Troubadour Poetry Prize 2012

Troubadour Poetry Prize 2012

Troubadour Poetry Prize winners 2012

Some of our prizewinners at Troubadour Prize Night on Mon 3rd Dec 2012 (l to r) Gillian Laker, Helen Overell, Gerrie Fellows, Caroline Smith, Richard Douglas Pennant (Cegin Productions), Anne-Marie Fyfe, Bernard O’Donoghue (judge), Betty Thomson, Nicky Arscott, Jane Draycott (judge), Judy Sutherland, Vanessa Gebbie, Judy Brown and Paul Stephenson

Sponsored by Cegin Productions

The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue who read along with winning poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 3rd December 2012:

  • First Prize, £2500: ‘Immensi Tremor Oceani’, Vanessa Gebbie, East Sussex
  • Second Prize, £500: The Teenage Existential, Paul Stephenson, London
  • Third Prize, £250: Explaining the Plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s: C.J. Allen, Notts

and, with prizes of £20 each:

  • Horse As Accordion, Nicky Arscott, Powys
  • A Tale from the Town Maze, Mike Barlow, Lancaster
  • East 17th Street or How I Met My Husband, Mara Bergman, Tunbridge Wells
  • The Third Umpire, Judy Brown, London
  • The Ledge, Miles Cain, York
  • Brood, Claudia Daventry, St. Andrews
  • The Language of Memory (The Bees), Gerrie Fellows, Glasgow
  • Lost, Rebecca Goss, Liverpool
  • When Jesus Played the Piano, David H.W. Grubb, Henley-on-Thames
  • Woman on a Cliff, Peter Gruffydd, Bristol
  • X-Ray Vision, Alex Josephy, London
  • Woolpit Child, Gillian Laker, Kent
  • October 1962, Shelley McAlister, Yarmouth
  • Burning the Clocks, John McCullough, East Sussex
  • HazMat, Dawn McGuire, Orinda, California
  • A Psalm for the Scaffolders, Kim Moore, Barrow in Furness
  • The Mercedes, Helen Overell, Surrey
  • The Scarlet Lizard, Caroline Smith, Rickmansworth
  • Underworld, Judi Sutherland, Berkshire
  • Peter Doig’s Studio, Betty Thomson, Co. Wexford

Immensi Tremor Oceani

in memory of John O’Leary

They say it takes a wave
three days, travelling east,
Newfoundland to Allihies.
They say a wave is the child
of the wind, a perturbation
of water’s equilibrium.
They say a wave marches
on its stomach.
They say a wave is home to
Mother Carey’s chickens — Mater
Cara — who shelter in the lee,
dancing on the water’s surface,
never to return to land once
they have mastered the art of flight.

Vanessa Gebbie

The Teenage Existential

Never take French A-level if you have to
read Albert Camus, particularly if it’s L’Étranger
meaning the stranger, outsider or foreigner,
in case you get it into your precious head

to learn by heart the odd quote or three,
to wow the examiner, so cleverly proceed
noting some down in biro on a small square of blank
paper, stacked in a white plastic cube, normally

given out for free to garages, offices or shops to advertise
a garage, office or shop with their compliments,
but really meant for day-to-day commercial purposes
such as jotting up totals for bulk orders of widgets, which

like Meursault we wonder if they really exist — certainly not
absurd quotations from a refusing Existentialist
pied-noir you’re destined to be examined on
in the module ‘Fiction of the Individual and the Algerian

War of Independence’; then darting off to university
only to find yourself being dragged back repeatedly
during vacations – which are no holiday – because
halls are being used for conferences so you cannot be;

then home with a degree, discovering your mother
handing you back a scrumple of yellowed scrawl
she found while hoovering the junk room between the
valance and skirting board — no, not Valence, the town

in the Drôme you don’t yet know, a hundred kilometres south
of Lyon and home to the family of your future spouse
but the frilly purple curtain making your old bed look
like a hovercraft crossed the Channel and soaked up Merlot

and which happens to read ‘In our society any man
who doesn’t cry at his own mother’s funeral is liable to be
condemned to death’, and for your mother to admit she was
quite upset three years ago finding you wanted her dead.

