The winners of the 2016 poetry competition received their awards at a ceremony at the Black Swan in York on Saturday (March 19). Here, judge Carole Bromley sums up a contest which showcased some brilliant talent
We had slightly fewer poems this year, about 1,000, although this was mainly due to reducing the number of poems you could enter for £10 from five to three.
I felt this gave a sample of each poet’s work without overloading the judge. This was important as our swift turnaround is appreciated by entrants and 1800 poems last year was pushing it for me in the time allowed.
Many thanks to Martin Stanforth-Sharpe who stood in at short notice as event photographer
I very much enjoyed reading all your poems. What a huge range of subjects and styles. Lots of poems about floods, the best of which won the York Prize but there were many more which I really admired.
Lots of poems about birds, too, surprisingly. Wrens especially, including John Foggin’s lovely highly commended poem but also starlings, a satin bower bird, a hawk or two, the odd blackbird. Our third prize-winner had a different and hilarious take on bird-watching!
So many difficult choices. Many, many congratulations to the winners, the highly commended and the commended poets.
But also congratulations to all the poets who made it into the longlist. All of those poems were publishable and thank you so much for sending them. I hope you will enter them elsewhere. They deserve to be read.
Why the winning poems stood out
And now for the winners. I will let the commended and highly commended poems speak for themselves but here are a few thoughts on the winners.
The slack-jawed girls earned its first place for its flawless handllng of such rich and unusual subject-matter. The title intrigues and the poem (after that little clue in the subtitle) delivers with a real punch.
This is the way to write about industrial injuries. No polemic, no political statements, just a simple picture of those girls wetting the splayed hairs of their fine paintbrushes with their own saliva and unwittingly sealing their dreadful fate.
I learnt something from this poem. I love to learn something new in what I read. It surprised and horrified me with its apparently innocuous domestic detail.
When I found that the poem was by Caroline Price whom I have never met but who won first prize in the first year of our competition, I was amazed. It made me want to read everything she has written.
The second prize went to Richard Westcott who was highly commended last year. These two poems had to fight it out. Some days the Vice-Admiral was top of my pile and others the slack-jawed girls. It was a close thing.
This poem too intrigues by its title: Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy RN in his dressing room, 30th April 1865. I had heard of Robert Fitzroy but did not know he had committed suicide so the significance of the date did not hit me until that shocking, brilliant last stanza. The picture which is built up of the man at his shaving mirror twirling his razor so that the light flashes on the ceiling like revolving planets is beautifully done.
I love ominous phrases like ‘awaiting that which will be done’ and ‘Between my hands I hold the power/to rotate the firmament’. The language of meteorology and star-gazing takes on a whole new significance in the poem but it was the personal in the last three verses which sealed it for me. Chilling and quite brilliant.
Third prize went to John Gallas for Bird-watching in Australia. This could not be more different from the other winners.
It arrived on my phone when I was unpacking in a hotel in Salisbury and I’m surprised the guests in the next room didn’t bang on the wall because I couldn’t stop laughing. Wildlife in Australia really can feel like that – so big, so powerful, so scary.
I love the (presumably invented) entry in the Avian Guide warning of the dangers and the malign intent of the ‘Sable-beaked devil bastard bombing bird’ and the language used throughout. I also love the list of similarly evil creatures and the comic rhymes in the poem.
I just love it. If you don’t, that’s fine but I am laughing aloud just typing this.
Now to the York Prize. This was so difficult. I really did agonise over these decisions which actually doesn’t help.
It’s probably better to just go with your first instinct. This was the poem I instinctively felt deserved the prize but there were others that came so close.
In the end it was fitting that one of the flood poems should win this time and this is a flood poem with a difference. It is mythologised, mysterious and eerie and this approach for me gave it the edge over more straightforward accounts of the flooding.
The poem is genuinely frightening with its ghostly figure and its hints of death. ‘Here she is with nothing to give you but/the story of it’ and what a story. Well done, Suzanne Batty. Beautiful poem.
