About the Winner
Laura Davenport, a 25-year-old graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, gave herself two significant challenges: setting a poem in modern-day New Orleans without making it all about Hurricane Katrina, and being true to the tragedy of a young person's death.
The Birmingham, Ala., native notes that "Sermon: New Orleans, 2003" is based on the death of a high-school acquaintance, an event that was her creative launching pad. The narrator speaks in the first person but is not the poet, Davenport says.
The poem is Davenport's thesis; she will graduate in May with a Masters of Fine Arts degree in poetry. She didn't know the young man called "Geoffrey" in the poem very well in real life, but some of her classmates did. "I had friends who were very, very affected," she says, and that's why she has shared the poem with very few people from her hometown.
Davenport says a poem, "Sensationalism," by the late Larry Levis, a VCU English professor from 1992 until his death in 1996, is what "jump-started" her into writing. And although she works in a genre marked by imagery and metaphor, she also aims for directness in her own work: "I don't want people to feel like there's a secret message you have to decode to get the poem." —Kate Andrews
"Sermon: New Orleans, 2003"
By Laura Davenport
Pause with me awhile in this thick,
sweet hangover: a rail straight down
the river's back, brown Mississippi
stinking in August heat. Our streetcar
whines along the rail, passes its twin:
green-gold cars, observers packed tight
in the tin, cameras high to capture
light, our stale breath flowering the glass.
Call this the Present: car too full
yet the driver keeps stopping, pulls
the great lever, collects more fares.
You'd notice how the heat condensing
on our bodies stifles.
I search for Geoffrey
in the sun's slant
through the window, in figures which turn
at the light, dip through blurred lines
of crosswalk, stripes winnowing
One burning always in his mouth.
Because I never learned where he was buried,
each corridor of light in the alleys we pass
shares the burden of his body, marked
by gardens glimpsed though thickening
shade, strange statuettes, walls overwrought
with flowers. I tell you the vine loves the wall's
far side, as the car quickens through the riotous
lust of the flowers. In Charleston I lived out
the year of his death encased in the scent
of jasmine, and walked often through the night-
thickened air, coming home from the apartment
of a man much older. Throat warm from his breath,
and certain of my body, I tried to know
what death had meant to Geoffrey —
lay down on the sun-warmed bricks, beneath
the layered limbs of an oak. It was autumn, late.
No cars passed. I listened to the distant trains,
believed in all that was erasable: Geoffrey,
always nervous on thin wires, the black marks
shadowing my throat in those days, hanging
moss, dull gray in the humid air carried
inland from the marsh. And what he saw:
Crunch of neon, hurricane glasses, lit sign
over the bar he might have been to that night,
fingers laced with another boy in public
for the first time. The car and unknown driver,
corner rounded too fast — curb, mailbox,
You may figure
there is no one
keeping track of our losses —
The cable car lurches
toward the Quarter,
steel box we'll leap from, gasping.
of these trials.
The bruised river will stretch by,
powdered sugar lacing
Observe the white marches
of paddle boats drifting,
their great wheels catching debris.
in particular now.
And I have convinced you we were
close, he and I, though not even born
in the same town.
Told the story of the year I saw him
in a basement
at Christmas, and he showed me his first
boyfriend's photo, which he carried
in his wallet.
How long I must have stared
at the picture. And what I wanted to say
was a burr on my tongue. It was snow
melting in my throat.
I know heat. I know it. Shoulder blades
beneath your hand.
He couldn't wait to get back
to the crumbling student houses,
the bars on Freret Street,
we pass now
as driveways spindle out
through manicured lawns.
Because he felt free there, because
they couldn't stop kissing.
You will have to forget the punchline,
what afterward we all repeated — his grandmother
wore pearls and black, carving a ham
at the funeral. A troupe of earringed boys
lined up with plates.
That was the year I came upon a whitewashed
church, alone in the woods, pines growing
into the walls, but the paint, in the overcast
light, still glowed, and the truth at times
is like those heavy doors I was afraid
to touch. To understand, you will have to
go back, forget what you know. Not white,
the church, from holiness but from a trust
set up for perpetual care. Men came
every month to trim encroaching vines.
The water later covered it — but never
mind. Pulled pews against the nave
as if needing to make room for a dance,
or congregational supper. Erased, too,
all the tire marks and glass, the park
where Geoffrey sat and smoked in afternoons.
Or didn't sit. I never knew him, really,
only his walk, quick drags on a cigarette.
They had driven
overnight up the coast to see
his body. Polite distance maintained
like a clearing between them, sharing it.
Their clothes, garish orange and pink,
tall boots that scuffed the linoleum.
So the grandmother stared into the wall
for an hour, then at her feet. Picked up
a diamond stud one of the boys had lost,
gave it back. Who makes a moral out of that?