The 2020 Award for New Poets, 1st Place Winner: South Side by Taylor Byas
We’re all very excited to share with you the 1st Place Winner of the 2020 Award for New Poets, selected by the stellar emerging poets Jake Skeets, Camonghne Felix, and Paige Lewis. Please enjoy this stunner by the incredibly talented Taylor Byas! You can see Nome Emeka Patrick’s 3rd Place poem here and Samantha Samakande’s 2nd Place winner here. Thank you to everyone who submitted this year!
This is what teaches me love. Your streets, their wailing
for their dead. The way a siren becomes a mother
too. How my parents hold me like some frail thing
to their chests at night, how quick they are to cover
my ears when the block gets hot. The handshake half-hug
sacred enough to make a man feel whole
again. The shapeshifting, how what looks like a thug
in darkness softens into a boy in the gold-
glow of a bedside lamp. How we are all
somebody’s grandbaby. Harold’s Chicken steeped
in so much hot sauce, the nose runs, and the small
piece of bread too wet to hold, drowning beneath
the fries. Each of our brownstones, side by side—
so there’s nowhere to run, nowhere for us to hide.
So there’s nowhere to run, nowhere for us to hide
when the neighbors know your business—the women cooking
on their balconies and patios to side-
eye all the young folks slinking past Just looking
how they look. But this is a form of love as well,
the way they judge the length of your daisy dukes
and feed you, send you home with a plate, say tell
your momma I said hello. They’ll put extra scoops
of macaroni and cheese and greens with juice
that will spill into the plastic bag no matter
which way you hold it because the tin foil’s loose.
As you tote it home, the juice will leak and splatter
your leg, drip down your calves, get sticky, dry
a spidered map beginning at the top of your thigh.
A spidered map beginning at the top of your thigh,
drawn by the fingers of a boy you know
is up to no good. And now he’s trying to ply
you open in a backseat with his sly-talk—No
one has to find out. For days, the smell of leather
will mean home. The sound of your sweaty back unsticking
like Velcro, your only claim on him. We together
or not?—after a week of this, of him licking
his fingers after he dips into you like a jar
of honey. Of course he isn’t yours to keep.
He’ll come for one of your girls too, pull his car
up to your stoop and offer her a “ride” in his Jeep
like he hasn’t had you too. And what can you say?
He was only taught the game, and all he knows is play.
He was only taught the game, and all he knows is play
hard at all times. Once, when he skinned his hands
scarlet, his daddy threatened him, said I’ll lay
you out if you start that crying. He had plans
for that boy, wanted to raise him numb enough
to lose and keep on living. His friends too, teasing
his quivering lip, testing his manhood with rough-
housing and headlocks so tight they stall the breathing
and bruise the neck. The usual chant—tap out
and you’re a bitch. Don’t let them tell the block
he can’t hang, that he’s soft. There’s little room for doubt.
So he learns to hold his breath, gets strong enough to knock
the other boys on their backs. Passes this down
to those who come after. This is the law of the town.
To those who come after, this is the law of the town—
the south side is not a place, but a state of being,
a song, the candy lady circling around
the blocks with walking tacos, koolaid unfreezing
in styrofoam cups. Happiness costs so little
for those who are willing to buy. And everyone
has a name; the man who drives the ice-cream truck, the nickel-
and-dime bag boys with Frootie Rolls lining one
side of their jackets’ insides—Mr. Bradley,
Joshua ‘nem, their presence steady as statues.
How much of this city is flavor? The thick and sappy
taste of too sweet, too quick to melt, the cashew
crunch of Garrett’s popcorn mix? It’s sensory;
the act of remembering, of making memory.
The act of remembering (of making memory)
rebuilds the city in my mind two states
away. The Ohio river cutting simply
across the state-line, its surface an empty face
to cough up the mind’s desires. The Chicago skyline
undulates into view like a vision, glitters
like a firework mushrooming out against the wine-
red of a scramming sky. If water is mirror,
what does that make of me? I call a friend
who lives back home, tell her I miss the heartbeat
of Chicago, the way the skyscrapers seem to bend
down to protect me. I skip a rock to pleat
the water’s calm. Yet I still see you there.
The river carries you downstream like a prayer.
The river carries you downstream like a prayer,
then you are gone. I compare you to this new
home, where the downtown drivers refuse to blare
their horns at pedestrians, and the nighttime blue
cools down to darkness in degrees. And no
screech of the “L” train snaking above my head,
no roar to drown a conversation. The glow
of the suspension bridge at night; the red
then blue then purple. The standing sign—The Queen
City—in front of the ferris wheel. I learn
to find you everywhere I look, to glean
your shadow from Cincinnati’s light and turn
it into home when I feel lost, when I am ailing.
This is what teaches me love—your streets, their wailing.
Taylor Byas is a black Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is now a second year PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati, and an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She was the 1st place winner of the Poetry Super Highway Contest, and her chapbook, BLOODWARM, is forthcoming from Variant Lit in the summer of 2021. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Glass, Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Frontier Poetry, SWWIM, TriQuarterly, and others.