The Morgenthau Prize

posted in: Aging, Poetry | 0

Recalling memories and faces, with works from Henry Morgenthau, Dennis H. Lee and Mark Elber.
7 minutes


After a long and prestigious career as a writer and a producer of public television series, Henry Morgenthau III turned to writing poetry. He said, “Writing poetry for me is a celebration of the evening of a long life, a coda, a strikingly new expression of my inner being that surprises me as much as those who know me. Now as death kindly waits for me, I am enlivened with thoughts I can’t take with me.”  

Passager published Henry’s work in our journal and then, just before he turned 100, Passager published Henry’s book A Sunday in Purgatory. After Henry died, his children Sarah, Ben, and Kramer established a prize in his name for a first book of poetry by a writer 70 or older. Dennis Lee won the first Morgenthau Prize in 2020, and Mark Elber won the second just a few months ago. On January 29, Passager will hold a Zoom event honoring Henry and Mark. Mark Elber will be reading from his prize winning book Headstone and then talking about his work with Morgethau Contest judge David Keplinger.  

Here’s Henry Morgenthau’s poem “You’ll Catch Your Death.” 

“You’ll catch your death of cold,” Mother would say 
if I went outside without my jacket, cap and mittens.  
When I was older, plagued with an infected tooth,  
the dentist numbed my nerve with Laughing Gas. 
I felt the pain from his drilling but laughed as if  

it were hurting someone else, not me. 
Then, at Deerfield, my best friend swallowed 
a corrosive base in chemistry lab to end his life, 
but recovered to graduate. Next year at Dartmouth,  
he lay down across the tracks to wait for the train.  

Now death has begun to catch up with me.  
I’ve lived too long. Merely standing up 
and breathing in and out is a serious challenge.  
At Ingleside, our retirement home, we progress  
from canes, to walkers, to wheelchairs.  

In vain we try to push back looming shadows 
as frequent announcements of memorial services  
are posted where they can’t be missed:  
advertisements luring us to that final vacation.  

“You’ll Catch Your Death,” Henry Morgenthau III, from his book A Sunday in Purgatory

Next, from 2020 Morgenthau Prize winner Dennis Lee’s book Tidal Wave, “Grandma’s Buttons.” 

Ticking on a wooden sewing table  
in the parlor, spilling onto 
the floor – getaways – and 
I creep down, head between  
the legs of the table. Above 
me the drawer and its wonderful  
mechanism that lets it slide – open / close –  
and I’m feeling for the buttons – 
flat wishbones, rounded 
ones that feel like wood 
that aged wood – and above 
the thunder. Grandma’s pouring buttons  
into a round metal tin that held 
butter cookies from Aunt 
Celia, who painted her chalked face 
with pink powder – or so it seemed 
to me.  

“Grandma’s Buttons,” Dennis Lee. 

And finally, the most recent Morgenthau Prize winner, Mark Elber’s poem “Saturday.” 

I was born on a Saturday, 10:47 a.m. 
An inch of snow coating Astoria, Queens 
A mid-December day of sirens and corks jetting from dark chilled bottles  
A day of bus exhaust belching blue-gray into the frigid air 
Assembly lines greasing the cogs of America’s wheels, stitching gloves for the coming frost 
Trees in their barren beauty, the browns of bark climbing out of the planted sidewalks  
Bountiful brick  

The gardens of Sunnyside were mostly soil – dark, gritty, rocky and shrubbed, a dented hubcap
or two, seeds in their deep sleep  

In every borough there was singing in synagogues that morning, parchment unscrolled on felt
covered tables,  Chanting of Jacob’s return to the wilderness of his youth, camels on the horizon bearing clay jugs  
Smooth to the touch 
Humps festooned with fig cakes, shawls draped on the soft hair of their backs  

I was wrested out of the womb 
Dumped wailing into the Western world, into a century wounded by wars  
Lying on the belly of all that maternity 
The web of veins, the life heaving in our chests, idling at a high pitch  
In the 1951 of Hi-Fidelity, of housewives herded into suburbs 
The Hit Parade of love and marriage, the promise of stainless steel  

Tarnished from the vantage of my sparse coat of snowy hair, the brittle reward for those who wait  
The whir of propellers in the distant background  
The hum of the decades to come  

Mark Elber, “Saturday,” From his Morgenthau Prize winning book Headstone. You can see and hear Mark reading poems from Headstone, followed by a conversation between Mark and Morgenthau Contest judge David Keplinger Sunday, January 29, at 2:00 Eastern time on Zoom. The Zoom link to that event is on Passager’s web site At the top of that page, click “events.”  

To buy Henry Morgenthau’s A Sunday In Purgatory, Dennis Lee’s Tidal Wave, or Mark Elber’s Headstone, or to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps.

For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.

Due to the limitations of online publishing, poems may not appear in their original formatting.