We are pleased to announce the winner of the 2021 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize. The final judge, Honorée Fannone Jeffers, was replaced by Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji, winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry. Dr. Jaji selected “Bloodgood: Prune” by Roman Johnson. Of the poem, she writes:
This poem reveals something of the mystical power of saturated dark color in nature, unearthing language’s own densities while holding the poem’s specific narrative mysteries in confidence. A father’s color complex becomes the lens in which a son recognizes his own shame in forbidden desires. We sense fear, misunderstanding, generational bonds, and, vitally, the impulse toward creation…a “plant-based dye.” This poem does for the unbridled beauty of blue-black skin what the poet’s pruning shears do for the deep purple leaves of a Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree– it seizes what is a rarity in some parts and shapes it into the “kind of beauty” lyric teaches us to recognize.
Beyond the sable roots of the burial yard, I hear
the voice of my grandmother: “Son, you look
just like your father.” My father hated his handsome blue complexion—monstrous, mythic.
A master pruner, I have learned to shape
my own kind of beauty, a thousand coarse hairs
burning like red leaves, a plant-based dye.
How hopeful are we? To be acceptable
under a bloodgood, over a cruel, blue.
Every Sunday, the fire
consumed me. Hell-bound, gasoline
communion. I prayed, God, purge these lead thoughts from my head. That muscular,
angelic frame, it’s forbiddenness. Half
in the shade, half in light. I moan. A cross
at the family table, branches listen near
the kitchen window. I look just like my father.
Roman Johnson is a poet and writer from Memphis, TN. He has a Ph.D. in Medical Sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and obtained his undergraduate degree in Political Science from Morehouse College. He is a finalist for the 2021 Bellingham Review 49th Parallel Award for Poetry, is a past winner of the Clark Atlanta University Poetry Prize and has received fellowships from Harvard University, Breadloaf, Tin House, the Writers’ Studio, Martha Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, the Palm Beach Literary Festival, the Obsidian Foundation U.K., and the Watering Hole. His work concerns itself with grief, longing, masculinity, violence, and connection. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora and African Voices Magazine. He can be found online at @SonoftheDelta on Twitter.