“Against Beauty” by Em Dial – Winner of the 2023 Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award


Congratulations to "Against Beauty" by Em Dial, winner of the 2023 Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award!

This poetry award carries a $500 prize, sponsored by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation, to the best single poem by a poet in the early stages of their career.

“To advance education by providing scholarships, bursaries and awards to Canadian residents for demonstrated excellence in the arts.”


Thank you to our 2023 judges, Jaclyn Desforges & Geoff Nilson!

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About Em Dial

Em Dial is a queer, Black, Taiwanese, Japanese, and White, chronically ill poet, grower, and educator born and raised in the Bay Area of California, currently living in Toronto. They are a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of the 2020 PEN Canada New Voices Award and the 2019 Mary C. Mohr Poetry Award.

About our Judges

Geoffrey Nilson is a poet, editor, musician, and literary critic born in Duncan, BC. His most recent book Light Makes a Ruin (2022) was released with Ottawa’s above/ground press. Previously, Secretary and member of the Board of Directors for the League of Canadian Poets, Nilson is currently a PhD student in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University and teaches literature at Vancouver Community College.

Jaclyn Desforges is the author of Danger Flower (Palimpsest Press/Anstruther Books, 2021), winner of the 2022 Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry and one of CBC's selections for the best Canadian poetry of 2021. She's also the author of a picture book, Why Are You So Quiet? (Annick Press, 2020), which was shortlisted for a Chocolate Lily Award and selected for the 2023 TD Summer Reading Club. Jaclyn is a Pushcart-nominated writer and the winner of a 2022 City of Hamilton Creator Award, a 2020 Hamilton Emerging Artist Award for Writing, two 2019 Short Works Prizes, and the 2018 RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award. Jaclyn’s writing has been featured in literary magazines across Canada. She holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia’s School of Creative Writing and lives in Hamilton with her partner and daughter.


Honourable Mention

"Qawwali night at the Ukrainian Banquet and Convention Hall" by Anvesh Jain


Against Beauty
by Em Dial

I must begin with defining beauty
itself, in order to be heard in halls
so beautiful, themselves, they shook me
like a quaking aspen set against
the highway & so let’s visit the Beauty
of Loulan, as so many do, who come
to that museum in Urumqi,
seeking proof for or against the auburn
of her hair, mummified with lice and comb.
Beauty, here, meaning defying some odd
4,000 years of summer, only 3 feet
of salt as protection. Or beauty: proof of
red being a threat to itself, nightmare
to the state, alchemy against purity.

reddened threat to myself, I’m a nightmare
of statehood, chemist against purity,
and thus beauty. & yet, on the bus,
at the club, in the comment section,
they use the word again and again,
beautiful. The first time I felt it true,
my preschool friend said that I have princess
eyes. To augment my previous definition,
I felt beautiful, whereas beautiful
means watched. What an odd power it is,
flowers, shows, jobs, second looks and chances
thrown at my feet for the shape of my eyes.
But for the purposes of this study,
can an eye be beauty? Can watching be watched?

For the purposes of study, can I
be beautiful? Would the watchers watch
and measure the drool pooling under men’s tongues
one one axis, the hue of my labia
on the other. Five years before I was born,
a study found that the more faces
overlaid like veneer after veneer
the more attractive the face staring back.
Even earlier, another study
smeared faces of vegetarians and
criminals together, finding their offspring
more beautiful than their origins.
& even before that: Hypothesis: Beauty
loves the average, marks where disease isn’t.

An Ugly Hypothesis: Beauty
is as common as an unriddled body.
All of the largest apple trees I’ve seen
mark the sites of first settlements. Trees can’t
just be trees. Instead, the worms burrowing,
symbols for theft. The red dripping off branches,
not nourishment, but where you feared this was
headed. Please, let there be a gorgeous good
somewhere, in which a tree represents not
a country, a genocide, a ripe body,
instead, something holding up heavens
that I will never dream to understand.
Yes, beauty I know well as a blood state.
Goodness, distant as trees comparing jewels.

Yes, I can state the word covered in blood
yet haven’t admitted whose. The trees? Jewels? Mine?
Beauty can be both the maw and gnash
the fat bubbling in the pan and the fire.
A case study: in Mandarin, America—
měi guó or beautiful country.
Born out of phonetic coincidence
or not. Taiwan, once called in Portuguese
Ilha Formosa, beautiful island,
Then, just Republic of Formosa. My
Grandfather found my Ama so beautiful.
They built a new island and language here.
The article headline reads: Taiwan Shrugs
Off War with China, Trusts Daddy America.

Articles shrug off the idea of war
as the tug of an island between mainlands.
I can’t be so blasé. Like so many,
I wouldn’t exist without at least three
& yet this does not endear me to bombs.
Compare the resulting cloud to a mushroom,
the resulting crater to those of the moon,
and I will do something so hideous
you’ll know the result of war to be nothing
of celestial dust and toadstool.
Only bodies born of empire and bodies
lost at their expense. This is besides the point.
I don’t even want to say the word again.
You get the point: roses, diamonds, islands, war.

Let’s play a game of association:
Roses, diamonds, islands, war, what comes to mind?
A body entombed in salt, pests, and desert?
A nation calling her beautiful and mine?
The world, a garden of thorns and petals?
I came here to try and capture the word
that’s made me feel like sex and oddity
since I careened into this world too soon.
I’m leaving, naive and bare, as she did.
No defense against the word tacked on
to her name, nations discoursing over
the shape of her eyes, millennia later.
Here we end with beauty, as borders racing
through blood, like echoes down a hallway.