The winning poems
Winner: Caroline Price
The slack-jawed girls
U.S. Radium, 1917
The novelty of seeing time passing, even
in the dark! – for this they sit
for hours hunched over the dials,
dipping their brushes and tracing each stroke
with infinite care, then taking the tips’
splayed hair between their saliva-wetted lips
as a seamstress catches a frayed thread
in her mouth, compresses it to a point
to pass through a needle’s eye…
So they paint, moisten
and dip again, perfecting each fine line
and the radium they’ve ingested begins its
inexorable journey, its search for bone
in which to settle: it finds its place, decays
and their jaws thicken and drop
until they are permanently open-mouthed
at what they see, their lives lit up and passing
rapidly, nothing in the dark but glowing hands.
Second prize: Richard Westcott
Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy RN in his dressing room, 30th April 1865
Every morning I pick up this razor
to set myself up to face the world.
Once again here I sit.
Before myself familiar things and my own face,
awaiting that which will be done.
The turning steel returns the light
flashing for a moment. I watch
and wait as it revolves – my face and eyes
but now the ceiling. Stars and planets
circle on, each fastened in its orbit.
Between my hands I hold the power
to rotate the firmament. I can make
all things spin and am omnipotent.
I am he who learnt to tell
what was to be before it happened
through the act of observation.
I can forecast. It has stopped.
Along a line all is contained,
everything comes to a point
within this leading edge
of no reflection. The tide has turned,
deep waters shift below me.
As the moon refills I am represented –
myself again within a widening stretch,
passing through predictable phases.
I took care to leave her sleeping,
dreaming as she would of what may be
assured. Where substance tapers down
to nothing, no pressure is required –
like a bow in a southern sea
the blade draws near. This time
there is no need to calculate speed –
time, travel and trajectory –
all will collide when I decide
to take command once more
for I have observed too long.
The signal has been given – with a flash.
Both hands obey and in a single stroke,
the predicted occurs. I touch land
and the great flood pours.
Third prize: John Gallas
Bird Watching in Australia
There is a Moderate Coastal Walk
from Manly to Dee Why Beach,
which, excitingly, puts you within reach
of the habitat
of the Sabre-Beaked Devil Bastard Bombing Bird
(Bifford’s Avian Guide, page forty-two,
with small Note : Danger).
There is a small Sign there, by a large hydrangea,
that says : If This is Not Your Idea of Fun
You Should Run,
or Take an Alternative Route
(there isn’t one).
Well it’s only a mile, and the view’s a beaut.
So I proceeded with a merry step
and a philosopher’s smile.
And it flew whang straight at my head
with a Hellish scream like the Flying Dead,
then it swooped like crap
with its bastard wings going snap snap snap
and down I went
in the foliment.
Then it sat on a tree and
it did it again.
I fled like a cringe and sprinting chook.
Dear Bird, you are now in my Bastard Book
along with the Jellyfish, the Poisoned Berry,
the Spider, the Snake, and the Cassowary,
the Mortal Leaf and the Fatal Bark,
the Crocodile, and the Bastard Shark.
York Prize: Suzanne Batty
Severe weather warning
Something shakes you awake
not light, longing for the dry side of your window,
not horses below, shiny like paintings of horses,
not stump-legged ponies or the swilling of the sewery water;
no – it is her standing in the doorway
her hair all crumpled with reeds twined in it,
her shoes like warped suitcases
her dress soaked and tied with a rope.
She says I think they may have gone
taking our compass, our biscuits and our vase
of clean water. She tells you she saw your friend
floating down the street face up,
turning and turning like a stick on the river
the water kept sliding over his face;
she ran like a goat, she swam out to greet him
but his glassy eyes said it was useless
Here she is with nothing to give you but
the story of it, her dreams of worms and ex-lovers,
a wreath of plastic flowers
she has washed and washed for you.
Highly commended: Jane Burn
The woman who walked and walked
and walked – got out of bed in pink pyjamas,
pulled on a coat for warmth. Opened the door –
slipped out, mute as earthworms, silent
as three-in-the-morning un-tongued birds.
