Troubadour Poetry Prize 2009
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2009
The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges, Maura Dooley and Jamie McKendrick, who read along with the winning & commended poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 30th November 2009.
- First Prize, £1000: Mahler 9, Sue Rose
- Second Prize, £500: Eating Soup by the River, Tom Lowenstein
- Joint Third Prize, £125: Weeding My Sister, Carlotta Miller Johnston
- Joint Third Prize, £125: The Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus, David Gilbert
plus, with prizes of £20 each:
- Mutton Fat Jade, Edward Ragg
- Captains and the Kings, James Dufficy
- At Harefield Manor, Christopher North
- The Allegheny Hackle, Martin Haslam
- Three Deer, Michael McKimm
- The Atomic Swerve, Barry Taylor
- Valise, Tinker Mather
- In Fen Light, Pat Borthwick
- Sea Walker, Robert Saxton
- Night Shift at the Trifle Factory, Clare Kirwan
- The Missing, Kim Moore
- Prospect, Jane Draycott
- The Price of Chocolate, Noel Williams
- Property, Nina Boyd
- This is a Confessional Poem, Kathryn Maris
- The Musicologist and The Birdwatcher, Pam Zinnemann-Hope
- North, Sandra Greaves
- Fallujah Birthdays, David Atkinson
- All Souls Day 2008, Miriam Obrey
Prizewinning Poems 2009
Looking beyond the contrabassoon, timps, strings,
I see you suddenly in the second row, chin supported
by your thumb, index admonishing your cheek,
crook of your third finger beneath your nose
and I can almost feel your hot dry clasp.
You can’t be here, of course, listening
to these shining violins sawing farewell,
you whom we keep as ash and celluloid
in high rooms, but my eyes would have you there,
shock of white hair, bushy brows, eyes pained
by this modern noise; the solo flute struggles
against the loud, white wind of the conductor’s work,
the man in the second row moves his hand,
and his mouth is a stranger as the music tips
into its climax and the bass clarinet lows
beneath the brass, saying we all carry our dead
with us on a quest for new homes, the klezmer dance
in our head propelling us forward, the fiddle pulling us back.
Eating Soup by the River
In many gloomy soups (the nature of whose deepest being’s difficult
to accurately fathom) miscellanies swarm, that softly, intimately,
inextricably devolve from cloudy stews of ubon, ramen or of soba noodles.
The strands are hard to disentangle – as in Virgil’s long phrase at the start
of his Book VI: ??inextricabilis error??— except that in this soup bowl appears
no mis-adventure, because gradually the entities-intended grow, as if
tadpoles had shown them, and albeit still unstable, achieve transmutation:
some little ones of these are black scab-caps of a small dried mushroom,
a hank, also black, of the Ocean Goddess’ hair-piece and at last,
curled like slender ribbons of a Nereid’s gristle — all those pink-
eared little water witches have them — swarm two brace of crustaceans,
in half-shell, all but broken and yet mutually embracing: their little
brittle feet as though in concupiscence linked in Liebestod and still
intermingled crisply. This soup, once disturbed, is disconcerting in its
counterpoint of content and the counter-action of its currents. The river,
underneath the balcony where people eat it, deepens to receive its leavings.
Weeding My Sister
In all her crevices
inside her ears.
Her body is extravagant;
ladytress, wake robin,
eyebright, rosy twisty-stalk,
All the flying seeds
“Go away,” she spat
when I came close to snip.
a crowded, colourful field.
Carlotta Miller Johnston
The Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus
These days, the Preferred Place of Care
(or PPC) according to academics
is The Home or The Hospice.
Dad prefers to ignore
the finality of words
and officiates from Bed 6 on Ward 11E
with parting gifts
as we gather
in comfy chairs provided
by the Project Coordinator for the Patient Pathway (or Matron)
and Betty, the cleaner.
He doesn’t want to go home.
He refuses the sweetened pleas of bed managers
to go home. This is home.
Contained by the, at last, certainty
of the rhythmic swish of the morphine pump
and ward rounds.
He swears the profile of a golden lioness
rises glowering from the trees
overlooking The Heath
and the paths where we handfed
Nuthatches, Chaffinches and Robins.
Fewer of them now.
He is more tired today.
I feed him slow spoonfuls
of leek and potato soup
tell him that Samuel
went to the zoo yesterday
held out his hand to touch
the Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus
almost wiped out by civil war.
