Members' Poems 2012: in every issue of Poetry News, we ask a leading poet for their pick of members' poems on a chosen theme

AUTUMN 2012
Theme: Stars
Judge: Katrina Naomi

I’d hoped for a range of interpretations on the theme of ‘Stars’ and I wasn’t disappointed. While stargazing and the planets dominated, astrology, celebrity and star shapes also featured. I loved the exuberance and wit of Ann Chance’s ‘The Hadron Collider Star Recipe’. ‘Winter Stars’ by Paul Blake builds to a wonderful finish; I particularly enjoyed the sensory details and imagery: “your jacket round me like a stolen cloud / reeking of gun oil, tobacco, / sweat and rabbit blood”. Sarah Doyle’s ‘A Questionnaire for the Asteroid Belt’ offers a series of great images: “An inter-planet gastric band” and “An endless sky-borne running track”. Emma Danes’s ‘Wedding Quilt’ scored highly for its deft language. I loved “a quiet astronomy” for the connecting shapes of a quilt. ‘Widow Wickramasinghe’s Small Secret’ by Frances Green was one of only a handful of narrative poems and this entry enjoys its secret, keeping us guessing until mid-way. Carole Bromley’s found poem, ‘Eclipse’, intrigued me straightaway. That last line really resonates: “Up we come, / bundling into the dark attic.” Finally, Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Star Man’ led me to choose seven rather than the usual six poems. Who could resist images such as “a cooking-apple tree inside his head”?

 
Ann Chance
The Hadron Collider Star Recipe
 
(S) = [(Sx), (Sy, (Sz)]
Preheat your collider to max turbo – approx. 125 gigaelectronvolts
if not a Hadron Collider check manufacturer’s instructions.
 
Ingredients:
1 boson – preferably Higgs Standard Model
1 tin condensed matter – use dark matter for a richer mix
1 row of proton beams – home-grown
1 pack electrons
(readymade particles may be used instead of protons and electrons
if time is of the essence)
The wisdom of Aristotle
The striking power of Wayne Rooney
A complex number of fermions
 
Method:
Ensure all the ingredients collide by
spinning and binding together for one or two eons.
Tip into non-stick vessel (star-shaped).
Using heat-proof gloves pop mass in collider.
Switch to Accelerate.
Check via toughened glass for Supersymmetry
Accelerate until a minus integer or the Big Bang symbol (*)
                                                                                              appears in small window.
Note: Do not open the collider during acceleration or the star may not coalesce.
When cool, sprinkle smashed atoms on the top for added lustre.
WARNING: Before putting this star in your pocket,
make sure it is completely cold.
 
 

 
Paul Blake
Winter Stars
 
Those were the nights of frost
            that fell from the black
clear sky to spear the hogback ridge.
            Shelterless stars
huddled together shaking
            in the bitter air, as the loom
of the cold wove needles of ice skim,
            criss-cross,
over the puddles in the tractor ruts.
 
            You stood in the lane
crook-necked under the berg of night,
            watching the Hunter stride
huge and glittering over the top of the hill.
            When I shivered you opened
your jacket round me like a stolen cloud
            reeking of gun oil, tobacco,
sweat and rabbit blood, your iron heat
            freezing me in place.
 
In this clammy warmth
            that chokes the throat of December
I think of those frosts, those skies;
            of a time written in the language
of the winter stars, that language
            in which every word is a verb.
You taught it to me:
            to blaze; to be high;
to be splendid. To fall.

 

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Sarah Doyle
A Questionnaire for the Asteroid Belt
 
Are you (please tick):
 
o          A streak of embryonic stars?
o          A once-was planet’s last hoorahs?
o          A cartwheel, stuck within a rut?
o          Rough diamonds, not quite made the cut?
 
o          An inter-planet gastric band?
o          A jumbled, shifting no-man’s land?
o          The Heavens’ heaving hula-hoop?
o          An astronomic loop-the-loop?
 
o          An endless sky-borne running track?
o          A never-gaining chasing pack?
o          Unwanted cosmic articles?
o          Nomadic astral particles?
 
o          A vast, revolving promenade?
o          A far, fragmented knackers’ yard?
o          Conveyor-belt of ancient stones?
o          The Solar System’s broken bones?
 
o          A force that ever rearranges,
            to ring the skies, and ring the changes?

