CBC Poetry Prize
"Bluegrass Meteorology" by Alison Smith
This week we're publishing the five works on the shortlist for the CBC Poetry Prize.
In her two poems, Alison Smith probes grief and emotional inheritance in respect to the passing of her grandparents.
When the sky blackens I get that old feeling
in my legs: banjo plucking, quick chicken scratching under
loose skin, quiver of daises popping up from clay.
It takes me back to where I wasn’t: aunts half asleep
behind the kitchen, the sky fattening like a damp songbook.
Revelry strains the house as the grandparents strum
getaway getaway clapboard dreams of Jamboree glory.
Their children grew up as radio towers: innards wired
to weather and song. Through them, I learned to feel all the oldies.
The grandparents are gone now, save for bluegrass weather—
a grey polyester sky with periwinkle lapels, the way it feels when
fiddles lift on frayed Jack Pines and rain is fixing to jump
out of silence into a lickety-split tempo.
When that weather comes, you’ve got to cry, cry harder
or pick up your instrument and learn to play what you feel.
There is no heaven. The grandparents are over us
like snow, dirt-balling cloud, or under us like water churned by wind.
They return in spells of bad weather, sobered by the elements, as if
they’d always meant to sing us over yonder.
The Last Time I Was Alone With My Grandmother
I read poetry aloud. I didn’t read the ones
about dying and forgiveness, because outside
arrangements were being made
and I didn't want the others to hear me slacken
in the face of it. So I read the poems I could find
about grass and mountains and rain.
Each time I said river, she turned her head
as though she heard a familiar voice.
Or that is how I put it because
it had been years since she had known me
and when the word, wet from my throat
entered her dry ear, it seemed her body
became a vacant rumple of clothes
and she was stepping down a steep
weedy bank and she was frightened
to be so naked but also very thirsty.
When I was young she had a television
she watched from down a hall—walking
into the house you didn’t know if she saw you
or All My Children. She grew phlox because
it always came back. She ate toast with garlic salt
iceberg lettuce with white vinegar. I was told
she’d raised five children with no indoor plumbing.
There were few books on her shelves. I knew
in the way children know this doesn’t separate
but eventually it did. If she was proud of me
she was too proud to ask why. As I read
her fevered eyes drifted to a cluttered wall of faces
mostly Elvis’. Maybe she saw her fortune there.
She believed the girls who reached into the cage
and held up numbered orbs had promised her
golden apples. In the room there was gospel bluegrass
on repeat, just in case. A pink shawl. Four empty chairs.
The tv, turned off, gave me back my reflection.
I read poems aloud. I loosened scrawls of vetch
and threw them against a stranger’s sky.