It was a normal Christmas, they said. Spent it
together, had a nice day. A picture of her, smiling
beneath the bow of a bridge, canal all shades
of bottle glass, running under. Hair mislaid by the outside,
eyes vanished in the squink of her grin, ruddy apples,
giblet neck. She looks like someone you would meet
out with the dog, yomping the moor, having cream tea
in Grasmere, laughing about the wet. Three kids,
one husband, fifty-nine years old and then you get up,
one time before dawn, become a myth. A fable, striding
strong and fast through the grain of security footage.
a chatty, bubbly person
it’s very much out of the blue
Wan ghost, arms to and fro – just her, clear against
the damp paving slabs, diffusing into a brim
of electric light. The last ever sight of grandmother,
mother, wife, friend. Eleven miles in the cold and her
still in nightclothes. Just the company of bats,
foxes, owls – the cats know, the mice know,
the Tyne knows. It carried a guise of her – nobody
knows for how long, or how far. She loved the waterside –
men stuffed in rubber breathe unnatural breaths,
cut the dredge and quag with search-beams. Look
for a Nephthys, sunk in darkness. A beer can floats,
canopic jar of riverguts taking it steadily below.
Dedicated to Sally Allen, who left her home at 3a.m. on Boxing Day, 2015.
‘Normal Sally’ was a phrase used in an ITV news report.
Highly commended: Sarah Doyle
Sea is for Circe
There is pleasure in magic, but loneliness,
too. The power to make fish jump, ferns
unfurl or wither at the curling of my fingers,
can pall. I want a man, but men are weak,
grubby, turn easily to pigs. Men grate on me
with their scratch and stink. Swines. Glaucus
was different: a fisher-god by trade and smell,
reeking with the metallic tang of cloud, oily
accents of fish-guts, his shoulders speckled
with beads of rosmarine. He’d seen Scylla,
he said: bathing, nipple-brazen, unaware of his gaze. He’d watched her, on and off, for days.
Typical nymph, she’d rebuffed his advances,
all peepshow and no putting out, too precious
to be touched. He sought reciprocity, begged
a charm of me. I like a man on bended knee.
I wanted him for myself: wove spells, cast
shells, spoke in pearls of flattery, summoned
the ocean to dance in waves as I stood, salt-
water naked, before him. He turned away,
left me beached and flailing and burning
with shame. I called his name: no-one came.
No turning back, then. I dredged my lungs,
brought up a gob of toxic phlegm – I’d show
them – and spat into my palm. Glaucus
wanted a charm. He needs teaching a lesson.
Scylla’s pool was clear as polished sapphire.
I lowered my spittled hand into the blue.
Highly commended: Jinny Fisher
She won’t be leaving us for a day or two yet.
The nurse scribbles on Flora’s chart
nods at us, moves on.
Emily, Joe and I put aside our Scrabble game,
kiss Flora’s waxy cheek, and trail out
towards Hampstead Ponds.
We shake the odour of boiled cabbage
from the folds of our clothes, buy
cheese and pickle rolls at the Euphorium Bakery.
We tramp the leaf carpet down the avenue
of plane trees, to spread across a bench—
breathe, breathe and breathe again.
Emily tells how, after the bad-news call,
she’d pierced her ears and bought a red dress.
We chew and muse about our Christmas plans.
There’s silence, blinking, as we watch
the dog-walkers, hand-holders, kids on bikes.
We crumple our paper bags and wander back —
up the concrete steps from Pond Street,
past the smokers with their drip-stands,
round the revolving door, into the lift.
Eleventh floor, East Ward. Our shoes squeak
on the polished floor, but as I open the door
to Flora’s room, she doesn’t move.
Joe takes the armchair next to Flora’s head.
Emily and I perch on moulded plastic.
The Scrabble board tilts on my lap.
The nurse returns to feel her patient’s pulse.
I place my letters and count the seconds
between Flora’s breaths.
Flora stretches one arm high above her head—
holds it still and long, reaching up, up.
It’s what they do— we don’t know why.
Highly commended: John Foggin
God thought of the smallest coin
he could make, and made the Wren
to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,
tail cocked like a feather on a jaunty hat.
He should have loved the Wren more
than let the boys come smashing down
the thorn, chanting, calling: Wren! c
ome out! come out! come out and die.
With her hair trigger call, she can not
keep silent, the Wren, full as an egg
with alarm and urgency, her voice a tattle
of fingernails on an old tin lid.
Fragile as a chalice on its thin glass stem.
Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?
What did she ask for but a zipwire of air,
a tangle to hide her nest, a May full of flies?
