Thursday, June 30, 2016

2016 First-Place Winning Poem

First-Place Winner: Building a Brace by Joe Cottonwood 
Joe Cottonwood has worked as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician for most of his life. He is the author of nine published novels, a book of poetry, and a memoir. His novels for adults include Famous Potatoes (1978) and Clear Heart (2009). His novels for children and young adults include Quake! (1995) and The San Puerco Trilogy (1990-1996). Joe Cottonwood's 2013 memoir, 99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat, and Houses, based on his experiences as a contractor, carpenter, plumber, and electrician, is available electronically and in print—readers and reviewers have praised its humor and authenticity. Joe lives in La Honda, California, where he built a house and raised a family. More about Joe at

I am Building a Brace
by Joe Cottonwood

I’m a carpenter. There’s a mindfulness of craft—of any manual labor, actually—if you open yourself to it.

I am building a brace for the front porch
of my brother who is on the other side
of that door listening with headphones
to a recording of Chinese poetry

(in Mandarin, which he understands)
while he is dying, slowly,
brain cell by brilliant brain cell
in that rocking chair
whose joints are creaking,
coming undone.

He no longer remembers his phone number
or how to count change at the grocery store.
He is in denial of any problem
but the crack in the porch grows wider
millimeter by millimeter
so out here in the rain
I set four-by-fours upright as posts,
then I jerk four-by-eights as beams
     lifting on my shoulder
     held by my hands     transferred through my spine
     pushing with my legs
     anchored by my feet
as the useless joists of the deck
drop termite shit onto my eyebrows
like taunts of children:
nya nya you can’t fix this.
But I can brace it for a while.

Long enough, at least
for my brother to forget ten languages.
I will repair that rocking chair.
I will change his sheets,
install grab bars in the shower
because he’s my brother.
I won’t let his porch collapse
out here in the rain.
I simply won’t.

Holding a baby is a window to meditation.

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