Members' Poems 2003

Winter issue

Theme: Falling Awake
Judge: Roddy Lumsden
Even with the abstract theme ('Falling Awake'), there were still close to 200 entries this quarter – including an encouraging number from seemingly younger members – choosing six from my shortlist of 20 was tough.  


There are no midges at this time of year.

The narcissi under the cherry tree

a business plan turn with the fluency

of dancers in the April wind, and where

the hyacinths unfurl beside the door

the scent is heavenly. and we must all

congratulate our When the blossoms fall

from the forsythia, I must make sure

to prune it straight away, so it will bloom

next spring. The thyme has spread a sweet carpet

over the paving stones Our secretary gets

her absent-minded moments.

Hell. The room

on this twelfth floor is waiting, all its eyes

turned and its lips pursed in impatient smiles.

I'm reading, breathless. I have fallen miles

out of my garden, to this place of sky.


This poem was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, 2003.



Waking at Casa Sperantei

Call-and-response, chain-reactions, hoarse gruff barks

hocketing with high-pitched yelps: across the city

the dawn chorus of dogs. Long echo of the returning owl.

Gentle sawings and complaints: raven, rooks, wood-pigeon.

Dingdong of the street bell, click and squeak of the gate.

Istvan talking low recites countries around Romania –

Ungaria, Ukraine, Moldova – a last-minute revision

for today's exam. Shower-swish. Pipe-hiss. TV loud,

then hushed. Logs starting to crackle, ready to roast

today's aubergines. Sunlight through shivering walnut

leaves rippling on the bedroom wall. Time to get up.



Falling awake

A birdless dawn. Above the cot your song

Condenses. Gasping out of sleep I seek

Your eager grasp confirming I belong


To day. We creep downstairs in search of tea.

Uncurtained windows thrill you as we loom

Uncertainly against the dark, half real.


I pile up words like pebbles round the room

For you to lap while, dulled, I slice your pear –

My thumb. Blood shocks. Animal as milk, womb-


Warm, vital. Time bleeds. Habit-hands prepare

Your thin, cold fruit, switch on the blender's scream

The streaming plunge to brutal blades. I stare


Back at the window. Naked branches seem

To ghost our fading scene. We are still dream.



Falling asleep again

folding soft under the limbo line

into a pool,


its white borders



magnifying, bulging

a liquid otherness which is not

the purling, the knitting of sleeves


but a seed falling

out of a pod



a ju-ju perimeter

of between,


an escalator plunge

with control,


a summer Alice without excuses,


both hands on the guard rail,

feet elongating


and somewhere very far,

a voice calling.




Tongue swathed in gelatine I sneak past green-

Streaked algae encased, poured into ribbons

Cast to catch the sight of passers-by or wave


Them on. I drift upwards and through

A paperweight that gives and closes up

Behind, filling the space left by a hand


An alloy foot misting the crystal up that

Ardent to dispose of the impure shoves

Pushes me onwards while I inhale the glaze

And leave a trail of bubbles in my wake


Light snatchers, they draw paths

Behind my back, blinkers thrown out, strung up

To snare what other fish may swim these spheres


While I drift on and up towards

The day that lies in wait, its hands palms down

Cradling my lids and breathing on my face



Making a Life

The man wading his boat over low

tide mud, dog tracking each pull

of the rope, knows how to navigate

here. I have always lived in fringes,


on the borders between what I loved –

huge oak atop a hill of red mud –

and what it was about to become –

fenced against a parking lot, a mall.


No place has a key. There is only

what each of us overlays. The visits

we make, what we infer. It's simple,

but I keep squinting into the hillside


where light has gone cool for evening.

There is no place which is not sad

to me with what it may have had,

what I cannot attain: foundations.


All the best years in my old valley

preceded me. Just pick a place

and live in it, even a beautiful one,

you can see through the veils trailing


your frame, all this ecstasy in unknowing

taken with youth's vagueness and

lingering over years. Then yourself

walking in yourself, it isn't something


you see but feel and even then

I don't know if you know you've come there,

maybe only that you have woken up

enough to enter a new dream.