 

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Emma Danes
Wedding Quilt
 
We sleep under twenty four Ohio Stars,
a quiet astronomy of triangles and squares.
 
It takes more than seven hundred seams to hold
them together, yet their weight is negligible.
 
Twenty years on, where hems have softened, stitches
still bind cleanly, show only the slightest fray.
 
There’s a snapshot of the young quilt when I fold
back a corner. Blues are gentler now, yellows safe.
 
On the hidden side, our stars are lines of dashes.
In the dark I feel their code break on my skin.
 
 

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Frances Green
Widow Wickramasinghe’s Small Secret
 
She’d outlasted a husband, seen four
grown sons spread across the world –
doing well mind – and one daughter
 
married, contented, a grandmother too.
So Mrs Wickramasinghe decided it was
time to turn her shoulder to heaven;
 
at the age of seventy-six she began to
edge her way toward eternity.
Three silver sparkling stars in a blue,
 
midnight violet sky: under her sari by day
shopping for vegetables in Lewisham,
and with only her to know of them by night.
 
You’re a game old bird, the tattooist
had said – and she had recalled peacocks
stalking crumbling walls of temples
 
escaping the midday heat of her childhood.
She knew they would find this when she
was laid out finally, washed carefully:
 
others would wonder at their discovery –
this act of adornment but would know,
she hoped, that she had walked at peace
 
her feet in soft grass, her heart calmed
and her head cooled in the remembered
breezes of a soft Colomban night.

 

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Carole Bromley
Eclipse
 
The Earth, a fizzing ball bringing
this news: look out tonight...
Cool, the kids say, brilliant.
A dog barks, a few geese pass,
noticing nothing. Our own shadow
on the face of the moon. Up we come,
bundling into the dark attic.

Found poem, loosely based on a passage from Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines.

 

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Maitreyabandhu
Star Man
 
He saw a blue light entering his heart
coming from a man he couldn’t see
but knew was standing in the stars above
the playing field behind his house. The light
came like a curl of candle smoke and lit
a cooking-apple tree inside his head
where he’d built a den and brought flowers
in a broken mug without its handle.
He could see the usual things – the laurel hedge,
the path that marked the border of his world –
but no river murmured powerful thoughts,
no wind of meaning blew among the stars,
no nature’s heart beat full against his own,
just apple branches lit up in the dark.

 

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 SUMMER 2012
Theme: Leonardo: The Anatomist
Judge: Clive Wilmer

 

Leonardo da Vinci is known to have planned a book on human anatomy and to have dissected some 30 human bodies, drawing what he found or could guess at. His 'Studies of the foetus in the womb' from The Anatomical Manuscript (both were the set theme of this members’ poems competition), shows a child in the womb, apparently ready for birth.

Most of the poets were either appalled or fascinated by the creative mind the drawing suggests: the emotional detachment needed, the precision of hand and eye, the reverence for life. Three poems stood out. ‘Leonardo’s Foetus’ by Kevin Salmon was noteworthy for beauty of line and technical accomplishment. ‘Studies of the Foetus in the Womb’ by Dorothy Yamamoto traces the mystery of life, moving from the baby in the drawing to a poignant recollection of a great-grandfather’s death. ‘Womb’ by Paul Stephenson I found truly haunting: a  sonnet that, until you get to the final couplet, is just a list of nouns.

‘Birth Song’ by Angela Croft is, as the title suggests, a song sung by a new-born baby. ‘Artist at Work’ by Harriet Torr imagines the artist in the act of drawing and arriving at insight afterwards. ‘Affair with the Professor’ by Anna Kisby takes the anatomical manuscript as an elaborate, well-sustained metaphor for a difficult love affair.

