2023 Poetry Contest Winners

Judge Michael Arnzen selected the winners of this year’s SFPA Poetry Contest. Prizes were offered in three divisions: Dwarf (≤10 lines), Short, and Long (50+ lines).

Michael Arnzen photo Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments, including the uniquely musical horror collection available on cd, Audiovile. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999, and has work forthcoming in Weird Tales, Writing Poetry in the Dark and more. He also was Secretary/Treasurer of the SFPA way back in the early 1990s.
See what he's up to now at michaelarnzen.com or listen to him read at arnzen.bandcamp.com

Contest chair R. Thursday received 439 entries (114 dwarf-length, 253 short, and 72 long poems) from around the world.

Michael Arnzen says:

Dwarf Form winning poem:


by Colleen Anderson

moon silvers my flesh
immersed in hungry liquid
acid screams sinking
dissolution of matter
morphology of a ghost

Judge’s comments:

Whoa. The chemical process in this piece is described in such a brutal way that the final lines conjure a decayed spirit in my mind. The energy in this short shocker punched me. And it presses all the other buttons I like: it's true to form as a tanka, it is pure SF poetry, it delivers emotional power, and it is, in a word, great.

Colleen Anderson lives in Vancouver, BC and has a BFA in writing. Her works have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Aurora, Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards in poetry, and longlisted for the Stoker Award in fiction. She has edited three anthologies and guest edited Eye to the Telescope.She has served on both Stoker Award and British Fantasy Award juries, and received BC Arts Council and Canada Council grants for her writing. Her works have seen print in numerous venues, including Polu Texni, HWA Poetry Showcases, Shadow Atlas and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Her poetry collection I Dreamed a World is being published by LVP Publications..

Dwarf Form Second Place:

What Ghosts Didn't Do

by Mary Soon Lee

Creak stairs.
Unsettle candles.
Upset urns of ashes.
Cry from ravens' beaks.
Threaten with thunder claps.
Rumple the meekness of shadows.
Hold up their side of the conversation.

Judge’s comments:

I love the stair-stepped shape of this poem, which mimics the "creak" mentioned in one of the lines. There's something haunting about the final line of it. The ghosts do not play by the rules here… which implicitly makes us wonder what their intentions really are. Nice use of suggestion in such a short, simple piece.

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. She is a SFPA Grand Master and three-time winner of both the AnLab Readers’ Award and the Rhysling Award. Her latest books are from opposite shores of the poetry ocean: "How to Navigate Our Universe," containing 128 astronomy poems, and "The Sign of the Dragon," novel-length epic fantasy, winner of the Elgin Award. She hides her online presence with a cryptically named website (marysoonlee.com) and an equally cryptic Twitter account (@MarySoonLee).

Dwarf Form Third Place:

[open window]

by Michael Nickels-Wisdom

open window,
a mouth in the night
filled with mouths

Judge’s comments:

A deceptively simple little piece that struck me with terror. What are those mouths inside of mouths? I imagined a room full of ghost children, screaming, trapped inside what might be a haunted house. But there are myriad interpretations. And that's why it's great.

Michael Nickels-Wisdom has written haiku since 1990. In 2011 he began to study anomalous experiences and write speculative haiku based on those studies. His work has been published in Scifaikuest and Horror Senryu Journal, and is forthcoming in Tales from the Moonlit Path. .

Dwarf Form Honorable Mentions:

All Sales Final! by Alan Vincent Michaels

Starstruck by S. Isa Iya

My Mother's Eyes by Chad Stanke

Poisoned Gold Sprinkles by Greer Woodward

Black Sea by Anna Cates

Short Form Winner:

Abraham Lincoln Addresses the Nation Before He is Executed by Interstellar Invaders

by Kate Boyes

(Erasure poem ‘found’ in Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, March 4th, 1861)

Fellow citizens!
I address you briefly before execution
to discuss matters of special anxiety and apprehension.

I denounce the Invasion as the gravest of crimes!
I reiterate: the public is endangered by the delivering up
of any person to the In-Human that violate us.

It is seventy-two years since our citizens,
under great and peculiar difficulty, formidably attempted
to destroy all parties descending from the Perpetual Void.

The Masters’—the menace’s—declared purpose?
Bloodshed. Violence. Forced authority.
The power to occupy and possess property and places.

