CL Writing Contest 2017 Judge's Pick in Poetry: "The First Settlers,” by Libby Svenson

Svenson's poem "captures Florida's essence," says poetry judge Gloria Muñoz.

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click to enlarge Libby Svenson, award winner. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Libby Svenson, award winner.
Judge’s Notes: Gloria Muñoz

Many of this year’s poems approached the theme, “Orange,” through well-spun image-driven details, while others blended satirical commentary and metaphor. [Editor's Note: Read about all of the finalists here.] 

Runners-up Myrna Shuman (“Carousel”) and John Bye (“After the Invasion”) both employed sensory imagery to describe Floridiana. Shuman’s nostalgic saffron-infused language presents a state that is everything and nothing like “her bygone trinkets.” Bye unforgivingly cracks open a Bay area tradition to look at the “crushed red Solo after crushed red Solo” messiness of the aftermath.

Libby Svenson’s “The First Settlers,” however, stood apart for its ability to encompass the magic and lore of this peninsula we call home. The scenario of bones discovered beneath a wine shop after a hurricane is truly “so Florida.” The poem nods to this state’s embrace of the bizarre with a surrealistic description of ”a skull found below the wine shop,/jaws stretched open, hoping/for a sip.”

click to enlarge Gloria Muñoz. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Gloria Muñoz.
Because uncanny headlines are what make our state orange — that is to say oddly vibrant, for better or for worse — “The First Settlers” captures Florida’s essence. The poem’s narrative voice and concrete language welcome the reader into the poem, while its carefully planned line breaks pull on the lyrical edges of imagination. Just as “these are the first settlers, lingering/below shifting ground for five hundred years,” we too are left in suspension to wonder what other history remains buried (be it in a grove or wine shop) in our orange state.

Svenson challenges our perception of discovery in a state that was built upon conquests disguised as exploration. In the closing lines we are left with an unexpected hope. The archaeologists are “telling us what we already know:/this town is made of coquina and cannonballs —/buried, drowned, it rises.”

Congratulations to Libby Svenson. I am pleased to select “The First Settlers” as winner of the Creative Loafing 2017 Poetry Contest.

Gloria Muñoz read the poetry submissions with authors’ names removed and made the final decision on the Top 10 and the winner. Gloria is the author of Your Biome Has Found You (Finishing Line Press). Her writing has appeared in publications including The Best New Poets Anthology, Acentos Review, Entropy, Forage Poetry, The Sarah Lawrence Review and Going Om, and she has been honored by the New York Summer Writers Institute Fellowship and the Think Small to Think Big Artist Grant. Gloria teaches creative writing at Eckerd College.

The First Settlers

By Libby Svenson 

Five months after the flood

left it weak and trembling,

bones are floating up

from the earth. Vertebrae

scattered across the breezeway,

ribs rising from underneath

the bed and breakfast on Orange Street,

a skull found below the wine shop,

jaws stretched open, hoping

for a sip. 

The archaeologists come

from Gainesville, talk of blue gloves

and carbon dating, examine every chalky

remnant, and tell us 

these are the first settlers, lingering

below shifting ground for five hundred years.

But they are telling us what we already know:

this town is made of coquina and cannonballs — 

buried, drowned, it rises.

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