Troubadour Poetry Prize 2014
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2014: some of our prizewinning poets at Troubadour Prize Night on Mon 1st Dec 2014 (l to r) Rishi Dastidar, Paul Blake, Suzanna Fitzpatrick, Ross Cogan, Dan O’Brien, Alma Brayden, Richard Douglas Pennant (Cegin Productions), Rachel Plummer, Richard Aronowitz, Chris Beckett, Frances Galleymore, Ian McEwen, Paul Stephenson & (kneeling) Anne-Marie Fyfe with 2014 prize judges Neil Astley & Amy Wack
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2014
Sponsored by Cegin Productions
The following prizewinning poems were chosen by judges Neil Astley & Amy Wack who read along with winning poets at our annual prizegiving event at the Troubadour on Monday 1st December 2014:
- First Prize, £5,000, The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs, Dan O’Brien, Santa Monica CA, USA
- Second Prize, £1000, Aurvandil’s Toe, Ross Cogan, Faringdon, Oxfordshire
- Third Prize, £500, Recovery Room, Wes Lee, Ngaio, Wellington, New Zealand
and, with prizes of £25 each:
- Intertidal, Gary Geddes, Thetis Island BC, Canada
- Moth Blues, Danielle McShine, Joinville-Le-Pont, France
- I Medea, Sarah Roby, Norwich
- Baltic Woman, Paul Stephenson, Paris, France
- Field of Light, Alma Brayden, Sandycove, Co. Dublin, Ireland
- Kate Bush as spider goddess, Rachel Piercy, Henley-on-Thames
- Apoptosis, Paul Blake, London SE13
- Coal Song, Anja Konig, Zürich, Switzerland
- Punctuation Points, Edward Ragg, China
- Composition with lots of colours No. 1, Rishi Dastidar, London SE11
- Mini Van, Peter Sansom, Sheffield
- Take Five, Bob Rogers, Falmouth
- The Clowns and Cut Confetti, Ian Harker, Meanwood, Leeds
- The day they murdered Assefa Maru, Chris Beckett, London SW16
- Uncut, Rachel Plummer, Edinburgh
- A list of the bird species recorded in Syria, Ian McEwen, Bedford
- Recently in Somalia, Frances Galleymore, Wellswood, South Devon
- Putting up a Music Stand, Richard Aronowitz, Cambridge
- Ravenglass for Eskdale, Genevieve Carver, Ellerton, York
- Breech, Suzanna Fitzpatrick, Orpington, Kent
Poetry competitions always present a window on the past year, and the 2014 Troubadour Poetry Competition was no exception, with wars — past and present — the chosen territory of many of the poets. Some writers took their inspiration from the First World War in this anniversary year, but many more focussed on more recent conflicts, none more so than Dan O’Brien, who submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize. All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them, and the fact that he had three poems which were that strong meant that I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize. All three are “docupoems” relating to specific incidents or aspects of the current conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan seen through the eyes of O’Brien’s war reporter protagonist. We’ve all heard about civilians being killed or injured by barrel bombs dropped by President Assad’s forces in Syria, which sound horrific enough in neutral news reports, but O’Brien’s poem puts the reader on the ground: we witness the dropping of these scrap metal weapons, and we see and experience for ourselves how something makeshift — which is literally thrown together — will kill or maim anyone within a wide radius of its impact. His descriptions focus on what seems absurd — a grotesque ‘comedy of manners’ — to dramatise and heighten the horror. His protagonist reporter’s photograph or photographs are the window O’Brien sees through to engage more fully with what the camera freezes.
Our runners-up include several other poems relating to recent events in Iraq or Afghanistan, Somalia and Ethiopia, some of these written from first-hand experience. Another recurrent theme — as in all the poetry competitions I’ve judged over the years — was family life recalled, whether fond or fraught, as well as stories of growing up, coming to terms with personal tragedy, finding one’s place in the world. Here the anonymity of the writers can make the poems feel even more universal when read en masse. It’s something of an emotional rollercoaster too: being suddenly sucked in to so many people’s lives, sharing their grief, heartbreak or regret. Our third prizewinner, Wes Lee, submitted many such poems, several of them potential winners, and I found it quite hard to pick between poems relating to so many different kinds of life experiences, but in the end kept coming round to ‘Recovery Room’. When we delivered our final list of winning poems we discovered that we’d unknowingly picked another poem of hers as a runner-up, which only served to confirm my sense that she really did need to be our third prizewinner; and so we were able to pick another poem we particularly liked to replace her “disqualified” second poem from the numerous others on our shortlists.
