An Aging Poet Explains by David Southward
The problem is that people are like trees.
Although they think and speak and walk around,
they’re growths of buried systems no one sees—
whose roots, like an inverted broccoli crown,
anchor them to the soils of home and school.
While summer wraps their limbs in gathered light,
this hidden half digests a springtime pain
that hardens them, with long-forgotten rain.
The next time someone rankles you? Don’t fight:
picture them standing mirrored by a pool,
such that the branching of their inborn fire
appears as this root self, grown upside down—
and watch the seasoned bully, cheat, or liar
become a child trying not to drown.
David Southward grew up in southwest Florida and earned degrees in English from Northwestern and Yale Universities. In 1998 he joined the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is currently Senior Lecturer. Through introductory courses in literature, film, and comics, as well as advanced courses in poetry and aesthetics, David shares his passion for the arts in all their variety. His first chapbook, Apocrypha, was published by Wipf & Stock in 2018, and his collection Bachelor’s Buttons appeared from Kelsay Books in 2020. Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Able Muse, Light, The Lyric, Measure, and THINK. David is a two-time winner of the Lorine Niedecker Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers (2016 judged by Tyehimba Jess; 2019 judged by Leslie Monsour) and the Muse Prize from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (2017 judged by Mark Doty). In 2019 his poem “Mary’s Visit” was chosen by Bruce Bennett from 978 entries for the $1,000 Frost Farm Prize for Metrical Poetry. David resides in Milwaukee with his husband, Geoff.
Praise for the winning sonnet: Despite the generality of its themes, this wise and compassionate poem miraculously succeeds in making a case for empathy in a way that feels fresh. Although its bent is toward the didactic, it doesn’t feel preachy, using just enough gentle humor (“inverted broccoli crown”) to help its message go down easy. “While summer wraps their limbs in gathered light, / this hidden half digests a springtime pain” is a lovely pair of lines, elegantly transforming time into space, seasons into altitudes. In the last six lines, the poem’s central metaphor undergoes a dexterous expansion: because a tree’s roots cannot be seen, the poet recommends the mental exercise of picturing people as trees being reflected in a pool, the branches’ mirror images becoming stand-ins for the roots. This sets up the poem’s thunderclap of a last line, in which this water image, slyly introduced a few lines earlier, becomes the basis for an unexpectedly rich emotional payoff. Unostentatious, working with only the simplest tools, this sonnet succeeds through seasoned craft and solid construction in achieving a profoundness that feels honestly earned.
–Jenna Lê, Judge