That Adam wants to bring it home.
Mutton Fat Jade
Deep-quarried in the mountains of Kunlun,
Chunked, chipped, polished, then polished again.
Seed nephrite sown in the mind of its artificer
As one cream-toned stone like raw mutton fat.
Uygur men and women turn spits of roast lamb
Or coax chump-chop cubes on to sticks of kaorou.
Sweet lipids drip from the polisher’s hands.
Hundreds of miles east, display-cases station
Dynasties. I touch the glass and, in my palm,
Seem to hold the shape of a hand in jade.
This pair of quail, palm-proportioned, more quail
By nephrite than the taxidermist’s dream,
Are hands too, yet birds, cuppable, to hold again.
Outside the leaves of the ginkgo are scallop-shell
Sorrel, each leaf a scallop to seed, off-white,
Almost the cream of mutton fat but juicier
Like leaf-sap or ripest mangostene.
The museum’s chill colours the afternoon sun,
Its jade a texture, of the tongue.
Captains and the Kings
She’s got her own style,
And personally, I think she’s very pretty.
But after the funeral,
When I introduced her to the widower,
He laughed. Your wife!?
I thought she was one of the feckin’ nuns!
Like I said, she’s got her own style:
Long black skirt, white blouse, no make-up.
But when we’d had a couple of drinks
And I told him she was thinking of turning Episcopal,
He slammed his fist on the bar and slurred,
Jesus Christ! Is she out of her feckin’ mind!?
At Harefield Manor
Notice first the half buried brick arches.
They’d held beehives for self-made Sir Thomas -
honey to sweeten hams – sugared viands
for a cantankerous, balding, black toothed Queen.
We park under the sycamores.
She’d listened to eulogies of welcome
beneath a massive elm
from players dressed as ‘Time’ and ‘Place’.
It rained in torrents so she remained in saddle,
her face expressionless and very still.
Harefield mud is thick,
its grasping clay clings to our boots.
The Manor’s garden walls are crumbling;
they lead to the vacant eyes of old East Lodge.
Suburban houses crawl over the near hill.
From behind the coppiced hazel,
a gypsy leads a black horse, an ancient mare,
by clutching the hair between her ears.
She descends the sucking path to a low stable
in a fuzz of flies, her spavined legs stumbling.
He says She’s thirty now.
Don’t like being out midday
Them dirt flies lay eggs. She prefers shade.
She stands motionless in the shadows,
not watching as he forks hay into her manger.
The Allegheny Hackle
The proper way to show a glove
is on a brass-cast modelled hand,
(conventionally the right) that stands,
in balance, on a wrist transected
just about an octave span
above the radial styloid process.
The palm is usually slightly cupped
so that a smallish greengage or a peeled
lychee will stick when fitted snugly.
The fingers, spread, subtend an angle
wide enough to hold a cigarillo
or allow a shaded glance
(for thumb and forefinger, of course,
the gap should form a glacial U).
The interphalangeal joints
extend to form a thin-lipped smile
unlike the metacarpo-
phalangeals which knuckle down
to the angle of a hipped barn-roof
or a reed refracted in a pond:
this whole arrangement known,
informally, as the Allegheny Hackle,
which, faute de mieux, has run out of town
the inert, European draping modes
and (rift and rancour yet permitting)
become the choice of the curators
of the Cabot Lodge Accessories Museum
to display the Lieber-Stoller benefaction:
the Gardening Gloves of all the US Presidents.
A peerless collection, and complete
save for the pair from Grover Cleveland’s
second term and those of Warren Harding,
misplaced around the time
of the scandal over Teapot Dome.
27/12/08 – 4/01/09
At first we thought the three deer were a man,
a farmer from the parish with his gun.
Then we thought them hares, now three, not one,
and then we saw they were in fact the deer.
They ran across the tablecloth of frost,
then cleared the fence and disappeared in mist.
The days are three parts frost to one part mist.
Christmas week, and each morning you demand
a walk across the fields, West Woods, frosted
Piggledene – the odd rhythms of scare-guns
echoing; lapwings, hornless rams; and the deer
in little clumps of three or four, not one
without an eye on the valley, not one
uncautious at our approach. We stand in mist
and watch in awe the regal harts, these deer.
Have I entered Merrie England now, a man
who balks at artificial hunts, shotgun
cracked over his arm as his boots crunch frost
behind the wellied beaters, firing first
then counting all the grouse and pheasant won?