Highly commended: Joan Gooding
…I like mine hot,
not so thick that it sticks to my tongue
like wall-paper paste
nor so thin that it dribbles off the spoon,
but somewhere in between.
As it slipped down this morning
I thought of a day long ago
and porridge seen but not tasted:
In hand-knitted jumper and hand-me-down skirt,
hair escaping from pigtails bound with rubber bands,
I went alone, unsanctioned of course, to explore
new parts of Beckie Annie Wood −
paths that wove this way and that,
tangles of brambles and stinging nettles, moss-covered walls and corners
of long-gone stone buildings −
until, almost hidden by the trees, I came across a hut.
I saw through the open door
a black pan of porridge bubbling
on the black-leaded range,
and bowls laid out on the table.
As I pondered I was disturbed by rustling in the bushes,
when I saw what emerged I fled.
Back in the village I met Gillian Wiggins
and described what I’d seen. After all,
she’d never go into the wood with her shop-bought dress
and satin bows in her golden hair.
Or so I thought.
I was at home having tea when the police came round.
We weren’t allowed to play out for a week,
until inconvenience began to outweigh parental anxiety.
Mothers continued to collect us from school
and to shake their heads with gusto
as they discussed the ‘tragic disappearance’.
I never spoke about hut or hob or porridge −
never told anyone that if you looked deep
in Beckie Annie Wood
you could still find bears.
Highly commended: Gaia Holmes
Your orange raincoat
Unlike the rest of the house,
which is softening under the lick of damp,
it remains, crackling and stiff,
hanging on the back of the cellar door-
your orange raincoat,
loud and kitsch as a Warhol tangerine.
Some days I stand there with my nose
pressed in to the greasy creases of its cuffs
snorting up engine oil and wood smoke,
remembering when things were really bad
and too much had died
and there was barbed wire between us in our bed
and each morning the cat left a mess of sparrow
on the doorstep
and our breakfast milk was always sour
and we could hardly talk to each other
and you said
‘Let’s go up to the wind farm and scream’
and I put on my flimsy brown Kagool
and you put on your loud orange raincoat
and we drove up to turbines in the rain
and the brusque air bashed our cheeks
and took our words
and we stopped trying to talk,
spread our arms, opened our mouths wide
and it was better than trying to agree. it was better than fresh milk,
It was better than sex.
Highly commended: Hilary Jenkins
Notice the colours – Pharaoh’s daughter in her ruby dress,
Moses swaddled in amber and gold, those splinters
of emerald, sapphire fragments of river,
that red came from iron oxide mixed with wine,
cobalt oxide gave blue, and copper oxide green,
while silver sulphide and clay made orange.
With beaver hair, or fox or badger, they’d brush
the tints onto white glass – a mix of beech-wood ash,
soda, sand and lead – before the furnace.
The glass makers of Murano
were never allowed to leave the island –
too many secrets. Being lifted up to a window,
first sunlight, then shadows,
my mother in a red dressing gown
holding out a baby for someone to kiss.
When they slip the new lens into her eye
at first she only sees black and white,
your father’s become a wraith she says
before the colours wash back into his face –
not quite himself anyway these days,
most of him already somewhere else.
Dear ghost, how you loved glass –
never colour, always the grisaille,
those rows of dusty Georgian decanters
in your dining room, each visit reflecting less –
for you I light this candle in the Minster,
and when the hot wax burns my hands,
I set it in the centre of the holder with the others –
the bull’s eye is what remains of the gather.
gather = the blob of glass at the end of the blowpipe
Highly commended: Pippa Little
Stilt-Walking The Tyne
After an engraving by Thomas Bewick
Other laden-down days
I walk downstream to Cherryburn Bridge
but a day like today, with May’s kiss on it,
I steal my father’s stilts. (He’s away hunting
over the valley side for poor, hot-blooded creatures).
First I cram up my skirts,
hopeful nobody’s watching
and once on, a first slip and slant,
I ride the river as if she were a mare
I know could startle and unseat me,
though I sense where she’s uneasiest and try
to cause her no distress, print my weight
lightly, leave no mark more
than a spill of air along the surface,
take my chances as a crane-fly might
on loose-jointed tiptoe
for I’m giantess now, can see far,
hedge over hedge to farm roofs and spire.