 

Kevin Salmon
Leonardo's Foetus
 
You have no story. All you ever knew
was warm contentment, amniotic bliss,
the constant rhythm of a constant heart.
But Leonardo shows us none of this.
 
Instead, cold flesh anatomised, a womb
sliced open like some bulging sun-ripe fruit.
Huddled, crouching, softly damp, curled in:
its core is all that now remains of you.
 
All fodder for the artist’s hungry eye,
as deftly he deployed his chalks and pen
in highlights, outlines, hatching, shades and tints.
And as his ink dried out so did your skin.
 

 
Dorothy Yamamoto
Studies of the foetus in the womb
 
Once we were like that.
 
Once we were folded
in on ourselves
thumb to eyelid, toes to thigh,
 
life humming to us
through its soft powerful rope.
 
Later we straightened out,
taught all our parts their places
 
only going back
in grief or in dreams –
 
as my great-grandfather dies
in his village in Japan
 
his daughter running from her bath
but missing the moment, his wife
 
lifting his knees to his chest
after shaving him for the last time.
 

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Paul Stephenson
Womb
 
chestnut, oyster, ministry, pod,
bunker, shelter, kiosk, vault;
ingot, conker, pearl, soldier,
pea, secret, newspaper, passenger;
 
ship, palace, hothouse, shed,
fridge, envelope, oven, lift;
sailor, queen, cactus, spade,
egg, confession, descendant, cake;
 
church, court, aquarium, clinic,
dock, tank, theatre, pulpit;
surgeon, vicar, judge, angler,
accused, patient, fish, believer;
 
voting booth, waiting room,
picture gallery, this afternoon.
 

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Angela Croft

 Birth Song

 

 On looking at Studies of the foetus in the womb by Leonardo da Vinci

 

leave me in this silken nest

to dream in peace of nothingness

why thrust me out so soon

from the sanctuary of a mother’s womb

the ash has not yet shed its leaves

the last rose is not plucked

 

unripe fruit hangs in the hedge

sweet chestnuts are still green

summer dawns too bright for me

I do not want to stir

before the farmer reaps his crop

and brings his harvest home

 

so let me slumber safely here

holding fast my breath

until the beech has turned to bronze

sycamore seeds unfurl

and autumn wears its cloak of mist

to shield me from the world.

 

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Harriet Torr

Artist at Work

 

A draught sends the candlelight

down the galley of corpses

where a man sits sketching,

gagged against the stench.

 

The room is still,

the walls are silent,

listening to the scratch of pen

the rub of pencil shading the flesh.

 

An army of microbes guts

against the seams of the skull,

the eye bone’s flotilla of shadow

winking at the tallow’s light.

 

Later, in his own rooms

he highlights in the names:

Ramus, Sphenoid, Meatus.

And if that moment comes,

 

that sudden revelation

that the body is more than

the sum of its parts,

who can say.

 

Back in the other place

the dead nerves lie

like trapped light

in an opaque vase.

 

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Anna Kisby
Affair with the Professor
 
after The Anatomical Manuscript by Leonardo Da Vinci
 
He tells me I’m not clever enough
for him. I bathe in tea
to lend my perfect skin
the gravitas of parchment.
 
He drafts his lines
on me. I admire the unintelligible
slant of his script; ripple
at the scratch of his nib. I learn
 
to make reams of myself: endless,
disposable, blank. When I speak
my words are chalky; traceless. He licks his fingers
as he turns my pages.
 
He folds me over
at the corners; leaves me waiting
for days. I crouch on the back shelf,
knees to chin; I am stuck as a baby
 
in breech. He says it’s complicated
then cracks me open. Inside, he finds
I am clearer than any text. I am something like
a cob-nut. Of this earth and simple
to split.
 

