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I would invent a reset button
by Maria Isabelle Carlos
I would walk backwards by the front desk.
The rack of brochures would teeter upright,
Pamphlets floating from the floor, You are not alone
and You will be heard settling neatly into stacks.
Back inside the counseling room, I would sit
on the too-soft couch and stare at her sad brown eyes,
her pen moving right-to-left across a sheet of paper,
scratching out phone numbers, email addresses,
names of others with sorry eyes who would only
send me elsewhere. My mouth would take back words,
swallow my aunt's stories: boyfriends with fists,
spilled wine creeping back into the bottle,
bruises on my cousin's wrists fading from blue.
The counselor would lift a glass of water
from the coffee table between us: glossy liquid
streaming upward into the mouth of a jug,
and there would be no ringed evidence on the table.
No knock on the maroon front door,
no timid call through the intercom.
And later, driving, when I would see her
crossing Rosemary Street—head bent in the sun,
eyes seeking mine through the windshield—
there would be no flash of recognition, no sinking
of shoulders. There'd be nothing to remember.
Judge's Comment: Upon reading "I would invent a reset button," by Maria Isabelle Carlos, I was immediately struck by the poet's precise control over the poem's backwards narrative thread. The poem takes a risk in leading the reader through its events in reverse order, but it is Carlos' attention to detail with images like a pen "moving right-to-left across a sheet of paper" and "spilled wine creeping back into the bottle" that grounds the reader in this world with "a reset button." As I read the poem again, I noticed not only is the pace of the poem fantastically controlled, but so too is the poem's form. The reader encounters lines of almost identical length presented in quatrains. Content-wise, this poem suggests a turbulent scenario—"bruises on my cousin's wrists fading from blue." To impose such a constrained form on an unsettling subject was an intelligent, effective choice by Carlos. —Bridget Bell
Maria Isabelle Carlos isn't just any 20-year-old junior at UNC-Chapel Hill. She happens to hold a prestigious distinction as a Thomas Wolfe Scholar. Named for the author of the Asheville, N.C., roman à clef Look Homeward, Angel, her all-expenses-paid scholarship is given to one member of each incoming freshman class, based on creative-writing merit alone.
The award is what brought this Missourian to Chapel Hill, but she says her Indy poetry prize is her first publication outside of The Cellar Door, a UNC literary magazine. With her winning poem, she says, "I wanted to convey the speaker's memory without being sentimental ... [I wanted to] resolve her obsession with the detail and her desire to forget it."
Carlos is "definitely primarily a poet. I'm not a very good prose writer—there are too many words," she adds with a laugh. Her work is focused on family and relationships, with a particular interest in her Filipino heritage. After graduation, Carlos plans to "take a few years off, work on my writing, earn some money, then get an MFA and teach."
At UNC, her mentors include Michael McFee, not to mention the poets she knows through their work: "There are so many poets I look up to: Stephen Dunn—direct images and straightforward yet has profound things to say. And Theodore Roethke: I love the music of his language, the rhythm and imagery. The Far Field is one of my favorite collections." —David Fellerath