She’s brown as a cloud and fast,
rears up with me, wily, only I can test
each step before I take it,
my head in sky, neither bird nor fish but
(before I’m all-forgetting, dry shoes,
dry land and all behind me)
I’ll summon this day forward, the rest of my life,
how set loose by one another
winged and bridled
we gave ourselves the distance.
Highly commended: Paul McGrane
Dock of the Bay
Her body’s lying next to someone new
after thirty-four years her ex having left
thirteen days ago and what she’d like to say
when they talk about who gets to keep the cat
is how delightful it is with this young person
and how they’ve fa-fa-fa’d all night to Love Man
Satisfaction and the rest of side one
of Otis Redding’s Ultimate Collection
Nineteen Sixty-Three To Sixty-Seven
stopping only once to flip the record
over for pretty little thing let me
light your candle cos mama I’m sure hard
to handle but her ex won’t believe her
had said in the letter how the sex
is so much better now that she’s not involved
and the truth is tonight wasn’t up to much
was over as quick as the whistling bit
on the end of Otis Redding’s greatest hit
a song they’d always loved but swear to god
this boy who’s waking up has never heard of
Highly commended: Yvonne Reddick
Sexton Beetle, Glen Feshie
Tangerine. Vibrant as a Calabari dancer’s mask: the shock of colour smudged
across your funereal shell, sexton beetle. I wonder why you don’t scuttle from
me, then notice that two mites are creeping over your dried out body.
An animal corpse will nurse your young. You bury a fieldmouse, embalm
it, swaddle the crypt with its fur, then feed its flesh to your larvae. Your care for them has exhausted you.
The Peak of the Winds acts birdless. Not even a snow bunting breaks the stillness
as we slog up the slope over the winding Feshie. This hill’s crown is the last
summit where Dad and I will touch clouds; he’s unmistakable in black Gore-Tex
and red rucksack. We come back with our bones whole from the path by the cliff-
wall over Loch Einich, and discover your crimson and black husk in damp grass,
under the birches.
In five days’ time, a helicopter will spot Dad’s rucksack. The rescue team will
dredge him from the stream; at Raigmore Hospital, gloved hands will scurry to
set his mouth and eyes closed, siphon blood out of his jugular vein, and pump
formaldehyde into his carotid.
In ten days, he’ll fly to England, where a dark suited woman in scarlet
necktie and bug eye glasses settles him in his coffin.
She hands me a brochure of urns.
Highly commended: Judi Sutherland
Lutyens on Jekyll
She saw something in me. I was nineteen
and she already forty-five. Would I have crafted anything
without her? I drew her rooms, open to the sky;
she filled them with colour. I made a frame,
she painted in it. I built, she planted. Her pictures all
in her mind’s eye, pricked out young and green.
And given time, they flourished, and I saw
what she had seen; the larkspur grace,
the rose, the rhythm of it.
Like a mother to me? No, not that.
A lover then? I hardly know what would have been
without those years between us. ‘Ned’, she told me once,
‘if I were twenty years younger’. I never said
but if I could have raced those years away,
caught up with her, I would. That wise girl
in men’s boots, her fingers in the soil.
I made beauty with her, something built to last.
That was, I think, a kind of love.
Commended: Charlotte Ansell
Welcome to Scarborough YHA.
I know how to make friends
Lily says; first you smile,
if they smile back, it’s a start.
Amongst crowded book spines,
piled high board games,
stray pieces slot in,
it’s an oddly wholesome sharing,
the dance of strangers
around the toaster,
the well behaved
tyranny of quiet children,
the smiles of cardigan girls.
We are nomads, scavengers in
the sand, rewarded by golf balls,
a trinket box, a picture in a bin,
though the real prize
is the deserted beach after rain,
the sea a rare glittering thing.
It opens me; I am all breath,
dancing steps and air.
The kids are magnets for life,
while I am the tide going out,
folding into solitude
after their bedtime.
And this is why I came,
held by pen and paper,
mugs of tea, the seduction of
cubby holes, long distance trucks,
nothing but a bunk, a kettle,
hardly room to stretch;
silence, a book lit by a single lamp,
pared back into myself.
