Troubadour Poetry Prize 2010
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2010
The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judge Maurice Riordan who read along with the winning & commended poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 29th November 2010.
- First Prize, £1000: The Seabirds of Pimilico Hanker After Sapphires, Julian Stannard
- Second Prize, £500: Boxer of Quirinal, Clive McWilliam
- Third Prize, £250: Nest, Claire Gheerardyn
and, with prizes of £20 each:
- The Glorious Fellowship Of Migraineurs, Polly Atkin
- The Blow-Out, Roger Caldwell
- A Short Chapter In The History Of Stone, Kate Foley
- Flatmates, Stephen Giles
- The Hospital at Night, Alex Josephy
- Telling Tales, Maria Jastrzebska
- The Little Mermaid Looks At The Stars, Ayala Kingsley
- The Forgetful Doctors, Ian McEwen
- Departures, Allison McVety
- From The King, Nick Makoha
- Looking For America, Paul Mills
- Ices, Cheryl Moskowitz
- Plastic Bags Along the A27, Stephanie Norgate
- Throne, Kevin Russell-Pavier
- The Bridge, Michael Swan
- Tai Chi, Ruth Valentine
- Domestic Confessional, Emily Wills
- Alligator Pear, John Hartley Williams
- Autumn At Number Nine, Mary Woodward
- Pilgrimage, Howard Wright
Prizewinning Poems 2010
The Seabirds of Pimlico Hanker After Sapphires
I had a crazy idea we could have a good time
so you’re flying in from Italy on Alitalia
and I’m booking a room in Edward Lear’s old house
all sorted by my promiscuous credit card.
Then I take you to the Gay Hussar in Greek Street
where you can say anything you like
and because we’re having a good time
I smile and offer you some Schnitzel.
Later, after I’ve paid the bill without flinching
we take a taxi to a discreet point on the Thames
where a boat is waiting full of elegant people.
It’s a beautiful, limpid night and the orchestra
seems Welsh somehow. They’re playing jazz but
they also throw in several Lieder. Everyone looks
good and so do you and apparently I do too
and before you know it we’re dancing on the deck
a little Cole Porter and some Bunky Green
and our luminous children are following the boat
like mermaids but in actual fact they’re boys
with your looks and my intelligence but
I close my mouth because the captain of the boat
deserves to live, the glittering orchestra deserves to live
and our earthly boys are hauling themselves
onto the deck as if they were part of an advert
and they see their parents dancing cheek to cheek
and before you know it we’re sitting round a table
and the waiter’s bringing audacious cocktails.
It feels so good it feels like cocaine but it isn’t.
It feels as if all the Carabinieri and all the lawyers
have turned into seabirds flying off to Pimlico
and although it would be crazy to talk of love
the whole of London’s lit up like a beating heart.
Boxer of Quirinal
Sometimes, in a deep sleep, I draw you
from the ground and shoulder you over the fields.
It is night. And the latch on the barn is quiet.
We sit in straw chairs and you lean forward
just like a fighter between rounds.
Bandaged fists. The free thumb.
The sun coming up on your sightless face.
And I see how they made you—
an assemblage of castings and seams,
fussed and rubbed down; the copper in the bronze
has congealed beneath your swollen cheek,
reddened lips, nipples and wounds.
The pale areas where you’ve been touched
throughout the years—the thighs, the broken nose,
the middle toes of each foot, the sex.
All the miles of moraine you’ve travelled
tunnelling under our lives.
I think of the void you make in the soil,
beneath the shell of your chest. And still rolling
in a substrate somewhere—your eyes—
luna marble or alabaster balls, the hooks
inside your head where they hung.
In this deep sleep, my childhood fist
still misses your face and breaks a window.
And your tight grip still quiets the cut
that gapes like a bite in my hand.
And when the hurt has knitted, the long,
long itch pushes out a glass thorn,
which feels like the cusp of a sneeze as it leaves me
to wake in the space you left behind.
He said, When I arrived in Hungary,
a basket was my most precious possession,
a basket woven out of chestnut twigs,
a basket to be carried on my back.
In Hungary, he said,
I soon discovered that objects
have a life of their own.
