Troubadour Poetry Prize 2008

Troubadour Poetry Prize 2008

The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges, Jo Shapcott and Stephen Knight, who read along with the winning & commended poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 1st December 2008.

  • First Prize (£1000): Colony Collapse Disorder, Polly Atkin, Grasmere
  • Second Prize (£500): Juxtapose, Barry Tench, Shrewsbury
  • Third Prize (£250): In Praise of Hardware Stores, Pat Borthwick, Kirby Underdale

plus, with prizes of £20 each:

  • About the Fish in Lake Langano Chris Beckett, London
  • The P45 Judy Brown, London
  • Shiso Conor Carville, London
  • Coffee-Cup Emma Danes, Cambridge
  • Guided Tour Josh Ekroy, London
  • Tenses Wendy French, London
  • Horse Prayers D H W Grubb, Henley-on-Thames
  • Frank Rob Hindle, Sheffield
  • The Foreigners Sian Hughes, Sibford Ferris
  • One Made Earlier Jane Kirwan, London
  • A Black Map Richard Lambert, Bristol
  • The Return June Lausch, London
  • My Autopsy Pippa Little, Cramlington
  • Parable Maitreyabandhu, London
  • Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books Kathryn Maris, London
  • A Young Fisherman Waits for the Weather to Change Mary O’Donnell, Maynooth
  • Some Kind of Memento Mori Heather Phillipson, London
  • Late Swimming Julian Stannard, Southampton
  • Ice-Cream Jack Underwood, London
  • Something Almost Being Said Emily Wills, Dursley

Prizewinning Poems 2008

Colony Collapse Disorder

When I lived in the city I knew where I was,
what being there was. I knew I breathed
under a film of constant light,
that electricity was life. It moved
in my body, which I knew was an atom of the city,
and kept us twitching in unity. I felt
information bloom in my blood. It sang
in my cells as though it had always been there.
I knew without it I had no structure.

To leave the city was to leave one’s memory.
Outside was a garden gone wild. Stars
were night-flowers in a mossy dome, opening
their dazzling mouths to amaze, spreading
exponentially the further from the city I went.
I knew nothing. What nothing meant. I feared
the dark and the space between things: space
needs filling. I’d cry for the city, its order.
To be let back in was to regain the future.

Now I live elsewhere the systems reversed.
The city is a picture from a book I once read
and nothing to do with me. Life is a movement
between dirt and sky. I see this clearly.
The stars are generators. Without them we’d fail.
Going back to the city is to speed myself up
to a drawn out buzz that I know is killing me.
Going anywhere other than elsewhere is rehearsing
this end: the shut-down of travelling energy.

All those years living inside weakened me.
Taken away from elsewhere I dim.
Friends visit and tell me that elsewhere is death
and the sky cannot feed me. Not indefinitely.
Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle. I smell
honey on their skin and know how it is.
When they move I hear humming like a swarm at a distance.
When they speak I hear their voices, and under
pthe city quietly droning.

Polly Atkin


Place things side by side;
in a dictionary cook and cooee
entry phone and entwine.

Order in something less than chaos
something more, something swift
and lazy, something in between
something still, constantly humming
like an army of buzzing insects.

Particles of sound bounce
rebound, sense is made from nonsense
then returned more or less intact.

Open the day with horses
haw frost and lemon syrup,
open the evening with diamonds
lavish gravy and a multitudinous ball.
Sparkle with butterflies and expectations,
walk through the day with wet whispers
and whistles, remove any squawking shoes,
buff and polish your toes.

This unwritten manifesto of light
dogs and swallows. Remain unbowed,
unrepentant and under used, above all walk
like you belong, like a lover or a beloved.

As the women gather to discuss
and repair the day, men around water
and wine unpick the stitches while children
run through the woods with no trees
waving banners on their way to grandma’s,
grandpa’s and the grandest summer party.

You can close the curtains now, open the night
to soft voices here is where they sit
on cushions and marshmallows
ignoring the mouse fishing by the light of the fire,
all things are next to each other in the quiet.

Barry Tench

In Praise of Hardware Stores

I love the way they step outside to greet you
waving their long-handled bristle brooms
and yellow plastic dustpans, their sack barrows
and lightweight extending ladders.
They occupy the pavement,
edge towards the butcher’s next door
as if eager to count his chops
or pluck his hung capons.
I swear the clothes props and guttering,
the companion sets and mops
are trying to cross the road.

Strung around the doorframe
are clusters of gleaming pans
like droops of fruit on a vine
and if they let you through
you’re in a grotto with stalactites
and stalagmites, towers of stacking bowls
and buckets, linoleum rolls, stainless steel,
crystal glass, Pyrex, chrome and brass,
galvanized iron and Teflon.

