative structure of the poem, reinforce the feeling of a natural movement of “perception and response” to the unfolding of events, and all attendant realizations and emotions...and propel the poem forward, without any sense of disingenuous artifice or pretense. The strength of this poem is its understated lyricism. The almost angelic “innocence” of acknowledgment and redemption of the “I” of the poem, is utterly engaging and disarming lt is reverent and sincere, and interspersed with the evocative resonance of little epiphanies as evidenced in lines like these: “I feel you dive away and cold / fills the space where you were.” A truly outstanding poem, and a worthy recipient of the 2nd  Prize! Bravo, and congratulations!

Fourteen people have survived suicidal jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge in the past 22 years. “Jump survivor Kevin Hines said he remembered landing in the water and that a creature kept him afloat. According to bystanders, it was a sea lion.”             ~ San Francisco Chronicle



I didn’t expect this.

The water is very cold and I am here. 

I see sunshine and I am here.

I taste salt and I am here.

I hear the highway overhead

on the orange bridge, thrumming. 

I can’t tum my head to look.

I bob on the waves, remembering

the hard smack on the water. I will never 

forget how hard it felt, how loud in my ears. 

I expected that to be my last thought.

But I am here because of you.

I can’t see you, but I know you’re 

under me because I feel warmth and 

softness. You decided to keep me afloat

so I can breathe. I’m not sure why you did this.

I’m not sure I could keep upright by myself.

I’m not sure I can tell you how much I love you. 

We have no shared language.

I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone

or anything. I love everything here: the salt, the cold,

the sunshine, the thrumming, the bobbing.

But most especially, I love you.

I am telling you that over and over in my thoughts.

It all seems perfect to me now

because I am here. And you are here with me.

I hear a motor boat approaching 

and feel its wake moving me.

I feel you dive away and cold 

fills the space where you were.

Come back- I didn’t thank you. 

I didn’t finish letting you know 

how much I love you.

Someone from the boat

is yelling down to me, but

I don’t understand. I can’t listen. 

Too much noise in my head.

I only know that I am here.

I only wish that I could 

swim away with you.

                                                                            ~ Susan Wolbarst, Second Prize

THIRD PRIZE: Claire Scott – “Ariadne Auf Naxos”

JUDGE'S COMMENTS: An engaging, edgy and notable re-imagining and retelling of the Theseus / Ariadne myth (inspired by, and titled after, the opera by Richard Strauss), from the perspective of the poem’s narrator. Cretan princess, Ariadne. This poem is deftly executed and composed: taut, well-crafted, and darkly humorous with the exacting narrative authority and precision of detail; the management of the movement and unfolding of the poem; and the sardonic, “no holds barred” revelations and motivations of Ariadne’s psyche; without excess, marvelously calibrated and cleverly exposed. The poem is also nicely structured, visually: the absence of almost any punctuation gives each line more aesthetic autonomy, and moves the poem down the page with an ease and naturalness that not only reflects the free-flow of normal speech, but also builds, line by line, the wittily-vindictive poetic, and rhetorical, “rebuttal” that is at the core of the poem’s raison d’etre its “reason to be”! And, the four 8-line stanzas create a lovely, subtle symmetry that serves as a nuanced, understated scaffolding for, and counterpoint to, Ariadne’s unapologetic, bullet point litany of indictments and justifications that form this memorable and satisfying “righteous monologue.”


Why so many myths written by misogynists 

as usual they’ve got it all wrong

I wasn’t left behind on that island 

abandoned by a lover in a hurry to get home 

watching the wind, checking his sails

maybe losing interest in me now that 

he killed the minotaur

but I know he loved me, after all I saved his life

And I wanted to do it, to rescue girls and boys 

from the blood-fanged monster, my half-brother 

my mother’s folly

but my god! he was so full of himself after 

strutting and boasting

holding high the horns of the bull as he raced

his chariot around town, sloshing red wine, 

singing hymns of praise to himself

But I was the one who made it possible 

I was the one who gave him the thread 

who gave him the sword

who told him how

why would I want to sail off 

with that blowhard and live far

from buzzing cities and breathtaking beaches

I hid high up in the hills

Hearing my name called over and over 

echoing across the rocks

until his words were lost in a rush of wind 

and l watched the black sails rise

singing softly as he vanished into the mist 

waiting for Dionysus

the god I seduced

so I too could be immortal

                                                                    ~ Claire Scott, Third Prize

Beksinski, Untitled, 1978



I loved the orderly procession

of stamps stepping shoulder to shoulder 

across the page. I took the green stamps

from my mother's purse when she came home

from the A&P. She showed no interest, wobbled 

to her room slugging a bottle of Jim Beam, leaving

groceries on the counter. Melting ice cream

I spooned from the container.

