The Hamish Canham Poetry Prize 2005
Winner: Judy Brown 

Carole Satyamurti, Chair of judges, reports on the judging process

The judging panel this year had some excellent poems to choose between, which made our job both difficult and enjoyable. The year's four themes were 'Prehistory', 'Food', 'Loudness' and 'Coats'. Having a theme specified obviously presents a challenge, and members rose to it in ways that were very diverse. 'Coats', for instance, produced Jane Morley's poignant poem about psoriasis, as well as the more expectable ones about garments. 'Prehistory' prompted Frances Green to write about a photograph of her ex with both seriousness and humour.

'Food' gave us Amanda Parkyn's 'Catching Shad' and Ian Caws' 'Asylum Tea', both of which were strong contenders for the prize. 'Catching Shad' is, on the surface, just about preparing fish in the kitchen, but it is a subtle evocation of the simultaneous anticipation of the delicious dish the writer is making, and awareness that, not long before, this was a living creature, exercising its freedom. In 'Asylum Tea', Ian Caws captures the state of mind of what we took to be a junior hospital doctor on night duty in a psychiatric hospital. The way language is used in this poem vividly conveys what it feels like to be just about hanging on.

After an impeccably democratic voting process, we finally chose Judy Brown's 'Loudness' as the winner of this year's prize. It is a poem about bad news, and we very much liked its unusual approach to the subject and the rightness of its language. It is a meditation on what bad news sounds like, and doesn't sound like. The poem manages to convey, and enable the reader to recognise, what is really quite an elusive experience – '… a sound that's not a sound… a chemical fizz…' The poem ends with an account of what the ear attends to when the bad news is "bedded in". The process of recovery makes it possible to hear sounds from the surrounding world again.

'Loudness' is a beautiful and subtle poem, and we were very happy to award it this year's prize.

Loudness

 

After bad news, and its pulled-back fist,

flows in a sound that's not a sound. It's not

the brain's tide beating blood in propped

and shored-up workings, not the tapestried

texture of attended silence, the goffering

of quiet air folding and unfolding

in a house where nothing is happening.

 

After bad news, you tell the seconds,

hungry for the hurrying thunder

that never comes. Instead a chemical fizz

fills the ears, before the descaling. An angel

rides the stirrup and anvil, spurring on the drum,

works like wild weather in wet sheets,

flapping and cracking the body's flat muscles.

 

Long after the bad news, when it's bedded in,

you notice most clearly the mild loudness

of the not-so-old man in the foot tunnel,

drumming and drumming and biting his mouth.

The posed coins in his blue cloth

are tiny, like a cast handful of earbones


Judy Brown
was born in Cheshire and studied English and American literature at Cambridge and Newcastle-upon-Tyne universities. Last year she resumed writing after a thirteen year interval (which started in the early nineties following a move to Hong Kong). She now lives and works in London again, and writes whenever she can. 'Loudness' was the first of Judy's new poems to be published. She has had a couple of other poems accepted for publication since then.