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Excerpts from The Grief Contest

By Lorene Delany-Ullman



Now the sea is empty,

bereft of moon tides,

the sun so far away—

the sea is a beggar,

a briny servant, a child

with night terrors—

with tantrums that surge

and flood, the sea hauls

her ships home,

unforgiving, she can’t bear

another spill, another missing

ice floe, another record-

breaking weather day


Engine life



boat oil abstract—

its lubricity is slick

and beautiful,

gives the harbor

salt water a luminosity,

a cheerless rainbow hue

you (we) should worry

about viscosity—

measured in newton seconds,

when that oil or fuel fluidity

leaks into the seawater—

Get the boom!

The absorbent pads!

It’s your boat’s menstrual cycle—

Let it eat hydrocarbons!

your boat oil abstract,

it’s really

an abstract of my mood,

let me inhale its gas vapors,

vomit in my mouth,

while you or someone like you

pillages the ocean villages

of white abalone,

green sea turtles

Woman wearing fear like a red scarf


I am not prepared

for emergencies

of the mind,

of any kind

Read the public bathroom stall survival guide:

Is it fire or criminal activity or a shooting?

(Give me two aspirin, water and

a handful of smelling salts

but not adhesives, or I’ll break

out in a rash)

silence phones, draw blinds,

hide or play dead

like you’ve taught your dog

you are the dog now,

quiet the tremble,

pray the prayer

that fear calls for—

all forms of politeness

beg you to help me

Look, what I found—


in the lamp post stunted

against a limpid sky, loneliness

in a clear-glass bottle

unoccupied by spirit or token

in the front door behind which,

my children swelled, then left home,

returned, and multiplied

Look, what I found—

little wishes threaded in the bone

of a roasted chicken we ate last night

an unsymmetrical worldview

and forgiveness by way

of a failed window

a tremor of contentment

in the fervid orange

of the Bird of Paradise


Today, I cannot divine the sea

from the clouds—every cloud is

iconic, some objet d’art,

something more than common

because of what it brings—

an authority I cannot reckon with,

an everyday conversation—

another drought, deluge

or mudslide as thick

as cement

(and before that

vineyards burned)

at fault, the low, the high,

the never uniform sky—what are we

but our weather? What are we

but how we lean in

to mudflow, avalanche

or torrent?

Scattering law


Daylight scatters itself,

the horizon in transition—

the woman who explains

my father’s cremation services

tells us there are scatter gardens,

or we may request scattering

at sea, the longitude and latitude

memorialized in a plaque,

but it’s illegal to spread

your loved one’s ashes over Disneyland—

there are cameras,

and Mickey Mouse or Minnie

will report you to the authorities—

everyone wants to be sprinkled,

much like Tinker Bell’s pixie dust,

over the happiest place on earth

*All photos by the author


Lorene Delany-Ullman teaches composition at UC Irvine and is the author of Camouflage for the Neighborhood. In collaboration with artist Jody Servon, their book Saved: Objects of the Dead, a photographic and poetic exploration of the human experience of life, death, and memory, is forthcoming in fall 2022.

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