Members' Poems 2014: in every issue of Poetry News, we ask a leading poet for their pick of members' poems on a chosen theme


AUTUMN 2014
Theme: Remember
Judge: Luke Kennard

Perhaps it’s inevitable during the centenary year of the Great War to have received many sincere, moving poems reflecting on the sacrifice and endurance of a past generation. There were ‘remember’ poems of family, at times with holographically intense incarnations and character sketches that evoked a previous set of social mores with wit and insight. ‘Drawing the Tea’ by John White (Abingdon), a sharp but affectionate portrait of a landlady and fortune teller, excelled here. There were many beautiful recollections of childhood, significant places and relationships. I loved ‘Remembering Heligan’ by Brigid Sivill (France) for its rich, sensory detail. A dizzying, unsentimental yearning for a place and time. ‘Giant Hogweed’ by Patricia Ace (Crieff) leapt out at me for its unexpected horror and humour: the wild imagination of youth played off against unknown risk in a beautifully crafted piece. The concise ‘In Fashion’ by Anna Kisby (Brighton) felt timeless to me, using surrealist technique to reflect on a trend or custom we now think brutal – funny with dark undercurrents. This sinister atmosphere continues in ‘Cloth’ by Tess Jolly (Shoreham-by-Sea), a linguistically rich poem that draws on a folk tales in its suggestion of family, personal pain and reconstruction. Sometimes, though, the deceptively simple can be just as potent. I was moved by the Black Mountain-esque minimalism of ‘In The Garden’ by Julie Lumsden (Chesterfield), a poem which conjures a family and touches the reader in five short lines.

Luke Kennard was recently selected as a Next Generation Poet 2014.


Poets' biographies

John White’s poems have been widely published in magazines and anthologies, including recent or forthcoming appearances in Ambit, New Welsh Review, Stand and The Reader.  Following her retirement, Brigid Sivill now works as a full-time writer and reader. She hopes to write more about the world and the people that she met in her time as a literacy consultant. Anna Kisby is an archivist whose poems have been published in magazines and anthologies, and placed in several poetry competitions. Tess Jolly lives in West Sussex where she works as a part-time library assistant and leads creative writing workshops for children. Julie Lumsden’s latest pamphlet is True Crime, published by Shoestring. She also writes theatre and radio plays.



John White
Drawing the Tea
 
She took young men in because girls were trouble
with their kitchen theories. War
and travel had put paid to her own people
 
and soon a new clan would sup and half-believe
in the heat of her living room
her intricate appraisal of their tea leaves.
 
A shimmy of the handle and some motif
that cleaved the bottom
took on Death or Matrimony, ‘woman’s stuff’
 
they would scoff at. Then one to stop the blood:
A near relation, something not right
about them (it was chromosomal). It was odd
 
the way that, if you waited long enough,
the lot would come true. And how
at night she’d sit and cry through This is Your Life.
 
Not bothered with herself, her own decline
was overlooked, or put down
to caprice. With time a circle, not a line
 
to shuttle up or down, you would be dumbstruck
by her failing powers (she’d fancied me
in charcoal suit her minister, my case a book)
 
but chastened too. With leaves like that, I can’t relate
a thing, she’d smile. I’m done with lies today,
pull the guard up, and adjust the grate.

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Brigid Sivill
Remembering Heligan
 
Maybe we wanted to be taken for fishermen
in our sou’westers and wellington boots,
long yellow oilskins flapping over our legs
in driving Cornish rain.
 
When you live in woods winter mud is constant;
giving the oilskins a fringe of dried mud
that cracked as we walked.
 
Oilskins – authentic ones that is –
when old, crack; fillets of yellow skin lift,
leave behind thick canvas scars.
In summer heat, rolled and forgotten.
 
When I rolled up Cornwall, its rain and mud,
smell of woodsmoke and damp bushes,
mould in dark cupboards
and the reek of paraffin stove
 
all that was left –
those smells,
clinging,
to that yellow coat.
 