Thanks to Anne-Marie and to our sponsors this evening. Anne-Marie Fyfe has been running the famous Troubadour Coffee House Poetry series for a number of years and should be congratulated. I do feel that as the banking family Medici helped fund the renaissance, and stumped up for Botticelli, today’s well-off should also come up with the coin for the arts. It does them credit.
I also thank all the poets here today and not just the ones on the winner’s long or shortlist. Poetry is something of a sacred mission for me and so I did approach the task of reading close to 4000 poems with seriousness. People write poems often about the most important junctures of their lives: loss, love, illness, death. As in the great Yeats’ poem, I knew that I was treading on peoples’ dreams so I tried to tread gently.
The salutary lesson of the 19th century also keeps me humble. A number of my favourite poets were unknown or privately self-published: Emily Dickinson, G.M. Hopkins and Walt Whitman. We might just not know for another hundred or even two hundred years if we’ve overlooked some outlier hermit or underestimated some upstart crow.
Of course I was honored to be asked to judge this prestigious competition, particularly as my co-judge was to be the great Bhudda of Bloodaxe, Neil Astley. Everyone in the poetry universe knows Bloodaxe, for the depth and breadth and passion of their list. We all owe Neil a debt for his tireless work in the poetry mines. He’s done much to keep this art in the public mind.
I did note a demographic in the poems: baby boomers, those born after the War and before 1960, many poems were about mid-life issues: aging, illness, the death of parents. There weren’t as many love poems or poems about birth or raising children as one might have expected. I think there was only one poem about sport, and that was golf!
I think Neil will agree with me that War poems featured strongly, including that of our First Prize winner Dan O’Brien. O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’ is vividly realistic, terrifying, and convincing. One of the results of mass communication in the 21st century is that we are all now more directly and tangibly aware of the violence inflicted in our names and with our money, in disturbed parts of the (mostly) third world. As an American, and as a child of a military family, war themes are acutely resonant with me, but also I think should be part of the conscience, and certainly the consciousness of every intelligent person, particularly those of us in the reasonably well-off and peaceful Western societies.
Other poems on our longlist echoing war themes: ‘The Field of Light’ by Alma Brayden; ‘Apoptosis’ by Paul Blake; ‘The Clowns and Cut Confetti’ by Ian Harker; ‘A List of Bird Species recorded in Syria’ by Ian McEwan and ‘The Day they murdered Assefa Maru’ by Chris Beckett — all about recent and topical conflicts. As Neil pointed out War themes might well be more to the fore due to the many events surrounding the 100 year anniversary of World War I.
We also felt that the suffering of others in the less well-off parts of the world, due mostly just to poverty, ignorance and neglect, made for some powerful poems: ‘Recently in Somalia’ by Frances Galleymore, with its moving dipiction of a blind woman and ‘I Medea’ by Sarah Roby, a frightening portrayal of FGM.
Then there is the trauma closer to home.Our Third place winner, Wes Lee, submitted a number of very powerful poems seemingly based on memories of a protagonist’s disturbing and abuse-haunted childhood. The unearthing of trauma as in classic tragedy, is both compelling and cathartic. Some people must fight wars on very personal grounds. ‘Mini Van’ by Peter Sansom worked on similar themes, and ‘Take Five’ by Bob Rogers was a cool look at memory loss and aging from the perspective of an elderly poet. These are also courageous poems of witness and survival.
It wasn’t all tragedy. Although I will have to bring out my wet noodle to lash all the people, who submitted limp nature poetry, for Wordsworth is too often like the ghost of Christmas Past in poetry. I found myself craving a sense of urgency here as the fate of the planet should be one of our most pressing concerns. Shouldn’t it too be on a war footing?
There were a handful of absolutely wonderful nature poems. We’ve chosen a few, ‘Moth Blues’ by Danielle McShine, and our second prize winner, ‘Aurvandil’s Toe’ by Russ Cogan. Cogan’s poem about stars, probably second only to cats as dangerous and inadvisable bit of subject matter, just bowled me over. Each word was note-perfect.