Commended: Michael Brown
North Sea, Redcar: Mechanical Failure
More alive it seems than you, than me,
this place — such womb-notes fetched from deep,
its remembered pitch.
Across the front passenger seat
I reach out a hand
for your wound- down window, touch
instead the space of a heart,
that gentle dub dub,
Commended: Richard Carpenter
Christmas Shopping, Saturday Dec 12th
Now that’s a mistake before you start:
don’t venture into York to shop on Saturday
unless you wear a scrum cap and have
sharp elbows. That email to your daughter
to ask if she wants any fish from Andrew
turns a seething crowd into a scathing thing.
The spellcheck’s helpful for the dyslexic
in the family but the words used instead
are often way off target, or hit the bull’s eye.
Does one have to flag them up
as someone else’s nimble choice of verse?
Perhaps the spellcheck wants a life
and is fighting to get out to City Screen
to see The Lady In The Van. O drat –
we missed that one and will have to wait
for a re-run, or the DVD. I don’t notice
drat being replaced by bugger. My laptop
has a swearing jar and is buggered
if it will fill it up with pennies for a slip up
in its language. Now we’re searching
for a fountain pen – my son can’t play chess
without it – and his diary, which makes
the search more vital. His brother’s
locked in the bathroom with his ablutions.
So a steaming mass of ire is driving
to the Bridge Club where his son’s pen
is hiding. We decide to skip the gridlocked
city centre in the pouring rain and floods
to find a picture for my wife. Nerines
are flowering in the artist’s courtyard garden
and the picture’s of a riverbank in Cumbria
that reminds us both of Ashberry.
Commended: Jackie Fallows
Why can’t I swear I love you like a sow
loves mud? I pictured your organic farms
producing free-range pork, and felt the charms
of squelchy earth would naturally endow
my declaration. Please don’t disallow
my suit because such clumsiness alarms
you. Won’t you come and snuffle in my arms,
and so forgive my boorish lover’s vow?
OK, it’s true not many people think
my balance in the bank is porker-sized –
although it’s kin in colour, being pink
a bit more often than’s been authorised.
But if I somehow root it in the black,
my eco-piglet, say you’ll have me back.
Commended: Moira Garland
Frank: Morris dancer, rear gunner
Dancing, he was near to heaven.
Times he felt the soft scent of black
shoes and shin bells, the shirt linen.
He knew the sermon, the altar,
the music, the sweat, beer, ham sandwiches,
the heft of Harry squeezing the black concertina
fond pat, pat, pat of landing feet,
dark-haired arms waving.
Square-winged planes flew over each day
animals unleashed, ready for the field
of everyday battle. Sheep scattered.
Mornings he milked with his brother Billy.
Even on cold mornings he washed
his hands under the tap in the yard.
Up here crouched, lacquered, squeezed tight
cold sweat under the vest, air-force jacket,
the leather flying jacket, goggles.
Fireworks in the blackness,
so near to heaven the crew might be celebrating.
So near to heaven the crew might be celebrating
fireworks in the blackness.
The leather flying jacket, goggles,
cold sweat under the vest, air-force jacket,
up here crouched, lacquered, squeezed tight.
His hands under the tap in the yard,
even on cold mornings he washed,
mornings he milked with his brother Billy,
everyday battle. Sheep scattered,
animals unleashed ready for the field.
The square-winged planes flew over each day.
Dark-haired arms waving,
fond pat, pat, pat of landing feet,
The heft of Harry squeezing the concertina,
the music, the sweat, beer, ham sandwiches.
He knew the sermon, the altar,
shoes and shin bells, the shirt linen,
Times he felt the soft scent of black.
Dancing, he was near to heaven.
Commended: Katie Hale
The Raven Speaks
For a month or more, he kept us
in the dark, locked
in his mad tessellation of wood.
Through a slip of it, we could see
the lift and slump of horizon,
and on rougher days
shards of air forced themselves
through the gap.
When he took me
from the hull, led me up
and out towards the day…
to feel the music of sun on my feathers,
the freshness of sea
scouring from me the greyness of captivity…
when they unhooked my claw
from the metal ring, and made me soar –
is it any wonder I didn’t come back?