The Invasion, using hostility great and universal to force
obnoxious Strangers among the people, may, unless repelled,
continue to destroy our memories and hopes.

So fearful a mistake to be content
if any right has been denied by force!
Revolution is vital: there is no other alternative.

We cannot build an impassable wall between Them and our country;
cannot but remain face to face.
Intercourse, amicable or hostile, must continue.

Is it possible to make that intercourse satisfactory?
Can Aliens make treaties? Can treaties be faithfully enforced
between Aliens and this country?

NO! They dismember citizens!
People: oppose the Others; administer the Ultimate Justice.
Our side will surely prevail by wise mischief equal to Their wickedness.

One and all: HURRY!
Change our present difficulty! Assail the aggressors I loathe!
Swell the chorus of Better Angels!

Judge’s comments:

I was not prepared for this hilarious dark SF poem… to say more about the content would spoil it, so I will shut up and just call it the winner in hopes that you will read it. I adored the way this poet brought humor to bear on not only the premise, but in the artful irony of lines. Even though I try my hand at it sometimes too, as a reader I often am of the mind that erasure or blackout poetry is somewhat too derivative; even when it finds a modicum of originality by chiseling away at the found text, too often I'm left wondering if the poet is depending too much on the original or could have just said it better themselves. But this one is a hilarious example of erasure poetry that totally reframes its source material while keeping true to it in a way that adds to the premise's irony. Brilliant.

Kate Boyes is a speculative nature writer who focuses on the near-future environments of Earth, Mars, and several choice exoplanets. Her poetry is included in Climbing Lightly Through Forests (honoring the poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin), Bark & Bone, and the 2023 Horror Writers Association’s Poetry Showcase X. Her debut novel, Trapped in the R.A.W., was published by Aqueduct Press. Kate's latest writing project is The Misadventures of GRUB and Associates on Alt-Earth, a collection of political horror poetry.

Short Form Second Place:

Embryo Warehouse

by Amber Winter and Joshua St. Claire

robots tend to the
warehouse full of embryos
no one feels the kicks

microbes making mother’s milk

nursing gynoids
apply oil to their nipples
to prevent rusting

how tender their caresses
regolith of the Chaste Moon

needing some comfort
androids inflate their elbows
to cradle their heads

AI confusing their screams
with the sound of their laughter

Judge’s comments:

Oh yuck and oh yes. Such a chilling image from the future, juxtaposing life against dehumanization…and even taking a stab at today's trouble with AI. The imagery here is what raises it above the pack.

Amber Winter is a married mother of three boys. She is a trained meat cutter, cosmetologist and formerly worked in finance. She enjoys passing time at the playgrounds writing poetry while her boys run out their energy. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award, Pushcart Prize, and Best of the Net Award.

Joshua St. Claire works as a an accounting director for a large non-profit in Pennsylvania, USA. He enjoys writing on coffee breaks and after putting his kids to bed. His speculative poetry has appeared in Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Scifaikuest, and in the publications of Starship Sloane. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Rhysling Award. His work in short forms has appeared in the Dwarf Stars Anthology and was long-listed for a Touchstone Award.

Short Form Third Place:

A Jar of Cherries

by Jay Caselberg

There’s a jar of dark cherries

Lying there

On the pavement

Glass shards glinting

In the sun

Their edges threatening to add

To an already bloody mess


Walking by avert their eyes

As if the wine dark fruit were

A drunk insensate

Lying there

Well trained not to be involved

Little knowing the reality

Of a dimensional shift

That makes it truly so

Ever heedless

Before turning their gaze away

Judge’s comments:

This is a good example of how gore can be worked with skillfully to generate a frisson of terror while keeping the reader engaged in the moment. I liked the whole critique it carries within it, of what happens when we avert our eyes.

Jay Caselberg is an Australian author and poet whose works have appeared in multiple places worldwide. He currently resides in Germany.

Short Form Honorable Mentions:

Hovering Free by Hamant Sing

In Which I Tell You Speculative Fiction is the Trans Body by West Ambrose

Charming by Anna Cates

Considering Fuseli's 'The Nightmare' by Frank Coffman

Enceladus Elegy by Bradley Earle Hoge

Long Form Winner:


by Randall Andrews

Part I

The church’s chimes rang seven times;
The new day had begun.
I glimpsed a sky stained scarlet by
A red, ascending sun.

