Friday, January 23, 2009

January Poem of the Month by Grace Cavalieri


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
, 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.”



  1. I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. What a wonderful poem. The repetition and plain language really spike the tone and voice in my head, while the end is just devastating. Didn't see that coming.

    Also, the lute line is a blast, in many ways.


  3. Ed, I am honored beyond belief that you gave this such a careful reading. Thank you deeply.GRACE

  4. wow I wish I didn't see the other parts in there the place where she is thinking about The Poet in her mind when he talks about lutes, but her mind is on the day she found her mother a shade of lilac, dead, and then--she the poetess gaunt with grief from colitis ..guilt ? for the wrong victory? My own mother had colitis and she was gaunt with grief most her life,, now gone,, thankfully
    for her and for me.
    I am glad she was able to express a part of her grief in this poem and she has a supportive husband

  5. a terrific poem by an amazing poet. Thanks for posting it.

  6. and thank you, Grace (viz Crocodile) for letting me share it with my friends

  7. mother loss is such a profound theme, and with every poem that expresses it, i realize the common thread; yet, each poem so unique, i am riveted again because each woman has dealt with, in her own personal style and voice, one of the greatest losses a woman, or a man for that matter as i saw with my partner, can go through in this little life of ours.

    you know, i read this and then i telephoned my aging mother, who is going through many physical crises, such as the loss of her vision and the pain of fibromyalgia. it's only recently that all the old stuff between us has dissolved away, with forgiveness on both sides, and my life is so much richer for it. i am able to laugh with her, love with her, we're so crazy-funny together; we have the same laugh.

    poems like this make me realize even more fully the scope of that relationship, and that one day, probably sooner than later, and if i don't happen to die first, i'll go through my own mother loss, and as a poet myself, will need take my pen to paper and express it like so many trailblazers before me, and women and men will say, like i do with grace, "amen, sister".

    grace's poem is heartbreaking as the young woman she was at the time, confused and in pain and surviving. and thank you, too, ed, for your beautiful explication. you do justice to us all, you're the real mensch poet. thank you again for another beautifully written and heartfelt poem. xoxooxxo ~laura

  8. laura, thanks so much for all you bring to this page

  9. Tremendous poem, Edward, with a very complex set of subtexts below a seeming ¨plain style¨ that you analyzed so very well in your appraisal of the memory piece. This has got to be one of the best poems you´ve published on your blog thus far. I´m amazed at how many nuances Ms. Cavalieri conveyed here.

  10. this poem is powerfully wrought with guilt due to the winning of a prize at the time of the poet's mother's death. the immensity of the words that signify death such as "sack, lightly moving body, phantom, pale shade of lilac, gaunt, grief," magnify the emotions felt by the reader to a point where this reader gasped. this is one of the best poems I have ever read! thanks! Anne B. Grote

  11. An easy poem, a little too confessional for my tastes, the material about the husband waiting seems a little immaterial except for the baby. In all, though, a moving piece. I most enjoyed the poet thinking about The Poet. That was a nice incarnation of the inner conflict and guilt about the prize.

  12. I'm breathless. The poem is wonderful, bringing us into the moment with the sack dress and pearls, then the reading, husband waiting ..sacrificing himself in the snowy car to do this for her...and writing a winning poem that didn't speak for what she felt nearly as much as this one.

    Grace, the poem has sung its way into my heart.


  13. Oh yes! I keep coming back again and again to find myself rewarded by a little extra each time. Brilliant timeless poetry.
    Thank you for sharing this Edward. A gift to read.


  14. Dear Gracie, I hope you come back to read these comments. I LOVE this poem, for so many reasons. The tone both of doubt, fear, and pride, and the way our brief histories pull us back to memories even in times of triumph. The words are conversational, yet also ceremonial, until the question, "what do we know of lutes now?", which said to me, "What matters now?"

  15. I appreciated all the comments. The poem enjoyed a wider view. Critics make things better than they are. The poem describes an event as it actually happened. An anecdotal poem, I think we could say. I wore that dress, I went to that place, "The Poet" in charge of the conference was the judge of the poems. He criticized my first line which actually was "LIKE NOTES UPON A PHANTOM LUTE...." My husband actually was sitting outside waiting in his car. The facts are just lined up to make an event. Thanks for the exploration of this.Grace Cavalieri(HI ANDREA!)

  16. Well, I for one am grateful for an easy poem this morning!

    Thank you Ed, as always for sharing such a marvelous piece with us while at the same time unbinding the subtleties which may have been missed by a less practiced eye.


  17. I have been back again and again before I was able to comment. I am left breathless by this poem. And your explication, Ed -- you always explain to me *why* I feel what I feel when I read your winning poems.

    Ms. Cavalieri: I'm sorry I do not know you, it is my loss. I enjoyed your comment that "Critics make things better than they are. The poem describes an event as it actually happened." Not quite so, I think, because it is the quality of the way you describe the event that transcends to other personal experience for each of us.

    I struggled through loss at a time when I was finding myself as a poet. I hear your voice and remember wondering what I thought I was doing. Thank you.

  18. Tgis is beautiful writng and if easy is a term some may use to describe it, then I would think the poetress here has made it "easy" with her capability to get to the "feeling" that blasts off the page as you read. I can see her, as she moves through this experience, and I can understand her being torn in ways that only the apperance of death in the lives of the living can produce. It is excellent, and she is very very good.

  19. I enjoyed this one.
    Thank you Edward for sharing Grace with us.

  20. We are all winners in the reading of this gripping true-life poetic tale.
    I enjoyed the analysis and the comments on this thread as well.
    Congratulations on the feature, Grace!
    You have succeeded in taking your first prize to a new level.

  21. Your poem is intricate and multi-layered, yet clear to us non-poets. I left more comments at Gather, so here's the link in case you don't have it:

  22. Your poem is intricate and multi-layered, yet clear to us non-poets. I left more comments at Gather, so here's the link in case you don't have it:

  23. Very understated in a matter-of-fact manner, it has a genuine flow of consciousness that includes the layers and layers of complexity that a woman can wrap about the simplest of things. The subtlety of her remarks about the dress, implying it had a level of sensuality to it that after having a baby she may not have felt in some time...the repeated mentions of her husband in the car--the kind of guilt that a self-effacing person might feel when they should feel honored and special. I identify too with the idea that The Poet seems a very different person from herself in that moment. As an artist and writer I can look back at something years after and look upon it as if a complete stranger created it, though I know very well it is mine and sometimes in that passage of time, those original thoughts and feelings are completely lost to me and I am left with only what was presented. Those works are the hardest to receive praise for because I feel no connection to them now, as I feel the poet has a sense of too, that she calls it her "first wrong victory."

    My thoughts, not necessarily correct but I took from this a very touching moment that I could all too clearly understand.

  24. I needed this poem. At this very moment. Oh, how something "right" can come from something "wrong"...pain trasmuted.

    Sarah Birl

  25. The strength of this work is the clear range of emotions through which the poet guides us.

    Elation, sickness, mom, childbirth, husband, cold and loss by death; plus, the slight of the critic's comment.

    All there and providing us with such reader identity that we get in that cold car with this winner, close the door for the trip back home and awaits the consequence of her wrong victory.

    Satisfying indeed.


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