Paul Stephenson

Explaining the Plot of Blade Runner to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s

All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Rutger Hauer, in Blade Runner

Los Angeles, November 2019.
       ‘Who is that man?’ she asks. ‘A replicant,
a robot,’ I reply. ‘It’s science fiction.’

       ‘I’ll bet it is,’ she says. ‘You do know that
your father’s in the garage? No-one’s called
       to take away the bath-seat.’ ‘I know,’ I say,

although I know these things aren’t true. I’m sitting
       in my father’s armchair, an interloping god,
a replicant, of sorts. ‘Some days,’ she says,

       ‘I curl up like the rug and sleep. Have they
come back to earth because they want more life?
       Is that it?’ ‘That is it,’ I say, ‘exactly.’

‘Your father hated storms.’ ‘I know,’ I say.
       I know this to be true. And in the future,
in Los Angeles, it’s raining fit to fill

       a wire basket. ‘I knew your mother.’ ‘Do you
mean — I think you mean — your mother? Lou?’
       ‘I do. The rain,’ she says, ‘look at the rain.’

C. J. Allen

Horse as Accordion

For E

The horse when running will fill up and empty
its lungs with every stride. Like a bellows they act
below the ribs: pushing and pushing and pushing it on,
pushing it over the countryside, past the river,
the church, the red brick school; the playground
you used to run to sometimes. Imagine it —horse—
running the world, sometimes carrying things
on its back, sometimes not. We have seen it
from time to time but forgot to develop the film
or the camera got stolen or maybe we just lost it.

What we saw was a dead cow on a mountain bend
as rigid as a table. It filled the struggling car
with a smell like dark chocolate I wrote in my notes
(though it wasn’t: we were breathing in death).
It was lockdown, warfare, serious shit:
the fear of the father standing in mud
next to a broken down pickup truck
which is his family’s fear
which is always the most violent of fears.

You said I have never seen anything
like these purple mountains and the sun, dying,
but it is the most frightened I have been
without crying, my chest a sheep’s bladder
with all matter squeezed out. So imagine
the horse, climbing the mountain
with marigolds. Why is Mexico always
car crashes, roadside crosses, dia de los muertos?
Papayas like vomit, smeared across a highway,
and the stupid cow with its tiny lungs
collapsing everywhere along the sierra.

People are singing. People are singing through
another laboured metaphor, graceful and ungraceful.
The horse is accordion, it fills the little church,
with the mountains all spread out before you.

Nicky Arscott

A Tale from the Town Maze

Each day ended with the maze, quick check
round its double-backs and turnarounds, ways-in,
ways out, its heart with a crumbling sundial,

picking up empties, wrappers, sometimes a scarf
or glove and once a wad of twenties on the path –
this he still debated with himself.

Early autumn saw the first frost, sallow light
as he checked for sleeping drunks, runaways, the lost
and panicking. And at the centre, on scuffed earth

beside the plinth, a bundle: threadbare towel,
old cardigan, flower print blouse, like something
fly-tipped on the verger. Then movement, slight
yet definite, a twitch, pink bud of a tiny fist.

They scoured the park, went house to house,
briefed the press, yet of the mother nothing,
no leads loosed by gossip, no ghost of rumour.

The child though thrived. Some hack named him
Theseus but soon he slid from view into his own
adopted and unmythic life. And the keeper?

He kept to his old routines. The day’s-end check,
its sense of something missed. Most nights he’d wake
from a troubled sleep to stagger back by torchlight.

Late revellers, small hours pavement-pounders,
would wake next morning still spooked
by a phantom light behind a mesh of privet,
this way and that, desperate for a way out.