That he who forgets his umbrella somewhere
also forgets a year of his life,
and that coat-hangers are ubiquitous.
That the wind takes your hat off
as if it were your head.
We both sipped our glass of yellow water.
And what was the life that your basket led?, I asked.
He softly smiled and said:
In Hungary, I would sit down at my desk
to invent bird names.
I would say the name aloud
and ask myself: ‘Can this bird really fly?’
If it couldn’t, then, I would just throw the name away.
But when it could,
I would very carefully lay the name of the bird
in the basket that I was carrying on my back.
The Glorious Fellowship of Migraineurs
When we gather we greet each other
by lifting tentatively one hand to one eye.
We meet in darkened rooms, quietly:
share no wine. Nobody speaks
but often our voices join to moan
the migraineurs psalm, low and holy.
The hours before fizz brilliantly, scented
with burnt toast and oranges, petrol, sparking
fireworks, fireflies, stars. Everyone
dons a halo; everyone’s soul
shines out through their pores, whether unnaturally
small or wrapped in a skin of water.
We sleep the night together, slip off
one by one on waking from
a dream we pass between us, in which
the structure of the sky is revealed. We make
no dates, but palm to temple, salute
in a migraineur’s kiss, our transcendence.
Hard to say if she was down on him
or he on her. But it was rods and shooters
and the whole shebang. A matter of brass,
and ass, and someone sneaked out with the lolly,
and took nookie on account. She seemed to us
another fat old biddy—putting her face on
took a fair old time, her make-up care
of fucking Pollyfilla. But she had pals
would make mincemeat of your fins and kickers,
with no babyfooting. Mistah John
was peddling his wire, headed to the place
where you never get your spuds with it.
We’d fair stuffed our faces on his grub
but left when kiss-curls turned to curtains,
glad eyes sad eyes. As for Baby Joe,
mooching about as always, doing bugger-all,
a slackarse phoney, useless git,
though always present when there’s meat for sale,
had for the nonce his peepers open,
saw Brother Henry was in need of pussy
and ‘little’ Ola going for the balthasar.
No need of a boob-job, that one, but at best
a jam-rag case—then Billy put the spokes in.
Someone needed to get his skates on quick.
There were snuffers out. A wide-boy croaked it.
Puke galore, and red stuff on a pricey carpet.
A nob gone early to the boneyard. All in all
a blow-out not a blow-job. Me and Baby Joe
left for Mimi’s, chinwagged over Beaujolais,
wetted whistles, wads of readies in our hands.
A Short Chapter in the History of Stone
Small girls play in the shadow of mud brick walls.
A pile of jackstones to flip from grubby palm
to sharp knuckle.
Dreaming, nursing stone babies—
some have gold flecks in their round heads,
like the sun in a pail of water.
Pebble in a first pair of grown-up
shoes. His parents. Yours. You kick off
the hot fidgety shoe secretly under your robe.
Your brother burns flags. Throws unerring stones
at embassy cars. Skips home
like a young goat.
Your first child is a girl.
You make a leaf bracelet
for her chubby wrist.
Not very old yourself
you try to soften the rock-hard disapproval
of your not very old husband
who will never believe
his sperm has selected two
One burned supper. One tearful wife,
runs from the compound leaving a smell
of scorch in the air,
holds her swollen cheek, trips on a stone,
falls in the gravelly dust, is lifted
by a friend of her brother,
who runs his thumb gently over her eyelids.
The rest will soon be history
written by stone.
I like happiness. It is vulnerable.
Like pissing in the hot bath Andy
and Sam run to take together.
Like stealing things from their room.
Little things. His medication. Her diary,
crammed full with all her humdrum,
filthy secrets jotted down in code. Plus
the code-book of course. I stole her once,
too, that night they came back late
from a friend’s 21st and he passed
out on the stairs. She was small
curled up there on the crunchy sofa;
a famished, pink animal asking to be
remembered. We’ve been close ever since.
I smile a lot. Inside it’s all happening.
The Hospital at Night
Raindrops scratch the window
behind a blue curtain.
The woman berthed beside me
sighs and stretches in her sleep.
