Troubadour Poetry Prize 2007
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2007
The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges, Helen Dunmore and David Constantine, who read along with the prizewinning poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 3rd December 2007.
- First Prize: The Smell of Grass, John Haynes
- Second Prize: These Women, Siobhan Campbell
- Third Prize: Moon Man, Patricia Bishop
plus, with prizes of £20 each:
- Black & Red, Alyss Dye
- Cold Toast, Ann Pilling
- Two-Stroke, James Underhill
- No Words, Jenny Vuglar
- His and Hers Espaliers, Siobhan Harrison
- Second Sight, Paul Groves
- Chasing the Nightjar, Martyn Crucefix
- Strawberries, Sue Macintyre
- Citadel of the Husband, Karen Green
- Your Moth Hands, Amanda Dalton
- This is the Gift my Mother Gave Me, Alice Kavounas
- In the Wash, Pat Borthwick
- In Praise of Aunts, M R Peacocke
- Le Lion Rouge est Sur la Table, Julian Stannard
- Baby Dies When Brother Crawls Into Cot, David Gilbert
- The Dead Mother, Miriam Obrey
- Nightwalker, Mario Petrucci
- Sunday Afternoons, Bill Greenwell
- The Other, Roger Elkin
- Dandelion, Giles Goodland
- Scarlet Tiger, Ruth Sharman
Prizewinning Poems 2007
The Smell of Grass
Voices don’t change. Your skin, it smells like grass.
Same ah, same ess, same disembodied past,
turned into breath, the shape ALADDIN cast
onto the ceiling by the stove, the cartons
stacked for shelves, the book propped up on bare
schoolgirlish freckled breasts – as faint as hair
brushing an arm, it comes back now, your Where-
of one can’t speak, held floating in the air
which was the limit of a world, yes, there-
of one must needs keep schtum, however clear
now on the phone, polite, practical, older,
that tongue, that wet ribbed palate, those familiar
lips pressed up so close against my ear.
You’re going to be a priest, or hope you are,
and will I write and say that no, no evil passed
between us? Not the smallest, not the least
grained spot, no, not the faintest mote or caste,
grudge or regret. I will. You are released
of me. Except for words, of course, this past
perfect tense with its vestige of possess
held in the doing words, have loved, have kissed,
have known. But now, since you’ve become alas
so business-like, of course I won’t trespass
upon—against—those no longer blond hairs,
a lock of which I foolishly did once
cut as you slept, and kept, like evidence—
of memory as such, the panes of glass,
the street below, a figure going to cross,
the Army Navy donkey jacket, nose
wrinkling against the flakes, as all those cars,
bikes, busses, vans, lorries, surge—like the past—
between us, until suddenly I’ve lost
you, no you’ve crossed below, and now the rusty
fire escape shudders the entire place
like premonition. Soon that door will rasp
back on the lino, that rectangle of stars
will be blacked out as sleeves lift hissing fast
around my ears, and those cold kissing, hard
lips whisper: grass, your skin smells like the grass.
As cold as any border ballad ghost, her star
roles are all ended, all her magic cast
into a sea whose great thrashings and gasps
loop thin film over looping film at last
whispering how nothing matters much, not loss,
not love, not lust, not flesh, how flesh is grass.
‘These men are no dreamers’
MacDiarmid, The Wreck of the Swan
These women are no dreamers.
They make happen the full wake,
the kettle hopping, the oven warm.
They take death in hand
and force him to be civil.
In their lighting, the spitting candle calms
and the rosary settles out of irony.
These women are not kind
if you do not iron the sheets you borrowed,
if you bring batch instead of sliced,
what good is that for the sandwiches?
These women bar all holds in the
screamed stall of the birthroom.
Instead they ask for the gummed grit
they found for themselves in that
most alone of coupled moments.
These women know how to mash potatoes
so that they charge despair
out of a teenager.
They have followed a father
and a small child on a combine harvester,
not to pick up the pieces of the boy’s arm
and bring them to his mother,
but because they felt the call of the back field
like something rotting in the feed shed
before chief rat jumps out.