Mike Barlow

East 17th Street or How I Met my Husband

If Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Seymour had moved
       out of their two-bedroom apartment with my four cousins
as planned, I never would have met Susan Silver,
       who lived in their courtyard, Utopia Parkway, Queens,
and grew up with Sharon and Tara, and years later
       might not have known her at university
or become best friends, lived together in the red semi
       on East Street next to Feeny’s Fine Foods and Drink
with Marla, the actress who spent weekends in New York City
       with a jazz musician twice her age. The three of us
ate only with chopsticks at a cable spool we used as a table,
       went to Dunkin’ Donuts in the middle of the night
and found, once, a star on our receipt and won
       another dozen, lived up the street from Mary and Albert
with their parakeets Sonya and Raskolnikov, and Peter, the potter,
       who borrowed my Brother typewriter to write a book
on Abstract Expressionism. I would never have heard
       that Susan met an English guy that summer while camping
with her boyfriend in Vermont and that he would borrow a sleeping bag
       and have to return it. She would not have rung me up
to join her in Manhattan, and I would not have objected and
       she would not have cajoled me until she convinced me to go.
I would not have seen him standing in the doorway
       of his friend’s apartment on East 17th Street and thought Yes.

Mara Bergman

The Third Umpire

always was, his noonday elder brothers said,
the piker in the pavilion, pale as milk.
Raspberry feathers ring his albino irises.
He soaks up the behind-blind day-time dark,
dreaming before his bank of shut screens.

They’ll call on him soon, the two sun-faced
umpires, to liven and lean in to his images:
master of instrument and replay. Then
his muscles will tense to some sunk mood.
It’s his cold call, what happened to that cloudy hit.

He’s the dead boy whistled into the table-glass
to speak true. And will — where the stitched ball
left a kiss on the glove shows as snow on Hotspot.
The played bat always bled unboiled linseed
from its wood, but no snick of sound is heard here.

This is new to him, being set over his brothers
and Hawkeye, haruspex, tells him what might
have been but for the intervener, plays his delivery
out in dotted lines as if batsman was just air,
where it would have gone if it hadn’t gone awry.

Some nights he walks bare-chested onto the pitch
touching the square for some last warmth.
His skin itches under an owly moon.
He can hardly believe it: that the crease belongs
to the umpire, and thus can be said to be partly his.

He lays his talc-dry thumb in its chalked dent,
knowing the real miracle is that the game flows
out here, the click-fizz of shook beer blossoming.
If his brothers had him thrown onto this grass furnace
at high noon, would his god really let him burn?

Judy Brown

The Ledge

The sun was blinding at the ledge,
turning us thirsty, delirious. We peered
at the drop, whistled at gravity
as Joe kicked a pebble into air
and watched it turn to nothing.
We were exhausted, dirty,
our clothes turned to strips of grey cloth
on the journey of bleached dawns
past prehistoric cars, junked prams
and bones. The old world done.

We sat all day, talking about how times
used to be, the stuff we could buy.
Cars. Shampoo. Lager and thrills.
We shared our final tin of corned beef,
then lay down, head to head.
My arm rested beside the drop
into darkness. Wind scarred our ears
as I called Joe’s name, told him I loved him.

In the morning, a vulture flapped
four feet from my nose.
I batted it away with my arm,
called Joe’s name, but he was gone;
must have turned over in his sleep,
or else struck out on his own.
Drops of rain patted my cheek and nose
as the vulture flapped into the air, eyed me up,
then caught a breeze and fell from view.

Miles Cain


Niamh has ghosts. It started when he left for the city.
The night she went outside to feed the hens, and found
them stone-cold, paralysed, stiff in their own shit
without a trace of blood, no damage to the ground
or snippage to the chicken-wire, but sawdust in their food –
a frisson stung her back like a drop of cold sweat.
Niamh has big hands. The night the chickens died
she fetched a shovel from the shed and dug a pit.
She scooped the feathered bodies to her breast,
each one in turn; buried her fingers in the neck-ruff,
lifted wings, but found no cuts, no sores, no marks at all:
no singed pentangles, kabala, no runes in their trough,
but she knew. As she laid each one in earth, she crossed
herself, kissed her fingers, and committed him to hell.

