Griffin Prize Shortlist – Winner Announced Tonight, June 7th 2023 – A Look Back on My Blog Posts on some of the Nominated Books and Authors

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave and her poetry collection, Exculpatory Lilies, one of the nominees for the 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize

I left this somewhat late! A quick look at blog posts I have written on four of the five shortlisted nominees for the Griffin Poetry Prize – Susan Musgrave, Ocean Vuong, Roger Reeves, Ada Limón and Iman Mersal (translated by co-nominee Robyn Creswell). When I say I left this late it’s because the winner will be announced (in a few hours) tonight in Toronto! The winner receives a lot of attention and a $130,000 prize, said to be the largest of its kind!

Here below is a bit of a mash up on four of the five nominated books!

In 2022 I profiled Canadian poet Susan Musgrave’s poetry collection Exculpatory Lilies and featured two complimentary poems by Ocean Vuong and Roger Reeves based on a poem by Frank O’Hara. And back in 2020 I profiled Ada Limon.

Here an excerpt from my post on Susan:

SEPTEMBER 14th, 2022

The day you are cremated, a girl modelling a black hoodie
like the one I’ve chosen for you to wear, lights up my Facebook page:
I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire
around me. I hear you laugh at the irony as they fire up the retort,
a laugh dragged through the ashes of a thousand cigarettes, tokes
of crack, my sweet dangerous reckless girl, what could I do
but weep, the way I did when you were four, butting out
a Popeye candy cigarette you scored from the boy next door
for showing him your vagine through the split cedar fence.
I told you, next time baby, hold out for the whole pack, trying
to be brave, the way only a mother could. Now I carry you home
in a plain cedar urn, the remains of all you were reduced
to this smaller, portable size. Not even you could survive
the fire this time, your light in ashes now.

Susan Musgrave from Exculpatory Lilies, McClelland & Stewart, 2022

A mother’s extraordinary ability to name what is so awful to name. Addiction and a death of a beloved daughter. A death, so often dreaded, that finally arrived. The searing beauty of these lines:

….Not even you could survive
the fire this time, your light in ashes now.

A little more than a year ago, with great sadness,  I wrote a blog post honouring Sophie Musgrave, the subject of the poem above, who had recently died of an accidental drug overdose. Sophie is the daughter of Susan Musgrave,  truly, one of Canada’s keystone poets of her or any generation.  I do not say this lightly.  Musgrave is one of our greats. And she just launched (Oct. 29th, 2022) her latest poetry collection, Exculpatory Lilies, in Haida Gwaii, where she lives and runs a famous guest house.”

* **
As it turns out I did not profile Ada Limón’s latest poetry collection last year! But I have written about her a few times. First, here is a great poem from her nominated collection The Hurting Kind and then an excerpt from my 2020 blog post on her. Ada has just been appointed to a second two-year term as US poet Laureate! In the last wonderful line in Ada’s poem from The Hurting Kind I hear an echo of American poet Stanley Kunitz’s poem Touch Me!

The End of Poetry

Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot,
enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy
and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and ’tis
of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing, enough
of the kneeling and the rising and the looking
inward and the looking up, enough of the gun,
the drama, and the acquaintance’s suicide, the long-lost
letter on the dresser, enough of the longing and
the ego and the obliteration of ego, enough
of the mother and the child and the father and the child
and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.

—Ada Limón from The Hurting Kind, Milkweed Editions, 2022

Now, this excerpt from my 2020 post.

American poet and U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón (1976 – )


Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
                 Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.
I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.
We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
       the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.
It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
       recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.
And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
       Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.
But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
       of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—
to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
       what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.
Look, we are not unspectacular things.
       We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
     No, to the rising tides.
Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?
What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain
for the safety of others, for earth,
                 if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,
if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,
rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

Ada Limón from THE CARRYING, Milkweed Editions, 2018

Ada Limón rose to prominence in 2015 when her book, Bright Dead Things, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCCA). It didn’t win but her book The Carrying, that came out three laters, did win the NBCCA.  And  when I picked up that book today as I was reshelving books (my Sisyphean task) I started to read DEAD STARS and thought this could be a poem for this crazyily disrupted time. And I was glad of the chance to feature Ada for a second time in my blog. To see my previous post on Ada from April 2018, please click here.  ”

A lovely synchronicity that two poets linked to a Frank O’Hara poem should now be linked as 2023 Griffin Prize nominees. Ten years ago Roger Reeves published a homage poem to Frank O’Hara’s poem Katy which features the line Some day I’ll Love Frank O’Hara.

