2021 Kim Bridgford Memorial Sonnet Crown Contest Winner:

The Messenger by Susan Delaney Spear

This, she recalls. Mommy piles her
Along with friends into the tan Dodge Dart,
the ride, smooth on asphalt, and the dust
the car stirs on the lane down to the farm.
It is her fifth birthday. Dark purple grapes
decorate the trellis. Old Shep’s growl
scares her slack-kneed, back among adults
circled up in lawn chairs in the shade.
Uncle Dale plants his boots on earth.
Aunt Emma and Mommy cross their slender legs
and swing their sandaled feet. “You kids go play.”
Ripened words and adult conversation
rise, diffusing into summer air.
Khrushchev, Kennedy, a pregnant mare.

Khrushchev, Kennedy, a pregnant mare.
Uncle Dale mumbles and adjusts the wad
of chew in his left cheek. “You kids go play.”
In pink seersucker shorts and new white Keds,
she scrambles down the lane, feeling the gravel
through her rubber soles. The old barn pulls her.
She turns, yelling and waving, “Follow me!”
The children wait inside until their eyes
adjust to dimness. Bales of hay—
neatly stacked—pitchforks, shovels, tack,
and empty stalls all sharpen into focus.
Ah, the ladder to the loft! Don’t you dare!
They don’t. The odors of manure and hay
meet tiny noses. The odor wallops them.

The smell whomps on. Eyes sting and noses run.
The kids sit in the back doorway, stretching
match-stick legs and shielding their eyes.
Dust motes trot through brilliant fields of light.
Outside, horses swill up water from a trough.
Then, a messenger appears. He enters
the barnyard with intention. All the girl’s
senses wake: The stir of earth, the rhythm
of his hooves, the whinny of his words,
the pool of his dark eyes, his heaving flanks,
his message, Follow Me, implicit
in the sweep of his tremendous head.
One driving turn, one toss of his thick mane,
and he thunders back from where he came.

The dark horse thunders back from where he came.
The slurping horses freeze, their nostrils flare,
and they charge off behind. The news ignites
her nerves.
                     “Come on. We have to tell Aunt Emma.”
“Tell her what?”
                            “You heard him, didn’t you?”
Her spindly legs propel her to the house,
while the others string along the lane.
                                                                    “Aunt Emma!
Aunt Emma! Your horse. It’s had a baby.”
The grown-ups shift in frayed lawn chairs and chuckle.
Iced tea glasses sweat and smoke curls upward.
“Slow down, Jeanie-Bug,” Aunt Emma says,
“Say that again.”
                             “The mare has had her baby.
A big horse came to tell us….” The details tumble
like a waterfall. Words fall and fall.

A waterfall of words. Words fall. And fail.
Pause. “Did you see the baby horse?”
asks Mommy. “No,” says Jeanie “but, I know….
A boy blows bubbles from a tiny wand.
One wobbly prism rises, floats, and lands
on Uncle Dale’s bulging chew-stuffed cheek.
He stands and rumbles, “Hey, kids, see what happens
to those bubbles when they land on me?”
The children stare as he pulls out the lump
of wet tobacco. They shiver with belief.
Grown-ups look away and stifle laughter.
The yellow jackets brood among the grapes.
Their low buzz underscores the afternoon.
Aunt Emma says, “It’s time for cake and ice cream.”

Chocolate cake and home-made ice cream seep
through paper plates. They eat with plastic spoons.
Jeanie unwraps a Barbie Doll. A Ken
and Stacy, too. The girls display the gowns
and tiny colored mules across the grass.
Jeanie thinks about the messenger,
but does not say a word. Once again,
Mommy piles the kids into the car.
Jeanie feels the dusky summer heat,
the melt and stick of skin on vinyl. The rush
of words. The ash of mature laughter. The flash
of disbelief. At home, she hears the song
of self-assured cicadas as she slips
between the clean white cotton sheets.

She wakes wrapped in a tangled sweat of sheets.
The scent of Winstons travels through the house
and the red phone in the kitchen jangles. “Hello,”
Mommy says. “Oh really? …a coincidence.
You found her after we came home? I know.”
Drowsy-summer-morning minutes pass—
then Mommy appears. “Jeanie, are you awake?”
“I think so. Who was that?” asks Jeanie.
“Aunt Emma. She says the filly’s mighty fine.
She’s light brown with a white star on her nose.”
Jeanie shivers. She tosses back the damp
bed clothes. The colors of the morning shift.
Jeanie senses she’s a stranger here.
She recalls: words are prone to fail.

Susan Delaney Spear is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado Christian University where she serves as English Department Chair. She earned an MFA from Western University in Poetry with an Emphasis in Verse Forms. From 2013-2019 she served as Managing Editor of Think. Since then, her poems have appeared in various journals both print and on-line. Her first collection of poems, Beyond All Bearing, was published by Wipf and Stock in 2018. A textbook, Learning the Secrets of Verse in English, (with David J. Rothman) will appear in early 2021 from Springer.

Praise for the winning sonnet crown: “The Messenger” presents a tightly constructed sequence of scenes from a childhood, rendered with cinematic vividness. Textured details of mixed large and small significance create an air of verisimilitude that we can breathe. There is a dynamic, suspenseful narrative arc that keeps the reader fascinated such that we forget the poem’s length. There are deep themes at play (growing awareness of the ephemerality of childhood’s magic; the value of trust and belief; the recognition of one’s separateness that leads some children to grow up to be poets and artists), but these are handled with a light touch, not detracting from the imprint of concentrated, raw emotion that this sonnet crown leaves on us.
–Jenna Lê, Judge