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SPRING 2012
Theme: War
Judge: Bernardine Evaristo

 

I chose the theme of war because it is both topical and provocative, and elicits strong opinions and emotions. It prompted a surge of poems from members.

‘ORDINARY BRITONS’ by Alan Clemo (click author's name to launch pdf attachment)conflates two dichotomous narratives in a single poem that demands a new way of reading. ‘Forward Operating Base Robinson’ by Timothy Brewis is explosive in its noisy description of artillery on a battlefield. ‘Muslim Girl’ by Joan Michelson places the brutalisation of women during war centre stage.

Several poems were about a father or grandfather who never spoke about ‘the war’. ‘Prisoner of War’ by D.A. Prince stood alone in its ability to deliver this generational phenomenon in a few, stunning, memorable words. ‘The Art of War’ by Gill Nicholson captures the disposable, disconnected attitude of the consumers of news towards the relayed atrocities; the ‘recycled’ lines of poetry work as underscore. ‘In the Museum’ by A.C. Clarke, with its classical allusions and the correlation it draws between the ancient and modern world (the Assyrians, for example, lived in present-day Iraq), is hugely impressive.

 

Timothy Brewis
Forward Operating Base Robinson
 
FOB Rob. 4.30am.            Shaken bolt awake
   by the bass boom of the perimeter 50s.
Kit shouldered swiftly. Out into the dregs
   of a night flickering
                  blue black / bright white,
   strobed with bursts of muzzle flash light
to the stuttering rhythms of the firefight
   Faces tense and tight,
                              the sangar sentries
   shout target indications
incantations which hold you rapt.
                   Then the GPMGs begin to snort,
short bursts at first
   easing into the battle,
                   quickly joined by the rattle
of Minimis and chatter of rifles.
   Echoes crash                off the Hesco walls
jostling with the calls for
                                              Ammo! More ammo!
RPG!!!
                  Keep low, keep low!
No sign of slowing.            Then a surge of noise
   as the mortar boys down in the pit
start laying air burst 81s,
                     a swaying dance,
                  bending and twisting away,
bending and twisting away,
   bending and sending dust unfurling with
each crump       and jump         of the tube.
 
   And there is beauty in this moment;
        beneath a hissing, tracer sky,
        braced together, we are one.
        Fear sublimates comradeship
        into something more than love,
        held in suspension for as long as
        a transformation we will not
        mention, come sunrise,
        silent slumped in the spoil
        of spent cases and strewn link,
        listening to the tink, tink, tink,
                of cooling barrels.

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Joan Michelson
Muslim Girl
 
When they had finished with her and with her mother
she climbed a tree and hung herself – a girl
in a red sweater that her mother had knitted.
This is one front page image I remember
from the Srebrenica massacre.
If we could live inside the memory of ‘Once
there was a village that was undisturbed’,
by now she’d be a mother knitting sweaters
for her daughter. I can picture my fingers
unbuckling the belt she slung around a branch
and seeing her slim bare legs swinging down.
Feet on earth again, up she springs and runs.

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D.A. Prince
Prisoner of War
 
After the camp he returned,
folding himself,
bringing back nothing, except
this swivelling way of watching
everyone, everywhere.
 
She waited
while he stripped the chicken carcass,
every sliver, not a scrap wasted,
leaving the bones polished,
scoured of meat;
a gleam on the plate.
 
It was only over
with the last shred eliminated,
and the silence reshaped around him.

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Gill Nicholson
The Art of War
 
Dispatched to our recycle bins
the women, children and their plastic bags
to be composted images and bulletins.
 
A naked napalm victim’s peeling skin,
arse-kicking goose-steps and salutes to flags
dispatched to our recycle bins
 
with flattened cities, shrapnelled bodies sinking
into mud, the queues of refugees in rags
to be composted images and bulletins.
 
A hundred severed heads an oligarchy’s whim,
the last remains of sons beneath white slabs
with flower trim, dispatched to our recycle bins
 
and Armageddon in a backpack, hiding
legs, an eye, death to your daughter or your dad
to be composted images and bulletins.
 