It’s true, we tend towards change. I have begun
to think about a myth we may have missed,
of a doe being fostered by a Munster man,
given bedding, food and water, held dear
all through winter, helped to rear its little deer
in spring. But in the end he paid the cost,
for when the crops found blight the village men
came to strip the three deer to the bone.
As starved men marched full-armoured in the mist
he fought back with his fists against their guns.
This week the news has blasted with big guns
across the frosted desert, and things look dire.
Outside your kitchen window falls a mist
that swallows up the trees, the birds, the frost.
A fire burns in the churchyard, blackens stone,
and horses flick thick ice-shards from their manes.
This is what we’ll miss, these splendid frosts.
What else is there to gun for, adhere to,
in this one fractured world – what else demand?
The Atomic Swerve
freely adapted from Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
(On the Nature of Things), Bk. 2, ll. 217-225
Let’s get one fundamental
clear. As atoms stream
into the void’s unceasing
depths, like rain falls,
straight as stair rods,
there comes a random
where each will sway,
the vertical. Without this
fortunate glitch, no atom
would incline to clash
or clinch with any other,
and our mother Nature,
confined in unconverging
parallels, could not
conceive a thing. On this,
of all the infinite worlds,
it is the cue-ball’s kiss
against the blue
which skews it, pat,
into the pocket. Ours
are gods of top-spin, feint
and slice, not base-line
thunderers. Kink, bend,
and deviation govern here.
Because it has come this far with me
lying quiet on the hotel bed,
the brass giving off its shine, the leather
smelling of polish and sweat, I take hold
of it, stroking its back, the length of its sides,
and while it is my treasure chest
of folded white, my clothes, papers,
favourite books, it is also a creature
about to grow fetlocks, mane and tail.
Saddled, bridled, shaking its neck
and handsome head, it hardly gives me
time to duck the ceiling before
galloping down the stairs. Only
when we’re free of the streets,
riding over the mountain range,
do I feel the legs begin to fold,
the head and neck shrink back
to where they came from, leaving me
alone on the hill,
looking down at the town,
the white of my things
spread out on the grass;
in my hand,
all that is left of my horse.
In Fen Light
Even the fish swim slowly in Lincolnshire.
Dykes and drains cross land so flat
there’s never any hurry for anything
to get anywhere, no strong tidal pull
or rush of rain to flush hillside streams.
No wonder the eels are famously thick.
They’re like the dark arms of men
working in the pea fields
or hoeing acres of red soil. Lurking
among tall reeds the pike grow vast,
their grins more enormous
than sluice gates.
Take any afternoon
as the slow sun rolls a peachy glow
across its even wider field
and pheasants puncture the air,
you can hear labourers
loading long-handled tools
into tractor trailers and, drifting
above hedgetops, nothing distinct
but a beautiful drawl I’m sure means
see you tomorrow, take care. Love even.
Magpies of the West, drubbed by unparallel rains,
jerk eastwards with a rainbow-raiding wish.
They envy us our silks, our swords, our cranes,
our pillow books, our coastline and our fish.
Our laws give five the blame for any crime –
strict rule of hand whose fingers can’t be fools.
Each fist of virtue staunches blood in time.
Murder’s not done, except by elaborate rules.
You love our robes, pay dearly for the slub
of silk, its naked asymmetric bloom.
Each salad petal roofs a gourmet grub.
Now you’re on stage we’re in your dressing-room.
You roost on beaches, yearly on a whim.
Children fall soft and have no place to hide.
The point, for hours, is being about to swim,
or having just swum: octopus’s bride.
We paddle in the shallows of devotion,
our gaze is still but hasn’t learnt to stare.
We strive to love the surface of the ocean
more than its depths – it’s much more debonair.
We’re fishing for a dream that you’ll agree to –
whoever sweats, or showers, or swims, or shaves.
Imagine a plastic bubble you can see through,
with a child inside. She’s walking on the waves.
Night Shift at the Trifle Factory
The plant went on for acres, industrious and humming,
a thousand of us stirring our jelly rich and viscous,
our aprons stained with juices like abattoir reminders.
Think about the volumes: the dairy herds we nurtured;
the raw Jamaican sugar that came scented still with violence;
the casks that we could muster from twenty five bodegas,
in Jerez la Frontera, to soak the dry Madeira.
