Over 30 poets submitted works to our annual Xpress Poetry Contest, held each April in celebration of National Poetry Month. This year’s competition asked writers to craft a work that examines the ways our connections with friends, family and community sustain us.
Mildred Barya, award winning poet and UNC Asheville assistant professor of English, served as our 2021 judge.
Tasked with selecting the top three poems, Barya chose “Close Quarters” by Nelson Sartoris as this year’s third-place finisher. “The perspective of this poem shines a spotlight on the fragility of intimate relationships and how life presents a blessing in disguise — a chance for couples to rediscover each other and reestablish connections,” Barya says.
“Smiling Eyes” by Hannah Jarvis earned second place. “This poem asks ordinary yet provoking questions that I imagine we all could or have in fact asked at some point to remind ourselves of what’s essential in life,” Barya notes.
And the contest’s top prize went to Peggy Weaver for her poem “A New Word for Neighbor is Called For.” Weaver, a 30-year resident of Asheville, retired in 2011 after working as a school librarian at two local public high schools, North Buncombe and Asheville High.
“This poem states in a simple but profound way how the kindness of neighbors can get us through whatever challenges we might be grappling with,” says Barya. “It’s clever — as the title suggests — and reflective on what’s passing, present and will matter in the future when we’re asked: ‘What got you through?’ and this poet will gently correct: ‘Not what but who?’”
A new word for neighbor is called for
by Peggy Weaver
Together in the abyss, an intimacy has grown.
Lights paint the darkness between our houses by night,
Unhurried conversations hum over the asphalt by day,
As reassuring as sunrise,
As relaxing as sunset.
We matter to each other.
Erstwhile chance acquaintances are now the essential ingredient
In my recipe for hope.
We share great fears and woes sprinkled with
The normal and banal:
The dog who died, the knee that failed,
The pipes that froze, the son who moved,
The roof that leaks, the tree that fell,
The wedding lovely, pixelated on a screen.
Some day we will be asked “What got you through?”
I’ll say “Not ‘what,’ but ‘who.’”
Those angels fate dropped near me
Whose heart asked mine “How are you?”
Across the shrinking social distance of our lives.
by Hannah Jarvis
Like strangers, we step into the unknown.
Like strangers, we come to know
the matters that once were trivial,
that once were trivial in times when life
was a second thought, and that second thought
is all we now know of.
Did we ever notice how it felt
to be embraced by their smiling eyes?
Did we ever notice what it meant
when our children needed us?
Like strangers, we were unaware of
what it meant to be alive,
never unknown to those that lived before us.
We relinquish the familiarity
of what’s nipped us in passing, blotting away
our rebuke of humanity, its goodness
inherent in the soil we enrich with our actions.
We are everything but the affliction.
We press pause to play
among the sunshine, the rain, the snow,
the earth before us preserving
every atom of every breathing, tangible vessel
that encompasses what is life.
We are no strangers among these mountains.
by Nelson Sartoris
Escape from each other had held them together,
work, friends, dining, shopping not shared,
both busy with individual agendas.
Home contacts civil but brief, conversations
more like reports, home meals seldom as a couple,
mattress usually cold between the warm spots.
From outside, appearance of togetherness,
within their walls personal spaces void of intimacy,
more partnership than pairing.
Then COVID lurks outside forcing them inside,
now both work from home, closeness inescapable,
outside attractions, distractions now nullified.
Their only hope, or hell, now resides in one another,
slowly, quietly, they pause, listen to each other,
slowly, quietly, they rediscover each other.
Candles come out for mutually prepared dinners,
conversations become spiced with humor, eye contact,
the cold mattress space slowly warms.
With vaccines imminent each anxiously awaits
the time their separate worlds reopen,
each ponders what immunity will bring.