 

 

Patricia Ace

Giant Hogweed

 

Dirty pink petals capped its massive umbels,

framed by glossy lobed leaves,

deep-slashed, sharp-toothed.

Coarse white bristles stiffened along its trunk;

blood-red splotches dotted its stems like blemishes.

 

We played in the shade of its canopy,

inhaled the resinous stink of aniseed,

pretending to be punkah wallahs, fanning

a princess. We wielded the hollow stalks

like light sabers; imagined peashooters, telescopes.

 

By lunchtime we were itching like stray cats,

our skin flushed red as sunburn. We woke next day

to blisters, yellowish, watery, as if we’d been scalded.

They lasted all summer, they stung in the light.

It turned out we were lucky to still have our sight.

 

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Anna Kisby
In Fashion
 
 
Remember the season we were all mad
for the skins of nightingales? How we gadded
in full-skirts hung with a hundred beaks –
never gave a thought
 
to the nightworkers,
to the smothering, gutting and stitching,
or to our forests – songless –
hung with tiny swaying traps
 
 

 

Tess Jolly

Cloth

 

She lifts the grey gown from its hook behind the door.

It trails slack from her fingers – a skinned wolf.

Smoothing it flat on the old table, she traces a circle

round the cuff: here’s you scratching your friend’s hand

to a sticky map, here’s the belt biting your back.

Scissors open, she follows the line she’s marked

then unspools a vein to sew the seams together

so no-one remembers what’s been done.

 

She chooses another part of the wolf-body, avoids

the belly-wound – she’s stitched it up before.

This is the bird you buried to steal its wings,

this is the mouse you dangled from a high window.

She snip snip snips the cloth until these things

no longer happened. Keeping the embroidered logo for last –

here are your ribboned arms, torn gullet, thinning bones –

she softly hangs the gown on a night-ajar door.

 

How sleek the shadows it chases onto walls.

How wide the eyes of each unsleeping child.

 

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Julie Lumsden

In the Garden

 

your blue skirt

pools the grass. The cats watch

Rachel dancing round us with

her red balloon. We are making a memory

she says.

 

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SUMMER 2014
Theme: Loss
Judge: Carrie Etter

In working on my most recent book, I thought long about how to convey personal loss originally and compellingly, which left me curious about how others addressed it in their poetry. ‘Afterwards’ by Helen Jagger demonstrates grief can be as much a physical as an emotional experience, the couplets effectively pacing distinct, intense moments. ‘Circles’ by Sharon Black takes a similar tack in externalising feeling, yet does so by portraying the observed world with fresh precision. Suzanna Fitzpatrick’s ‘Mismothering’ is the only poem that explicitly considers a loss that is not a death. Before reading the poem, I didn’t know that during multiple births, a ewe might mistake another’s lamb for her own. The poet evokes well the ewe’s voracity amid that confusion. Similarly, ‘On Nazim Gafurri Street’ by Lesley Saunders deftly presents the realisation of someone else’s loss. The magic realism of ‘Wake’ by Carol DeVaughn surprised and delighted me. Here, loss appears both as the key figure’s loss of life as well as what connects her with the three visitors who wondrously manifest. I found In ‘That Year’ by Kim Moore the most moving. Its excellent use of metaphor allows the poem to address the grief produced by many kinds of loss, though the word is never used, the motivating incident never made explicit.


Poets' biographies

Sharon Black is originally from Glasgow but now lives in the remote Cevennes mountains of southern France. Suzanna Fitzpatrick has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and is the winner of the Hamish Canham Prize 2013. Carol DeVaughn is an American-born, prize-winning poet, who has been living and working in London since 1970. She is now working on her first collection. Helen Jagger writes and teaches poetry in north Cornwall. She draws inspiration from the landscape after decades of teaching in schools, and running the Indian King Arts Centre. Kim Moore was recently a winner in the Northern Writers’ Awards; her first collection will be published by Seren in 2015. Lesley Saunders won the Frogmore Poetry Prize 2014. She worked for Save the Children in Kosovo on several occasions and wrote this poem during a visit to Prishtina – and yes, she does have the bracelet.


