Like ancient Athenian tragedians and modern New Orleans brass bands, American poets seem to thrive on competition. They can mix it up by putting on their coats of arms, forming clans that go on to declare war on each other, or they can enter the field behind a mask of anonymity, sending the work alone into the fray, stripped of all the protections affiliation might offer. That is, they can enter a contest.

This year’s Boston Review Poetry Contest drew more than four thousand (four thousand!) pages of poetry from, I’ve now been informed, every kind of poet: young, old, well-known, and obscure; of every style and predilection; from every corner of the globe. The editors culled these anonymous submissions, sending 100 pages written by, as far as I could tell, twenty four-digit numbers. My finalists turned out to be two younger poets, Jose Perez Beduya and Desirée Alvarez. Beduya’s exacting lines and quiet meditative tone bring meaning about as close to the rhythms of breathing as one can go; a reader can learn a lot about paying attention from his work. Alvarez’s poetry is exuberant and visually exciting; her allusions know no geographical boundaries and her lines are woven with color and texture.

I was surprised, and then eventually not surprised, when the editors let me know that the submission I had chosen as the winner, #5949, belonged to Elizabeth Willis, a poet whose books—The Human Abstract, Turneresque, and Meteoric Flowers—have always delighted and moved me with their fresh and canny approach to the relations between art and nature. These poems are striking for their lively and musical lines, for their precise accounts of things and of the ways we perceive them, and for their subtle, playful relation to tradition. They take up the sound of music and the surfaces of painting, yet clearly do what only poems can do. The voice of a person thinking, discovering, revising, is ever-present without any loss in grace or ease.

—Susan Stewart


Vernacular Architecture

Seeing to the creature:
leaning, bending down.
What grass is tendered
in what state of the union?
Any body can be unionized.
A governed love for the people
isn’t special.
The government of love
is to believe itself unwritten.
Love’s office is devotion
to the ungoverned, like justice
somewhere else, in a while.
A school beside its architect.
A child next to a picture.
The family in its tunnels.
Pure products feel their power
to feed the engine.
Their movement a document
that totters into being
written with their elbows
and their hands.
Here is what I found today
or what I am.


Madame Cézanne as Sainte-Victoire

Imperfect air turns
pinkness into pattern.

The heart can call it anything:
a bootless name against a sandy ear.

What would flowers be to 1913?

What was a sentence or guitar
set before familiar mountains?

The meadow like a table on which
your meal is set, unfinished.

A brass equivalent to fire or steam:

color drives the heat of roots
into the coldest branches.

Not to be
the thing of it, the figure

of a later music.
Not the final piece, the anchor

of an off-stage grove.
Not to lapse, not shrink,

not signal, not even sleep
before the lens’s scuttled edges.

She with the mountain’s genius
licking at her ankle

living out its other life
while she considers this one.


The Oldest Garden in the World

Something drives out
from the fate I was hungry for.
A body that fulfills its face
carries into day
what fades behind it.
In Natural History
Sophocles loved
Asphodel, but Asphodel
loved William Carlos
Williams as hyacinth
loved France, and honey
loves a toothache.
Is that a crime
or just a form of currency
like big tobacco, moving on
with shady radar
over our greenery?



I’m thinking of the heat in the reins.
A gear in love with itself,
two parts that fit.
I’m thinking about your face:
there’s nothing to invent.
Driven to distraction
or just walking there,
the edge of my mind
against the edge of yours.
An astrolabe isn’t thinking
of a concrete lane
or unconquerable interior.
Abiding by its class and
country church, a kitsch picture
is not “sincerity”
though I am native to it.
A nation has this sound
of being born. The human
is not its ill-begotten ad.
A hemisphere is not your hair
in its Parisian rooms.
An astrolabe is not
a metaphor for love
though love contain the mortal roots
of congress, like a peasant
inside the name you give its ruins.


Bohemian Rhapsody

after anonymous Virgin and Child (1345–50), Zbraslav

A boy in the hand, and a bird
in his hand

like a “magic city.”
He wrestles with his mother.

A foot in translucent water
ready to go.

Let the old man sleep
falling into his book.

Let the foot reach shore.
The painting grasps its afterimage.

The bird is dead
before the paint is dry.

This structure won’t hold
the stone accoutrements of wealth

so the child is crushed beneath them
and rising up is felt as a descent.

The letters come
directly to the point

like a Guide for the Perplexed.
The boy so insect-like, so young.

The letter behind
its piece of green silk.

An appointment floating toward you
with nothing to declare.