Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A writer in Syracuse has an extra $7,000 thanks to combining the darkness of his local mall and personal life.
You will constantly disappoint yourself and those you love. Just like the Great Northern Mall in Clay, New York, you will succumb to physical decay and shifts in the marketplace. Celebrate spring with new scents from Yankee Candle!* (Coupon no longer valid.*)
Eric Berlin, a freelance editor based in Syracuse, has been rewarded with a generous cash prize—and, presumably, a fleeting moment of joy—for his poem in which the dying Central New York mall serves as the stage for a mundane errand followed by a private outburst.
Night Errand is the winner of the U.K.-based Poetry Society’s 38th poetry competition. Out of 12,000 previously unpublished poems submitted, Berlin’s prose hit the judges the hardest. Sarah Howe, one of the judges, explained to the Guardian that Night Errand’s “initial grip gave way to a sort of haunting.”
O, Great Northern Mall, you dwindling oracle
of upstate New York, your colossal lot
of frost-heaved spaces so vacant I could cut
straight through while blinking and keep my eyes
shut, I’ve come like the flies that give up the ghost
at the papered fronts of your defunct stores,
through the food court where napkins, unused
to touch, are packed too tight to be dispensed,
past the pimpled kid manning the register
who stares at the buttons and wipes his palms.
If I press my eyes until checkers rise
from the dark – that’s how the overheads glower
in home essentials as I roam through Sears,
seeking assistance. I know you’re here.
For this window crank I brought, you show me
a muted wall of TVs where Jeff Goldblum
picks his way through the splintered remains
of a dinosaur crate. There must be fifty
of him, hunching over mud to inspect
the three-toed prints. I almost didn’t
come in here at all, driving the opposite
of victory laps, and waiting as I hoped
for the red to leave my eyes, but my urgency
smacked of your nothingness. I did it again –
I screamed at the woman I love, and in front
of our one-year-old, who covered his ears.
The poem is more about the writer than the scene, but the state of the suburban Syracuse mall certainly amplifies Berlin’s personal darkness. In less personal terms, the Great Northern Mall continues to decline in a shrinking market with other malls fighting over the same customers. A recent expansion of the infamous Destiny USA shopping center, 10 miles south, certainly hasn’t helped. It too, has inspired locals to to turn their mall culture into art, including a 2015 rom-com-cum-documentary, Destiny USA: The Movie.
Berlin, who teaches at the YMCA’s Downtown Writer’s Center, won £5,000 ($7,060) for his poem.