There were also some good poems that began with landscapes and enfolded relationships: ‘Coal Song’ is a particularly beautiful example, as is ‘Intertidal’ where a river journey in the Americas contains a poignant memory of a dying father. I loved how Paul Stephenson’s ‘Baltic Woman’ builds a map-woman from the Baltic states. ‘Ravenglas for Eskdale’ by Genevieve Carver was lovingly evocative of a British train journey.
There were several poems, sometimes overlapping on our lists, that were like the perfect little dances, gavottes, beautifully executed and succinct. ‘Putting Up a Music Stand’ by Richard Aronowitz; ‘Composition with lots of Colours No. 1’ by Rishi Dastidar; ‘Punctuation Points’ by Edward Ragg. We also liked ‘Uncut’ by Rachel Plummer as exmplar of the sonnett form.
It was hard to be funny. Humour does date and one person’s amusing can be another person’s bad taste. I also very much appreciated how serious and high-minded Neil Astley’s choices invariably were. Poetry is indeed a serious business. I will confess that I did demand one heroine for our time: Rachel Piercy’s ‘Kate Bush as a Spider Goddess’.
The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs
The bird is like a black spider spinning
miles over our heads, dangling its egg sac
of water heaters, gas canisters or
rusted mufflers with stabilizing fins
soldered on—basically pieces-of-shit
IEDs of TNT, nitrogen
-rich fertilizer, diesel, anything
likely to kindle after exploding
upon impact. With scrap metal for shrapnel
like candy inside piñatas released
into a comical, almost human
-like gyring, like affianced sky divers
weaving and reaching, until they align
in a bullet-nosed dive into the day
below. Light before sound. The mushroom cloud
heralds catastrophe. Burning plastic,
blizzards of shattered concrete. Low moaning
beneath new earth. The living and the dead
suddenly like Africans wearing masks
of white mud. Or debauched protagonists
in some comedy of manners. Their limbs
like tangled marionettes. Children rescued
in a parody of birth. Some reviving
like fish thrown back to the sea. A man blinks
pantsless on what was his toilet, atoms
swirling away. Bits of spine. Bits of spine
laid on a blanket. A foot in a sock
sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her
to see if they should dig. We come for you,
he swears to the camera. By which he means
the killers, mind you, and not the buried
If we could but see it, the night
would be fat with stars. Not only the gaudy
plume of Polaris, spatter of constellations,
but tiny translucent fragments of candles.
If we had millwheel eyes the sky
would not be sown with stars like the seeded field,
the flock in flight, gold on the dark cloak;
it would squirm with bright lights like the grain
hopper, the nest of naked grubs,
sand settling on the borderless shore.
The night would blind us with its unnumbered suns.
But then if we could really see depth
with fulcrum eyes rolling the universe,
or like gods could fold space in time’s amber
our gaze would freeze in the lean gaps
between the fires. And so, knowing this
somehow, we hang the dark with our clutter:
belts and bears, horses and ploughs
fishes and rams and bows and best
of all, the toe of Aurvandil the Brave,
which, poking from Thor’s knapsack grew black
with frostbite and snapped, and was hurled by the God
into orbit. A frostbitten toe set on high;
the last, best charm against the dark.
When I returned I was different. I was cold all the time,
wore wool against my skin. The shock of the cold
carried with me into summer. I could not leave the two bar
heater; the layers plied on. Some fear came up with me
in the recovery room, where my teeth chattered and the nurses
hurried to find a blanket of foil; leant in to monitor my eyes.
I think I left something no lost and found can contain
under the desk, or behind the locked door where no mouth can ask
for a red umbrella or gaily checked scarf.
I wandered around in hats and long velvet skirts, black
to keep the heat. I bundled up and my doctor said, ‘you’re so thin
there’s nothing of you.’
And he said later, ‘they’ll put you in a ward and shock you.’
And that shocked me.
And later I saw him driving a yellow Volkswagen, top down,
with children in the back licking ice creams.