These women will not pass through
the horse meadow, even on a summer night,
for there they have felt that the world might let us go.
They’ve seen the consequence of that.
Ironing keeps it at bay
and doing what is right.
This is the road where the walls were broken
this is the man who stands all alone
in the road where the walls were broken.
This is the moon whose light discloses
the idiot man who stands alone
in the road where the walls were broken.
This is the window shedding its light
on the man with the face so round and white,
wringing his hands and clutching his sacks,
in the road where the walls were broken.
There ae boys in caps and trainers
pushing and prodding the man and his sacks,
who is caught in the light of the ground floor window,
under the roofs and chimney stacks
in the road where the walls were broken.
This is the lamp shattered and dark
under the arch that’s cold and stark
where the man with sacks stands all alone
as the boys with fists and faces of stone
stop their chi-iking and hold his fast
in the road where the walls are broken.
These are the seconds that hang like a shroud
over the man with his head in a cloud
under the window shedding its light
on the poor man’s face so round and white
whose left hand shakes, whose right, hand flaps
at the rowdy boys in trainers and caps
in the road where the walls were broken.
This is the doorway numbered and locked
where the moon man lies with his moon eyes shut
and the boys are racing through Carters’ Cut
as the clock in the tower chimes quarter to six
and the shadows are still and moon eclipsed
in the road where the walls are broken.
Black & Red
Your tongue was coated
with a black layer, your eyes unseeing
and you pushed away my hand as though freeing
me to drink the hospital tea and eat that stale bread-
and-butter, leaving unsaid
things like love and confessions, these being
too late now that you were finally fleeing
the world. The blackbirds and the red
roses outside, which, as a rule,
we would have remarked upon in that closeted
room, were forgotten while
I noticed the headline on your newspaper about fuel
going up and the nurse deposited
a red pill on your table with a smile.
I break this bread in memory of her
who loathed waste who,
when you chomped the new loaf, stoically nibbled
on some black curled crust from the bottom of the crock her fingers
holding it tight and symmetrical like the neat
claws of a mouse who,
while you slabbed on best butter, took
the thinnest scraping, had given you also
her wartime eggs and meat. This board I chop on,
this fine bleached block, she snaffled one day from the Backs
behind your house,
from rubbish chucked out for the bin-men: she liked things free.
For years I thought it was meanness, hating
her pinched, crimped ways that hard
glitter of triumph over a penny saved here, twopence there.
But there is in you
this incorruptible vein that runs right down
and it comes from the strong, straight die of her love
from toast left out for her men while she,
unbreakfasted, cleaned a school in the thin
before-dawn light, from shirts
folded like works of art and set to air,
from that old bleached board
scrubbed white for me again and again
by her little hands.
The others set off from the quay with whoops and shouts.
They hang out from their hulls, sleek in wetsuits, and grin.
In half an hour, they are orange triangles on the horizon.
But sailing’s not your thing, so you think to hell with it.
Instead, you fire up an old outboard
and putter off towards the middle of the bay.
But it’s no fun—noisy, smelly and pointless.
So you switch off and sulk in silence for a while.
When you wake, there are more people
in your fibreglass affair than you remember setting out with.
There’s a wife for a start, and she’s sitting there on the middle seat
smiling at you, like you know who the hell she is.
And there are some children dipping their hands
over the side and not catching your eye.
And of course, the outboard won’t start and it’s no good keeping
pulling at it because it makes you look flappy and foolish.
At the back of this swaying tub there are some people
in body-warmers, who give weakly encouraging smiles
and hopeless impractical suggestions.
And you think, ‘Who the hell let them on?’
Then a sea fret drifts in and you can’t see five yards ahead.
You didn’t bring a compass, or tools, or anything
that competent people stash away in little lockers.
You’ve just got two tins of Stella and a small pork pie.
Well, how the hell were you to know you’d
need to feed a lot of passengers?
Another hopeful smile from an old-timer at the back,
your wife frowning and the children still avoiding eye-contact.
