Runner Up: Shelter

In “Shelter,” I found a world that I could live in, breathe in. There are so many exquisitely placed details in this poem that I felt like I was within walking distance from Kingsgate Mall again. There is also a danger here. There are violences past and present and future. The speaker exists in a moment of puncturing. I felt such honesty from this poem that I had to read it again and again. “Shelter” is a beautiful soft jungle of a poem.

—Jordan Abel


He chewed a trout with the eyes in,
suggested we could be lovers as my easy-
overs grew cold. We’d shared the apartment
a few days, his room on the north side,
mine on the south, two hands of a clock
I didn’t want crossing. You have to put that
idea out of your head. Stop
thinking that right now. He pivoted his
fork around the eye. The rent was good, the
drapes mauve, limousines on Welfare Wednesdays
lined the streets like clean white cigarettes.
Cops closed down parties or arrested dealers,
our neighbour racing up the winter alley
in a t-shirt and underwear, his feet bare,
hands clawing the night. One day I pedaled
past the syringes, past a rusty grocery cart
full of plastic bags and bits of carpet, to
come home to a jungle painted on the
bathroom walls. All the southern windows
filled me with the chants of Hare Krishnas.
I was writing a paper on Milan Kundera that
was two papers, one on each side of the page,
in which I argued that the sexism changed
whether you decided it was ironic or not.
I was young enough to think meaning was
a choice, and poor enough to think I could
tell a man to remove an idea of me. He
brought home a girlfriend and I welcomed
this relief. Then they started writhing against
each other in the sweaty jungle of the bathroom,
my afternoons moaning his name. If I had to pee,
I ran to the Kingsgate Mall, where the hookers
collected in the rain and stalls had no doors
so you couldn’t shoot your heroin in private.
His brother came around for haircuts, which
he assumed I knew how to do, kitchen scissors
opening and closing their intimacy, hair a jagged
alphabet clinging to his neck. Do you find D.
weird? he asked. Anything I might have said
got clipped by his words. He spoke his brother
flat and sharp. You know he murdered someone.
I scrubbed off the hairs on my wrists like so much
evidence. He said D. returned early from the factory
to discover his girlfriend in bed with another man so
he grabbed a baseball bat and beat him to death.
Ten years in prison meant we could ask for nothing
more—other than to take out the garbage, put
down the toilet lid. D. painted the walls of our
living room a soothing shade of pink. Freedom
could be miniature as a soft apartment near the
Kingsgate Mall and a twenty-two year old
saying she didn’t need breakfast in bed. The air
in his girlfriend’s screams fanned my body. I
lived in that apartment until classes let out in
the spring, determined to complete my own term.
I flinched away when he gripped my arm. Each
night I clicked my bedroom door shut. Did you
check it? Better climb out of bed quiet to feel
the still knob not turning or were you sleeping.
Toss in bed and glance at no light slivers open.
Keep each rented month normal to hoard A’s, all
my safety on paper.

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