And oh, the sweetness of their breath –
a mingle of beeswax and paint,
Nitromors and paraffin, creosote and rope.

There’s rows of tiny cup-handled drawers
filled with every type and size of screw and nail,
hook and hinge and curtain track end,
oddments you can buy one of, or two gross
and, camouflaged among it all,
is the man who knows where everything is kept
because he loves each single item
as if it were part of his own bloodline.

What more is there to do in life
but help solve each other’s problems,
to put into someone else’s hand
across the polished counter top
something to make their life
glide by more smoothly? Or in one breath
raise the subject of the price of bread,
the race to reach beyond the Universe?

Pat Borthwick

About the Fish in Lake Langano

I have pitched my tent, Abebe, by the lake
night-long in lake breezes
where pebbles crackle cooling
and a thorn acacia scratches at the sky

I wait for you to appear
after the years
and take me fishing: somewhere tonight
you are sitting again on the sand
of my thoughts
untying your shoes

all around is the marvel of sleeping flamingos
crunch of turtles
and way off in the bush
a nameless shuffle that could be hunting dogs
or a cowherd turning over

do the fish know we’re coming, Abebe?
our whispers inch into the silt
our hooks quiver like mosquitoes, prick the water

and as you bend again
into a jaunty boy
hoick your trousers to the knee
I can hear the catfish rise up bubbling

it is too long since he came!
it is too long since he bent forward
and called us to him…

this need in the heart of all beings to be fished

Chris Beckett

The P45

Long and mesmerising,
her explanation rushed past,
like a train in the Midwest.

My hand was pulped
in the moving parts of
one of her complex sentences.

Her syntax pistoned away
dangerously; it was lacquered
and shiny with oil,

punching its perfect rods
into its snug cylinders.
All this noise must be hard

on the men whose job it is
to tend to such machines.
I cannot get a word in.

Her punctuation showered me,
a brown bag of nails bursting
on the atrium’s marble floor.

What else do I remember?
The revolving door twirling.
My bent, martyr’s neck.

Judy Brown


Hungry? A shiso leaf, its slick wedge
around a central cicatrice,
the teeth of each serrated edge
green against the white rice.

Though broader at base, smaller,
it’s something like a nettle leaf.
Yet of nettles I remember
mostly slim, baroque, canti-

levered leaves in layers, each one
a demesne of tiny spines;
each tip a dragon’s mazy tongue.
So that can’t be right.

Itadakimasu! I return to:
glistening muscle, seaweed
in strips, soy sauce to dilute
the shiso’s dash of wasabi

and away from those touchy crowds,
their crepuscular murmur,
how they seem to gain ground
when your back is turned.

Conor Carville

Coffee Cup

(after MacNeice)

The moment ripples from my coffee cup:
saucer, arms, table. A lake of sky sensed
in a pinewood. Beyond me a dry crop
of words, that sharp smell of unknown voices;
thickets of feet, prams, shopping that spring up
round chair legs. It takes an eye for silence
to track a path through the tall noise, to duck
away from the canopy of faces –
to sit where light falls open like a book.

Emma Danes

Guided Tour

Come with me my friend, come English,
mind your step in this street, he is Shia,
no-one can move him. The mujahideen want
him to rot in front of his family
in his dirty track suit and broken sandals.
Look how those women turn from the dried blood.

The Shia are cunning and have thicker blood,
Sunnis have hooded eyes and move, English,
with their feet flapping their sandals.
Look at that man, he is certainly a Shia,
you can tell from his shouting family.
Now we leave Mu’alemeen Street. If you want

to visit this morgue, you will also want
a nose tissue because there is stink of blood.
Forty bodies come in – three families.
They have been tortured and dumped, English,
sometimes in the sewage plant, the Shias
float in that black canal with rotting sandals.

The mourners also are attacked, their sandals
stolen too, so their fingers they want
to be on triggers when they leave Shia
area because they feel bad blood
towards them. Behind these blast blocks, English,
they see who is friend, who is family.

Here at barred window, whole families
glimpse over shoulders, count sandals.
Look, come here. You can see the clerk, English,
with computer, he does not really want
to turn it to show on screen pools of blood
for these people at the bars, the Shia.

Come, you can see the dead faces of Shia
if you stand on your toes – that family
is all wiped out – you can observe black blood
and purple bruises, and the tattered sandal.
Come, there is beggar who is never free from want,
and here are the kids with pistols, English!

Englishmen – do they like to take care of family?
Shia is shamed, if they do not. Take off sandals,
this Mosque wants it. Now we are of same blood.

