What I Won
by Grace Cavalieri
The sack dress was in style then
with a single strand of pearls.
The sack dress was designed to see
the body move lightly beneath.
That's why I wore it to my first poetry
contest in Philly,
leaving my four-month old at home.
Of course my husband had to
drive, as nervous as I was
so he waited in the car all
day while I sat in the big room, first time out
since I found my mother
dead and then had a baby two weeks later.
My husband stayed all day in that
car in the snow. I won first prize about
wanting my mother but
it was said much better than this,
as you can imagine, to win first.
It even began with notes upon a phantom
lute, although The Poet
said what do we know of lutes now?
But what did he know of
walking into her bedroom and finding
her a pale shade of lilac.
That just goes to prove I guess I was talking
about the wrong thing in the poem,
and The Poet was surely on to something.
I have to say I looked wonderful,
gaunt with grief and colitis, 1956,
hurrying across the street
where my husband was waiting to take me home,
the first wrong victory in my hand.
by Edward Nudelman
“What I Won,” a poem by Grace Cavilieri, takes us through experience’s strongest gift, memory, to illustrate how something sought (such as a poetry prize) can fade and lessen in importance in the face of sweeping grief or hardship. Grace provides us with a very specific account traveling with her husband to a poetry contest, with fear and trembling, allowing the seamless movement of the poem to inform us, and herself, of what really matters and what is supremely valued.
The title of the poem, as well as the first few lines, draw attention to perhaps a physical object or prize that might be won. The speaker is dressing for an important event and is taking matters very seriously (‘sack dress in style’, ‘pearls’, ‘designed to see the body move lightly beneath’). Her anxiety over having to go to Philly (we are not told from which city of origin, but the assumption is that it was a fairly long trip) is couched in ambivalent terms. We’re told her husband had to drive (‘as nervous as I was’), but we’re not told if her fears were directly related to having to read, or something quite different, such as an emotional issue or even a physical impairment.
Nearly midway through the poem, however, we learn the crux of the speaker’s difficulty in which she exclaims: “first time out since I found my mother dead and then had a baby two weeks later.’ We find several lines addressing her husband’s loyalty and the speaker’s obvious regard for his willingness to come alongside her in her travail. The speaker will return to this important aspect of support and care later in the poem.
The poem seems to turn, midway, on the phrase, “I won first prize about wanting my mother…” said abruptly and perhaps sarcastically, with the qualifier, “but it was said much better than this… to win first.” Here the speaker is organizing thought around the ambivalence of winning something obviously of importance (poets live for this), while at the same time having to deal with a devastating loss. The close proximity of her mother’s death, the birth of her child, and the poetry contest all mix in to add dynamic suspense to this poem.
The second half of the poem deals with a fictitious poet, referred to as simply, The Poet, and interestingly given a male gender (perhaps to distinguish from a metaphor of the speaker interacting with a mirror poet, or self, though this could still be true). The speaker uses this device as a sounding board to discuss with us the poem which she presented at the contest, which began "with notes upon a phantom lute." While this appears to be a reference to her mother’s death, it could also stand alone as a metaphor for the evanescence and changeability of joy or peace (the lute being a reference to that which could supply either). The speaker goes on to tell us that The Poet asked, "what do we know of lutes now?” What can good things do for the grief-stricken? How can nice words, sleep-aids, poetry awards assuage the pain of loss? In addition, one could ask, how can poetry itself help? The Poet wasn’t there, and so he can’t identify with what happened (the speaker implies, 'But what did he know of walking into her bedroom and finding her a pale shade of lilac’).
The conversation heightens near the end as the speaker goes back and forth rehearsing her arguments before the anonymous Poet. In a moment of either self-effacing doubt or monumental clarity, the speaker throws up her hands, saying: "That just goes to prove I guess I was talking about the wrong thing in the poem, and The Poet was surely on to something.”
The ending, comprising an extremely personal and vulnerable introspection, provides the reader with what they need to take this poem into their world of experience. We find a tired, worn-out, ill person, ‘gaunt with grief and colitis,’ ‘hurrying’ back to her husband who will take her home and continue to love her, even if at that moment she holds in her hand the very emblem of the conflict and dissonance expressed in the poem: ‘the first wrong victory.”
“What I won” is a strikingly intimate poem that lets the reader experience along side the speaker revealing aspects of her emotional life, if only from a snapshot event on one day in Philly, in 1956. It is a poem of love and constancy as much as it is self-discovery. We are privy to the evolution of understanding in the speaker’s heart. What becomes of value necessarily diminishes that which never had value. But much remains. Throughout the poem the speaker is careful to remind us that her husband not only accompanied her, but brought her, waited for her, and finally took her home. The speaker doesn’t ask for sympathy in the loss of her mother, presented as fact. The poem could have gone down that road and reproduced a thousand similar themes. Not that the crystallization of what really matters is not vividly presented here. But the power and excellence in this poem lies in the understated values of love and companionship portrayed, hard commodities to find in this world; but once found, sufficient to assuage the worst of grief.
Brief Bio of Grace Cavalieri
Grace Cavalieri is the author of several books of poetry and 21 produced plays; she founded and still produces/hosts public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem,” now in its 32nd year, now from the Library of Congress. Her new book is Anna Nicole: Poems (Goss183:: Casa Menendez, 2008.) She is book review editor for The Montserrat Review and a poetry columnist for MiPOradio. Her play in progress, on Anna Nicole, is “Beverly Hills, Texas.”