2005 poetry award winner 

Erin Elizabeth is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois where she works on the editorial staff of The Ninth Letter and serves as the editor-in-chief of Stirring. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Cortland Review, Mot Juste, and Miller's Pond among others. She is an alumna of the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and, amusingly enough, the starting goaltender for the University of Illinois's women's hockey team.

Poetry Award Archives:

2004 poetry award winner

Erin Elizabeth

Erin Elizabeth has been selected as the winner of the second Marc Penka Poetry Award.
Her poetry displays a candid realism which skirts a kind of confessional lyricism, without resorting to melodrama or falling into bathos. The poems display a rare emotional honesty, in language that is both precise and visually evocative, eliciting a variety of sentiments that are expressive of a particularly American experience, but which, like all great poetry, transcends its specific setting and circumstance.

Samsara in Illinois" is composed of the following sections:
On Leaving Rhode Island
Autopsy | Giving Back His Shirt
What It's Like To Lie | The Preparation of the Body
On Leaving You, I Dream of a Child
Shifting "You" | Incarnations
I'm Afraid I Might Be Your Ex-Wife | How It Is To Choose
Nepenthe | In the End, I'll Always Leave

If it's kindness you crave, here's the soft
ash of the hardest wood I've scavenged.
-Lorna Dee Cervantes
I am so full of desire to create that I will burn it all down
just to make it again.
-Journal entry, 01/01

6. On Leaving Rhode Island
When we move to Illinois, I tell you I love
the corn. It's true. Love the sunsets like a Parrish
without the hills, the borrower pond that feeds
the overpass. Love the way a lone tree shadows
the horizon, an eraser leaving more than it takes away.
Driving here, the land kneaded down,
I'm reminded of the night you told me how
you got your girlfriend pregnant your senior year.
Remember the way I touched your hand,
our bodies bunched in your parents' hammock.
How I thought I could be that girl,
make it better. Be a stitch. Be a salve.
Could carry that child forever
for you.
When we move to Illinois, I tell you I love
you. It's true. Love how there is always a lap
for my head, a hand for my hair. Love the backbone of us,
the hardness, the certainty
of its fate.

5. Autopsy
In bed after you are asleep, I remember
the night in our New England apartment --
my things packed, you watching
the Bruins from the kitchen.
I never tell you about this,
when if you hadn't been standing there, right there,
between the bedroom and the door,
I would have zipped the suitcase.
I wouldn't have needed a reason.
Or two years after that, it's Christmas,
and we're fighting over the tree.
You storm upstairs, slam the door,
which you never do.
I string the lights myself, hang our blue and silver bulbs,
and it's not till you come down,
clothes in a backpack, and me in the living room,
looking at you,
holding the star,
that I think, this could be hard,
dividing our stuff.
Maybe it wasn't always this bad.
There was the weekend we lost forty bucks at the track
then drove to the Adirondacks,
ran over a raccoon in Placid.
Or the birthday I set my drinks on fire,
and you drank them, fell asleep
on your desk checking boxscores.
Or the last time you touched me,
four months ago now, our bodies like a desert
memory of water.

4. Giving Back His Shirt
What is left to tell you? You hold my hand at the ice rink.
It is a gesture of kindness.
It is a broken bottle jammed into the lung.
Drinking lunch one Tuesday, I give a friend back his shirt.
Just over his shoulder, outside, across the street,
there is a girl.
She's dropped a fishbowl,
the water kicking up against her calves.
She clutches the fish in her hands.
Two betas.
They are purple.
And she holds them
like someone would hold their breath.
Doesn't she know, I say,
you can't keep those fish together.
He leans forward, tells me That's enough.
Leave him. Marry me.

3. What It's Like To Lie
Five years ago in New Orleans, I heard my name in the crowd.
Fourteen hours from home, and there's a boy
I know from school. He's drunk and it's only three,
but he picks me out
by the palm reader reaching for my hand.
If he were someone else, I'd call it fate.
If it happened in a story, in a poem, it'd be an omen.
But this is the South, the heat wears on you like a skin,
and this city could hold everyone I've known,
even you, even this boy,
whose name I can't remember.
Why I think of this, while your car is swerving in the snow,
I don't know. I don't tell you
about him. Instead I put my hand on your thigh.
Instead, we talk about the upstate snow derby.
Their competition of inches. How Buffalo wins every year.