Josh Ekroy


sweetbitter Sappho Fragment 130

You ran, no run, I’m going to revert to the present tense
even though the running has ceased except in a kind
of slow motion through re-call. I visit you each day

in those dull grey track-suit trousers, white T-shirt,
you’d always only wear as you hankered after purity
which you said could be found in fields, in cow-dung,

in the mole-hills that uproot your mother’s lawn.
You loved, sorry, love, dawn – the light through the stained
glass windows that catches the dream before it escalates.

Your favourite tree is, (I’m beginning to master these tenses)
the willow, because of the legend you claim, and then there are
the wild ducks you called your own, who, unlike us,

are not surprised at each morning, not surprised at your absence
but who swim round the garden pond. Call. Echo your words.
Bullshit. Life just has to be run. Move on.

Wendy French

Horse Prayers


After the hiding days,the silence days,the days when only
a tree might disguise and walking ghost tracks and streams
and the discovery of abandoned barns and sheds,

we could sometimes see,distant and as if in an old life,
horses, their slow movements, the way their deliberate motion
can be like wheat or wild grass drifting in winds.

It reminded us. It is as if all things can be transformed and
our current thoughts and words and dreams will become
a history and have new meaning and even mosaics.

There will also be the lies and denials and secrets
beneath earth and what the heart cannot forgive and men
who for the rest of their lives will go out into fields

to speak to their horses about horror. They will do this
in the evenings and when they cannot face their children
and perhaps when good news arrives from abroad.

They will tell the horses about some of these things,
looking them in the eyes,careful with the words and
the order of memory,as if approaching prayers.

They will tell about a woman who gave birth in a tree,
about soldiers who led an elephant out of the ruined zoo,
about the man who shot the man who shot his older brother;

they will tell about hearing the sounds of their village
and how the dreams were always about returning
and embracing and where was the money?

And the fields will become trusted again and the walls
be built of stories and the horses accept these accounts
and the older brother be present whenever we sit down to eat.

D H W Grubb


Frank bites the skin off his thumbs,
chomps pencils till his lips are flecked
with crumbs of paint . He twitches
like the pestered rump of a cow:
motes of him shiver down his shirt
and settle in his books’ interstices.
In the silent afternoons of English Lit
you hear him, intent, oblivious, like an otter
munching the spine and skull of a fish.

There are stories. How his gran was found
on the moor, bewildered, soaked through;
how one Christmas Eve Frank’s dad
(who no-one ever saw) smashed up his shed
with an axe and made a fire to burn all night;
how he, Frank, had had a twin who lived
a month in a machine, a girl named Margaret.

I was at his house one evening
and a bird flew into their kitchen.
Frank said it’s an owl but it looked
so small as it rushed the window,
battering the black glass. We all sat
till it found the dark it had come from,
plunged back in. Frank said an owl
but I thought he was wrong.

Rob Hindle

The Foreigners

sit me down on their bright green leather sofa,
offer brandy in a washed-out peanut butter jar

feed the children huge plates of rice and meat
one at a time, because they lost the other spoons,

laugh at our attempts to say “please” and “thank you”
in their own language, mispronounce “cough”,

“proper” and “urine” (which is good for a sprain)
and pack six tins of fish for the birthday picnic

where they’re unimpressed with ring-a-roses,
“What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” Back home,

a birthday party for one year old, you need rope,
and all the male children. First tie up the child

tight, tight, one side of the hill. Fire a gun
in the air, for the start, then all the cousins run,

all the male cousins, all ages, fast as they can
down the side of the hill, up the other side,

to the knife. Oh yes, you need a knife,
a good knife, stuck hard down in the ground.

One boy, the fastest, he gets to the knife
then runs to the child, cuts the rope. The winner.

He gets a hundred US dollars. If the family is poor,
it might be a horse. Just a normal mountain horse.

Sian Hughes

One Made Earlier

She makes a mum out of old sweaters
uses jam jars – newly washed –
that scrubbing board for clothes found in the shed.

She makes it quickly, on spec, refuses to check it’s ok
trims off the odd thread but doesn’t care if the stitches are slack

– this version stirs the porridge briskly,
considers corsets de rigeur.

She makes something solid and soft, stuffed with clean goose-feathers
each goose personally plucked, each personally butchered.

She makes one before breakfast in the summer, before it gets cloudy
carries on long after others have stopped for tea

makes a genuine artefact, a hole, a cave, a source
gets rid of the sour smell, the sweat.

She could go for supplies, a Vogue pattern, but the tissue’s
so easily ripped, wishes she could match the silks.

