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Jennifer Keith - Winner, Able Muse Book Award, 2023

Jennifer Keith
Jennifer Keith


2023 Able Muse Book Award
for her poetry manuscript

Selected by final judge, David Yezzi

Coming soon from Able Muse Press - Spring/Summer 2024

(the contest runner-up, finalist, and honorable mentions are listed here)

Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological ReviewThe Nebraska ReviewThe Free State ReviewFledgling RagUnsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem “Eating Walnuts” was selected by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. In 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.


Sample poems from Jennifer Keith's Terminarch


Eating Walnuts

The old man eating walnuts knows the trick:
You do it wrong for many years,
applying pressure to the seams,
to split the shell along its hemispheres.

It seems so clear and easy. There’s the line.
You follow the instructions, then
your snack ends up quite pulverized.
You sweep your lap and mutter, try again.

Eventually you learn to disbelieve
the testimony of your eyes.
You turn the thing and make a choice
about what you’d prefer to sacrifice.

You soon discover that the brains inside
are on right angles, so the shell
must be cracked open on its arc,
which isn’t neat. The shattered pieces tell

a story, but the perfect, unmarred meat’s
the truth: two lobes, conjoined, intact.
One of two things is bound to break:
One the fiction, one the soul, the fact.

    (previously published in the Unsplendid and
       selected by Sherman Alexie for The Best American Poetry 2015)


The Cooper's Hawk

Suave profile, drawn:
deco wedge of chrome
designed to swoop on shining hoods

and introduce a new line, cutting, reaping: A zipper
opens and closes before and after.
A masterpiece

of some sacred proportion
appearing like a flame
in the last-ditch imagination

of machine makers and masters
of velocity and sudden storm. A celebrity
who moves in one day

without notice or permission,
exotic, metallic kek-kek-kek
and then stopping to reload.

Such power amid our poor, dumb little yard
with crayoned cardinals, hopeless
mourning doves

A picture-book page made new, by you
swinging scythe-blades in summer air
and, touching down,

indulging in a grotesque jig, a skeleton dance
before a terrified rabbit
who never saw you but also, always knew.

    (previously published in Smartish Pace)


Martha in Cincinnati

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
  —Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947


They say it gave townspeople quite a fright,
each April in Ontario, when the birds
migrated by the millions, off to nest,
torrential fronts so thick they swallowed light.

In 1854 they reached their peak,
amassing in the sky like Armageddon,
enormous, stupid, handsome-looking things
a foot or more from tip of tail to beak,

a fusillade, a trillion drumming wings.
(“Hard gale at sea”—that’s how John James described
the roaring, terrifying noise.)
And no one thought (who would think of such things?)

that what the Seneca long called “big bread”
would be consigned to horse-drawn history,
shoe buttons, family farms, the whooping crane:
In sixty years, the last one would be dead.


It wasn’t personal, greedy, or malicious.
(When blessed with edible weather, one must do
the right thing out of simple gratitude.)
Their fatal flaw: the birds were quite delicious.

the corpse of Ectopistes migratorius,
Whacked out of air with sticks and stones, divine
sautéed or stewed with onion, carrot, bay—
in every pot, a gift from God most glorious:

the catch for cacciatore, tender, sweet.
Men blew holes through their curtains with aplomb
and gunned down bacon by the basketful,
high-protein manna falling at their feet.

The dumb things wouldn’t hide themselves, unable
to reason, organize, or self-preserve.
As travelers, not passengers, they were
devoid of fear, and destined for the table.


They named her Martha, like the first
First Lady, but without her George. The last
of all her kind: the rest were gone.
In years to come, they’d call
her “endling,” “terminarch.” They nursed
her health, in honor of her time that passed
unnoticed, but she was a chore: no fun
to watch. She breathed, but that was all.

The zoo looked for a mate for her
but it was much too late for that. Her days
would be spent clinging to the same
old, filthy perch. She’d stare,
some bits of bird-brain left to whirr
in circles, parsing gizzard bits, a haze
of memory, boxed in a dusty frame.
Mere motion now was rare,

beyond an infinitesimal sway
as one more breath pulled in, considered, stalled,
let go. She doddered. Wouldn’t eat
or drink, a marathon
of stubborn will, still on display,
while teams of ornithologists, enthralled,
placed worried bets on when she’d finally meet
good Mister Audubon,

who’d limned her like: that famous kiss
(with chick on top). Now, new indignities:
a hooting crowd demanding action,
while all she does is sit,
and barely that. It’s down to this:
the cage, the feed. Persistent dreams of trees
obscure the schoolboys’ bored dissatisfaction.
Now they’re not having it

and, pissed off, wing handfuls of sand
at her impassive form to try and make
her entertain them, or at least
look more like life than art.
But nothing live could understand
her concentration, or the fervent ache
to fall as once she flew, relaxed, released
at last, free to depart

and cut the cord, become unknown,
not living fossil, feathered hourglass,
but lost, one snowflake in a storm
that marks the final act
of the detonation humankind’s
unleashing now, what comes to pass
through us, an asteroid in apelike form,
the E.L.E., in fact.

Or maybe not so grim, and not
as bleak as all of that. There are some tools,
those Michael Crichton recipes
are where the future lies. 
Let’s kid ourselves. The juggernaut
of what we are will never suffer fools
for long. The final birds fly where they please
in quiet, darkening skies.

    (previously published in the Loch Raven Review)


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