 
Helen Jagger
Afterwards
 
Yesterday I felt your weight beside me on the mattress.
Later I saw you on the stairs.
 
Today I woke:
the bed was empty, your pillow smooth.
 
I reached out – the bed was endless, my fingers
too short, my eyes not strong enough.
 
I closed them and breathed in.
I stood up and the room shrank.
 
I cried out – you didn’t hear. I shouted,
screamed and beat the bed.
 
Am I too loud? Do I frighten you?
You’ve filled my head with blood and silence.
 
Are you downstairs among the books,
in the red chair, knee deep in unread newspapers?
 

 

 

 
Sharon Black
Circles
 
Ash swirls as we
rake up last night’s fire.
 
A half-burned photo
lies in damp grass:
 
your dead ex-husband
smiles out from the cul-de-sac
 
where you raised two sons,
one of whom I married.
 
I flick a pile of oak leaves
into the ash, pause to see
 
my children running up the field,
clapping against the cold.
 
A charred log sparks up, its
underside still glowing.
 
Our donkeys watch
from their ring of hay.
 
 

 
Suzanna Fitzpatrick
Mismothering
 
Peak lambing. Scarcely time to clear the pens
for each new birth, and now two ewes
are both in labour. One is just ahead;
 
experienced, she drops the first of twins
without a sound. The other’s yet to break
her waters, but homes in on the bleat,
 
convinced the lamb is hers. I've heard of this;
try to deflect her gently, but she’s sure
she’s given birth. Her labour stalled, she’s pitched
 
into frenzy, calling constantly, her tongue
flailing; desperate to taste a lamb,
fuelled by a hunger I can’t bear to watch.
 
I leave her raving. Once she’s had her lambs
she’s satisfied; the madness gone,
the need forgotten, but still lingering.
 
 

 
Lesley Saunders
On Nazim Gafurri Street
 
“Silver is sold in the old quarter and is pretty good value”
 
The jeweller’s son is learning the trade well.
He picks out a fat silver pocket-watch.
It has an antlered stag engraved on its case
and he tells us it came from Scotland
 
one hundred years ago. We believe him.
But I like the look of a tarnished bracelet
and he lifts it and lays it on the glass counter
stroking it with his bandaged hand,
 
saying it once belonged to his grandmother.
His blue eyes do not even flicker.
I’m no good at haggling. When I hear
the word grandmother I see the links
 
of metal forget-me-nots, three generations
of a family’s men gone, the whole side
of a house open to the air, her blue dishes
trashed in the road. They flower on my wrist.
 
 

 
Carol DeVaughn
Wake
 
It’s the chair she always sits in,
at the back, just under the skylight.
Here, she can keep her head down,
read and not read,
let the words ripple on the page,
swim if they want to.
Today, without reason, she looks up,
sees a tableau of silence:
three women standing utterly still,
staring into space.
They seem unknown to each other
yet somehow together,
silently keening a loss
that has left the heart stammering.
Their mouths are slightly open,
like hers,
as if sharing the same breath.
Behind the silence
she hears rumbling,
sees the shelves heaving,
books falling,
tumbling towards her,
piling up like rubble,
babbling.
They fly open, breaking
their spines to free the words,
which turn into a mass
of blackbirds shattering
the skylight, lifting her weight
into the evening air.
 
 

 
Kim Moore
In That Year
 
And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.
 
And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.
 
And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.
 
And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.
 
And in that year I waited for the horses
but they only shifted their feet in the darkness.
 
And in that year I imagined a vain thing;
I believed that the world would come for me.
 
And in that year I gave up on all the things
I was promised and left myself to sadness.
 
And then that year lay down like a path
and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.
 