This trolley-bed with its charts,
tight sheets and metal rigging
wants to sail away down the ward
out into the hospital night
past the lighthouse where the nurses
shelter with cups of cocoa
and fancy biscuits. One of the bays
opposite is lit up inside its floral tent
like a pleasure-cruiser. Shadow dancers
loom and fade on the cloth,
too distant for me to hear the band
or the words they’re murmuring
above the groan of the waves.
I patrol the channel between dreamers,
flat out, fog-horning, or battened down
under blankets, and the wakeful ones
rocking on the surface with tiny torch lights
trained on open pages, the flotilla
of the unsleeping. I lean one hand
on my wheeled rig with its bag of piss,
its trailing tubes, and haul up alongside
those I know from waiting-room and clinic,
keeping watch through the long, long hours
of getting worse, or getting better.
In her story there’s a forest
in fading light and in the clearing
he introduces her to some friends
who call her sweet and darling,
fondle her like heavy-pawed bears
while hunger glistens in their eyes.
He denies there was a forest ever.
Then says she lured him there.
He calls his story one of love,
she says it was about despair.
She thought he was a faun—
his prancing gait—maybe a young stag.
He thinks it was the scent of her—
violet, bluebell—left him no choice.
He says she swore she’d never tell,
broke her promise.
She says he told her he knew the way
but when she found his hand,
tendrils like a vine around her wrist
bound them together.
The branches grew soft at first
but when she tried to sever them
tangles of sinewy undergrowth
lashed her with him to the forest floor.
It’s not enough to tear out your hair,
clumps of it, even the tiniest roots.
You’ve got to scrape the green bile
from the back of your throat,
pull up the stems of brambles where
they’re wrapped around your tongue,
the spotted fungi, brown blood,
till it makes you gag, she says.
She still hears his voice in her head:
night’s falling, wolves will come.
As long as she’s eaten up with him,
he doesn’t care, she thinks he says.
Friends tell her she should arm herself
but what use is a knife, she says
when you’re carving out a space
inside your body, a clearing in your life.
The Little Mermaid Looks at the Stars
What will you have for your birthday,
asked the sea-king of his favourite daughter,
remembering when she was quick and silver as a minnow,
trying not to look at her breasts.
I would like a star, she murmured,
plaiting his kelp-forest beard.
I could keep it in a cage of abalone.
I would polish it with my hair
till its song loosened.
He gave her numerous warnings about stars:
stars are too hot—you will get your fingers burned,
they are cold and you will never get over the rejection,
they are sharp and will slice your heart fine as smoked salmon and pinker,
they are too tiny and will get lost among the sand grains of your pillow,
they are too big and you will drown in the tides they engender,
they are too bright and will sear your eyeballs
and your weeping will raise sea levels by metres
and I will get the blame.
Still, he gave her permission to go window shopping.
Her birthday fell in winter, when the sky is hardest,
the stars swollen and overripe.
She imagined their fizz on the tongue, their chime in the gullet,
She lay on her back between two worlds,
hammocked on the sea’s black skin, sipping the air.
She thought it terrifying—the way the sky went on forever,
she thought it unnecessary.
She began to dream about Orion:
his broad shoulders and unconscious swagger,
his sense of style and independent streak,
the way he wore his sword, hung left and slightly out of focus.
Pining for the constellations she grew wistful, pondered cosmology,
life’s stardust origins. And, to resonate more closely,
she gave up eating, till she quivered like a tuning fork
and perched all night on a seamount
practising her scales.
She felt a passing sorrow for the shipwrecks.
The Forgetful Doctors
The doctors always
leave something behind
—the sweet forgetful doctors.
They call you back
to check on it sometimes.
When the doctors
give you a pill
it is sweet for you.
Take it again and again.
The doctors take out
a thing and that leaves
You can’t feel space
and the cold edge
of a bubble does not hurt,
like ice melting (it does not
really melt). That reminds you
of the doctors,
they are so sweet about it.
They will come back.
They have left something behind.
The doctors have left
Oh those forgetful doctors!
As the train leaves you for another station
the LED wipes out its past, recalibrates
the future. From the platform, an ordered
street of terraces is all you see, red-brick dull,
their gardens crazy-paved with cars.