Spring issue

Theme: The Entertainer
Judge: Greta Stoddart
It's hard to recreate live entertainment in any form, and those poems that tackled the theme head on sometimes ran into difficulties of the "I guess you had to be there" kind. But there were some good poems.  


boring man dancing on a pin

The phrase

exact as an ice cube

drips off his tongue

and the universe yawns.


He can master

the chronic indifference

of the day

in a single lesson







At night he slips out

and stands by his garden shed

watching the midnight snail

sleepwalk across his soul.




Debbie Sly


A filigree key unlocks a cage like a skeleton house.

There's a mirror inside, on a silken thread,

And a Fragonard swing, and a silver bell

Cast to a perfect C.


Then I put on the floor a heap of gold,

Still warm, but limp: some day-old chicks.


And the condors flap up from the snowy south,

With their heavy wings and their greasy beaks.

They shut their eyes, then they duck their heads

And walk right in.


And I close the door on their high, hunched shapes,

Then turn the key, and bow to the crowd.


Now the condors feast on the heap of warm gold

And the mirror's dimmed by their carrion breath

Which stirs the swing till it cracks the bell,

All to the crowd's delight.






Conjuring Show by Child


I practised, giggling past

my slithery fingers.

When night huddled its thick

deceptor's cloak,

I sharpened expertise,

performed my tricklets.


Guessed myself so damn smart,

hands slick as a lizard

who tightrope-strolls a stem,

leans tongue and cheek and

incorrupt scaly curve

to inspect some flower.


In California that night

Monroe was coaxing

a storm-frightened cow

into her livingroom

So I was playacting

six thousand miles from magic.







I can sometimes remember

the sway of the canvas

and the taste of rain

in my opened mouth


and the whole audience

stilled like a wave

when the drumming stopped

and Duende stepped onto the wire


stretched high above our heads

as vague as a vapour-trail.

We'd seen him as children

negotiating the same dark


balancing like a compass needle

seeking north, muscle and breath

working together to answer gravity

along the length of the wire.


We watched him again

as if we'd never aged

or the last twenty years

had been imagined or dreamed


by the confused, confusing children

caught between incompatible guardians.

Enthralled by Duende and silent for once

no longer tearing each other apart.







The Flea Circus

(For Robert Gregory)


There is something surreal

in applauding a flea, even though

it has dived thirty centimetres

into a thimble of water

or been fired from a cannon.


But when you were seven,

you never gave it a second thought.

That day, you burrowed

to the front of the crowd

and found yourself spellbound

before Brutus – The World's Strongest Flea.


Your small mouth fell open

as he pulled the tiny locomotive,

(ten thousand times his weight, the sign said;)

and you held your breath

as he walked a tightrope thread

that sagged and swayed with each step.


When the show closed

and the curtain fell, the barker

took the star home on his arm

(for each lived equally off the other),

you stood there amazed,

itching to go with them.






'Everything is poetry!' you raved,

hiding your face in a lobster.


You pulled cigarettes from your ears,

fabulous scarves from your nostrils.


You plucked jewels from laughter in the air,

turned your words into frogs, bats, dice.


You made spun sugar castles and unruly rainbow birds

appear. Disappear. Appear again. The air looked confused


Materialising in the palm of my hand,

you waved a gigantic pair of scissors;

paper rain fell from my hair.


'Why is my mouth full of gold coins all of a sudden?'

I asked you, with some difficulty.


You said nothing, but sprung into the air with a flourish,

folded yourself up, and disappeared in a top hat.



Summer issue

Theme: Boundaries
Judge: Kaiser Haq
I looked out for work that tried to push boundaries, or nudge them hard.


Alexander on the Edge


Toronto – eight days – Dep. Glasgow

Norway – Arctic Circle (Spitzbergen) – 3 wks

Cape Town – Rtn from £427 – car hire

Goa – beach-side accommodation – flights

Round the world – unlimited stopovers.


Persepolis, Persia; Bactria, Central Asia;

Samarqand, Sogdiana; Hyphasis, Punjab;

Issus, Syria; Alexandria, Alexandria, Alexandria.


With the pillars of Hercules

far behind, even with his Almagest,

star catalogue, Ptolemy's Geography, he had

run out of oikoumenê; after nine years

there was no more

world-map. Alexander had arrived

that day at the sea, the gulf;

he felt the shingle, all that world

beneath his feet, every

-thing begin to slip away

and wept.