I gazed upon that bloody dawn,
But failed to heed the warning—
From ancient verse, the sailor’s curse
Of red sky in the morning.

If only I had read the signs,
I might have stayed in bed,
But I arose to greet the day
And sealed my fate instead.

More dreadful nights in all my life
Were far between and few.
I barely slept, and when I did,
My dreams were dreadful, too.

My room was on the fourteenth floor,
And overlooked the docks,
Where moored the boat Poseidon’s Pearl,
Which sailed at nine o’clock.

I’d be aboard that boat by then,
But time remained before
To stretch my legs and clear my mind
Along the sandy shore.

I’d hoped to find a hideaway,
But rather than serene,
I found that stretch of sand transformed
Into a gruesome scene.

A million stranded castaways,
Like fruit beneath a tree—
They’d been forgotten, left to rot,
Abandoned by the sea.

Amongst the countless dead remained
A few I might yet spare.
I saw them dying as they dried
And drowning in the air.

An urchin, purple as a plum,
A shrimp as green as chives,
A brittle star as black as tar—
I tossed them to their lives.

I couldn’t save them all, I knew,
Though that was what I wished,
But for one more I had the time—
And then I saw the fish.

The ebbing tide had left behind
A tiny tidal pool,
And in it swam this little fish
That shimmered like a jewel.

Not any hand of mortal man
Could craft a thing so fine,
And covetous of lovely things,
I longed to make it mine.

The tide was yet to make its turn;
The day was warming fast.
That luckless fish was doomed, I knew;
Its pool would never last.

And then arrived a wicked thought:
It did belong to me,
For I could leave it to its fate,
Or I could set it free.

And then my wicked choice was made:
Beneath that bloody sky,
I turned and went the way I’d come
And left the fish to die.

As I retraced my steps, I strained
To bear that wicked sin,
And wished to never think about
That little fish again.

Part II

All blue on blue, the sea and sky,
As far as I could see,
But though I tried, I couldn’t hide
The cloud inside of me.

The wish I’d wished upon the beach—
It wasn’t coming true,
And as I failed to let it go,
The guilt within me grew.

And when the western sky turned black,
My heart was filled with dread.
I saw in those dark clouds the curse
Of mornings dressed in red.

“Another twenty minutes, boys,”
The captain hollered back.
“I know a reef that never fails
For kings and amberjacks.”

I wouldn’t wet a line that day—
Not after what I’d done—
But all the other men cast out
As clouds blocked out the sun.

And as the rain began to fall,
The fish began to bite.
They hauled so many in so fast,
I marveled at the sight.

I heard one man shout out in joy;
I heard another laugh.
The mate was busy baiting hooks.
The captain manned the gaff.

The fish were strewn across the deck;
They gasped, but not for air.
I felt compelled to throw them back.
I could, but did I dare?

I wondered what would happen then,
Were I to set them free?
The men might want me overboard;
The captain might agree.

I’d like to say I faced my fear,
And that I followed through,
That I was brave, and that I saved
The fish, but that’s not true.

I like to think I would have tried,
And might have saved them all.
Before I had the chance the rain
Became a waterfall.

I’d seen a lot of storms before,
But never one as bad.
I’d never seen a storm throw down
Its rain like it was mad.

Water, water all around,
And we were in its grip;
Water falling from the sky
And filling up the ship.

Water rising as it fell,
Already to my knees—
Enough that it could drag us down
And drown us in the sea.

The boat was battered back and forth;
It creaked and groaned in pain.
Ferocious were the wind and waves,
As was the driving rain.

I gripped the rusty anchor chain
And squeezed with all my might.
Then one by one I watched the men
Swept in and out of sight.

Toward the captain’s shadowed form,
My gaping eyes were drawn.
Across the starboard rail he sailed,
And just like that … was gone.

I sensed the Reaper drawing near;
My strength was fading fast.
I looked around and saw of all
The men, I was the last.

Praise God above, the storm did pass,
But it was clear by then,
Poseidon’s Pearl was dying and
Was soon to join the men.