This mum’s immaterial, shoddily made, a sort of tin-man
tin mother, all cans and Sambuca. Agitated she puts it in a pile

with the others. She was never a Girl Guide, not even
a Brownie, yet she wants to get it right
a snip here with scissors, more chalk, still something missing.

Jane Kirwan

A Black Map

Catching a bus
is a Herculean task

like emptying the Augean stables
of shit,

and this room
whose bright curtains

don’t touch the sill
is mine. When it rains

I hear the whole city
run beneath me,

a black map,
another city,

one that shines
and trickles.

Richard Lambert


When a man has lived almost seventy years,
reared six thousand goats and buried two wives,
he longs to return to the city of his youth,
which he finds, has grown in his absence,
even more beautiful,
with its gold clock and minarets,
its marble apartment blocks
and the new indoor shopping mall,
all haloed in September’s glow
and steeped in the scent
of coffee, tamarind and desire.

He sits on a bench in the city square,
one stop from the bus station,
with a bag at his feet and watches the girls,
the taxis, the lovers, then feeds the birds
until the chairs are stacked and it’s time to go.

June Lausch

My Autopsy

Disintegrate me gently : I am slices of pink-skin sushi,
slides of eyelash and lipstick, sand from under my thumbnail, a faint
smudge of that sandalwood you hated:

swab my throat, photograph my bones, unzip
the two curls of my red-sea ribcage, weigh my heart,
my lights, my liver in your metal bowl,

separate the grains and sinews of my last meal, last smile, last
kiss, peel me like a peach, slightly over-ripe, split my
old rose layers of tissue from their yellowed sleeves:

your long gaze sweeps me the way sea searches shingle
all along the beach. Or how the lighthouse
seeped its blue light between our closed curtains.

I am clean now. Blank as a runway, an unloading ramp.
I have tried to tell you, I have tried so hard to tell you
there was a house you wandered through

leaving your prints on the door, your breath on the downstairs window,
not noticing the flowers there, the lilies, or the books
in languages unknown to you.

Pippa Little


God left our universe and went to another
where the people were just discovering him.
The sky was particularly bright for his departure,
the grand Renaissance gardens extra-specially clipped.
It was morning. Boating lakes and tennis lawns
fell silent, as from the departure of a giant.
The tree-lined horizon, relieved from the heavy feet
of millennia, lifted slightly and swayed. Rabbits
ducked out of the briars, noticing absence of authority
while they ate. A boy, dying in bed, heels pushed hard
into the horsehair, thought his mother had come in
to open a window.


Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?

How many times do I have to say
get rid of the books off the goddamn floor
do you have any idea how it feels
to step over books you wrote about her
bloody hell you sadist what kind of man
are you all day long those fecking books

in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books
tell me now what do you have to say
for yourself you think you’re such a man
silent brooding pondering at the floor
pretending you’re bored when I mention her
fine change the subject ask “Do I feel

like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel
like I need more medication it’s the books
don’t you see don’t you see it’s her
why don’t you listen to anything I say
and for god’s sake books on the floor
are a safety hazard remember that man

from Cork who nearly died fine that man
fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel
you’re getting the point the point is that a floor
is not an intelligent place for books
books I have to see and books that say
exactly where and how you shagged her

what shirt she wore before you shagged her
I can write a book too about some man
better still about you I can say
something to demonize you how would you feel
about that ha ha why don’t I write a book
about how I hoover your sodding floor

and how you’ve never once hoovered your floor
why can’t I be a muse why can’t I be a “her”
what does one have to do to be in a book
around here do I have to be dead for a man
to write me a poem how do you think it feels
to be non muse material can’t you say

you feel for me what you felt for her
can’t you say I’m better than that woman
can’t you get those books off the floor?

Kathryn Maris

A Young Fisherman Waits For The Weather To Change

Since we anchored two hookers, leath bhád
agus bád mór *, together in the harbour,
our luck is gone.

The morning of the wedding,
I glanced uneasily at the sky: this is folly,
I murmured, too polite to speak aloud
in the presence of her parents.
All summer the vapours, sweeping our island.
Sailing impossible, boats tied,
some smashed by fists of storms,
what some call ‘rain god’.

In a new home, we play with bright gadgets,
each room too white, too defined by what we own.
We fiddle with things. We tease one another.
In the absence of play, roughness, limbs
bound in anger as, yet again, the sky pummels down.
Though complicit, she looks at me queerly.

On the computer, on television, the weatherman
forfeits old charms for the sake of bottled tan,
bleached teeth, the pace of World Wide Weather.
In essence, ??nimbo??-this and ??strato??-that, all leading
to afternoons of cumulonimbus,
when we distract ourselves in a swirl
of unchanged linen, pillows rank with our odours.