Shredded wheat I fed to the dog. I loved

pulling the stamps apart, licking their little backs 

and pasting them into the pint-sized booklets.

I couldn't wait to finish a few books and race to the store

to pick out a prize: a set of six wine glasses, a Zippo lighter, 

a pink ashtray. It didn't matter. It seemed like magic.

I wouldn't mind spending some time each day 

with familiar sheets of green stamps

and a booklet picturing a cheery family of four.

No alcohol in sight. No sharp objects or vials of pills.

The comfort of always fifty squares on a page,

never forty-nine or sixty-two.

A meditative practice like the sand mandalas

of Buddhist monks sending healing,

peace and purification into this worn 

and weltered world. I could do that. 

And maybe I could trade some stamps

for a Swank Key Ring with a nail clipper

or a Bathtub Tray with a back scrubber. 

No credit card needed. Magic.

                                                                      ~ Claire Scott, Honorary Mention 1


skittering roaches grimy sheets

         seeping toilet                   Gideon Bible

freeway roar                  big rigs grinding

              God stomping in his garden

a salesman slumps on the bed thinking of thick trees tall bridges 

              his boss threatening       rent past due throbbing tooth

a woman soaks in the tub blood-blue bruises 

          memories of night's littered promises

do they reach for the Bible looking for a late breaking cure

All things are possible with God. Mark 10:27

For no word from God will ever fail. Luke. 1:37

or snort a sure thing slug scotch space out in the blue haze of TV

        a break from dead ends         doomed choices

knowing they will return in the morning or the next morning or the next

             to a life of unquiet desperation no miracles in sight

not seduced by the words of    a ghostly God-in- a-drawer 

                         not daring to hope for more

                                                                              ~ Claire Scott, Honorary Mention 2


It eats its own brain

once attached headfirst to a rock

where it will spend the rest of its brief life

the brain no longer needed since

it’s never going to move again

I recently settled in Sunset Lodge 

last stop assisted living

in Walnut Creek, California 

living a sessile existence

in a miniscule apartment

On the windowless sixteenth floor 

never going anywhere again

no trips to science museums 

wobbling on a walker

no beach vacations

dipping bunioned toes in salty brine

I sit in my chair all day

roots burrowing into blind earth 

staring at wallpaper roses

while neurons blink out like morning stars 

someone who looks like my daughter

says try yoga or tai chi

But my body barely moves anymore my mind

 no longer scribbles memories 

living between world and not world 

yet I am alive, still alive inside my skin 

counting rows and rows of pink roses

                                                                                          ~ Claire Scott, Honorary Mention 3


We always go to your favorite restaurant, 

always order the same thing, as if adhering

to the routine will somehow make things revert

to how they used to be. We split a Reuben

sandwich and an order of sweet potato fries.

I order a glass of wine for each of us - you white,

me red - and we eat in the sunshine on the patio. 

"We should take a boat trip down the Mississippi River,"

you say, not registering how impossible that would be.

That would be great, I say, thinking

about you wandering around the boat all night

 in fuzzy slippers, slipping and falling overboard.

Thinking about logistics of travel with you

in your current confusion gives me a headache.

Have you read any good books lately?

I ask, wondering if you can still

decode words on a page.

"I like this chardonnay," you say.

You eat three bites of your sandwich 

as I wolf down my half and way too many fries.

You tear the rest into little pieces you intend to 

feed your dog when you get home.

Eat your sandwich, Ginny. But you're already 

packaging its pieces in your folded-up napkin,

stuffing it into your empty purse. You are skin and bones. 