It seemed that they were in a race,
The sinking boat and sun.
So closely were they keeping pace,
It’s hard to say which won.

The boat blew out its final breath—
A shrill, tormented hiss—
Then down and down and down it fell
Into the dark abyss.

The light was gone, and in its wake,
A depthless darkness fell.
I chose to close my teary eyes,
And weary mind as well.

Adrift upon the open sea—
As deadly for a man,
As for a helpless, little fish
Left stranded on the land.

But just as I began to sink
Toward eternal sleep,
I sank my toes in sand and stood
In water shoulder-deep.

I walked as far as I could walk,
Then on my hands and knees,
I crawled toward the silhouettes
Of slender, swaying trees.

The Reaper’s grip had slipped, it seemed,
His shadow passed me by,
But little did I know I’d found
A slower way to die.

Part III

As lost as any man could be,
And utterly alone—
Without a shelter from the wind,
Which chilled me to the bone.

No moon, no stars, no distant fires:
A world devoid of light—
No way to know which way to go
Without my sense of sight—
Nowhere to flee, no way to fight
The creatures of the night.

They crept across the cooling sand;
They hid among the trees.
I heard their wicked, wheezing breath;
I smelled it on the breeze.

I’d never lived a longer night—
The minutes passed like days—
But I survived and dawn arrived
To set the clouds ablaze.

Another bloody morning sky
Foretold another test,
As to my horror washed ashore
A most unwelcome guest.

My darkest dream had never spawned
A revenant so grim.
The captain, too, had reached the beach—
Or what was left of him.

The flesh the man had worn had been
Reduced by more than half.
The fish had reaped revenge upon
The man who’d manned the gaff.

To what remained, the crabs laid claim.
The captain, all the while,
Glared up at me without his eyes
And bared his lipless smile.

No time to waste, in panicked haste,
I flew into the trees.
But in almost no time at all,
I’d run back to the sea.

How small the island truly was,
I hadn’t been aware.
For most of two grown men it was
Too small by far to share.

But judging from the seagulls’ song—
An eerie, haunting chord—
I wouldn’t wait too long to have
My solitude restored.

For all those crabs with all their claws,
He might have lasted weeks.
It wouldn't take so long
For all those birds with all their beaks.

Their hunger echoed in my mind;
Their song rang in my ears.
And each unholy note they sang
Was music to my fears.

“Is that the fate that I await?”
What bitter tasting words!
“Am I to die and satisfy
The appetites of birds?”

Part IV

The morning light, so warm and bright,
So lovely at the dawn—
But by the time midday arrived,
Its loveliness had gone.

All through the night, I’d craved that light,
But now it burned my skin,
And sent me scrambling back into
The trees to hide again.

From there I knew I’d have a view
To where the captain lay.
I told myself I shouldn’t look,
Then did it anyway.

Fifteen we’d been, we fishermen,
And I alone survived,
But now I saw, with shock and awe,
The others had arrived.

How in such weather they’d stayed together,
I couldn’t understand?
Those fourteen men, all drowned and dead,
Had made it back to land.

The day before, the captain’s corpse
Drew thirty birds at least,
And now a massive flock had formed
To share that massive feast.

I reached around a lonely palm
And laced my fingers tight.
Then smearing tears into its trunk,
I waited for the night.

No comfort was my lullaby:
A thousand seagulls’ screams.
I hoped that I could fall asleep;
I prayed I wouldn’t dream.

But dream I did, and oh, what dreams!
The price I had to pay!
To rest at last, I lived again
The horrors of the day.

Part V

I’m back aboard Poseidon’s Pearl,
Adrift at sea again,
Surrounded by the birds
And all the bones of all the men.

The gulls, so lovely dressed in white—
In flight, like snowy streaks—
But far less lovely to my mind
With blood upon their beaks.

One thousand strong, the hungry horde
Was circling overhead.
I hoped they’d have the decency
To wait ’til I was dead.

I scanned the blue horizon line—
Port, starboard, aft and stern.
I sought a means for my escape,
But none could I discern.

But what was that I thought I heard?
A voice I thought I knew.
It cried, “Ahoy! Is that you, boy?
And look, a skeleton crew!”

The captain, now made whole somehow,
Returned back from the dead,
Alone aboard a black-hulled ship
With sails of solid red.