Claudia Daventry

The Language of Memory (The Bees)

Are they memory
       the bees on her hand
       held in amber on the sunlit
camber of the beach
       as if they’d swarmed

scattering their gold black fur?
She has no fear of them
nor they of her fair strands
of flying hair her hand
with its warmth of sand

Were they cupped
in a globe of trickling grains
       or did she lift each one
       by the shimmering
folded lens of its wings?

Are they memory or its gaps?
The day’s ornate surface
a cracked glaze the bees
on her hand gold and black
fragments of their own erasure

Gerrie Fellows


Walking with my baby in the park and slowing for someone
I hadn’t seen in years, I heard myself interrupting coos
to say, You know I lost my first child, don’t you?

As if there is a possibility she might turn up again,
with my glove or best pen. That a sweep of the sofa
might reward me her hand, then body, pulled from the gap

between cushions. As if all I did was lose sight of her.
That an anxious scan of sand could bring her into focus,
squat and peering at shells. As if I could swear

I had hold of her earlier, that a frantic spill of my bag
would bear lip gloss, chewing gum, keys and I’d be
unable to explain, apologising for my dreadful mistake.

As if one day, I could run from my house screaming “Found!”
Lift her for the whole road to see, shouting “Here she is! Here she is! She is here!”

Rebecca Goss

When Jesus Played the Piano

for Kier and Danny

When Jesus played the piano each tree was filled with birds
and the man who sold the tickets said they could listen to the
cool jew for free because this was a once in a lifetime event
and even the tax man was welcome and they brought down
the folks from the funny farm and one crazy fellow said he
recognized the piano player’s face but couldn’t quite nail
him down and the soldier on leave watched the cute Jew
scattering music and joy and harmony all over the place
and when evening became night they all shared their food
and the piano was still playing although there was no longer
anybody at the keyboard, the pianist had slipped away into the
darkness hours ago; only the blind boy saw him go,

David HW Grubb

Woman on a Cliff

It is her coming out
child akimbo in her hip,
hair standing in the sea-breeze
as she turns on the headland
by the primrose clump
and her long skirt sways, rises
in indefinable contours
which are, in the end,
archetypal: she could be
at a jetty’s edge waiting
for a boat’s blurred shape,
twilight coming in
with its finality.
She shows her child the sea
curled up like a grey beast
on rocky sand, her hair blows
her free arm points
and the last rays of late sun
daze her inclined cheek.
Light tumbles round her blown form
ruffles her small child’s vest,
until she becomes all
that being, a woman
on a cliff over the sea.

Peter Gruffydd

X-Ray Vision

There’s a fracture known as the Open Book
often seen in these cases. Here, an angle
of bone I call the Swallow. Deep in shadowy fields,
the outline of something we almost recognise
and long to name: coat-hanger? Leaping dolphin?
Look, where mist obscures the columns,
the boy with a broken wing is waiting
for our help, though he’s by no means sure
that help is what he needs. That swoop
under the sun, pure joy, even the wrench
of falling must have seemed fated. Burnished.
But we’ve no time for all that, goose pinions
fixed with wax. Another story starts. Show me again
your landmarks. Fetch the scalpel. Where do we begin?

Alex Josephy

Woolpit Child

My brother never thrived
though I was always the greener;
he folded back into a wooden pod
and we planted him root down.

I battled the wind’s fetch
in that first loneliness
as the sun sharpened its edge
on this too-bright land;

learned to make a virtue
of my body’s strange sap,
curled men’s hands
around my darkness,

set out to find dew hollows
in one white throat,
to breed him a son
and a daughter,

then faded to olive
under the skin’s web.