Would you like some dessert? I noticed

they have banana bread. Do you remember making it 

for our writers’ group? No answer. Yours

was the best I’ve ever eaten. Do you like peanut butter?

No answer. Would you like a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie?

But you’re done thinking about food.

You smile, with a dreamy look passing

over your face that reminds me of the old you.

“A boat trip down the Mississippi River,” you repeat.

                                                                    ~ Susan Wolbarst, Honorary Mention 4


Mother, the light is leaking

the clock hands exhausted 

can you hear me?

(you who couldn't hear my uncle's hands)

I went to your grave last week row along the hedgerow

I couldn't find you

(you who floated in the haze of Seconal)

I left the primroses you loved 

you know the purple ones

I picked from your garden 

roots and all when I was two

and you smiled when I gave them to you 

my face smeared with dirt...

(the hot tears of a hair brush)

you taught me to walk with scissors 

behind my back

(you took pills to forget)

you showed me how to whip egg whites 

for angel food cake

(what your brother did to you) 

you taught me to never wear white

shoes after Labor Day

can you hear me? 

one day you told me

we were made of stardust. 

Mother, how did you know?

(you who vegged on sitcoms and scotch)

I am tired Mother

soon I will take off my skin suit 

and return to the stars

maybe some of your stardust 

will mix with mine

can you hear me?

(I swallow pills to forget)

                                                         ~ Claire Scott, Honorary Mention 5


A Lovely

Turquoise vase in the bookshelf that 

holds you. All of You.

Three pounds of white-grey powder in a pretty container. 

Ocean squeezed into a bowl.

Selfless master teacher from cradle to 73. 

You paid dues and completed your circle.

Three aimless birds high up. Does destination matter? 

Sunshine over wingtips.

Chest thrusted wide open, never been so proud.

Free to roam Himalaya to Machu Picchu, Atlantic to Yosemite. 

Back to the ancient flight with silent songs

Of Spring mountains, of Winter moons, 

Star dust my evening skies.

Glad you are not alone.

                                                                ~ Sunny Yim Alperson, Honorary Mention 6


Les Bernstein's poems have appeared in journals, presses and anthologies in the U.S.A. and internationally, Her chapbooks Borderland, Naked Little Creatures and Amid the Din have been published by Finishing Line Press. Les is a winner of the 6th annual Nazim Hikmet Festival. She also was a Pushcart Prize Nominee for 2015. Les has been the editor of Redwood Writer's Anthologies for the last five years and was also the editor of the Marin High School Anthology 2018. Her full length poetry book Loose Magic has been published by Finishing Line Press and is available on Amazon. Poems below are from the Loose Magic book.


it is your birthday today

I leave the windows open 

and watch the sunflowers

 turn to the sun

I remember the moment 

time slithered away

that day unlike all others 

tangling into a hard knot

I will light a candle

to chaperone my way 

to toggle between 

here and nowhere

it is spring again 

with its hopeful sky 

you inhabit the wind

while terrestrial business 


as if nothing changed

                        NOTE: Yahrzeit is the anniversary of a death marked by burning a candle


every day in the middle distance

I build my house

the foundation yoked to plausibility 

a dreamscape yard

underneath a waking life 

a charmed unconcern 

makes sacred

altars for ordinary life 

rooms built for forgetting

every day I build

a structure from the roof down 

beams high

a hint of dry rot

every day I build

strange mysteries of small benedictions 

a story carved in bone

no matter how unique 

not exactly new


I am dreaming 

always dreaming

a protagonist sleepwalking 

these most ordinary chapters 

of thought's well-worn grooves

things will always happen 

an anarchy of experience 

mess and distraction 

bountiful and inexhaustible 

in my epic novel

no one is reading

to tell a little bit of truth 

here is a non-fiction version 

my story is my story

my story is just a story 

my story is not true

will the sleepwalker awake 

to an illuminated darkness

no foothold in the mutable past 

no mindless march into ephemera

can there finally be

the silencing of language 

the inner symphony

with only one sustained note 

of full throated living

just simple 

so simple being

and not 

so simple 


in the soft glow 

of an eternal now


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