He flashed a wicked grin and called,
“I think it would be best
For you to come along with me
And let those dead men rest.”

I didn’t like the look of him,
So slender and so pale,
Nor of that black-clad ship he drove,
Nor of those crimson sails.

But better him for company,
And better that black ship,
Than keep reliving with the dead
Our fateful fishing trip.

I wouldn’t wait one moment more
To leave those bones behind,
But then the captain grinned again
And whispered, “Never mind.”

And as he turned, the wind came up
And filled those bloody sails.
It blew and blew and quickly grew
And soon became a gale.

I screamed and begged for him to stay,
But all to no avail.
I screamed and watched it race away—
The ship with crimson sails.

The captain and his sailing ship
Blew true into the north,
While helpless slaves to those same waves,
Our boat rocked back and forth.

“Oh, captain, why? Why let me die?
My life was in your hands—
Just like the little fish I left
Abandoned on the land.”

As I had turned away from it,
So he now turned from me—
But why had he condemned me so,
And I not set it free?

I shouted out, “Is this about
Atonement for my sins?”
And in reply came seagulls’ cries
And fourteen lipless grins.

The wind now had the strength to turn
A ship into a wreck.
The bone-men writhed as if alive;
They danced across the deck.

I didn’t try to save myself;
I knew I couldn’t fight
Against the burn of karma’s turn
And Mother Nature’s might.

I flew into the roiling sea,
But didn’t try to swim.
The roaring wind began to fade;
The light began to dim.

And then the drama’s final twist—
The Sandman’s masterstroke—
I dreamed I wished that I could sleep,
And that’s when I awoke.

Part VI

The sun had scaled the eastern sky;
The night had slipped away.
And so returned the burning heat
And blinding light of day.

I found it hard to concentrate;
My thoughts skipped all around
To all the ways in which I might
Escape that solid ground.

How near I’d been to dying when
I’d washed up on that shore.
Now that same land was killing me
That rescued me before.

For thirty years, I’d trod the earth
And lived like other men,
But suddenly I wasn’t quite
As human as I’d been.

I looked down to my feet, now red,
And saw they’d turned to fins.
I felt the flaky surface of
The scales that were my skin.

Then just above the wind and waves,
I heard the captain’s voice.
He said his sailing ship was near;
He offered me a choice.

“Just lay there on the land and rot,
Or swim out to the sea.
You’ll heed my words or feed the birds—
Tempt fate and follow me."

I thought about the fish I’d found
And chosen not to save.
I sensed its presence in the sound
Of each inviting wave.

Those waves, which once had scared me so,
Now called to me instead—
As did the promise of the ship
With sails of solid red.

I crawled ‘til all I’d left to cross
Was one thin strip of land,
Then dug into the sand the fin
That used to be my hand.

And when I reached the water's edge,
I cast away my doubt.
I drew the deepest breath I could.
I never let it out.

A lifetime or two days before,
I’d made a wish that I Would never think again
Of that small fish I’d left to die.

And as I slipped below the waves,
I made another wish—
That I’d forget I’d been a man
As I became a fish.

I’d never think again about
My life, my cares, my crimes—
And chase after those crimson sails
Until the end of time.

Judge’s comments:

The title of this one is a little too on the nose, and the simple one-syllable end rhyme seems a bit too…staccato. Yet this poem's cadence flows so effortlessly as the tale of this story unfolds, that I sat up and immediately took notice. It stood apart from the pack by making the difficult seem natural and effortless. The narrative of this piece is strongly conveyed; it tells a story in a way that chimes well with many classics in the genre of fantasy, and indeed reads much like a canonical fairy tale, with hints of Samuel Coleridge and Hans Christian Anderson layered in along the way. This is a poem meant to be read out loud. It is not as easy as it looks to pull this kind of thing off in the 21st century. Hats off to the author.

Randall Andrews is an award-winning fiction writer and poet from southern Michigan. His poems have been published in places like Star*Line, Abyss & Apex, Space & Time, Dreams & Nightmares, and Illumen. When not writing, he can be found wearing the soles off a pair of running shoes, listening to his favorite John Williams soundtracks, or hand-feeding his loyal flock of wild songbirds.