But as you pass, the vacant banks
of shuttered eyes give way to movement—
a seam of ordinary light. You hear food
making its way to tables. Beyond the doors
hallways gridlocked with laptops,
homework, shoes—all parked for supper,
laughter, the hand-to-hand of pass-
the-parcel meals. There’s the other-room
ranting of the tea-time news: a distant tune
you almost recognise. How small the universe
against such bigness. Earth sobs at the passing
of another train. Streetlights take your steps.
At home—no signal, no texts. But emails come,
the land line stirs—a voice throttled by its loss.
You watch five apples soften in their skins.
From the King
Even though foreign words uprooted our pumpkins,
take care of your tongue, watch what the lips say.
Feast with your neighbour, then we will depart.
Do no work today cousins, we are marked to die.
Let us not inherit the stupidity of our forefathers.
Who like dust in the ground abandoned their homestead.
Smear your bodies in red oil. Tonight we split the darkness.
On our tombs we will be remembered as the wild cats
who smeared their bodies in blood. The fewer our men,
the greater our share of honour. Do not count your coins,
there is nothing to want from gold. Our bodies will be
our cost. Even the grave will not reject our clansmen.
It’s Uganda’s loss if we live. Curse the man who does not
share this fellowship and fears our desires. He is mucus
in the mouth, a rotting fruit. He was not carved out of the rock
like we were. Find the stomach to fight. Depart from fear.
Let courage be your host. Shed your blood with me brothers.
When they name this day those who live show your scars.
Wear them as you would the kikoys in your hut.
Hold vigil those who see old age tell this to your sons.
Let us be the throb in our children’s dreams
and the wounds they wear under their sleeves.
Looking for America
You try to catch somewhere being America,
the scent of hot dry air, of fresh anchovies,
or when a buzzard soars so long and high
you think of forest pinnacles, then of blue jays,
their quick-sliding chack-chack, but you’re in France
where TV sets aren’t tilted by earthquakes.
We heard about the Monterey peninsula and
Salinas Valley shifting inches in a minute and a half
while Wales hasn’t even trembled in a hundred years.
As for those fuzzy hills of the north in Cumbria,
I look for big sweeps of new rock,
the planet growing straight up out of itself,
Zabriski Point, or leaking its core fire into Mono Lake,
the whole state burning off in a haze,
women smiling at you with cold warm eyes,
proud to be owned and free, themselves and yours.
I look for a valley whose sides are Sierra peaks
rising across miles of unpeopled grass.
I want one more overnight drive to the sun,
places named simply by what’s found there:
Boulder Creek, Twin Lakes, Coconut Grove,
Lone Pine, as restaurants are by what you eat:
Zannotto’s Pasta, Tortilla Flats, by who cooks
and how, Gayle’s Rosticceria. I can’t help it.
I want to be found and named just as I am.
Come and discover me in some dump town
called Little Rapids, loving the sweet combination
of fennel and crushed eucalyptus.
Once I told my therapist about a dream I had.
It was hot, there were two of us, we saw a sign
that said ICES. I told her Ices but my therapist
thought I said ‘Isis’. She’s Greek, my therapist.
Isis was a goddess in Ancient Egyptian religious
beliefs, worshipped throughout the Greco-Roman
world. You can see why my therapist might have
wanted to think I said Isis, not Ices. The sign said
Ices, I was sure of it. Like popsicles, frozen drinks
on a stick. Sugary, sticky and sweet. The Goddess
Isis, my therapist told me, was the first daughter
of Geb, god of the Earth, and Nut, goddess of the
Overarching Sky. I did not want to disappoint my
therapist but I did not dream of the Goddess Isis
who, my therapist said, was the friend of slaves,
sinners and artisans. Goddess of motherhood, magic
and fertility who gathered the parts of her beloved
dead husband and restored his body back to life.
It was hot and there were two of us. In my dream
perhaps I was thinking an ice lolly might be the thing
to cool us both down. A treat. I did not think more
about the significance of ice. The Ancient Egyptians,
maybe the Greeks too, believed the Nile flooded every
year with her tears. I dreamt of ice, not Isis, I told her.
Plastic Bags Along the A27
They want their lives back,
these pale heads, flip-flapping,
marooned on brambles.