I found land: a rocky
dump of mud and drowned fish,
the single resilient
olive branch. It stank
fierce as the ship I’d left behind.
I saw her coming,
that lily-winged dove. Hid.
Watched her pinch that little spurt of green
in her petite and pampered beak,
and promptly nip it, dead.
Commended: Val Horner
Gallinula chloropus – small water hen,
yet poorly made for swimming, no webbing
between your horny toes, so cannot drift like
dabbling duck or glide like stately swan but strive,
these mad march days, to butt your way up stream
with jerk and thrust of your dusky head, more
often content to skulk and skive among
the reeds or today seem pleased to flap up
onto our easy bank and then – surprise –
what elegant pea-green, red-gartered legs!
On land, unlike slow waddling duck and goose
or galumphing bulky swan, you scuttle those
buttercup yellow, web-less, long toed feet
legging it here and there, white tail bobbing
slate-black feathers agleam and oh – how strange
your face with ruby eye bright scarlet shield
and gold tipped beak, you are a streak of flame,
unable to rest – not fully at ease in air
on land or stream, lacking a comfort zone,
my little dark familiar, welcome home.
Commended: Keith Hutson
Coming On Strong
i.m. Joan Rhodes 1921-2010
Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,
missing till twenty then, as lean as luck,
in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book
up, bent iron bars, broke nails, took four men
on at tug-of-war and won, which led to
lifting Bob Hope while Marlene Dietrich
loved a woman tough enough to keep
refusing King Farouk, who wanted you
to wreck his best four-poster bed with him
still in it. Joan, I’ve seen your photograph,
fab in a basque and tan, that cast iron bath
held high, before you disappeared again,
found in a care home where, I understand,
greeting the manager, you broke his hand.
Commended: Susan Jordan
After Sharon Olds
You were forty, I was twenty seven, you were dying.
We hadn’t had time for not being together then
in December with you growing cold in bed. That last day
you still insisted you’d get dressed, and then you sat
in the rocking chair and did something you’d never
done before: you clasped your hands in your lap.
They said to death, ‘Here I am. You can come and get me
now.’ You had your woolly hat on because you’d lost
your hair; you wore your blue Shetland sweater that
you didn’t like me borrowing. The gas fire had none
of its usual orange warmth. I can’t remember how it was
when they took you away, only the flat clean carpet when
we got there and the false smile festooned on the Christmas tree
and the artificial carols playing in the hallway, how nobody
mentioned death but fear of it saturated the air we breathed
how the chaplain Mary Parsons had acne and was as cheerful
as sugar icing and talked to you about nothing that mattered.
And then I went back home, leaving you to their cool warmth
and the next thing I heard was that you’d died, in the middle
of the night, just like that, after they gave you a drink
of water. I should have been with you but I was afraid.
You always managed things better on your own.
Commended: Charity Novick
Snow White Baby
Your isolette is a glass coffin from which
you might perhaps toddle in a year to spit
vanilla crumbs into my lap; to press
the fat, firm hemispheres of your knees
into my stomach; to lick
clabbered milk against my cheek; to curl
your sodden dungarees under my chin;
to scrabble at my eyelids.
But, for now, there is something apple-green snaking your throat.
There are lines as fine as spider-silk in your spidery veins.
Your small red heart has been attached to your wrist.
And you are covered in wax,
like some dodgy apparition in a crinolined séance.
Planning to wake up when my lips brush yours?
Planning to give me that fairy tale ending?
It doesn’t look likely from where I’m sitting.
And I’ve been sitting here a while now.
Commended: Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe
February’s Seville oranges
neatly stacked on the old, Wedgewood plate,
waiting for she who lifts the knife
to cut through waxy, pored peel,
juice seeping in celebratory toast.
She tastes the bitterness and reaches for sugar.
The scales tip with sweetness. Sugar
balances the weight of orbed oranges,
whose sunshine glow, as warm as toast,
radiates from the cracked plate.
Paring zesty, pithy, scented peel
into whisper-thin strips with the blade of the knife.
The long-edge of the kitchen knife
manoeuvres treacly, molasses sugar
into the preserving pan. Peel
and pith strain through muslin. Oranges
squeezed, their juices ooze over plate
and table, touching a rack of neglected toast
from an unfinished breakfast. Toast,
lovingly cut and buttered, with the knife
that now slides juices from the plate
into the brass pan of sugar
and scrapes the pulped oranges
from sticky muslin, parting pips from precious peel.