Putting up a Music Stand
It’s been years since I have thought
about one of these: how you have
to unfold the stand section by section,
rotate or turn the elements pin by pin,
make parallels into rhomboids and rectangles
until it begins to make sense, to find
its own coherence. The whole is no more
than the sum of its parts, yet so much
more. It’s how music itself takes shape:
from abstract points on lines to something
absolute, made real and beautiful
through our manipulation of the parts.
Evenings when the tide is low and my paddle
scrapes rocks or drags in mud, when gulls
head home, last shell of the day clamped tight
in their beaks, when purple stars loosen
their grip on submerged logs and barnacles
and prepare to swim again in the night sky,
I think of you, made-up, hair in a bun, at work
as a demonstrator, smiling, your heart going out
for chewing gum, mayonnaise or latest brand
of crackers, two kids at home, latch-key
specials emptying the last lick from the jar
of peanut butter. Already some terminal
signs, spotting, the pain and swelling still
to come. How to know, then, it was serious,
each visit to the doctor another day
without pay. As the channel deepens, I bite
into the darkness, catch the muffled voice
of water thrust astern, a rumble so faint
I turn to see who’s following me, imagine
shift nurses discussing your condition
in hushed tones, the shaking of heads, all
that knowledge useless now. I balance
my paddle across the cockpit for a moment
and drift till silence overcomes the petty
turbulence, letting the current do the work.
Death is the sharpest tool; it carved you in the womb,
shaping in lost cells the gulf between each finger:
our hands hold so many deaths between them.
These hands are gloved as if in respect, it being taboo
to touch such secrets. The pathologist’s saw has opened
a puzzle box: the scalp pulled back like a cheap wig,
ivory unhinging on a rosy coral, stranded tideless
on its beach of bone. This too, involute and folded,
is sculpted by much dying. Only such necessary loss
could carve in it the olive grove’s sea-silver, the scents
of cordite, shit, bean soup and hungry bread, the sound
of Fairuz singing ‘Kayfak Inta’ on the old Dansette.
And between hemispheres lies the bridge called as-Sirat,
where the sword angel stands, denying you resurrection.
Composition with lots of colours No 1
I am arguing with Mondrian
how right angles are not
the right angles,
when clearly what we are
actually arguing about is time,
and how, dynamically, I can push her
to an equilibrium.
Ah, he says, that’s the ol’ double line
rhythm conundrum –
she has you trapped in a plane
Do not be blue about this,
or gather the reds about you;
remake your internal atelier again,
add more coloured panels,
especially her happy yellows.
Make sure there is room for two,
and you will find yourself
doing the victory boogie woogie too.
In the back, with no seats or windows,
just more grey metal. In the end I curl up
on my coat and listen to the road smooth
and bumpy, slow till he puts his foot down
on the new by-pass by Hucknall. This was where
mum worked before the war, a butcher’s sooner
than be in service. Though I don’t know it yet.
And we’re still alive, both of us.
Unseen dark-eyed trees are a way home
through Sherwood Forest, where one day
I’ll run with the harriers. But I’m not
a teenager yet, and this is Mick’s van,
our Mick driving us large as life
from Nottingham to a houseful of the dead
still living none of them more than ten minutes
from where they were born. It is one
winter Saturday, with the tea just mashed
and a bit of dinner waiting for us.
I’m tired of everyone being dead.
I’m tired of being in this van.
The Clowns and Cut Confetti
Charlie Company is ambushed in downtown Basra,
tracers flicking over the rooftops.
The men on bikes come from nowhere,
knees over the handlebars.
An IED goes off in a shower of silver confetti,
four sappers roll out onto the sand
to roars of canned laughter, land upright,
scratching their heads.
A suicide bomber swanks
through the market place,
oversize flower in his big green lapel.
A grainy video goes viral,
a row of hostages on their knees,
big banana feet just in shot,
custard pies held out for the camera.
The hardest thing is the wounded –
grown men flown home with round pink noses,
sand flecked in their white cheeks, black mascara tears,
crooked red smiles.
A stepping stone,
in the pond of meaning.
The smallest and largest
point in the universe.
A pair of identical twins:
with a chaperone.
One of many bridges
A hyphen on holiday –
Inverted Quotation Marks
“Side-burns at the
face of language.”
The Exclamation Mark
Surely this could not
happen to a full stop!
The Question Mark
But can this key, as you say,
truly unlock the world?
