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Milwaukee Poet Wins The 2019 Robert Frost Prize

Geoff Trotier

Milwaukee poet David Southward has won the 2019 International Frost Farm Prize for metrical poetry for Mary's Visit, a poem written in a sestina form. Southward is a senior lecturer in the honors college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and says winning this year's prize is a great honor as Robert Frost was, and is, one of his biggest poetical influences.

Robert Frost is one of the United States’ best known poets and one of our most decorated. Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, received 31 Nobel Prize nominations and a Congressional Gold Medal, and was Vermont’s first poet laureate.

Southward is at the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire this week to collect his prize and to read his winning poem. He stopped by the studio before he left to talk about poetry and to read Mary's Visit for us.

Mary's Visit

We watched her car pass slowly by our house
and circle back with purpose. It appeared
she'd spotted us, nestled in our dream
of a stone cottage from an earlier time.
She parked out front and asked to come inside.
Naturally we concluded she was lost

or peddling religion. All she had lost
however, was certainty: could this house
have been her Great Aunt Gertrude's? "Look inside
if you want," we told her. Something might appear
to bring back vanished memories of the time
she played here with her siblings. "I’ve had dreams,"

she said, "of finding it again" - one dream
in which the porch was sloped like ours. Half lost
in the wistful currents pulling her through time,
I pictured the aunt living in our house -
and how, whenever relatives appeared
on the doorstep, she'd hold the pain inside

her knotted joints, and smile. Here inside
our damp, shade-darkened rooms, her niece would dream
that Gertrude was a witch, that ghosts appeared
behind the bathtub curtain, and that lost
in the woods out back of the spinster's house
were her missing children. This stored-up time

had become a burden to our guest, a time
that had no place. It rattled around inside,
where doubts began to creep: although our house
looked like the one she’d come to in her dream,
its lines were off; the floor plan did not match
a pattern that had all but disappeared.

"Maybe" - she tapped her head - "it’s all up here."
One's memories grew entangled over time
with longing, hope, regret. The thread's soon lost
that leads out of the maze we live inside -
bumping against the glass doors of our dreams
in search of some distinct, authentic house.

Her fear appeared to change the mood inside
as time resumed its course. Clutching her dream
of what she'd lost, Mary left our house.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.