Long Form Second Place:

Nightmare in Blue

by Kurt Newton

The Head

The Head awoke
from the dead,
its eyes opened wide
inside the liquid-filled container.
All it saw was blue,
the deep blue of Autumn skies.
It tried to move,
a gentle rocking motion.
The blue sky shook,
the blue sky shimmered,
and there behind the blue facade,
a giant face appeared
looming in the distance.

The Doctor

The Doctor leaned in close,
his nose
just inches from the glass.
The Head floated
in the saline bath,
the flutter of its eyelids
created tiny currents
like the stabilizing fins of ocean fish.
The Doctor smiled,
success at last,
the subject of this latest experiment
couldn't be more satisfying.

The Assistant

The Assistant waded
through the gloom,
another day without the kindly face
of the young intern
who stirred her heart
and made her smile bloom.
The Doctor eyed her,
his hands like spiders
always tapping, brushing, touching her,
her growing concern
held quietly to her chest.

The Head

Although the Head
could barely bob,
it could project its thoughts
beyond the blue.
It thought of the Assistant,
and the smell of her perfume.
Just her presence
brought something special
to every visit.
How it wished to see
her face again.
It closed its eyes and focused,
its blue lips moving in the thick fluid.

The Assistant

The Assistant's hands paused,
her typing stopped,
she could swear she heard a voice
inviting her to wander off
beyond the office rooms...
into the Doctor's laboratory
where beakers bubbled
and fluids dripped.
The whisper led her to a counter
where from the ceiling
hung a curtain of the deepest blue.
As she pushed aside the blind,
the Doctor came up from behind.
and pushed a needle into her neck.

The Doctor

Too bad, he thought,
prepping the Assistant.
Too bad she couldn't have been
more receptive to his affections,
instead of casting her eyes
and offering smiles
in the direction of the young intern.
And yet some refuse to listen
when true love comes knocking.
Too bad, the Doctor sighed,
making several deep incisions
and severing her spine.

The Head

The Head awoke
from the dead,
its eyes opened wide
inside the liquid-filled container.
Hello? Are you there? it said.
Yes, I'm here, said the other,
their thoughts in tune.
In another life,
they could have been lovers.
We must stop him, they said as one.
The water temperature spiked
as they projected their thoughts
beyond the room.

The Doctor

"My head! My head!"
the Doctor screamed.
"They're in my head!"
He stumbled toward
the deep blue curtain,
blood streaming from his ears
and eyes and nose
like crimson vines laced
across his face and neck.
He tore the curtain aside
and with his final breath
he knocked the liquid-filled containers
from their perch and cursed them
as he died.

The Heads

The Heads
came to rest
in a sea of shattered glass,
free, at last,
from their amniotic womb.
Face to face
they watched the world
around them fade,
blue lips moving
like the jaws of ocean fish,
their thoughts enmeshed,
taking them to an imaginary
ocean blue where they
swam away together.

Judge’s comments:

A clever story unfolds in this throwback B-movie nightmare of a poem, and I don't want to spoil any of it here by saying anything more. What I will say is that I adored the way the poet used stanzas to represent different viewpoints in a narrative poem that is all about, well, limited point of view! A fun, funny, and twisted read. Both Donovan and the gang from Futurama would be proud.

Kurt Newton’s poetry has appeared numerous magazines and anthologies over the years, including Strange Horizons, Space and Time, Mythic Delirium, Dreams and Nightmares, Star*Line, Eye to the Telescope and Polu Texni.

Long Form Third Place:

Wake Unto Death

by Lori R. Lopez

Each Mourn draw no gulp of drab gray air.
Thank the Stars, Moon and Spirits you are there,
among the unliving, not plucked into Life —
a madhouse of moments, of mayhem and strife.
How simple it is to abandon all cares
neath the vapors and veils, beyond the stares.
Resist and stay mortal. Warm not to the lure.
Grasp no enticement. Reject any cure.

The paths once ventured, these dreadful routes
leave much to answer if memories could shout.
The measure and toll, the echoes of crimes
would concuss a skull an ocean of times,
and shred dear organs like the finest linen.
Can’t wiggle, can’t slide from hides of sinnin’;
can’t molt or shirk ignominious layers.
Snakes and spiders stripped clean are slayers.