The day they murdered Assefa Maru
was the day of the last straw, of the most bitter pill
to swallow, when I finally became a refugee,
the day I spoke to my sister but didn’t know what to say,
remembering a fiery speech Assefa Maru delivered
to the Association of Teachers in Addis Ababa,
the day I buried my passport under a foot of London clay,
the same day Assefa Maru walked to his office
near the Good Shepherd NGO, and a Toyota
stopped in front of him, blocking his peaceful way,
and an Opel with a siren drove up and a policeman
in the back seat fired a volley of pistol shots
before Assefa Maru could cry out, before he could pray,
the day Assefa Maru died instantly, the first of many
days I shouted, Thank you, God, for saving me!
and whispered on my walk to the newspaper shop,
thank you Britain for allowing me to stay!
and people said I must become a British citizen,
forget Assefa Maru! you are a London teacher now!
but it was also the day I drove that thought away,
the day when something quiet, almost clay, inside me
started dreaming of the day when I will go out in my garden
and dig it up, my passport, singing, Oh yes, this is the day!
In dark corners the hair grows through my skin
As dense as ivy through old brick, soil-dank
And root-tangled, earthy as stamen, frank
Against a sun-starved ground stretched thin,
Moonwhite. Fishwhite. Almost alive within.
Because I love wild flowers, and the blank
Spaces in buildings gone to wreck, the rank
Water in ponds now stagnant, toothless grin
Of broken glass and empty window pane
That crumble the respectable edges,
I let it grow. Let’s bring the hidden, shy
Things to the air. Let’s not be so mundane
We miss what freedom wilderness pledges
To hairy, rain-drunk earth; to endless sky.
A list of bird species recorded in Syria
The poor birds are burning up, Black Francolin
they never tell a joke or go Crab Plover
on holiday. These friendless pecks Desert Lark
must be their own reward. Basra Reed-warbler
They twitch across the field, White Spectacled Bulbul
Cream Coloured Courser
such injured things – how can we Pin-tailed Sand Grouse
help? They see us coming Eurasian Thick-knee
too far off. Our open hands Rosy Starling
have thrown them at the sky. Fire-fronted Serin
They jerk and jerk, Pale Rock-finch
tangled in the air: Blackstart
it’s much too big for everyone. Common Raven
Ravenglass for Eskdale
Alight here for memories of grandparents,
mudflats, and sweat under Gore-Tex.
Strap on your walking boots, wrap up
the flapjacks in two layers of cling film,
take your laminated Ordinance Survey map
and follow the hachures until you reach the sky.
Go down to the beach, dip in a toe and gasp,
then surrender yourself to the ocean,
let it wash you out and up again
from Corkickle to Seascale.
Forget the bullies at school,
they have been drowned in Selker Bay.
Get lost in Skalderskew woods and emerge
in Younghusband. Die among the leaves
and let your flesh become mulch.
Your funeral will be at St Bees and
the cathedral chasm will hum with bees
or monks or friends who will miss you.
Passengers from Manchester may wish
to hold on extra tight, there’s colours here
you’ve never even seen. Slow down,
or you’ll smudge the ink of the hills.
Take care to leave all your personal belongings
on the train; you won’t be needing them anymore.
Kate Bush as spider goddess
You are fourteen and learning who to worship.
You wear grey skirts and jumpers
the colour of blood and your brain is hardening
as you learn how to be regarded.
You are learning about stars and French verbs
and oxbow lakes and, though you couldn’t put it
into words, the roles that history makes for you.
The options are sticking in your soul
like flies and consulting the world at large
does not suggest otherwise.
You are learning to negotiate
your relationship with flames,
the things you want
and what other people think
and from the chaos comes Kate.
And Kate calmly sinks her spider-jaws
into chaste and whore and feasts on witch
and from the meat of them
spins a text with the kick of steel.
And Kate’s many eyes look right through never
and if you gaze at Kate
you find you are the whole story
and if you gaze at Kate then your body
and mind get red and hot and swap themselves
and reconcile. You dream in Kate.
Kate can tell you about love and Kate knows
that the lightest things – like air, like snow –
can hold the truth. And between Kate’s various limbs
beats a lion’s heart. And Kate is hard
and high as adulthood.
And you are fourteen
and you expect that you are scared of spiders.