She pours water over the peel,
then tidies away the uneaten toast,
the pan gently simmering. Oranges
change to syrup as she washes the knife.
Stirring the mixture until sugar,
bubbling, boils, she turns away and rinses the plate.
Golden nuggets adorn the plate
placed to set on the window ledge. Peel,
translucent in jewelled sugar,
shining. Spread on fresh, wholemeal toast
with the ivory handled, table knife.
Glass jars catch the February light. Fragrant oranges
that jammily drip from knife to toast.
Captured bittersweet shreds of seasonal peel.
Wintered task of marmalade oranges.
Commended: Joanne Stryker
I’d thought of sorrow as something heavy, a coat
weighed down with stones –
stones of regret, perhaps, of words
left unsaid, or rashly spoken;
knots of unforgiveness, or the various
lead embellishments of loss,
or simply the weight of world
sewn into its lining –
but when it lingers
it’s barely visible;
it’s as light as the invented
dark angel riding your shoulder
through a night which never reaches dawn,
ephemeral as the shadow rinsing every minute
since it came to visit, thickening time
– or your movement through it –
imperceptibly, freezing joy. If this
sorrow is a coat it is cut
from cloth made not of
tears but tears wrung dry, the ache
left behind, and I do not know
how to take it off.
Commended: Toni Sweet
A Brief Interlude in the Sahara
It’s already late when you start to sandpaper.
As you scratch at scorched paint outside the kitchen door, I iron.
Some chap on Radio 3 plays the theme from Lawrence of Arabia.
At the top of Gary’s willow tree, the sun’s last rays
change wizened wood to gold. Snare drums pulse urgently.
An east wind whips branches in a frantic dance.
The sky is intensely blue, like the eyes of Peter O’Toole
under his white keffiyeh. As his camel pounds desert sands,
against the velvet grain of violins, your hands are scraping hooves.
Soon, the Prince of Arabia will dismount; roll his weary limbs inside
a rough blanket. Closing chords will fade. The sky will turn to indigo.
You’ll enter; wash your hands. I’ll put my iron away. Turn off the radio.
Commended: Jonathan Taylor
I never thought of my father dancing
Mummy used to dance a jig goodbye
in front of the garage, every day. Daddy
fumbled at the choke; the Ford reversed
into the respectable road. Working the choke
is a lost skill, and was elusive even then
it seemed, as dad and I always died
almost, in the stalled car, stuck across the
awkward junction with Yew Tree Bottom Road.
She was very funny. I couldn’t see
she was waltzing with the brother she’d
goodbye’d at twenty and found it was for always,
his bomber not quite lurching back over France.
She danced goodbye and died too soon. Decades
later, I drive my father to his boyhood beach
in my automatic, all purr and black leather.
Daddy shakes off my help and trots ahead
down slippery shale. He drops from ledge to ledge,
boulders hand and foot, takes the deep
step onto the sand. I’m way behind.
You never know how long goodbye is for:
only now I see very sharply
his white hair fringe his cap, his rounded back
not telling what he’s after, as off he jogs,
smaller and smaller along the shining tideline.
Commended: Joy Winkler
My brother’s rucksack
is black and grey with mesh pockets,
one a secret, zip-up hideaway. The straps
once loose on his shoulders now tightened
for mine. I tip away the rattle of sand,
black comb, white handkerchief, initialled, man-size,
the boarding pass from his last journey home.
Great time in Egypt, he’d told me. Some photos
I found show him bare-chested, brown
on a cruise ship, out of focus, alone.
Maybe this heirloom, salt-marked from the rush
of the sea still holds traces of him
forensically; the odd grey hair or a strand
from his favourite t-shirt, the green or the blue.
What truth is there in hand-me-downs and snapshots?
Too late to ask him if there’d been t-shirts in 1952
when he fell off the pier at New Brighton
or so he said. I was only three, he was ten when he
came into the Lodge dripping wet, spun her a yarn.
The first-born: pale hair, buck-toothed smile,
wild and beautiful as a Kittiwake.