There’s buzz enough – devising battles we can’t win.
Our super weaponry’s recycled tragic acts
are caught before dispatching to the bins
to be composted images and bulletins.

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A.C. Clarke
In The Museum
 
Baked into this wall, imperial
guards look out aslant, each pupil
blank, Assyria’s bit of rough.
 
Here is the hawkhead god
whose hissing spite can just be heard
if you lean close enough,
 
Rome in her marble regimentals
licensed to kill for Senate and People –
now fighter planes shell out democracy
 
where client kings obeyed.
The staples of an ancient trade
displayed here as the art of weaponry,
 
our Trident’s three-pronged spear
– at one touch cities disappear –
no less an ornament of Mars.
 
How should we not pay mad homage to war
edging ever nearer to super-nova?
In our blood runs the violence of stars.

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WINTER 2011
Theme: Games
Judge: Lorraine Mariner

 

Cricket and poetry must be connected in some way because cricket came up more than any other game in your poems.  Maybe what they share is that they’re both orderly but expansive and perhaps, like cricketers, poets stop for tea?

I was prepared to select more than one poem about cricket but in the end I only selected one: Emma Danes’ (Ely) ‘The Point of Release’, which elegantly describes a son growing up through the metaphor of bowling. The intimate detail, the poet imagining the son’s “fingers each side / of the seam” made me feel that this could only have been written by someone who has held a cricket ball themselves.

I surprised myself by selecting two poems about computer games, a phenomenon I know nothing about, which might be why I like Sarah James’ (Droitwich) ‘Evolved’, about a mother trying to take an interest in her son’s Pokémon game. She fails miserably. I especially liked the humour of the poem and the last line had me looking up exactly who Raichu is on Wikipedia, so I’m now slightly less clueless about Pokémon characters.

The other computer game poem I selected: ‘Games Mistress’ by Doreen Hinchliffe (London), was not about any games mistress I’ve ever encountered. Again, I loved the humour of the poem: “quit game no longer features on her options menu”, and the wonderfully sustained rhyming couplets. I just hope this elderly gamer does exist.

I was also taken with the humour of ‘Good Neighbours’ by Adrian Hogan (Lincoln) about a football that keeps coming over the fence. The masculinity the ball represents invades the narrator’s demure garden: “I’d find that ball / alongside a blushing rose / or a shocked marigold”, but when the kicker of the football finally appears the narrator has a drink in her hand and other, more flirtatious games on her mind.

I was impressed by the economy of language and use of description in the sonnet ‘The Card-Box’ by Kate Noakes’ (Reading) to convey the emotions that certain objects from childhood evoke. Finally, ‘The Rec at Sunset’ by Anthony Watts (Taunton) conveys the beauty of a playing field at sunset when everyone’s gone home and the sun “Disdaining either goal” reminds us that it’s only a game after all.

 
 
Anthony Watts
The Rec at Sunset  
 
...haunted by the ghosts of children’s voices,
        calm
as the greening-over of a battlefield.
 
The soccer starlings have all flown,
        leaving the ball
miraculously suspended in the air
 
midfield. Disdaining either goal,
it claims the horizon for its touchline
        and
 
in a sudden blaze of freedom,
        dropkicks itself
over the edge of the world.
 

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Emma Danes
The Point of Release
 
requires years of practice. My boy,
old enough now to develop
 
a consistent run up, ball half
polished half scuffed, fingers each side
 
of the seam. I could learn about
rhythm, balance – his arms coiled, eyes
 
on the wicket, full drive through then
ease, that gentle angling away.
 
For now, he returns to me
taller, famished, his hands stained red.
 