But you are learning.
Let her inside. Let her spin.
Panting, you hunch over yourself
in a pleading crouch. I feel the braille
of a tiny spine, hook my fingers
round small hip bones, brace
and haul, ignore the desperate haemorrhage
as you stretch and tear. You kick the air
in silence, as if saving energy
for both of us. I’m weeping sweat,
joints groaning ominously with the lamb’s
until I yank him free. He’s dead,
his birth cord pallid. Still, you lick my hands,
sure there must be something. Suddenly
two more emerge, alive. I stand up, stiff,
coagulating. When I leave my shift
I carry your blood with me.
Graphite night tightens its grip. The Calder’s waters churn
through the valley like ore in a cauldron. In the car, mist presses in.
Through trees and chimneys the road narrows and turns,
oak follows stone, the door, the knowing window, dirty and dim.
I send echoes into your house of dark hours, wait for word to return.
I diagnose distance. My morse code stutters against the bath’s silent tin.
The earth is rolling deeper into cold each day. I feed the stove to burn
our final fuel. You are submerged, a sad submarine.
We wait, we thread a string of pearls from threatened light.
We wait for darkness to apply its method, its mute pressure,
to shift our atomic positions in the anvil cell of night,
to crush us into flawless dust, until we can be measured
in hardest carats, used to abrade, or fused with cobalt, can be hurled
to cut all matter, even ourselves, can drill to the dark core of this old world.
Land-locked. Her body bounded by the still of the sea. Each time I look
she’s just as slender, the neck long, the head in profile facing eastwards.
Deep in prayer, she appears obviously to me. I prefer her kneeling
on a plush red hassock shaped like the exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast,
her ankles in Malmö, her shins in Gdańsk, both narrow feet slippered
off the Copenhagen coast, nicely snug. I like to admire her discrete
Bothnia breast and Oulu fringe, her hair bunched in the Arctic Circle,
the way the bay of her back arches up from the faculties at Uppsala.
Her chin is round, tucked in low on a plain chemise, her hips bustling
with freezing tides. She’s taking warmth from bonfires near Kokkola.
Small breaths inside a Stockholm corset. She has shaken her lace
handkerchief out, tucked it at easy reach inside the Gotland pocket.
Upon her left wrist a sober bracelet, a fine silver link that sparkles
from spires of Tallinn’s old town to the White Church at Helsinki.
How delicately her finger indicates St. Petersburg, though she is not
accusing Russia. She holds her pose, keeps her stature, fails to fluster
when a page of her Lutheran bible gets carried by gusts, and swirls,
flutters, amen coming to rest one day on far shores of Lake Ludoga.
You have no mouth with which to sing
or eat, but might be persuaded to take
one last sip of nectar for your long road to the moon,
though you might die before you get there.
After being born and mating, what’s left to do
but set a path to that great bulb in the sky?
Even when your faulty navigation dizzies you down
to the depths of a jazz club, drawn
by a horn gleaming blues and gold,
towards the fluttering moth hearts of men
distracted by a smiling girl
and gathered round the tiny fires of cigarettes,
I don’t have the heart to stroke
your star-dusted wings and tell you
all the silk in the world won’t spin you
across that wide dim room.
And what does it matter who first saw it up close,
emerging from a steel cocoon?
What’s true is that the moon glows
more brightly from a distance;
there, you can fly and fly and never be burned.
The Field of Light
See the road the women took, the shattered
wives and daughters of the men who staggered
in endless file to fill the charnel field
mapped out with care to bury each male child
along with father, brother, young and old
it did not matter, everyone had cold
and charted space arranged by General’s hand
held steady for the cleansing of his land.
The women passed dark trees devoid of leaves
where men, who fell exhausted to their knees
were hanged as broken mobiles in the wind,
left there until their frozen spirit dimmed
and slipped to new dimensions, far away
from where eight thousand dug their graves that day.
Loud shooting rang a devil’s tap dance through
the sky, smoke-filled from grey to blackened blue,
the deed well done by robot soldiers drilled
to follow orders, ask no questions, skilled
to keep allotment drills of plants the same
in every seeded gene, façade and name.
Their wives and daughters reached the silent field,
with spades and trowels they planted bulbs, deep-heeled,
dug in to save them under pall of frost,
white lilies, one for every loved one lost.
