GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine

APRIL 2003, Volume 95, Issue 4
>> Back to feature

Poetic Justice

In celebration of National Poetry Month the Magazine presents the winners of its Alumni Poetry Contest.

Mark Strand, the Andrew MacLeish distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought, spent much of January eating poetry. As judge of the Alumni Poetry Contest he read 400-plus poems written by 246 Chicago alumni. The poets spanned nine decades of degree years, from a Ph.B. earned in 1928 to a phalanx of 2002 grads. They wrote free verse, haiku, sonnets, even limericks (“Professor Mark Strand/Placed his head in his hand…”). They wrote of love, loss, libraries, and bookshops.

Four hundred poems, as Strand laconically puts it, “is a lot of poems,” and so, in addition to the three prizes—first place, $600; second, $300; third, $100—outlined in the contest guidelines, he chose two more entries for honorable mention.

What made these poems stand out? The first-place “Potter’s Song,” Strand says, “is a successful solution to the formal problem the villanelle sets; the repetitions and circularity of the villanelle very suitably reflect the poem’s content.” He admires the second-place “Pockets” because “it combines fastidiousness and wildness in an obsessive attempt to locate oneself—with the unsought-for result that one is nevertheless lost.” Of the third-place “Little Red Schoolhouse,” Strand says, “I like the simplicity, the rhythmical rightness.” And of the honorable mentions—“Unavoidably Detained” and “Lowdown Lovesick Blues”—the judge notes, “They came close.”


Potter’s Song
for Nicola Miller

The clay has no shape as it comes from the ground:
This bowl takes its form through the skill of my hands.
But fire will tell if the work is unsound.

I dig up what I use from a place that I’ve found
On deserted, infertile, and ownerless lands;
The clay has no shape as it comes from the ground.

Raw earth, when I start, is heaped into a mound.
A beautiful bowl is the aim of my plans,
But fire will tell if the work is unsound.

This lump on the wheel goes around and around,
Till by pressing and pushing a vessel expands…
The clay has no shape as it comes from the ground.

I will glaze it to look like a rainbow is wound
From its base to its lip in tight, shimmering bands.
But fire will tell if the work is unsound.

It’s strange how my life—like this bowl—should be bound
To give proof of its worth by the trials it withstands.
The clay has no shape as it comes from the ground,
But fire will tell if the work is unsound.

—Douglas Mandell, AB’72

Mandell lives in Fresnes, France, where he is a software engineer for EADS–Launch Vehicles. This is his first published poem.


You have a pocket, pockets, all over, front, back, side, outside, inside, and within these pockets are perhaps other pockets and within those still others, an infinite line of pockets, or maybe a circle that leads back to the original pocket, and you put your hand in your pocket and maybe you feel something in there and you realize that what you have is just not enough to give to someone else and so you’ll stay alone and your hands will be the only hands in your pockets which is fine because sometimes there are good things in these pockets, forgotten things, stale gum, a joint you never finished smoking, a stamp, lint you were saving, a paper clip, a vacation brochure, matches, some spare change (though never in the same pocket, or else it’d jingle against itself and you’d notice it, broke as you are), and of course the keys, which you have been looking for, which made you go through your pockets in the first place, and you finally find the keys and back your way out of your pockets, into the open air between your hand and the car door, you get in and put the key in the ignition, the car starts but as you back it out of the space it doesn’t seem like your car, though you drive it anyway towards home, which when you get there doesn’t really seem like your home, though the key works in the door and you walk in with your hands in your pockets, putting the keys in one of them though you don’t remember which, and maybe there are some people in your home playing pool or billiards or something, you don’t think you know them but they seem to know you, and they kind of smile but mostly look unhappy as they announce to you, sorry, you just lost the game you didn’t even know you were playing, please pay up, empty your pockets.

—Julian Cohen, AB’91

Cohen, who is vice president and group strategic planning director at DDB Chicago, writes screenplays in his free hours. He has previously published poems in Strong Coffee and Mangrove.

Little Red Schoolhouse

My father took me
painting one time.
We drove uphill
to the Little Red Schoolhouse.

The Schoolhouse then
was a Nature Center,
a place so dull
you rushed outside.

Off to the left
was the Nature Trail—
more de la même
in my opinion.

Off to the right
was the view downhill—
Nature naked—
It wasn’t pretty.

I painted the trees
one leaf at a time;
Dad painted the forest
with one green line.

—W. H. Stevens, AM’76

Stevens lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois, and is an assistant public defender in the Cook County Public Defender’s office. His poems have appeared in Alewife, Bogg, The Lillliput Review, and The Rambunctious Review.

Lowdown Lovesick Blues

Look for my baby, she’s lookin’ for shoes—
This only the start of my lovesick blues.

That gal would look good in a croaker sack,
But all she think is new clothes on her back.

When I give her the eye like I’m wantin’ to:
“Which look better,” she ask, “green or the blue?”

And when I’m gone in those eyes and those lips,
She’s tellin’ me pleats won’t do on her hips.

Think I’ve lost my baby to clothes not booze—
Tell me which one’s worse for the lovesick blues.

Come around, Baby, come out of that store,
Just turn the handle and open my door.

Catalogues be the devil, that’s what they are—
Let me be your wishbone, I be your star.

Only you know how you mess with my mind—
Gal, that mirror tell you don’t be unkind.

I’m suffering, Baby, come lie by my side.
Bring that old mischief, I got no more pride.

We ain’t got all night and that ain’t news—
You know how to cure these lovesick blues.

—Kevin Lewis, AM’69, PhD’80

Lewis directs graduate religious studies at the University of South Carolina. His poems have appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, The Christian Century, Anglican Theological Review, and Studia Mystica.

Unavoidably Detained

über der grauschwarzen Ödnis.
Ein baum-
hoher Gedanke
greift sich den Lichtton: es sind
noch Lieder zu singer jenseits
der Menschen

Paul Celan, Fadensonnen*

My father and his brothers hunt pheasants
through a fine October day, keeping one row of corn,
golden stubble, between them, sweeping the fields

of the homesteaders. Because it is 1946, the country
is at peace, a minister from Princeton takes
the train to South Dakota, to their farms

to listen to their speech, low German,
a Dutch inflection, the quiet mark of allegiance
to the low countries, now that the borders

are no longer terrible. When the evening light
becomes the fast falling night, the time
of long shadows, he asks for a farmhouse,

a phone, and because something is abiding
in those fields he has not seen, calls the city
to say that he has been unavoidably detained.

—Jane Hoogestraat, AM’82, PhD’89

Hoogestraat, a professor of English and gender studies at Southwest State University in Springfield, Missouri, has published work in Poetry, Southern Review, DoubleTake, Slant, High Plains Literary Review, Yarrow, and South Dakota Review. *above the grey-black wilderness.

* above the grey-black wilderness.

A tree-
high thought
tunes into lights pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side
of mankind.

Paul Celan, Thread Suns


Archives Contact About the Magazine Alumni Gateway Alumni Directory UChicago
uchicago 2003 The University of Chicago Magazine 5801 South Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-0495