And lorries big as houses would take their quivering cargo
out to the waiting nations. None saw the drivers faces;
they waited, elevated, but us, we knew our places.
There were favoured positions – we’d huddle, winter-bitten,
next to the steaming cauldrons, and in the stinking summer
with fields of berries swelling and our fingers stung by bees,
we queued to touch the cooling spoons they used to measure cream.
I loved to scissor diamonds from sheets of fine angelica
a mile in diameter, and sit in contemplation in the setting reservation.
And when we daylight workers lay down on sticky blankets
the night shift came from cellars. We feared their white faces
(for they were kept from sunlight), the way they spoke in whispers
and they made special toppings we never saw or tasted.
I knew a boy among them. We sometimes spoke on passing,
as the sun shimmered like jelly in the dish of the horizon,
and he said he missed the daylight, but still he felt important
to rise to his position – the years of application
when skills were honed and sharpened. Only the best were chosen.
This was, of course, before they concocted cuts and quotas
and boys like him were surplus to inferior requirements
and so they were discarded in their hundreds and their thousands.
I could spend hours down here in this false warmth
looking for the mice that live between the rails,
reading the posters of the missing. The newest one
is Lucy, school uniform, hair covering one eye.
I start to see her everywhere, inside McDonalds
with a dozen friends, throwing chips at strangers,
sitting on an old grey coat, singing, trying to catch
my eye, brushing past on the tube.
Yesterday, by getting on my hands and knees I saw
her shoes beneath a toilet door and heard her weeping –
it’s not long before she follows me home at night,
stands in the garden, asking if she can have her ball.
Anyone who wanted to could leave, could gather
shivering on the south side of the river,
labelled and provided for with socks and sweaters
and a little cash.
We walked across the water
in our thousands and left behind for ever
all that was great: the monuments and sewers,
cathedrals, theatres, mothers, lovers, brothers
as the flames licked at the city’s raging heart.
Faced with the prospect of living forever,
we headed for the country lanes together,
imagining the parties de campagne among the clover
and the stories each would tell the others
on the way. We had left behind for ever
all that we had loved. It was a start.
The Price of Chocolate
As usual, the scratch of gunfire in the undergrowth
taunts our patrol. My gun rests loose in its sling.
As usual, Serbs sprawl at their checkpoint
eyeing ill-hidden mines. They know
we can kick them aside. They need their ritual.
The one with the words is not the leader.
As usual, negotiation.
One of them cracks through the hedge,
drags out that girl we’ve seen before,
twelve or thirteen, his hand wound in her hair.
Younger than my cousin, she crawls before him.
Frost sprinkles them from the briar.
Our standing orders: let these things go.
There’ll be others like her. She isn’t Lianne.
But there is a glade in her eyes.
I see jackdaw secrets.
I speak hard. Frost crusts each mine
cold as our broken languages.
A carton of Silk Cut is the price of
shoving the dumb bombs aside.
A kitkat and eight smokes from an opened pack enough
to send her scooting back to the woods,
treasuring her bruises for the hoard.
He buys a pair of pyjamas,
striped flannelette like an old man’s:
a cord round the waist, a gaping fly
to accommodate a catheter.
A nurse fixes a notice
to his bedhead: FAST AFTER MIDNIGHT.
I don’t suppose I shall be, he says,
and she smiles.
In the morning they take him down,
braceleted and triple checked.
Flat on his back, he counts
dead flies in the ceiling lights.
He comes round on a bloody sheet,
all pipework and pain. People shout at him
to wake up, then a needle slides
into his buttock to send him back to sleep.
He wakes from a dream in a clean bed
and peach polycotton pyjamas. In the chair
that smells of wee his wife knits something purple. Soon be home, she says.
Ten days later, they give her his things
in a plastic bag: his watch, dentures, wallet;
an Agatha Christie from the library;
a pair of striped pyjamas, never worn.
This Is A Confessional Poem
I am guilty of so much destruction it hardly matters
anymore. There are so many thank-you notes I never wrote
that sometimes I’m relieved by the deaths of would-be
recipients, so I can finally let go of the shame.
I was awful to someone who was attached to the phrase
‘social polish,’ as though she’d acquire it through repetition.
I took an overdose at a child’s 6th birthday party.
I was born in a country which some have called
The Big Satan. I abandoned the country for one
that is called The Little Satan. I wished ill on a woman
who has known me for years and yet never remembers
who I am—and now she’s involved in a public scandal.
