The Charles Prize for Poetry, 2010

It is with great pleasure that I announce the winner of the poetry contest. Over 125 poems were received with a general theme of medicine or science. 7 judges were consulted, representing a diversity of training in medicine, science, and the humanities. A few of the judges were moved to tears at times, and all expressed their wonder at the quality of writing.

What makes art, poetry, or literature special? Perhaps it is a combination of graceful observation and hopeful creation which lends light, perspective, and meaning to our existence. We know it’s good when a certain hum of neuro-electricity splashes brilliant colors across our satisfied brains, soothing ills, making us want more.

So here are the top 5, as chosen by the esteemed judges! Congratulations, and may the awards given to the winner (money and a cherry tomato) bring a smile. Thank you to all who entered the contest.

Fireflies, by a medical resident

Runner Up:
Song for my Father, II, by Pal MD

Honorable Mentions:
TO SYLVIA, by Maria A. Basile, M.D.
The Harvest, by C.L. Wilson
If I Were Frida Kahlo, by Amanda Hempel

And here are the poems:

~a medical resident

Hand clasps hand
on the window sill,
he in a paper-thin gown,
she in her Sunday dress.

Snow falls.
He craves the sting of crystals
on his tongue,
a shovel to carve a meandering path
to the front door.

And she –
a spark from dying embers
that once flushed his cheeks,
now sunken and pale.

Lilacs blossom.
He dug the earth for their resting place,
pruned them religiously,
watered their roots.

She filled glasses with branches
pouring over the rim –
a breath of lavender anticipation.

Heat rises.
He remembers capturing fireflies in jars
with punctured holes to breathe
and watching them through the night
as their lights flickered
then faded away.

She remembers
laughing at the red juice stains
from freshly picked raspberries
on their chins.

Leaves fall.
The crisp sun is distant
from the blurred shadows of the hospital bed.
The hurried migration of the birds
is silenced by the glass.

From the window,
they imagine the rush of delicate wings
headed south
and the imminent scent of autumn –

Burnt orange peels, smoky maple,
roasting pumpkin seeds.
Their lights flicker,
then fade away.


Song for my father, II
~Pal MD

“Say Ahh,” you said
as you pressed my tongue down
with the back of a spoon.

I can still taste the cold metal,
feel your warm hands, impossibly large
palpating my neck.

Doctor, father.

“No need to bother the doctor,” you said.
Your eyes showed no hint of bother.

So we went back to the bathroom
as I watched you set a new blade in your razor
hold a warm cloth to your face
lather yesterday’s whiskers.

I wondered where the old blade went.
A small slot in the back of the cabinet,
a mystery, like your newly shaved face,
betraying little of what was beneath.

Your copy of Cecil’s looks old,
like you.
The cover worn, the pages yellowed.
But you, a younger you on every page
Underlines, margin notes
expressions of wonder.

Maybe your face was stoic then
but you loved the mysteries
I can read it in every pen stroke.

It must have been a fountain pen.
I’ve always loved fountain pens
But I found them on my own.

You handed me your stethoscope
the rubber stiff with age
and said, “Go for it”
a smile breaking out,
cracking through an old psychiatrist’s
habitual stoicism.

“Daddy, my throat hurts.”

Sure, I think,
as I hold the spoon against her tongue
and palpate her impossibly small neck.

“I think a kiss will fix it,
no need to bother the doctor.”

She seems to agree.


~Maria A. Basile, M.D.

I am the sun, in my white coat.
– Sylvia Plath

The surgeon at 2 a.m. is not where you think she is.
She is not waging war on cancer.
She is not resting her 9 month
belly near the belly of a sleeping patient. She
is not answering another
solace-seeking call
from you.

She is not visiting her
sickest of patients. She is not
loving the husband she tells everyone about, but
barely touches.

She is not paying the mortgage. She
is not taking care of herself.
She is not even feeding
her baby.

The surgeon at 2 a.m. is
stroking sunset blood on college-ruled
canvas, breathing blue
abandonment between lines,
drenching gauze decay in bleach
and lye.

She is writing
for her life.


The Harvest

She talks to them; knows that
although the remnant quiver
of a working nervous system at the knife’s point
is not awareness but only life’s
most rudimentary reaction, still she turns
this residual life into death by her hand,
and this one death into six lives or ten,
or sight, or new bone and ligament,
a new blood type, new scars, new hopes.
They cannot hear or see, but perhaps they know
that their last cut was made with love,
their last gift remembered. Such a cut
can never wound, could never sting.