They want back into cars,
back on board ferries, back
into the hands that let them slip
to become these fluttering sails
straining at their moorings,
the red or acid yellow of the dogwood.
In the small harbour
of the lay-by at dusk,
the bags exhale and flop.
But in sunlight,
they’re whistling cherubs
drawing breath from traffic.
They want to be as soft
as pussy willow, the country palm,
white as blackthorn blossom.
They are bleached ears, swollen,
listening to their own crackling.
Logos gone. The waste of lives.
They want to be sprung
from their tetherings
freed from the weight of snowmelt,
these torn pallid rags,
the first white daffodils
flickering along the road’s edge.
These special mornings—they were the ones
That renewed his faith. It was as if he loved
The precise torture of the ritual, the sheer,
Soul-searching extremity of it all,
Focused especially upon the ceremony of the john,
To which, straightaway, from the bloodied bedclothes,
He had to stagger and puke his guts up; and where,
After that, hourly it seemed, he just sat doubled-up,
As if meditating on the mystery of the stink
And the sanctity of his own agonised posture,
Gently caressing his suffering veins, tracing too
The twisted stems of fruit and vines that decorated
The cracked tiles, the flaking walls of that once imperial
Jakes. After that, he’d relax—wander round the flat,
Naked, posing, queening with an endless supply of cigarettes,
Framing himself in different doorways,
As if disporting in front of an invisible looking-glass.
As if creating too, evanescent sculptures in gargoyle smoke.
In the evening, watching how the shadeless bulbs
Would transfigure his punished body, projecting strange,
messianic shadows out across the bare expanse
Of wooden floor… He would pass whole days like this—
In a sort of self-imposed, anchorite existence
Of little food and still less sleep; visionary, ecstatic,
Musing upon his iconic status, unperturbed that,
Some considered him a misfit; and that, at an early age,
His religious sense of personal freedom, might rebel,
Might construct a crucifix of self-destruction;
Really, more upset by the seasonal droughts
Of shrivelled self-belief, the bonsai boughs of atheism…
Anyway, at that point, he always knew what was needful—
A special assignation, one where he was grafted
To some nameless Judas, to some seedsman of the dark;
Who would plant the kiss, propagate the passion fruit. Then,
On the morrow, perfidiously, leave him to the bliss
Of private agony upon that fruited and embowered throne.
Such a short little bridge
and you in the middle.
One step forward,
and you are on the mountain
with the heather
the clear streams
the cry of the curlew,
and no way back.
One step back,
and you are in the meadow
with the gentle animals
the young trees
the sweet grass,
and the gate closed.
And you stand there.
and the next day
and the day after,
and still you stand there,
till the black crows arrive.
On the wrong side of the planet, in a room
of thirty people, most with short grey hair
as if the plaster dust had settled on them
and they had stopped minding. The air
crumbles to booming and your whole street dies,
roof first, splitting and foundering, then the walls
in a sandstorm of dirt and angles and the cries
you still can’t get to. The teacher’s left hand falls,
your own seems to follow, yours and all the left
hands in the hall together. You turn your head
slowly towards the south where in a rift
between rubble and dust the bodies have been laid
each one alone, in white. You can lean your weight
without wincing, almost, on your shattered foot.
I am trying to write a manly poem.
You would think, in this twenty-first century
postmodern have-it-all, this would be easy. You might say
that the programming of multiple white goods
has rendered obsolete words like fairy and marigold
you might observe that we all have to eat —
but such concerns do not belong in the manly poem.
The manly poem may sit at a desk of managed forest
or cheap laminate, brew unsourced coffee, stare out perceptively
at a pedestrian crossing, a rank of bins, a potted plant
the manly poem has — presumably — a navel, with its fascinator
of blue fluff, but on these things both muse and man
must be silent. For the manly poem
is a crystal of pure thought, with no bodily needs,
apart from sex, of course — the consequences of which
may occasionally be permitted to enter
provided they wash their hands. Alas, there is no soap
or running water in the manly poem
and the children are hungry or sulky or tired —
For the manly poem, despite its umbilical scar, arrived
fully formed, punctuated with profound utterances,
a tendency to syllable count
and complex forms; also politics, apocalypses,
great themes. The manly poem
has a purpose, the manly poem must Lead The Way —
but with such rules, taboos, and no breakfast, the Inner Critic
— vestigial, but still lurking — convulses and dies,
not literally, you understand, with a lingering quotation,
but in the usual mess of grief and bodily fluids
which have to be dealt with, of course,
in another kind of poem.