 


SPRING 2014
Theme: Looking back
Judge: Daljit Nagra

In a sense, ‘looking back’ is the most obvious theme of all; consider Wordsworth’s attitude that poetry is “recollection in tranquillity”, or Yeats’s notion of poetry as a “quarrel with ourselves”. Both regarded poetry as a ground for exploring lived experience. My favourites of the entries were often those that did not feel overburdened with information, though in the case of Josh Ekroy’s ‘Goldfinches’ excess detail seemed appropriate in order to convey the obsessive nature of the family. The honed lines of Colin Pink’s ‘Whetstone’ seemed deftly to dramatise the perpetual refining of a son’s memory. I also loved the lively desires of Janet Lees’s ‘Lessons in Fuzzy Felt’ in the face of tedious “religious instruction”. I was pleased to find a witty poem about a wildly sexual experience on a boat: ‘Cimsagro’ by Jill Munro in which the poet captured, through heightened language, the saucy mood. ‘Was it for this’ by Gill Learner described an impoverished parent’s struggle to educate a child who suddenly dies; ‘The Ring’ by Denise Bennett is about personalising and honouring the sad, quietly enduring history of a relation.


Poets' biographies

Josh Ekroy's first collection, Ways To Build A Roadblock, will be published by Nine Arches Press in May 2014. Colin Pink lives in London and writes plays and poems. Janet Lees’s poems have been published in magazines including Magma and Aesthetica. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Poetry School & Pighog Press pamphlet competition. Jill Munro has been accepted onto the New Writing South 10 scheme in Brighton for emerging writers; her first collection will be published by Waterloo Press. Gill Learner’s collection, The Agister’s Experiment (Two Rivers Press) was published in 2011. Denise Bennett was awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham prize in 2004. Her collection Planting the Snow Queen (Oversteps Books) was published in 2011.


 
Josh Ekroy
Goldfinches
  

In my family there were always plenty of goldfinches.

Ma had to hire a man to disinfect

behind the hockey prints. Nevertheless,

we took turns feeding them with praise.

Washing the goldfinches was like giving birth:

first you must wipe them with a damp cloth;

then they are dried on Japanese rice paper.

I had a goldfinch once which I bought from the butcher.

It turned a mouldy green so I knew

that there were real goldfinches such as the ones

my family had acquired in a principled way

and then there were fake which existed in the world.

My brothers knew more about goldfinches than I did

and would never impart the secrets of their brood

in case a burglar broke in and forced me to unleash

the secrets. Whenever I saw goldfinches

in sycamore trees I knew I would win

but goldfinches got tangled in the conversation

at meal-times. Uncle Paul said their song patterns

were proof that the earth was round like a coin.

Ma refused to talk about it and you could tell

she was thinking about gravitational pull

which crackled her nerves. The rise of Mussolini,

Pa said, was caused by goldfinches. Nobody knew how many

goldfinches Pa had and sometimes he was absent

for long periods, making his goldfinch arrangements.

 




Colin Pink
Whetstone
 

I broke the whetstone,

                knocked it off the shelf,

                                reaching for a book.

 

It fell to the floor,

                broke in pieces with a

                                sharp clack and snap.

 

I fitted them together; they

                balanced like drunks
                                one on another.
 

Their razor sharp edges

                made invisible joints

                                but at the merest touch

 

they fall apart again

                exposing the wounds

                                of their separation.

 

My father was a barber,

                it was his whetstone,

                                the surface worn concave,

 
honed by his hand,
                year on year spent

                                sharpening the blade.

 

Watching him sharpening

                the cut-throat razor

                                was a childhood fascination

 

as he spat on the stone

                and ran the razor’s edge

                                over it again and again

 

until it bore the shape

                of his life; and still it

                                sharpens my memories

 

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Janet Lees

Lessons in Fuzzy Felt

 
In a mobile classroom with sticky lino flooring, Mr Ackroyd gave Religious Instruction using
Fuzzy Felt.
He talked us through each tableau in a tight monotone, his face perpetually red under dense
pitchy hair – as if he’d swallowed too much wrath and vengeance, and sealed it in with grim
forgiveness. Sometimes it seemed we’d be stuck there for eternity, made two-dimensional by
boredom; shrunk down and added to his armoury of matt vermillion kings with blunted swords,
toothless yellow lions gurning at clouds of lambs.
We wanted no part of it. We wanted edge: the thwarted roar of Babel, the stink of burning
sulphur, thorns tipped with Mr Ackroyd’s blood.
Two years into the next school, his daughter Rachel told me he’d died of a heart attack. She
cried and I touched her hand; caught the echo of six-inch nails hammered home under a pitiless
sun.