If I Were Frida Kahlo
~Amanda Hempel

Perhaps a ten percent chance, he said.
My heart slid across his perfect white wall
and I shrank under my paper sheet.

If I were Frida Kahlo,
I would paint my cystic ovaries
in a pale green thunderstorm sky.

If I were Frida Kahlo, my uterus
would hang in churning clouds
raining blood above salted earth.

With no god to blaspheme,
I cursed traffic, potholes, the fact
that I already knew her name.


Thank you to each and every writer who entered the contest. I’ve learned a bit about running a contest, and hope to improve things for next year. It’s been a truly humbling, inspiring, and outstanding project for me to coordinate, and I very much hope that in reading and writing poetry you gain the same sense. Until next year, thank you.


19 thoughts on “The Charles Prize for Poetry, 2010

  1. pheski

    Thanks for doing this. I am sure that I am but one of many on this side of the interface who were touched, educated, humbled, energized, reprimanded or have had our lives changed in other ways. Perhaps next year I will join as contributor, in addition to appreciative audience.


  2. Liz

    What a difficult job it must have been, to judge so many heart-felt, beautiful, touching poems! How do you score such an amazing collection of talent? How do you compare profound to heart-rending, or insightful to educational? This was an amazing collection of poetry that was both inspirational and satisfying. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Maria A. Basile, M.D.

    Thank you, and your esteemed panel of judges, for awarding “TO SYLVIA” an honorable mention. I certainly appreciate the opportunity your contest has offered to us to share our writing and sample some amazing examples of poetry informed by the illness (and healing) experience.

    Looking forward, as always, to seeing what the doctor has in store for us next!

  4. Rita Schwab

    Thanks Dr. Charles, and judges, for taking the time to develop this contest and read all the entries. And may the winner(s) enjoy their coveted cherry tomotoes!

  5. Mike Cadogan

    A great competition and all entrants are to be congratulated for making this such a pleasurable experience.
    The outstanding poems on this page will surely ignite a “a spark from dying embers” and ensure a flurry of entries for next year
    Well done to all

  6. John Peacock

    Would it be possible for you to provide us all with the complete collection? You say you already collected them into a single document for the judges so it shouldn’t be much work.

    Time permitting I will try to put together a grand finale, but I’ll have to sort through permissions, etc.

  7. Ann

    I’m truly blown away at the wonderful pieces that were presented, and to the winning poem and all those who won honorable mention, CONGRATULATIONS! I’m sure the task was difficult in choosing those that stood out amongst the others, for the ones that I had the pleasure of reading as the contest went along were all of high quality. This is a great way of sharing insights and some of our deepest feelings with each other. What a great idea this was Dr. Charles. And of course, please make this an annual thing. Also, as I was reading the ones chosen from the rest, I was thinking what a good idea it would be to compile them into a little book! What do you think about that – with perhaps the best of, say, 5 years of contests in one volume.

    That’s a great idea. I will look into this for sure.

  8. precordialthump

    Fantastic concept – thanks for running the contest Dr. Charles.
    I’ve seen some incredible writing over the last month – I might have been too intimidated to enter had I not got in early!
    Congrats of course to the Judge’s select few. I cannot argue with their judgments.
    Well done to all.

  9. SeaSpray

    Congratulations to the winners of this fabulous contest! Outstanding!

    A while back when I was perusing through the poems looking for a certain one ..I got *lost* in reading them …so much so ..that I didn’t do anything I had planned to do that afternoon. 🙂

    Precordialthump said :I’ve seen some incredible writing over the last month – I might have been too intimidated to enter had I not got in early!”

    Ha! I was intimidated the entire time and so did not enter. To say that poetry is not my strong suit is an understatement. 🙂 However …thanks to the emotions swirling around in me about having to do something I do not want to do …it poured out on paper and at the last hour/minutes ..sent it in… and it felt good. I needed to release it ..and I guess feel heard.

    I am saying this because I don’t pretend for a second that my entry was a match for the amazing poems submitted.

    It was a treat to have so many wonderful poems to read and glad I participated. I am still so moved by one particular line in someone’s poem.

    I look forward to next year Dr Charles. Thank you again for contest and the opportunity to participate. 🙂

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