2. The Preparation of the Body
I learn to live on nothing
but sliced bread and apricot jam. It's like the year I left
home the first time, the way a body can suck
from its shell like an egg.
You don't notice when I stop cooking,
each night a frozen pizza on a frozen pizza pan.
This was the first sign, I tell someone later.
There were others -- your bathtub
filling in the drowsy dark, the night I came home drunk
on American beer in a t-shirt that wasn't mine.
There was the way I touched you,
as if my arms had been removed at the joints.
There's a week where I can't remember sleeping.
Each night, the cat more intimate,
nesting in the crook between my legs. He sleeps like brickwork,
ears low, lids shut. He's forgotten
how it is to be hunted, to be caught
in the teeth of something

1. On Leaving You, I Dream of a Child
I want to tell you about the dream
where I had the baby, and she was grew like an animal child,
nearly adult by the time I could name her.
In this dream, you are not the father.
You are never the father. I don't tell you this. It was enough
to say I didn't love you. It was enough to pack
the house, to lift the bed from our room,
the way a surgeon would a heart
from a body that lost its use.
The child speaks with me.
We talk about cooking. We talk about an apartment alone,
if we should lock the doors.
We talk about poetry, and not five days old, she says to me,
Why is everything you write about over?

1. Shifting "You"
It's hard to think this winter will ever end,
the way the snow keeps coming secretly in the night,
like a needle-eyed opossum
or the Easter Bunny.
There's no way to avoid our marriages
when we talk. You tell me how she laid
mute in bed before telling you she was leaving,
and it sounds so familiar that I want to
cover your hand with mine.
Instead, though, I tell you about oysters,
how they have no ambition, just hunger,
how I wonder if that is enough,
if that's what separates us.
It's not until I have the dream where I'm skating
alone at night
on an unfrozen pond
that I realize how hard it is
to start over, like a canvas
you must somehow bleach back.

2. Incarnations
Your house smells of wild onions,
and I don't know why. All we've done today is drink
coffee, talk about the New England French,
the way Providence sets its rivers on fire.
It seems easy to reckon my way here now.
The first sign, I tell you, were the pizzas,
how we tore the crusts apart with our hands.
There were the baths, so hot and deep
that they stained the skin. And the man
I left at the bar that Tuesday, the girl
whose fish died in her palms.
There are times I almost call you
by his name. Six years and the mouth becomes automatic,
the tongue an old cat you know where to scratch.
Six years and you forget how little you are
in the sheets, the way a hand
can make you into someone
that reminds you of yourself.

3. I'm Afraid I Might Be Your Ex-Wife
In the pictures, I can see myself
in her clothes, the blue gingham
loose at the hips, my forehead large
enough to hold her bangs.
When I see her, I do not think she knows
we could be the same woman.
I shake her hand. Her fingers are thin
and naked as mine. She is smiling
in this photo, just two years ago,
on the Charles in Boston, and the wind
has caught her hair.
Here, you say, here we are
in Vermont. You touch her face
pointing to the lamp in the foreground. It is so blue,
the curtains clean and white.
It's strange, I think,
how you are in none of these pictures.

4. How It Is To Choose
In the same building with her,
every staircase becomes a choice for you.
Turn left, and you're six states away, the fishercats blinking
in the sudden porch light, hungry. Or you're standing over a woman
bleeding from the mouth, not sure whether to touch her,
to lift her to the curb. Or you're given the choice
of when to die -
old, like all the men in your family,
or five years from now, a bullet in the lung,
in a parking garage
where it's dark,
and you do not see his face.
Right, and all this means nothing.
I don't know how we live this way.

5. Nepenthe
In your bed, I realize I can define joy
but not happiness.
When you ask me to, I say it's how you know
the difference between day and night,
yet it's hard to define dusk.
But I don't think that's it.
Maybe it's hunting sand dollars,
the soft, almost fleshy life of a shell,
how bright and brittle it becomes
in bleaching. Or a box of maps
to cities you have lived in,
polaroids of your sixteen year-old hands.
Maybe it's a song you didn't know
you remembered, the muscle memory
in a tongue.
Maybe it's a church
built out of bone. A place too drafty, too strange to live.

6. In the End, I'll Always Leave
When I move from Illinois, I'll tell you I loved
this place. It's true. Loved the fields of soybeans,
those leafy ships in the sod. Loved the first snow
that melts too quickly, the late February flowers
tonguing through the rime.
I'll tell you all the things leaving teaches -
the way rabbit skin glue will stretch a canvas,
how pearls start as splinters in the skin.
Tell you about the first night I kissed you,
how I'd only left him the evening before.
Or the way bodies can work
like salve, smoothing our wounds to a shine.
When I move from Illinois, I might tell you I loved
you. But today I'm still here,
and the way the sun has caught our shadows,
it's as if our heads have caught aflame.
And we laugh on your porch and we say Look,
look at that.