Later, you contemplate flopping over the side and splashing off
into the fog in any direction. But then you think
that something is bound to happen.
You won’t be sitting here in five years’ time.
I have no words to describe it, the safety I seek;
the thick cushioned couch, the red walls, the table
shining at night. I have no words.
The low rumble of a neighbour’s voice, his unknown
lieder an echo of despair, stopping and starting, an
unaccompanied voice as he prepares for bed.
The voice that wakes me in the night. The draped dusk
rent. The moon-lit street and its long agony repeated.
The three foxes who fade into shadows.
And waiting among piles of books and the violin left careless
on the table, among paintings and postcards of paintings,
in the small pool of light shaped by a hand-made shade;
waiting for words to lean out of the dark like a
sparkler on bonfire night and write in great letters that
shimmer and hang
an impossible blessing, something that keeps
the dark out there in the mouths of vixens.
His and Hers Espaliers
One tree stood x-rayed, condemned
without consultation. He shook
and collapsed. Spatchcocked,
he waited for the heat of the day
to finish him off. He didn’t have time
to die noisily; he crumbled to spores,
left a few branches for evidence. Leaves
fell by the bed, he undressed like an ancient
lover at the hands of a mortician sky.
Intelligent birds shifted in the dark
on to her, swaying as she dozed.
She stretched awake to tidy clouds.
Contagions of insects scratched her
lumpy limbs. She heard the wasps
had left his marrow. She looked down.
Old shade had resigned. She noticed
spring flowers wreathed the gap;
arum lilies, foxgloves, and columbines.
“Throw back the shutters. Let me watch the dawn,”
my uncle, blind from birth, was fond of saying.
His rambling chateau outside Matignon
was witness to intuitive surveying:
his sixth sense outran five, breaking the tape
ahead of me. Such sentience was alarming.
He drank the wine. I fumbled with the grape,
my teenage years unfocued. He was charming,
at ease in every situation, guided
gently by his introverted wife.
The hammock in the orchard had provided
one of the best memories my life
held in its valise: their daughter Sarah
kissing me while I hung, half-asleep,
between the boughs, her skin like demerera,
her breasts pubescent. Silences too deep
for words contained us. He knew that. At dinner
in the library we ate a dozen
oysters, me a sloppy-jowled beginner.
“I do not mind if you caress your cousin
so long as there are limits to your action.
Just avoid transgression.” Did he mean
me or her or both of us? Attraction
should not be denied.” The man had ‘seen’
our fondness while Madame had been out shopping.
Even the bivalves on the Meissen plate
seemed party to our tenderness, the stopping
of the heart, love’s tremulous first state.
Chasing the Nightjar
Nowadays they say she’s often mistaken
for the revving of a little petrol engine—
her propulsive churr-churring lost in the dark.
But age-old tricks can still be made to work.
Launch a white handkerchief into the air
and—if you are lucky—she is gliding there,
coming to you like a catch in the throat,
summoned by signs of life—the hot, the salt
of sudden tears you’d rather were hidden,
making your nose run like a child’s again.
Or she is drawn to the blood-spill of a hurt
that opens flesh and bone. Or she will start
from the dusty roof-space above the bed,
find you wiping love from between your legs.
The white flag of your individual weakness
is what will serve always to conjure her best—
as when old habits and eyes are giving out,
when it seems dark whenever they leave the light.
She comes then—I think—and this time stays
cover him, cover him, cover his face.
Odette’s footman is bringing in the lamps,
it’s a winter afternoon, outside
the low dark street,
the careless disarray of the season,
but in this small space the lamps read
like embroidered strawberries
in a dusty tapestry. She has
plumped up her great cushions
of Japanese silk for him,
keeping a sharp eye on the footman,
scolding him for his clumsiness.
There’s a harsh scent of chrysanthemums.
I don’t want to move forward
or back—return over and over
until the scene, the scents
breathe off the page—like
coming upon a great uncle’s brown
wallet in a box of stale family papers,
unfolding it and finding
his wife’s two small wills inside—
she thought she was dying twice.
