It is with much jubilation we announce the winner of the 2017 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize. The final judge, Vievee Francis selected: Contaminant Relics by Catherine Ntube. Please see her comments below:
“Contaminant Relics” is an afrofuturistic poem that deftly reflects upon the cosmos, history, gender, science, desire and loss, medicine, the black female body and the rights inherent to and denied that body. Upon each reading (and this poem lends itself to several readings) I felt myself “swirling” inward as in a whirlpool, and out beyond myself, becoming in effect as I fell under the visceral magic of this piece a constellation of disparate elements bound by gravity. Expect to be necessarily challenged by this timely, complicated and exquisitely constructed poem offering its raw and universal truths. In this poem the black woman is the dark matter(ing), and she is both origin and possibility.
By Catherine Ntube
Toilets on space shuttles
convert urine to drinking water
so there is nowhere for women
Constellations are culturally defined.
Cassiopeia: a dolphin’s tail,
a woman’s breasts, 5 unrelated stars.
Let’s call it a bite mark, a burn scar.
A cesarean incision made unsteady in the dark.
Let’s call the black sky what’s survived.
The first astronauts were former airmen.
Their fighter jets severed the wind,
left contrails of keloid smog.
Military women often skip their periods
when deployed. The nuisance of bloodshed
managed with small white tablets.
Not unlike chalk.
Not unlike old-school punishment:
copy 100 times I will not.
1461 pills will cover a four-year contract.
There are more likely causes of death
than a hormone-induced blood clot.
Spent gunpowder is an earthly scent
akin to moon dust, so say men
who have visited the moon, men for whom
gunfire is an obvious referent.
A difference between astronomy
and gynecology is that shame
has never governed our study of stars.
Let’s say ours is a mammalian moon
caught in constant oogenesis,
a gleaming ovum coaxing oceans’
longing strokes against the shore.
Amniotic fluid alters the fetal feeling
of gravity. Liquid buoyancy nears zero-gs
early in pregnancy
If we had done an exam of pre-cosmic night,
Sims’ speculum inserted, through the stretched sky
we might have glimpsed a heat-hazed image:
a canal coated in molten black mucus.
We might have witnessed a birth. The Big Bang.
Felt our vision photodegrade, blaze and temper
as the burst scattered and darkness recovered
If we had done this, would we praise any less
The first gynecology patients were slaves.
Their flesh wept meteorite metal,
stained sutures with iron blood.
Science suggests that menstruation
is a type of reproductive right.
For example, the human uterus sheds
unfit embryos before they fully implant,
preventing maternal injury
and eventual infant death.
The moon’s familiar bloom might have soothed Yoruba slaves.
It was their lunar goddess, long ago,
whose water broke to flood our barren planet,
bearing life of desolation.
A space journey is called a mission.
an astronaut’s travel a tour of duty.
So it is: we cannot explore
without meaning conquer.
A difference between the night sky
and black bodies is that slit air won’t scream
in the absence of anesthesia.
NASA discovered 7 earth-sized exoplanets
and called it a treasure trove.
What can be extracted remains unknown,
but we seem particularly interested in water.
A difference between earth
and exoplanets is that imperialism
in outer space is still imagined.
Rat studies suggest that zero-gs
could stunt human growth
before and after birth.
For example, the woman would struggle
to pass the placenta. The child, untethered,
would struggle nursing.
16 seconds before flight, water floods
the launchpad, dampens the sonic impact
of blast-off. Rockets launch undamaged
due to flowing liquid.
Let’s say stars and planets
are contaminant relics
streaking, swirling, spotting the sky.
Not unlike dilute blood.
Not unlike a woman’s endometrium
sinking in water.
Catherine Ntube is a poet and educator. Originally from Austin, TX, she is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of South Carolina. She received her M.A. in Teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education, and her B.A. from Harvard University, where she studied postcolonial history and literature. She is a Cave Canem and Watering Hole fellow.