Third Place Poem in Poet’s Choice Category

Third Place in Poet’s Choice: “The Ballad of Chaos Nightingale” by Charles Castle

My name is Chaos Nightingale. My mother christened me,
but it was my father’s song I followed here.
Come with me. We begin as I’ve begun, and we’ll end no differently.

I am bent by age in these somber times. My back is humped by life’s
uneven weight. I don’t complain, I welcome it.
I live in a house behind a church, a stone house in a field
of standing stones. I live on a broth of flowers left for grief,
my bread, a crust of loss.
I spend my days as a poor man spends, little by little, close
to nothing. But nothing, or close to it, is enough
and my prayers are often for nothing.
The hide on my feet is the leather of my coming and going.
I go as best I can, though less of me returns.

These days are distractions, but nights are a passage by dream
and all I meet along the way are like me. And though they may not
favor me, we are allied by our attire. My coat is threadbare to sky,
a tatter to rain, my hat is a rag-worn crown.
Each day’s weather is an advance of clouds towards storm, building
on the hours. It’s on this branch of road I sing through dust
and cloudburst leaning on a skull-capped cane.
I no longer nurse a muse. We share the same infirmities.
There is no unhappy word, one is like another, and now with you
we face into them as a headwind.

On this path across a bridge we visit a city shrouded by fog.
To describe the architecture is to describe fog giving birth
to spires under a halo of moons. The inhabitants sleep or perhaps
in a pandemic they do not brave the night.
We rarely see but a glimpse of them. A murmur of prayer
narrows through the streets. There are no songs shared
among ravens and crows.

Wood and stone render perspectives of charmed facades.
We meet at a fountained square down a cobbled boulevard.
You might wonder what intelligence designed it,
but if genius gave it order, we are strangers to it.
Yet there are inscriptions on the arches that genius
had some hand in, but the language is forgotten.

In a quaint and vacant neighborhood, a bell rings once.
Shadows absorb the peal and the hour is hidden.
There is an aroma of bread we’ve never tasted.
Somewhere a baker kneads in solitude, his hands a contrast
of shadows on leavened dough cast by a fire where the ovens warm.
Here is a single lamplit lane where we browse about the windowed
shops, but carelessly.
Our remoteness is a currency without exchange on this side
of bolted doors with their keepers all burrowed home.
Up the wine-stained stoops of shuttered taverns copper counters
reek of hops. The upturned chairs on café tables
reach toward darkened ceiling fans.
The alleys that we pass are robbed of light.

Our destination nears. We climb toward a hill where a bell tower
with a clock appears, but not a knell upon the knoll will tell the time.
And though we spend it here, we cannot stay. We only visit to take the view.
Yet should the fog part before the city wakes with its virus and its prayers,
we’ll sing a single penny’s love to the disease and beg it leave us
whole again.
Or by the bell at dawn return across the bridge to find
the field of stones has changed with the flowers left
that we’ll collect along with water from the rain.

Poet’s Bio: Charles Castle writes from Eugene, Oregon. Before Covid, he was co-host of
the monthly open mic, Burnin’ Down the Barnes at Barnes and Noble Books,
and he frequented as many other readings as he could. He believes in spoken poetry,
delivered live and in person,and so he is currently in exile. Charles has published
four books; Living with Patriarchs, A Season’s Second Coming, A Good-night in America
and Chasing Down the Storm.

Judge’s Statement (Pepper Trail): Judging a poetry contest is a privilege, a pleasure,
and a burden. One goes into it knowing that there will be impossible choices,
the weighing of apples and oranges on an uncalibrated scale. This is particularly true
with the Poets Choice category, which asks only that poets submit the work they love
the best. How to compare a tender 10-line lyric with an epic 70-line rhyming narrative,
when each fully expresses the author’s intent and skill? The poems I ultimately selected
are varied in style, length, and subject, but all shared powerful and original imagery
– sometimes stark, sometimes slant. Each is a work of art, bearing the fingerprints of
its maker.Each took me to a place I had not been before, and gave me reasons to return
again and again.

Judge’s Bio: Pepper Trail’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Atlanta Review, Windfall,
Borderlands, Ascent and other publications, and have been nominated for Pushcart and Best of
the Net Awards. He is the author of three collections: Flight Time, An Empty Bowl, and
Cascade-Siskiyou: Poems, which was a finalist for the 2016 Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His
writing on the environment has appeared in High Country News, Shambala Sun, National
Geographic, and elsewhere. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he works for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.

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