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Jill Munro
Cimsagro –
 

he’d named his boat Cimsagro – echoes of a Tahitian isle, maybe,

of Maupiti, Tubuai, Cimsagro – and, like Fletcher’s, I was his island girl.

 

White-shirted, he draped flower garlands around my neck. I was Maimiti –

we held hands on his deck, then kissed like there was no From Here to Eternity.

 

As we rolled on rising waves, bare-backed white-horses cantered by,

swelling seas rocked our finger-touches, salty tongues flicked to and fro.

 

If we’d been land-locked, no doubt the earth would have moved, rockets exploded –

instead the tide trampolined us, unmattressed, from port to star-spangled-board.

 

Yet we reached our ecstasies. I turned to him and whispered in a Christian ear:

 

Why ‘Cimsagro’? Why not ‘The Bounty’, ‘Tall Sails’ or ‘She Got the House’?

 

and he replied, Sail backwards, my love – you'll find it’s a place we’ve both just been.





Gill Learner

Was it for this

 

 

she’d carried the bulk of him, felt his kick

under her kanga, chewed her lip and thumped the wall

until he squawked in the hut’s dim light?

 

She’d trekked to the well half an hour each way

with his sweet head nodding against her back

and empty-bellied had heaped his plate so he grew tall.

 

He’d walked three miles to the mission school

and learned to write and read and count

and vowed to build them a house one day.

 

They’d sold the camel to pay the man

who promised a bus, a boat, a job

in a glittering city across the sea.

 

She’d striped every sunset in soot on the wall

for a year and three days in withering hope.

Then the Aid man came to stammer his news

 

of a boat ablaze near a northern land.

A few had swum but many had drowned

and Kibwe, he feared, was one.

 

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Denise Bennett

The Ring

 

For Ada aged 101

 

We found it slipped

between the sheets, she said

 

as she handed me my

mother’s engagement ring.

 

It had never left her finger

since her sailor beau had proposed

 

seventy seven years ago,

kissing her tide of red hair –

 

and I took the delicate band,

whittled thin with seventy years

 

of widowhood, and carried her

grief out into the rain.

 

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WINTER 2013/14
Theme: Unsayable
Judge: Katrina Porteous

What a dark lot Poetry Society members are! There were a handful of poems of indescribable awe and wonder, but the significant majority expressed pain and terrible secrets – not only unsayable (what cannot be said), but unspeakable (what, in normal society, must not be said, because it is too disquieting). 'I didn’t like Seamus Heaney’ by Andy Hickmott shocks, because so many of us loved him. But I think it earns its right to do so. I like it for saying what we think should not be said, and for using that trope to lead us gracefully to what indeed is not said until those quietly devastating last lines. Another arresting sonnet is ‘Conversations with my Father’ by Suzanna Fitzpatrick. Here, the form gently develops the conversation before delivering its piercing conclusion. I like poems where shape, sound and subject interact. In ‘Plugholes’ by Marie Naughton, the drawn-out form imitates the downward tug of the drain, the well-observed details of the central domestic image evoking darker thoughts. By contrast, another more traditionally formal poem, ‘What Cannot Be Said’ by Claire Booker, nails the detail of intimacy and simply rings true. The rhyming couplets, risky to some modern ears, reinforce the clock’s relentless tick.Perhaps one reason poetry exists is to try to translate untranslatable experience – joy as well as pain – by transcending the rational functions of language and becoming music. 'Call’ by Denise McSheehy appeals to me because, while it describes non-communication, it sets up echoes which express exactly the opposite, a mysterious communion in the silence beyond words. Lastly, ‘Crop Circles’ by Sue Leigh is a beautiful poem, which also addresses mystery, with lovely internal music, and silence denoted by its careful lineation.