Gillian Laker

October 1962

A crisis in our family that autumn meant
that someone left the gate open and our dog Fidel disappeared
It was the wrong time to be our kind of family

the wrong time to have a dog named Fidel
It was the wrong time for my granddad to write to The Times
urging the United States to show restraint

It was the wrong time for my mother to remind her crochet group
that Russian women were just like themselves
It was, my dad said, the wrong time for ultimatums

For my brothers and me it was a new school year
football practice and piano lessons, dens in the woods
It was Bert the Turtle and duck-and-cover drills

crouching under desks to avoid seeing The Flash
It was solemn men in suits on the TV and everyone sshhhhhing
me when I asked why the Bay of Pigs had no pigs

next door it was anew bomb shelter dug into the garden
and bottles of water and bedding and tins of wax and beans stockpiled
in boxes. It was the last time we took wax beans for granted

And it was the first time our non-god family longed
for a higher power, a being wise enough
to see us through another day and another and another

So each night we prayed. We prayed for Kruschev
that he’d see sense, and for Jack Kennedy
that he’d wait it out. We prayed for Cubans and for Russians

and for Americans, who had everything but nonetheless
needed help at a time like this. Most of all we prayed for our dog Fidel
that when he found his way home, we’d still be here.

Shelley McAlister

Burning the Clocks

They’re floating past my kitchen – timepieces of willow cane
and tissue paper. Lit inside, they bob and flicker

through the year’s longest night, borne by glamorous strangers –
clouds of human butterflies, a stilt walker who’s a waterfall

of swinging lanterns, the paper hands on every dial
fixed at midnight. I slip outside and follow them

to the ocean’s treacle, the wind entering my sleeves,
racing over gloves you sent me two birthdays back.

Steel drums, manic sambas. Urban rituals
that aren’t ancient at all, but then it happens –

they toss the clocks onto a pyre, the craftwork torn apart
by terriers of flame, each slender dial blackening, dissolving.

And I’m back beside that dusty road that leaves Tehran,
beneath a lemon tree that knows itself to be an angel.

You dangle a watch from supple fingers. Listen. And I focus
on its sombre music, the violence of every second,

the erasures worked by quartz that trembles constantly.
The miracle is simple. You lay it face-down,

lift the back and briefly stop its heart. A spell, you say,
to keep us here, a fragment stolen from the dark.

I’ve lost the watch. And time is not these clocks that disappear
but all the gaps in air flames vanish into,

an anxious force that’s always running. Its tragedy
is that it cannot burn, though I’ll take what I can – this moment

in a crowd’s cohesion, an image I’ll linger in, years later.
Where is it rushing to, this wind that will not die,

that could not rustle the waxy leaves of a tree
where a hundred lemons flared, confronting the night?

John McCullough


Every eighty minutes a Veteran commits suicide. The Times-Tribune, August 19, 2012

And there you were in your mini bus
of woundedness, and there I was trying
to learn stick shift, so you wouldn’t
have to drive the weeping stump
of yourself to Albert’s, although,
looking back, shopping for broccoli
might have been just the thing.

I loved your wound; it was life
lived in the light of the primal.
Any moment some improvised
explosive device in Khandahar
would set off an IED in you.
The ghosts you’d piece together
in daylight, night would detonate.

Grief sonics shook the house. We got a dog,
a German Shepherd with a service vest.
She went everywhere we went. We lived
within constraints, the everyday replaced
by a kind of formal, hazardous beauty. At least,
it seemed beautiful to me then. I didn’t understand
will never understand why you gave in.