Here’s O’Hara’s short poem:


They say I mope too much
but really I’m loudly dancing.
I eat paper. It’s good for my bones.
I play the piano pedal. I dance,
I am never quiet, I mean silent.
Some day I’ll love Frank O’Hara.
I think I’ll be alone for a little while.

Frank O’Hara from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1972

Here is Roger’s version with a few lines from my 2022 post :

Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves

Until then, let us have our gods and short prayers. Our obligations.
Our thighbone connected to our knee bone.

Our dissections and our swans. Our legs gashed
upon a barbwire fence and our heels tucked behind a lover’s knees.
Let us have a stalk of sugarcane to suck

and another to tear our backs with what it knows of disaster
and a tadpole’s folly. Let us have mistakes

and fish willing to come to a bell rung across a body of water.
let us have our drawbridges and our moats. Our heavens
no higher than a pile of dead leaves. Let us have irrelevance

and a scalpel. A dislocated ankle and three more miles to run.
A plastic bottle to hold nothing but last names and a chill.

If none of this will be remembered, the let us keep speaking
with tongues light as screen doors clapping shut
on a child’s finger. For there is love. To press

one frame against another
and when something like a finger is found between the pressing

to press nevertheless. For this is our obligation.
Let us forget our obligations. For this is love.
Let us forget our love. Our eyelids’ need for beginnings
and ends and blood. Our coils of hunger
that turn another into dried honey on our hands.
And what if this goes on forever—our ours?
Our drafts and fragments? Our blizzards and our cancers?
Then let us. Then, let us hold each other toward heaven
and forget that we were once made of flesh,
that this is the fall our gods refuse to clean with fire or water.

Roger Reeves from King Me, Copper Canyon Press, 2013

American poet Roger Reeves (1980 -). Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Reeves’ light hearted tone and images at the poem’s beginning throw me inside his poem’s room and his title to mix metaphors also becomes a candle to light up the room when I get a bit lost. I remember this poem is about someone one day loving themselves.

Then a year later after Roger’s poem was published Ocean published his version in the New Yorker. His poem and a few lines from my 2022 blog post follow:



Someday I’ll Love –

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

Ocean Vuong from The New Yorker, 2014


What a love poem to Ocean, to himself. So many lyric moments in startling images that also suggest, but only suggest a narrative. Elements of his life. It helps to know that Vuong (the speaker) had a violent father and he’s gay. With that knowledge and the title the poem opens up even more. This journey from violence, from trying to find love (graphic images of love making on his knees) to this call of love: Ocean, Ocean/ get up. The most beautiful part of your body is where its headed. And what a hopeful reminder: & remember,/ loneliness is still time spent/ with the world.

Now, just to be current here is a poem by Ocean from his nominated collection  TIME IS A MOTHER and one by Roger from his nominated collection, Best Barbarian.

Ocean’s poem is a huge call to living against a backdrop of suicidal ideation built into the title. This is one of the most memorable poems from my reading poetry in 2022.


Ocean Vuong from TIME IS A MOTHER, Penguin Press, 2022

And now Roger’s poem. The cruelty in this world, yet kindnesses, too:

                Children Listen

                It turns out however that I was deeply
Mistaken about the end of the world
        	The body in flames will not be the body
In flames but just a house fire ignored
        	The black sails of that solitary burning
Boat rubbing along the legs of lovers
        	Flung into a Roman sky by a carousel
The lovers too sick in their love
        	To notice a man drenched in fire on a porch
Or a child aflame mistaken for a dog
        	Mistaken for a child running to tell of a bomb
That did not knock before it entered
        	In Gaza with its glad tidings of abundant joy  	
In Kazimierz a god is weeping
        	In a window one golden hand raised
Above his head as if he’s slipped
        	On the slick rag of the future our human
Kindnesses unremarkable as the flies
        	Rubbing their legs together while standing
On a slice of cantaloupe Children
        	You were never meant to be human
You must be the grass
        	You must grow wildly over the graves

Roger Reeves. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 19, 2018, Academy of American Poets and in Best Barbarian, W.W. Norton & Co., 2022


  1. Peggy Rosenthal
    Posted June 7, 2023 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Such riches here, Richard. Thank you!
    And re: Limon—my sister sent me The Carrying for my birthday, and I’ll be writing a post on it for Close Reading.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted June 23, 2023 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    And thank you so much!

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