Tonight the sky screws down like a heavy lid,
tight to the horizon, not a star to be picked
to send a wish or a dream, leaving only
the sullen wraiths that squat on our roof.
I do not pray. There are no gods to speak of –
sun, wind, or rain.

Come, winter! Our haul of haddock,
sardines, the meaty lobster she craves.
Come, winter, long and cold,
with hoar-frost, pelts of northern wind
drying our barrels, silencing the gutter!

I wait for cirrus – a high screen of ice,
crystal haloes above the water, the secret
shoals: sea and sky for once holding distant,
as if in recognition. Then, the boats
recreated in fresh pitch,
umber sails hoisted. The pair of us
at work we know, salt in the creases
around our eyes.

(* traditional boats once used in the West of Ireland)

Mary O’Donnell

Some Kind of Memento Mori

The woolly mammoths are all gone.
For twenty three and a half hours a day I forget
and then a 40 watt bulb blows as I turn it on.
The burnt-out bayonet is something unspoken –
the filament no longer incandescent,
the electric current without an outlet.
Little has changed since the Pleistocene.
Removal of the bulb is a change of epoch.

Instead of mammoths in Siberia
there are elephants in Africa, elephants in India,
the new gloom of silhouettes and table lamps.
There’s a pearl bayonet in the cupboard, unopened.
Shapely as a pear, it brings to light the shadows
already here inside the shadows that follow.

Heather Phillipson

Late Swimming

When I want to be near my brother
I swim into the ocean and I swim breastroke
so that my chest and stomach are
pointing down and I can feel his finger

scraping its way down my front which is
peculiar but homely too, and when
I’ve swum a sizable distance
I tread water which feels like I’m sitting

on his shoulders which is wonderful
and then I know I must head back
because the boats are becoming
an archipelago of lights calling the

fish into their nets, the same fish
that will beat their little jig
in the market after the sun has risen
when the city is clattering into life.

But my brother always holds my feet
and I can see the shore slipping
into the cocktail hour and I have
to speak to him, but not unkindly.

Brother, it’s so good being with you
and I’m glad you’re doing well
but my time has not yet come
and people are waiting on the shore

and I feel his hands let go
which means I can really strike out now
and soon the shore is coming fast
and this time I don’t look back.

Julian Stannard


The message got through that tanks
from the Army of our Great Nation
were only weeks away.

We had four frozen horses left to eat,
so saving the fine French chair from the fire,
took turns to sit and pull hot steaks apart
with dirty hands.

The message never got through that tanks
from the Army of our Great Nation
were hollowed-out by shells, thumped,
just inside the border.

We received no word, no supplies, no orders,
but picked our teeth in secret, at night,
the fires growing dimmer, the rats more brave.

In a month all that remained of the horses,
the chair, were spindles of legs
holding up the useless dream
of a message getting through that summer
was only weeks away and the cold we felt inside
was really just relief, ice-cream.

Jack Underwood

Something Almost Being Said

After the usual songs from The Lion King, when Junior Strings
and Intermediate Recorders have been blown away
by the Swing Band, the children unstop their voices,
hurtle outside, where already the good mothers
are cutting and pouring, and the rest of us follow
shuffling into the miraculous sun. But I’m stuck

by the door with somebody’s grandad, who’s trying and trying
to tell us something. Here is the effervescent light, the old rose
on the older wall, its precise, articulating buds; here is that first warmth
slipping its delicious arm into the small of my back – and here he is,
just about saying that whatever it is, it’s important, going on and on
not saying it, spittle, contort and twist. And of course

I’m sorrying, lump-throated, inept, while trying to overhear
Tom’s dad muscling in on Dawkins, going for intelligent design,
and Beth and Sue missing the point of Atonement, how it all ends,
while I can’t move for not getting it, this important thing – the old man
clamping vibrato hands on my shoulders, and Pete,
who’s good like that, saying It must be frustrating for you.

I’m close up against it now, the blue Braille of his eyes,
sour breath and blear, his slack face straining every useless nerve.
Unfocussed children arpeggio the green, and suddenly
I’m falling through the glass of his gaze, into a pool of notes,
reeling them in, trying them out for sound – The music,
you enjoyed the music, I say, and watch as his face

rewinds, shedding the stroke, the sicknesses and wars,
back to concert tours, bands, busking. How they danced, then,
and now his good arm arcs to the final note, his practised smile
lit up and bowing, before he stands, applauding us
applauding him, accepting all the flowers.

Emily Wills

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