Dawn McGuire

A Psalm for the Scaffolders

who balanced like tightrope walkers,
who could run up the bracing
faster than you or I could climb
a ladder, who wore red shorts
and worked bare-chested,
who cut their safety vests in half,
a psalm for the scaffolders
and their vans, their steel
toe-capped boots, their coffee-mugs,
a psalm for those who learnt
to put up a scaffold standing
on just one board, a psalm
for the scaffolder who could pout
a six inch nail in a piece of wood
with just his palm, a psalm
for those who don’t like rules
or things taking too long, who now
mustn’t go to work uncovered,
who mustn’t cut their safety vests
or climb without ladders, who must
use three boards at all times,
a psalm for the scaffolders
who fall with a harness on,
who have ten minutes to be rescued,
a psalm for the scaffolder who fell
in a clear area, a tube giving way,
that long slow fall, a psalm for him,
who fell thirty feet and survived,
a psalm for the scaffolder
who saw him fall, a psalm for those
who answer their phones at the top
of buildings, the wind whistling
in their ears, the sky in their voices,
for those who lift and carry
and shout and swear, for those
who can recite the lengths of boards
and tubes like a song, a psalm for them,
the ones who don’t like heights
but spent their whole life hiding it,
a psalm for those who work too long,
a psalm for my father, a psalm for him.

Kim Moore

The Mercedes

for VS

already old as the African hills
when given to her father
as part of his annual pay
in the days he worked at the paper mill –

each journey a slow,
stately, considered trek –
and when he passed on,
handed over to a farmer who was known

to be gifted in all
the ways and inner
workings of engines, outer
matters of tyres and chipped paint, called

into new life, driven
the while, as well-befitted
with dignity and decorum,
by the Zulu driver, now an aged man

who, she is told, retired
well into his eighties, his gift
the key – overcome, he sank
to the ground, I have no power he said.

And the great machine
dwells in his village,
polished, every Saturday,
without fail, to a dazzle of a gleam;

she hears how the whole
family, dressed in Sunday
best, is carried to Church, then
on to the Spar for the weekly shop, the low

hum of the laden car
content as any burdened
in the long lull of a life,
the deep bass notes a wordless Hallelujah.

Helen Overell

The Scarlet Lizard

Nothing moves
except the evening light
crossing the Judge’s room.
The lawyers’ skeleton arguments
lay piled on his desk.
They seemed to him brittle
as bleached poppies,
tapped of their seeds.

he longed to see the quick movement
of a scarlet lizard weaving unexpectedly
through the parched cracked hexagons
of a legal phrase, to hear the snapped stick
fritter away from a hiding place;
to feel the cold diaphanous weed grip
in the black current of a border crossing.

He needed to sense some quiver of
indecision, an odd detail
that would open the truth of their words
like chinks of light shining
through shuttered doors.

Caroline Smith


At night, when the last train rumbles
to the depot and the piston-draught dies down,
the night shift keeps its silent hours;

cleaning, repairing, watching
CCTV screens of empty platforms,
shutting down electrics with a key;

trackwalking near Stockwell, where an engineer
holds a Tilly lamp — he died in 1950 —
and cowled monks prowl the Jubilee.

The old lady at Monument & Bank
vanishes through padlocked lattice gates.
There’s a faceless blonde at Becontree;

and in Kennington Loop, the clunk of doors
being slammed along an empty train.
From the wartime crush at Bethnal Green,

one hundred and seventy three
screams still echo in the ticket hall.
At King’s Cross, the heat’s still there

from a flashover, fuelled by sweet wrappers
grease, dust, wooden escalators,
rat — and human — hair.

Heading downwards, here are four cleanskins,
rucksacks bulging with terror, intent
on detonating hatred in the tunnels, where

I saw the shade of a young girl, seventeen,
just arrived from Euston, on the Northern Line,
reading other passengers’ newspapers

the day John Lennon died. She often appears
on a Friday night, swinging her weekend bag,
running through Victoria.

Sometimes I see her saying goodbye
to a young man in a winter coat
as he exchanges all his gold for darkness.

Judi Sutherland

Peter Doig’s Studio

In Canada he thinks about
his studio in King’s Cross –

its high northern light spattering
the floorboards, making visible

jars of cleaned brushes, palette knives
and squeezed paint tubes

on the little square table;
a stash of dossiers on the floor,

big blank canvases leaning
against the wall – all untouched

since he took off for Canada,
leaving everything in the room

but himself.

He recalls smells from a day’s palette –
a dabbing cloth, an open turps bottle –

the way those smells rose and thickened
even when the big sash windows

were opened up and down
as far as they would go.

Betty Thomson

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