American Voices Gold Medal: Joe Polsky

Our Echoes

A Poetry Collection by Joe Polsky

11th Grade, The Fieldston High School

2015 Gold Key/American Voices Gold Medalist, Poetry

(Image Credit: Simplicity In Complexity by Gabrielle Robinson, 11th Grade, Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music, 2015 Gold Key, Photography)


We find him in the bayou
and for the syrup that stains his skin call him Sugarbaby.
He has a thumb between his lips, skin baggy as cornhusks,
and a name sewn into the lining of his boxer-briefs: Hansel.
He sweats like a water-glass. After all, this is Georgia,
where summer bakes even the roots of our teeth.

Hansel says the picket fence spiked like teeth
and the witch had a voice like a bayou,
something anyone could drown in, even Georgia
boys who swam before they walked. The witch sang, Sugarbaby
I want to unmake you, oh darling, oh Hansel
opened the gate; he crumpled like a cornhusk.

The witch peeled back her door like a cornhusk.
When she smiled, he got lost in her teeth
they were blacker than coffee in a nightlight, oh Hansel
how could you be so weak, soft and crumbly as a Bayou.
The witch licked her lips and sharpened her spoon, Sugarbaby,
come out of your skin. You’re burnt as Georgia.

The witch lived where all sugared things go to melt: Georgia.
Her house was built of cane and cornhusk.
Hansel left his skin by the door, I want to be your sugarbaby.
But darling, sugarbabies have no teeth.
The witch held out her palm and showed him a vein, or maybe it was a bayou,
he couldn’t tell but her skin smelled so sweet, like milk, oh Hansel.

She took him by the heart and into the kitchen. Hansel
could not keep his eyes off the marzipan. It smelled of Georgia.
His shirt was wet and his armpits ran like bayous.
The witch pulled out her pliers Hansel played with a cornhusk
or maybe it was just wallpaper. His teeth–
clinked as they dropped into her jar, darling, Sugarbaby

Can you hold still for me, sugarbaby
I’m putting the water on to boil, Hansel
you are so pretty without your sharp bits, teeth
do go bad so very fast in Georgia.
It’s to do with the heat. Soon we’ll all be cornhusks,
so come wade with me, Hansel. Come wade into the bayou.

We find him and mistake him for a sugarbaby in the Georgia night.
We dress Hansel in the finest of clothes but he still feels like a cornhusk.
He’s carved new teeth, he says, but good skin was hard to come by in the Bayou.

Dear Jenny

Talk to me about the toy cars and their lead coats,
did you suck them for their color,
did they stain your teeth gray,
did your tongue stink of asphalt,
should we blame lead for the track marks
that grew on the football field last June,
when you shucked your shoes and danced?

How are your parents?
Is your mom still made of glass,
does your dad still hold her in his lap?
Do they still cry together
when they forget the words to old songs?

I miss the way it felt to skip rocks with you
on the edge of the world,
cherry cola like a new bruise
spilled on your sunburned legs,
with nothing but a radio and a carbonated cough
to keep us high.

We would let our children believe
that people live like Christmas lights,
strung one beside another.
That makes me weepy,
because I like to be alone.

You know what that’s like,
how sometimes skin is too raw
to support the burning questions,
or even the small ones.

Just promise me you’ll remember
the dewy moments we had before we ever truly woke,
when we did not need to say all these pretty things.


November was soupy with hurricanes,
but that didn’t bother the men who smoked by the cash machine,
the papas with their stains from where their cold ones touched their hands.

The Juliets all dreamed of lost love
and sand and the best way to spread
four blanks hours
over stretchy new skin.

A Yankee boy, I was happy
bouncing car horns off open expanses,
dancing crap tangos with a girl named India.

The shadows where our borders met looked like lines of brail
and it seemed we could unzip our bodies
with only an x-ray and a little bit of a song.

Hotels will never be safe from our echoes
if we let ourselves out.

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