Poets' biographies

Claire Booker is a member of the Clapham Stanza, Original Poets and also writes stage plays. She blogs at www.bookerplays.co.uk. Andy Hickmot runs the Clapham Stanza, Original Poets. His chapbook A Limited Season is published by erbacce-press. Suzanna Fitzpatrick combines freelance editing with writing, singing and toddler management, and has been published widely in magazines.Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush Valley and spends her time writing and walking. Denise McSheehy lives in Devon and her collection, Salt, is published by The Poetry Can. Marie Naughton was born in Consett, lives in Manchester and has just finished an MA at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.


 
Andy Hickmott
I didn't like Seamus Heaney
 

   for Archie, 6/5/1925 – 30/8/2013

 

There, I’ve said it

what is it to me that he died

when he did

on the thirtieth of August, two thousand thirteen?

 

As usual I was careless

as to his parlous health that day.

He never said hello

so why would I say goodbye?

 

It was the same with Diana

then Margaret Thatcher,

but with them

it felt impersonal, unremarkable;

 

they had the decency to die

on days my father survived.

 

 

 

Suzanna Fitzpatrick

Conversations with my Father

 

Sometimes you call me on your own, now Mum,

drugged up, sleeps more. I ask you how it goes;

you speak of broken nights, pain’s ceaseless hum,

new side effects. But what I want to know

 

is how you’re doing. People rarely ask

the carer how they manage all the tasks

dictated by an illness not their own;

a job for life that no-one ever chose.

 

You dodge my questions deftly, like the fly-

half you once were. I shouldn’t be surprised –

we’re all performers now; our cheerful smiles

a non-slip legacy, parent to child.

 

I say that you sound tired. “No more than usual”;

and my heart breaks, although no more than usual.

 

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Marie Naughton

Plugholes

 

Pull

the plug

and she leaps

to dodge

the gurgling

current

hopping from foot

to foot

she wiggles

fingers

as we fetch

towels.

Scooped

in lifeboat arms

she grimaces

at the swirling water

and like a frog

draws up her legs

to save

curled toes

from the sucking

tide.

Standing

swaddled

on cold tiles

she shivers

and peers

down

into

the tub

some

wordless

question

swimming

in her

eyes.

 

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Claire Booker

What cannot be said

 

Friend, let me count the ways I rage

in fractions of your stolen days:

 

that when they come to lay you out

a convict’s crop will brand your scalp.

 

These sheets we chose for flights of fun

will graze my skin when you are gone.

 

Soon none shall know except for me

the secrets swapped as we sipped tea

 

or grasp the loveliness of line

those cloudscapes give our wind-braced pine.

 

Without your eyes I’ll surely fail

to capture diamonds on the blackbird’s tail

 

or see our stacks flash ember bright

in streaming skies of varnished light.

 

And though I fight to hold each drop

our cup is pierced, it cannot stop.

 

What once we shared is seeping through

into a world devoid of you;

 

disintegrating with each chime,

each moment’s tick, there is no time.

 

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Denise McSheehy

Call

 

The middle of the night and the phone rings.

Nothing.

 

But someone is there.

We listen to each other

 

in the dark and quiet we listen

there is between us not even breathing.

 

Yet I know

the moment I’m released

 

what could be said

will not now be said.

 

A click;

the neutral purr

 

and I wonder who was out there

at five in the morning

 

who’d listened unknown as I had listened

listened to my silence –

 

then quietly gone, cut off

blipped out into the black.

 

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Sue Leigh

Crop circles

 

Whatever the explanation

sudden storm, a barrow’s shadow

 

hoaxers with their planks and ropes

a vortex movement of air

 

we find ourselves returning

to walk the wheat fields

 

as if Ceres herself might appear

in a cloak of poppies

 

as if we could decipher

language in rings of broken corn

 

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