In Spring, they see an ocean of tall blooms,
snowbirds that sing with plaintive call of loons,
at night they have an incandescent glow,
lone astronauts can spot their shine below
diffusing stars along the galaxy,
immortal, radiant each night and day,
eternal shame for those who turned their backs
to look the other way, deny the facts.
Recently in Somalia
Blindness has become her jailer
holding her separate, gifted to sense alone.
She can scent a mineral blanket of cloud
taste the sweet or spice of another’s voice
feel the touch of a single sand grain.
The poison-snake worms a scaly racket
over rock at the well, one hundred paces away.
Fire’s flavour is bite and sting, heat translates to spark
memory of indigo mountains, orange earth.
The dark smokes light through a cylinder
in this waking fumble of a half-life,
the leaden burden she’s become.
Watching her, you might know or sense –
beginning your own life as you did
in a misshaped tunnel of red-beat dark –
how carefully she’s mapped her baby’s face
reading him with her fingertips, and preserved
every eclipsed moon as umbra: husband, father, family.
Understand how the ebon hugs her, occulting
with its thug hands in a starburst of black,
when she unseals her eyes from sleep
haunted by borders of an outside world.
Anticipate how her heart turns over and unfolds
at news words: Doctors. Médecins Sans Frontières,
with cars, a truck.?? How they’ll unlock one hundred eyes,
how in a month she may be delivered to see her child.
I Medea, though dead, my two heartbeats stopped,
can recognise changeling times, the day going
one way alone,
the mother fixed and the small child home at the start,
following her chubby course through caution,
I Medea, naked under all snake skins I have shed,
recognise the iron scent of fate – the rough
brick of the ineluctable.
She, the nurse clinical, arrives in old clothes and carries
an empty spoonful which will go down as it will go
down as girls go down.
They take the child for her bath, snuck under the habitual,
towelling down of the day, electric dark at the flick
of a switch.
There is total removal of the clitoral hood; the bath is red
and the screams are of death, although the heart insists
on a regular beat.
(And I Medea, who have met death before and before,
know the blood is slow to clean from prune hands
grooved in practice.)
Later when she sleeps and dreams, someone recurs, swims
alongside and jumps the red waves, ‘Now we can find
you a husband!’
She forgets until seated over some black O, she sends
a powerful jet at 45 degrees, a lime cry that stings
the cubicle sides.
Views once sharp as Pre-Raphaelite paintings
have blurred into Monets.
Falling water’s no longer the first thing you think of
when you hear the word cataract.
It’s not as if the wporld’s muffled by snow.
Conversation’s a jigsaw: you try to find words
that fit the sounds you’ve half-heard.
You get it embarrassingly wrong.
You remember how apples, tomatoes, sardines
used to taste. They’re not like that now.
You keep wondering if it’s you or the food. It’s you.
Smells still get through.
But you miss the Pavlovian turn-on
of sandalwood on hot skin, the flavour of sex.
And touch – touching and being touched –
can still be comforting, exciting, reassuring.
But the voltage is low.
You’re like a condemned house being stripped
and cut off before the breakers move in;
Or that symphony of Hadyn’s
which ends with players leaving the stage
one by one.
Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2014
- Neil Astley has been editor of Bloodaxe Books since founding the press after graduating from Newcastle University in 1978. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1982, & an honorary D.Litt from Newcastle University in 1995. He has published two poetry collections & two novels, The End of My Tether & The Sheep Who Changed the World. He has edited the popular & highly acclaimed poetry anthologies Staying Alive (2002), Being Alive (2004) & Being Human (2011) & has published over 300 books by 1000 writers from diverse poetic backgrounds, traditions & generations over the past 35 years, radically changing the image of UK poetry publishing
- Amy Wack was born in Florida, USA, raised in California, has a BA in Eng.Lit. from San Diego State University & MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, NYC. After working as Poetry Wales reviews editor, she was appointed Seren Books poetry editor in 1992: among many prize-winning titles produced under her editorship are John Haynes’ Letter to Patience (Costa Poetry Award) & Kathryn Simmonds’ Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Forward Best First Collection). She has edited several anthologies including Oxygen: New Poets from Wales & Burning the Bracken, as well as co-editing Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English.