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Doreen Hinchliffe
Games Mistress
 
She’s here again, white-haired and seventy if a day,
adroitly elbowing hordes of little boys away
and shooting from the hip. She’s razor sharp, she’s slick,
makes use of every martial art to get first pick
of used Play Station games. Those who dare to block
her path are soon vibrating from her dual shock.
Game shops on a Sunday are her default setting,
she’s even been accused of aiding and abetting
three teenagers to steal a four-way multi-tap
so fierce is her desire for a better scrap
in shoot ’em ups like Unreal Tournament and Quake
she’ll go to any lengths for competition’s sake.
Kids watch her playing demos hour after hour,
marvelling at her knowledge, speed and fire power.
Some queue outside the store to see if they can spot her
she’s more of an attraction now than Harry Potter.
A few approach her with respect, temerity,
to worship her superior dexterity.
She cautions against cheats and walkthroughs from the start
exhorting them to see true gameplay as an art.
Long years she’s studied. She started as a Space Invader,
worked her way through Lara Croft, James Bond, Darth Vader,
then on to Age of Empires, Half-Life, Baldur’s Gate
by way of Silent Hill and Fifa 98.
She’s picked up secrets, unlocked doors and studied maps,
she’s guided Gran Turismo cars round countless laps,
on snowboards, skateboards, skis, she’s raced at every venue,
quit game no longer features on her options menu.
From RPGs to warfare on the field of Flanders
there’s no one finer than this mistress of all genres.
Not for her the sing-songs, old folks’ clubs, day trips,
the meals on wheels or chats about replacement hips,
not for her the tea dance, bingo, talk of bygones –
she is the great iconoclast amongst the icons. 
 

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Kate Noakes
The Card-Box
 
It was lead, that was probably pewter,
a coffer for cigarettes: tipped, untipped,
but where my No Smoking parents treasured
bridge cards, painted with Botticelli maidens:
Venus, another, somehow untouched,
even by their friends: no wild shuffling please.
 
For our whist there were everyday red
and blue packs that spilled from their boxes
in the kitchen drawer, shifting with staples
and crayon stubs, except when Bampa came
with his dice and pipe, and we pontooned
under the sun-shade, betting with Swan Vestas.
 
For him there was no ‘best’, so he taught me
to order the gilt-edged deck with my thumbs.
 

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Adrian Hogan
Good Neighbours
 
He’d kick his football
over the six-foot fence
that bordered our gardens.
I’d find that ball
alongside a blushing rose
or a shocked marigold.
 
I’d leave it for a few days
then shoot that ball, netball-style,
loop it over the wooden defence
and through the hoop in my head;
then salute the waving flowers
and curtsey to the bushes.
 
This went on all summer,
kick and shoot, kick and shoot;
then one afternoon on the patio
almost oblivious to the ball
nesting in my bedding plants,
I heard the gate unlatch
 
and this man appeared.
I knocked back my drink,
a blend of fruit with a punch
of spirit, and looked him up
and down, the vodka kicking in.
He asked me, if my electric was off.
 
Well, not yours, he said, your house.
No metaphor intended, he said.
I heard a laugh, it was mine.
He looked around my garden,
admiringly, I thought, and then he said,
I see you’ve got your ball back.
 

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Sarah James
Evolved
 
Pikathingy’s winning! My son’s hunched shoulders
unclench a smile as he looks up from his game
to high-five his brother. Then back down again.
 
Pikawotsit’s an electric creature. This much
I’ve gleaned, I think. I’ve asked –
but Pikadespeak’s faster than light-speed.
 
Least, it is to a Pikaignoramus. They fight, right?
– Yeah, but it’s just fun, Mum, a contest,
like karate. None of them get hurt.
 
I try to engage with his Pokémon
as an interactive epic or modern fable.
But where’s the moral to relate to?
 
I start to talk about Aesop’s ‘Wolf and the Kid’.
Huh, Mum? He glances up, then back.
I give up the goat, turn to the ‘Tortoise and Hare’.
 
He doesn’t even grunt. Clearly, I’m slow at evolving.
But I’ve learned from the Tortoise and Pikadeafness.
I unleash my voice’s Raichu thunder.
 

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