fiction, poetry & more

Second Place
$100 Award


by Julia B. Levine

Perhaps nothing was beautiful,
but still my sister and I returned
to the current’s slag flushed
out of factories, and knelt there,
poking sticks into its green syrup,
daring each other to swim.
We knew something true
had been stolen from that river;
we wanted the wholeness of a thing.
The world before the wound.
We wanted our bodies to enter
the river’s clear run, the one before
the auto industry arrived,
then suddenly packed up and left
those kids from across the highway
living on muskrats and crabapples.
We wanted a river that did not slip
past a row of homeless men
fishing from the bridge. That night
I pulled my father’s Oldsmobile
off the road to get high,
a guttural outrage, plush with drink
and sorrow, echoed off the steel pilings.
At its source, a ragged man, a fish
swinging from his pole—a huge catfish
or carp, it was too dark to know—
but I could see the glint off
its spinning. Even then I got it—
his shock that the hook
had caught a grenade of turgid flesh.
It’s like the punchline of what is real
next to what you thought could be.
Or the rip current of my heart
pulling me under every time
I imagine my mother as a little girl
before she turns mean. In that
tiny apartment, her father with
a match to his pipe, inhales
the flare into a parasol of smoke,
a cherry stink lifting above them.
I can almost see her looking over
his shoulder at the photos
in his Yiddish newspaper—
it’s a white bonfire of bones,
a drift of skulls heaped together.
It’s the Holocaust
before it has a name,
and the mark a moment makes,
the sinker of consequence cast,
the dead weight at the end of any line.
It’s who you believed you’d be
before the world dropped you
into the course of what’s been done,
and named the current your life,
with no choice
except to ride that damn river down.


Julia B. Levine has won numerous awards for her work, including the 2015 Northern California Book Award in Poetry for her latest collection, Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight (LSU press 2014); the 2003 Tampa Review Prize; the 1998 Anhinga Poetry Prize and bronze medal from Foreword magazine; a Neruda Award from Nimrod, and a Discovery/The Nation award. Her work has been anthologized in America We Call Your Name, The Places That Inhabit Us, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from UC Berkeley, and lives and works in Davis, California.

May 2019