Rethinking Language

A selection of nine poems from eight young writers

At the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, eight students presented award-winning, original poetry. The presentation was held by the Aspen Institute's Arts Program, which is led by former New York City Ballet principal Damian Woetzel.

Five of the eight were winners of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, "the nation's largest, longest-running scholarship and recognition program for creative youth [in grades 7-12]," said Virginia McEnerney, the executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

"All work is blindly judged according to our three criteria: originality, technical skill, and personal vision/voice," McEnerney said.

The remaining three students were participants in the Young Chicago Authors program.

The poems appear below.

On Hushed Sugarcane
Sojourner Ahebee
2013 National Student PoetMidwest Region

For Chichigalpa

the sugarcane comes rising above a son’s head
like God,
like the sun when banana season is in bloom;
the scent of yellow fruit that hangs
intoxicates this town that I’ve been calling home.

it is June in Nicaragua and the rain is relentless,
and my boys hack away at green stalk,
tall and haughty like the city buildings
that attempt to touch sky;
they hack just above ground level
with a machete’s force,
they hack at sweetness but know not of it,
know not that June was a woman who told a lie,
who promised sweetness,
wrapped it in the innards of a sugarcane,
beckoned them to come and find it upon a field of tall green cities,
and then asked for their kidneys in return.

i want to show you something.
look here, look at this photo:
these boys are my sons:
their brown skin taught from sunlight’s 
heavy countenance,
their brown skin the color of packed tobacco
after it’s been looped by rough hands.
these boys are my sons,
what they take from the earth
they can never give back.
and when the earth takes my sons,
it can never give back.

this is a widow town,
there are dead men everywhere.
i’ve started to lose count.
the sound of machete against cane
is a mother’s hushed grief
for a son who will be gone
for failed kidneys in the season of rain,
for the doctors who are out of answers
for a town that is blessed and cursed with sweetness.

this sound is a mother's hushed grief
for herself when the only things left are
the photographs, a mother's story of loss
spoken quietly beneath blue mountains
in a field of sugar cane
quiet and murderous like snow
with her turquoise skirt billowing in wind,
heavy with the scent of green bananas
when the rainy season is pregnant and full of itself.

Michaela Coplen
2013 National Student PoetNortheast Region

For my mother, on the occasion of her retirement from the U.S. Army, 2014

The plane’s wheels kiss the tarmac and hesitate,
pulling back achingly before pressing themselves

against it again, sighing with an almost-shudder when
the landing gear bows under the weight of a thousand

anxious stares (their eyes focused, squinting from where
they were told to stand, practicing patience with the wringing

and unwringing of hands and the quiet urgency of prayer,
their lungs wanting air in the five-minute forever of before),

then the plane stops, and the door opens wide, revealing
the sudden relief of the sound of soldiers stepping outside

as one by one, then all at once, they march toward the gate
(there a little girl waits, lurching from left to right, trying

to catch sight of her soldier through the crowd, standing on her
father’s shoulders to get a better view), and everyone searches

through the glaring light of noon for their own familiar
faces, all maintaining ranks until finally one lunges to embrace

his son—then the whole group runs together, moving
in slow motion through the loudness of banners and cheers—

and she appears, now striding by herself across
the seemingly endless divide, but pausing in the process,

inexplicably turning aside for one final look at the plane that
delivered her here, back to the children she loves with her life

and the country she loves like a child, before pivoting around
with a smile and floating, uninhibited, into the open arms of home.

Errors of the Human Body OS
Brandonlee Cruz
2014 National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Medalist

Your operating system may not
perform tasks if the memory is too full.
If your operating system receives an
overload of tasks, it may lead to crashing.

Do not interface your operating system
with another: It may learn their programming,
it may recite their algorithms and sometimes
it will save their files like backup, but

once they disconnect, your system will crash,
the AirPort off for days or weeks; and
programmers, who think they know how each
system works, can do nothing at all.

Do not worry if your operating system
saves its lover’s voice in gigabytes
and leaves no room for anything else.
It may download too much alcohol and
clear its cache.

Do not ask your operating system how
to feel, for there is no formula that
can explain why we love the sunset but
hate the ending of a magnificent day. Because

even when your operating system’s
coding is out of date and it thinks it knows
every part of its programming, there
will still be parts of it that are encrypted.


The Ghosts of Fish
Nathan Cummings
2013 National Student PoetWest Region

Since moving to Monterey,
he has become afflicted with the voices
of the ghosts of fish.

He went to the beach on his first day
and heard the song of the choir aquatic:
like a thousand birds, trapped
in a glass bowl, recorded and played backwards.

Seafood is a problem.
His girlfriend pan-fried a red snapper
for their first meal in the new apartment.

Each bite screamed at him
until he did the humane thing,
sent their dinner to its proper rest
by way of dumpster.

He lives alone now,
shut in his apartment, six miles from water,
trying to drown the whispers:
six goldfish, claimed by a tank fungus,

swallowed in the roaring maw
of the toilet in apartment 7E;
a slab of lox next door that keens
wordless things about cream cheese and capers.

He has considered moving inland,
but that would interfere with his plans,
long gestated, to infiltrate
and bomb the local SeaWorld.

He will linger a while longer.
You can visit him if you like, hear him
speak on the linguistic quirks
of the North Sea Cod dialect

that he heard in a supermarket:
a trembling gasp from under layers of ice,
its words like a lover’s secret.

Re: Think Language
Louis Lafair
2013 National Student PoetSouthwest Region

Text Message to my Girlfriend


Conversation with my Grandma

Don’t talk about the
death of language. I—you—we will die, but
language does not die.
No one can crush
that first palm riding the air
in a five fingered salute
greeting farewell
because even curled into a fist that palm feels
with the thread of human tongue.

Latin, the gasping language, is not dead, but breathing
with imperceptible vitality. Salve, it says, not
Vale, as the valedictorian speaks on. Hardly antiqua as antiquity lingers. Rather ingrained,
the roots of a tree, as its branches palm sky, reaching towards a never-ending end.

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