Her white hair, her giggle float up.
She writes to ‘My darling husband’
in her precise ornate handwriting,
apologises for her silly ways,
lists her bequests: to me
her seed-pearl bird brooch,
her turquoise earrings.
Citadel of the Husband
He is a walled city, a resolute citadel,
a fortified castle with ramparts, and boiling oil
at the ready, to parry attack from a hostile world
and archers at every arrow slit, willow bows curled,
gnarled woody fingers keeping the tension high
while the lookouts squint for messages from the sky—
sudden scuds of birds, ink-black against the blue,
or the onset of dusk with shadows that hide the foe.
The walls are at least three feet thick and the great hall
is warmed by a lonely fire where one and all
tear the charred roasted meat from the broken bones
of hard-to-identify animals, flick out the stones
with their personal sharp-bladed oiled and pointed knives
from the fruit stored since last summer in the castle’s eaves,
sleep in a tangle of battle-clothes, snores, and dreams
that are always forgotten, wake up with schemes
of how to vanquish the enemy, how to defend
the almost impregnable fort from the former intimate friend
who lives underneath the medieval turrets and moat
down on the snow-pocked slopes in a thatched straw hut.
Your Moth Hands
move so quickly through the air
you’re almost bound to scratch them on a thorn,
snip a thumb with the kitchen scissors, rap
those thin-skinned knuckles on the window-ledge.
I sit on the floor with the dog and hold the lilies
till you want them, try to memorise
hypercium, euphorbia, the knack
of wiring foliage, which stems you split.
But afterwards I’ll just recall the thin coil
of your wedding ring, the veins that spread
like broken stalks across your hands, a dab
of scarlet polish on your nails and on one
fingertip, and chipped, because you’re carefless
over almost everything but flowers.
This is the Gift my Mother Gave Me
“Act as if a thousand eyes are upon you”
was my mother’s parting shot
every day as I left the house for school.
So I divided those thousand eyes by two —
five hundred people seemed slightly less
intimidating — and I guessed that
of those five hundred, at least fifty
were far too tired to notice me. Another fifty
had, I hoped, forgotten their glasses,
and perhaps a further fifty were blinded
by worry — about losing their jobs, or
forgetting to lock the door. But that still left
three-hundred fifty, all out there, waiting
for me to put a foot wrong. I figured
that a hundred of them were foreign
and didn’t understand my mother’s dictum.
Which still left two hundred and fifty
eagle-eyed pedestrians peering at me.
I wrote off another fifty by deciding
they were newly-weds, and so in love
they had eyes only for each other.
The last two hundred remained a problem.
I silently assigned them a book to read —
and those in a rush, the newspaper.
On the subway no one glanced at me. See?
Mother was wrong, though I tended to sit up
straight, and tried not to snap my chewing gum.
In the Wash
Father, forgive us for finding you out this way,
your three children undressing you
to look like Mammy’s plucked goose lying there.
How you’d hate us to see this naked truth
preferring your weather-hardened coat
buttoned to the chin, your tight-laced boots,
your pulled down cap.
We are charged with the task of bathing you
before the delicacy of your shroud
your skin suddenly our own skin.
We are amazed to find we even share
the same imperfections of our feet—
toes three and four like Siamese twins.
I’m soaping them while Michael wipes
what he says is a tear from your eye.
You always told us that to cry
was a breached dam or broken fence
the herd could wander through.
We’re seeing you without your carapace
and when Colm
shook out your pockets just now
instead of your knives and baler twine,
there were sacks of seeds.
And was that a lake,
its ear flat to the ground,
a full sun swimming in it?
Your crumpled hankerchief
contained a shower of moths and butterflies
enough to blow the whole Earth
into a different orbit, or further
And then Father,
from deeper in your pocket,
a nest enclosing three warm and freckled eggs.