I have been at parties where I was boring.
I have been at parties where I was deadly boring.
I have worn the wrong clothes to sacraments, not
for lack of outfits, but for a temporary failure of taste.
I’m a terrible, terrible liar, and everything I say is full of
misrepresentation. I once knew a very sweet girl
who stabbed herself in the abdomen 7 times.
She believed she was evil and thought 7 was a holy number.
Besides that she was sane, and told me her tale
out of kindness—because guilt recognizes guilt,
the way a mother can identify her own child.
I met her in a class called ‘Poetry Therapy’
in which the assignment was to complete this statement:
When one door closes, another opens.
I wrote: At the end of my suffering there was a door,
making me guilty of both plagiarism and lack of imagination.
I was the vortex of suffering: present, future and retroactive
suffering. The girl tried to absolve me.
‘Don’t be Jesus,’ she said. ‘There are enough around here.’
I know I should thank her if she’s alive,
but I also know it’s unlikely I’ll rise to the task.
The Musicologist and the Birdwatcher
I can’t help thinking of them
every time I hear the lark.
Every time I hear the lark,
I think of them,
as I walk around the rim of Eggardon.
It sings above the outer ramparts,
it sings above the grassy top
of the hill fort as I walk back;
sometimes I see it, rising above me,
a dark dot, trilling its grace notes.
Every time, like today,
I remember a programme,
the one with the two men walking,
the camera panning the blue above them,
its focus on the singing bird:
how when they get home, they slow
the recording they’ve made;
they slow it; they play it backwards.
Quickly the musicologist annotates.
Now he plays six bars of Beethoven.
Identical, he says,
the camera panning the score.
Oh! The obsessive musicality
of the bird brain! says the ornithologist.
They marvel at the attentiveness of Beethoven.
If I had my way I’d make a sequel,
I’d make a sequel
about how Beethoven’s soul
has entered the lark, backwards;
how it’s speeded up.
We were painting the back bedroom
when your flock of snow geese arrived.
They’re making quite a mess in the allotment.
As for the white horse
that galloped down the hill at sundown,
I caught it and shut it in the paddock.
Today was the first frost.
A stoat arrived in the morning post.
His fur is already turning to ermine.
We can’t possibly keep him
you know, and Ralph isn’t impressed.
Please. Enough is enough now.
The geese flew off yesterday
after their bucketful of oats.
The girls have called the horse Chester.
My new fourth years seem an interesting lot.
Last night I thought I heard an owl
screeching behind the barn, but it was nothing.
Today white dolphins were spotted off Start Point
and a narwhal made it upriver
almost as far as Kingsbridge.
I’ve taken up tapestry
and stopped watching the news
though I still turn it on for the weather.
The stoat is nesting in the downstairs cupboard.
The allotment is covered in white feathers.
Everything will be all right
but the sky is a red sea with grey islands
and the birds have all disappeared.
They say that blizzards are coming.
When you were given to us
I gave you my name,
I rubbed the inside of your mouth
with a soft date,
I sacrificed two sheep for you,
and we feasted.
For your first birthday
I gave you a stuffed camel,
for your second birthday
I gave you building blocks,
for your third birthday
I gave you a drum,
for your fourth birthday
I gave you a jigsaw puzzle,
for your fifth birthday
I gave you your favourite book,
for your sixth birthday
I gave you prayer beads,
for your seventh birthday
I gave you a puppet,
for your eight birthday
I gave you a football.
For your ninth birthday
I gave you new clothes,
I gave you an empty box,
I washed you clean
and kissed you,
and we wept.
For your tenth birthday
I gave you flowers,
for your eleventh birthday
I gave you flowers,
for your twelfth birthday
I gave you flowers.
All Souls Day 2008
Because I know the devil still exists,
(he’s busy ironing his ref chrysanthemums,
trotting out dates, at this point, unremarkable),
I’ve lit three candles: one for Studs Terkel,
one for the SAS in their Snatch Landrovers
and one for the couple at Clows Top
who wait in their little corrugated house
for the first spot of rain to hit its green tin roof -
and there you have it, moments later,
Cantata Momente, Karl Heinz Stockhausen’s
Requiem Mass, tapped out on their door:
a bier for a dead composer. Touch wood
for all souls, waiting in an unbroken circle.
Back-lit falling leaves. He knows them well,
those burned out wounds in their black hides.