A patchwork beast has no independent thought,
stitched together of fragments stolen or bought.
However arrived, contrived on the slab —
will the hands be justified to throttle or stab?
Cold blood may boil with latent inclinations;
warped mental patterns compel motivations,
should origins of parts outweigh the sum
to make inevitable a wretched outcome . . .

Awakened, what lies within could rampage!
Unchecked, unrestrained, a vessel of rage —
bottled up and released by scalpel and light:
an intense zap of energy; a streak to ignite
some vengeful flame or lingering spark . . .
If the mind is replaced, will it be as dark?
Whether Voodoo-raised or jarred by volts —
can we separate monster from man in mere jolts?

Better sleep off the noose, a hail of lead drops,
than revive with an ache that seldom stops —
reliving the harms you have perpetrated
to yourself and others; it cannot be abated.
Its knells are clear: harsh peals of agony!
Embrace the seductive voice of Eternity,
bidding you slumber in this vacuous tomb;
promising treasures in chambers of doom.

Instead, the solitary cell of confinement
that awaits each body for realignment . . .
There’s no escaping the dungeon called Death,
though we seek to define it with every breath.
Be still the vain heart however it tempts
to reclaim and taste what this languor preempts.
Eyelids drooped heavy in the Nether Zone,
pulled down like shades of a color unknown.

The future is past, lying limp and unsound;
the road ahead dim, though your flesh is unbound.
Mustn’t strain your muscles, so calm and flaccid;
your brain unnecessary, melting to acid . . .
Why bother to twitch? Embrace lethargy!
No sorrows to bear; untethered and free.
Moods are forgotten in the frigid Hereafter:
devoid of contact, heat and laughter.

Recline forever; strike a mindless repose,
nevermore using fingers, in need of toes —
having thrown away concern and idle worry.
Now nothing’s important enough to hurry.
Decay is a lark if you’ll only succumb
to the taciturn pleasure of being all numb.
Beware the experiments of Necromancers.
Avoid a Séance, bewitching dancers.

Let little disturb this leisurely nap . . .
Should they dig you up, pray a thunderclap
will not resurrect — a brilliant white bolt
not erect you to lumber as somebody’s dolt.
Awake unto Death. Don’t be wrenched into light
with the lurching horde for a nibble or bite,
forced to cower and covet, surroundings stark,
in a thrall of fascination to leave your mark.

I beg you surrender. Do not heed that fire
crackling out of heavens to illumine your pyre
and extinguish the shroud, breaking the chains,
whereas nothing erases the history of pains.
In this humble state you will no longer hurt,
no longer be violent while resting inert.
Cut every tie to the place you were grown;
that bright cup of souls! Keep rotting alone.

Judge’s comments:

This dark — VERY dark — poem differs from the other long poetry selections I made, in that it doesn't tell a straightforward story, and it chooses more complex words and mature rhymes to get the job done. The morbid emotions conjured here reminded me of Poe and Ligotti, raising it above some of the other poems I read that were almost just as good. I was floored by the cold darkness in the poem's conclusion…and thus applauded another winner in the contest.

Lori R. Lopez writes Speculative Verse and Prose along with other genres. She also enjoys illustrating her odd books for young and old and in-between. Lori and two talented sons formed a creative company named Fairy Fly Entertainment, and a Folk Band called The Fairyflies to record original songs. Her collection Darkverse: The Shadow Hours received a 2018 Elgin Nomination. Poems have been honored with Rhysling Nominations, and various titles won Book Awards for Fiction and Poetry. A Hat-Wearer, Animal-Lover, Activist, Vegan, Tree-Hugger and all-around Eccentric, Lori’s poetry and stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines including California Screamin’ (the Foreword Poem), The Sirens Call, The Horror Zine, Weirdbook, Spectral Realms, Space & Time, JOURN-E, Dreams & Nightmares, Altered Realities, Bewildering Stories, Oddball Magazine, Impspired, Aphelion, Rhysling Anthologies, and HWA Poetry Showcases.

Long Form Honorable Mentions:

This Body Isn't Mine by Christina Connerton

The Odd Couple by Anna Cates

The Origin of 'The Steamster' by Jerri Hardesty

Panopticon by F.J. Bergmann

An Eschaton of Ice by John Bell

background image sfpa logo