In Praise of Aunts
I conjure Aunts, sly laughers,
Aunts not of the blood
but of the spirit; invite
from their cold cots for scones and tea
Aunts who chould cheat
and fib for fun, playing Old Maid
in silent riot, keeping a card
up a knickerleg; Aunts who would never
hurt a child to do it good;
Aunts without men, good sports,
bachelor Aunts eternally retired
who liked dogs, who could whistle,
Aunts with pockets, pocketsful
of small timely treats,
and not wincing at stickiness
nor at blood as they strode
through the war, through the wards,
voluntary servant goddesses.
You women long at peace,
rooted in sycamore scrub
beneath St. Peter’s topsyturvey stones
without memorial: I will praise
your names, your dented hats and bulging shoes,
who pedalled across my dream
last night with shining spokes and hubs
and cracked halloos and glimpses of knees,
old children in your upright childless bones.
Le Lion Rouge est Sur la Table
Don’t forget to say Madame Hoare, my mother said.
Bonjour Madame Hoare, I said; Bonjour Julien and Madame Hoare.
I really liked Madame Hoare because she had a red lion.
She said, Julien where is the red lion?
I said, Madame Hoare the red lion is on the floor.
Madame Hoare took the red lion and placed it on the table.
Julien, écoute, où est le lion rouge?
Madame Hoare, I said, le lion rouge est sur la table.
Bien sûr, le lion rouge est sur la table!
French, I decided, was a beatiful and accurate language.
Several days later I was bitten by a snake.
Madame Hoare sent a letter saying how worried she was.
At the end of the letter she wrote Julien, où est le serpent?
Years later I found myself in Paris.
I think Id forgotten almost everything about Madame Hoare.
She might have died.
Perhaps the snake which had nearly done for me
had wound its way out of our garden of rumbutans
and slipped across the island
with the sole purpose of biting Madame Hoare.
Où est le serpent? JE SUIS ICI??!
Years later I was sitting in a café on the Left Bank.
I was talking to a Frenchman who was worried.
Julien, he said, où est La Liberté?
I looked across the table and saw a lion which was red
and behind the bottle of Pernod I saw a moving snake.
I said, La Liberté est sur la table.
Baby Dies When Brother Crawls Into Cot
The boy leans in to read the headline
Narrows to the story beneath
The father skims the article
Waits for the boy to finish
They glance at each other and nod
Before turning the page
The train emerges from the tunnel
Daylight rushes into the carriage
They both look out of the window
The sky is as grey as before
There’s a blurring of fences, allotments,
Hedges and trees. And together
Their warm fingers drum
In rhythm on their knees.
The Dead Mother
We washed her chest. I saw how quick
death made a stranger of her
and since the power had failed
I brushed her hair by candle light.
The, turning the corpse
easily between us, we washed her back.
My sister sneezed. Her flannel dropped.
I paused. The candles burned unevenly
as rosewater from my cloth
trickled down our mother’s wrist
making her fingers flex, or so it seemed.
Faster then with shorter strokes
I washed her feet and circling
watched our shadows on the wall
struggle and flop like hares in a net
until we two stopped, leaving her
a dark reflection of herself
and night framed in the naked window.
‘Rest squares reckonings’ Ivor Gurney
It was not dusk, not yet, when he
Stood— night’s last dim silhouette full
teetering he stood, out of nod with step as shut-
eyed he dreamed himself over the top, head
unhelmetted, mud-tousled, nod-heavy as
some old carthorse long overdue for the yard,
hands meek by pockets, top button askew as he
lurched serene and sleep-stupid through
wire’s one blasted gate where first-startled
bullets hissed their stave on his air on death yet
refused to thread his upright rest until
Jerry for himself saw how the wretch so
utterley slept to war, and with his heart-enemy’s
heart full-squared in his sight let his firing-pin drowse,
left the trigger slack—let his one man
walk who would take too easy death’s touch, too
easy—as a child might draw sigh mid-slumber at a mother’s
kiss then turn, in that small unthinking span
of self, small shoulders to the dark.
There was no sport on. Our fathers,
filled with gin, lay breathing
in the front-rooms; in the back,
our mothers fuddled over flowers,
or laid their prayer-books end to end.
They had no child but us.