I bought a ripe avocado
from the Turk, and some flour
and a skimpy red dress
for my lover, who always
wore garments that barely
covered her elastic body.
My stalker embodied
the curves of the avocado
and the passion of a bear. Lee
was her name. A blue cornflower
whe wore pinned lengthways
to the neckline of her dress.
That day she sported no dress.
All she had on was her body
and a thong to hint at the ways
you’d peel an avocado
or eat a flower
or enjoy a bare Lee.
Like a hungry bear, Lee
began to undress
me. I dropped the flour
and we rolled our one body
white, squashing the avocado—
a memory that weighs.
Each to each for always?
It seemed a moment, barely…
Now a green avocado
makes me think red dress,
and over my unwed body
I sieve snowdrifts of flour.
On the vessel ??Cuckooflower??—
one of its nesting stowaways—
I slump here disembodied.
How could I bear Lee
hurling that ripped-up dress,
a ‘no!’ and an avocado?
She’s always a ‘yes’ in my mind—
avocado body, unfolding flower—
I barely have the strength to get dressed.
John Hartley Williams
Autumn at Number Nine
The ‘decorating’ is over now, the hammers silent.
A pile of ragged old russet carpet out the front
speaks of effort as it sits lumpily heaped
near the broken microwave and the shelf fittings,
by the recycling box, open to the rain, full of
liquid food supplement bottles, the stuff
Nana is kept alive by, just about, handed to her
by her grandson while his margarita pizzas,
from Iceland, nice with a Carlsberg (those
cans thrown in there too) are heating up.
Out the back a layered pyramid of rusty timbers,
plastic sheeting, cycle frames, old cat litter trays
is climbing the back fence. The barbecue,
a little crooked, is to one side, not touched
since things erupted with Gary the lodger that hot
Sunday lunchtime, but maybe it’ll be handy
next summer. Left over from this one,
the green plastic chairs sit splayed in the rain,
full of the ghosts of the mates who used
to come here for a get-together and a bit of rap
back when the shed was wired for sound.
Back before the neighbours got awkward
and the council started to come on heavy. Yeah,
it was good then, a laugh, when his mum
was still alive but, only forty six, she passed
away in June, so quick, in the Royal Free. It isn’t
the same without her but the funeral went ok. Forget
that spot of trouble after, when he was out
the front with Gary, and Jade’d popped round
to sympathise; and the wheelie bin was sideways
for them to sit on when a sarky bloke with leaflets
asked for the sharp end of Jadie’s tongue.
How were they to know he was a Libdem councillor?
No, it’s too quiet without mum around. And after all
that’s happened, the things which made life worth living,
a drink, a cigarette, have turned out not to be
such good friends after all. They’ve learned that much,
him and his nan. You can’t rely on anything really.
Now the music’s had to stop, it’s dead. But the days pass
by all right, the numbered days till nana goes off too.
Bricolage of empire.The promise and despair
of life imitating art. Phallocentric ‘Paris
and its Environs’. CNN advertising itself.
Berlitz wasted on the Yanks. This is nationalism
dressed up as culture and thrown back at us.
Travelling in from the wartorn suburbs,
on the quiet Metro, we are reminded how
after a month in the Midwest we were cosy
and unprovoked, insulated by fat America.
Here the rest of the world is everywhere:
in bed, the wallet and menu; a story put together
with the crumbs of the wine. The self, after all,
is only the memory of the self, something
conveniently forgotten when, the cappucino eaten,
you nick an ashtray from the Café de Flore,
certain de Beauvoir would do the same for love…
I’m grateful, but more concerned we are not lost –
I know where I’m going, only I don’t know
how to get there. Fortunately, it’s late
and no one is following. We surface at sunset
just as St. Sulpice moves towards sentience.
Both Anatole France and Henry Miller ended up
supplicants before its cool grandeur, the growl
in its heart. It’s a pilgrimage for the rest of us
from the empty bicycles locked to the empty trees.