We sat like national anthems,
pompous and circumstantial, hands
practising a saraband,
sinking like skiffs, or teasing sugar
over the silent fire. Clocks
held back, haughtly or superstitious
drolling their chimes behind shut doors.
In those days we had pantries,
cupboards under the front stairs.
There were no maids. We had
to ration our breath. Our houses
were fogged, were doldrums,
waiting for adolescence, for wars.
Mum’s Dad: the silent one,
standing apart, hovering on the edge of things;
bland face never flagging what was going on inside his head;
his dress, residue-Edwardian: flannelette work-shirt,
stained waistcoat, flat cap, and that Meerschaum pipe—
anchor of his being—always keeping him company.
He behaved as if remaindered
by his daughter’s self-made in-laws (retail drapery):
so what he’d learned working with railway haulage—
hammering bolts, clanking wagon wheels, applying torque—
had been outlawed by commerce;
his presence long since shelved to silences.
Being poor, therefore boring, there was no sense in talking
with him other than formalities of greeting and departure
(better the latter), and the yes-no interludes of need.
And having no transport, so needing ferrying everywhere,
was named “Mr pain-in-the-bum” by his son-in-law.
His daughter manufactured tantrums round his habits:
living-rooms filled with shag-tobacco fumes; shaving-scum
left salt-and-peppering the porcelain; his sloping off, AWOL,
to The Crown and Cushion, swilling Worthington’s bitter
till tiddly, then swanning back to our house where he riddled
her night’s quietness with his pissing in the bucket—and sometimes
missing, as witnessed by the lino’s counterpoint betrayal.
But had his quieter triumphs:
like sharing with this grandson what he knew
about stripping spritting side-shoots from carnations:
his clasp-knife blade slicing ice-green stems
and keeping them spliced apart by touch of grit,
then dribbled into earth, to root, just there—and there:
handing those scarlet wounds down three generations.
All done with practised skilfulness. And silently.
No room for words
My son as a toddler: he is
as if planted by light
the path ahead of him loosens into shadows
and language waits
as the sun works out flowers.
A catkin of dried snot hangs from his nose.
How soft the future is.
The stick-figure trees
through his hands are coming closer.
Under his finger, a grasshopper
idles its engine.
Branches seeth overhead and the sound
of crying inside his chest subsides,
one finger pointing up.
How much must he contain.
An oak is dancing just slightly
and leaning on a thought,
leaves silvering in the wind.
A machine of light moves on the river,
reflections cancelling each other.
His shadow puddles beneath him.
Now he is holding the unblown globe
of a dandelion, singing secrets into
its white microphone,
then the sky is full of more objects
than we can find metaphors for.
The words troubling his face break
into white fragments,
he flails his tongue, inciting insight
as into the water the goose heaves its song.
A blind man silently packs the days
behind us, a gentle man, park keeper
or warden, and in the grass he finds
a clot of words, messed and
with a trail of footprints leading
towards a horizon that will not be reached,
where contrails wither like plantstems.
We’d have killed it
if we’d had the courage—
to crush a body this
bloated or stamp on wings
like shrivelled walnuts.
Was it a mutant? Too slow
to break free and make
for the open?
It scuttled out of the leaves
and frass, climbed
our stick and hung there.
Like a zippered bag crammed
with too many t-shirts.
Stayed put for hours,
just shifting its footing
now and then.
We moved it on to flowers later,
offering cow parsley,
apple blossom, anything
to encourage it to feed,
then in desperation sugared water,
which left sticky pools
on the table top darkened
with wing powder.
The moths didn’t budge.
For hours it clung to the same
flower head, rearranging
itself, pumping fluids
from one body part to another,
its wings slicked over its back
and as bright as if
such colours had never
existed till now: this camel
and cream, the black
that in this light, at this angle,
was more a dusky green
lustred with gold—
or was it amber? —the hint
of scarlet underwing
inset like a gusset
that flashed suddenly
as the Scarlet Tiger took off
from our jam jar of flowers
on the garden table, circled twice,
landed in the lilac tree,
then made its bid for the sky.