This is not the great Alexander,

the invincible, who cries,

it is the child Alexander;

not the frustrated child who wants all

and wants for nothing . . . except

more; he is the child

who has encountered finality;

all things do end with innocence,

the breast, taken away. Too far

extended for comfort, he wants

to return home

to mourn for a life

destined to go no further.









 With apologies to Mae West


You finish the last spare rib,

rolling the bone

between soy-stained fingers,

whose touch I know so well.


You nibble up and down its length,

sucking at succulence,

tongue darting, teasing,

eyes twinkling as they catch mine,

juice dribbling down your face.

You lick and nibble,

you suck, I dribble.

I know what's in your mind

it's in mine, too –

but for now we must be good.


You giggle: I sigh,

and rearrange my napkin

so your husband won't notice

(as I have no gun in my pocket)

how very pleased I am to see you.



Kafkaesque on the Russia / Ukraine Border

It was reported that a man had been fined for crossing the border to use the lavatory at the end of his garden without the appropriate papers.


An armed guard

is mounted

on his smallest room.


Being caught short

is no longer an option.

Time at stool is rationed


according to the terms

of the visas that allow passage

from one end of his garden to the other.


Every piss is logged,

each opening of his bowels

requires authorisation


at the highest level,

signed in triplicate,

copies filed both sides of the border.


As a result, some favourite items

no longer feature on his menu;

spicy food is just not worth it,


vodka is favoured over beer.

His greatest fear is incontinence,

war; the closing of the border.





You wake up one morning to find that

someone's run a highlighter pen up the

centre of your road. In the old days it was

all biro marks and bits of dust, Ambre

Solaire thumbprints that were hard to get

rid of. The waves have gone dog-eared.

Time to move on, you say. But you can't.

There's the kids and school. In any case,

two black chevrons block your way.

They've been there since '52 when the

man came to measure the hill. It's steep,

he told you. Very steep. His Ford Popular

broke down on a contour line. You had to

tow him down. He comes back

sometimes. Fond memories, he says. His

is a precarious existence. He lives on a

fold eleven miles away. Every now and

then he falls off, loses all his friends. It

takes days to find them. He hasn't seen

his wife for seven years. She's on the other

side, he says bitterly. One day all of this

will be sea, the climatologists claim. You'll

build a boat and go from white to blue

and darker blue again. You'll find a grid

line and follow it. 58 sounds good. 58

09. Turn south at 51. Just keep going.






The Garden




Stiffly formal this garden stares

unblinking, not an ounce of shade proffered.

Ramrod straight and fierce on the eye

the flowers stand to attention perspiring

in the heat of their uniforms. The fatcat lawns,

shaved clean to their jowls, know their importance.

The gravel path glares.


The effort to cut back each shoot

that strays, the discipline suffered,

the energy of watchfulness to spy

alien infiltration! And all that striving

grounded in its own death. No ruled lines

fence off the underside; no vigilance

keeps order at the root.





4 p.m.

Pensive they sit, and roll their languid eyes. Nibble their toast and cool their tea with sighs . . . – Keats


We drink tea, our lips pressed

against blue patterned porcelain,

sucking in bergamot steam.

In-between sips, we talk about

the weather, how Spring has made

the tree buds sing viridian,

how soon it will be time

for croquet and cutting the lawn


and all the while I'm thinking of your

moon-and-almond skin, the damp

sun-after-rain smell of your body,

the questioning caress of your fingertips

and your kisses that bloom in my mouth

like jasmine, sweet, hinting of decay.








Autumn issue

Theme: Home
Judge: Stephen Knight


Selecting poems with an eye-catching phrase or image soon reduced the pile of 102 poems by three-quarters, of which half were more than a glittery effect. Choosing the final six took longer. I stared at them, and the work of poets who made clear, formal choices stood out.






Freeing her hands to clap


. . . and somehow every Sunday morning

between the kitchen and the eating table,

she redeemed her absence from the village church

with its two pulpits and pipe organ,

while her husband, my father, brought

the noon day how-di-dos on her behalf.

It was the year of the stick swords

and the hoolahoops, when, one day,

under the wide open blue

an eye-popping story wild-fired through

the village vines in overblown proportions

about the "streets of glory by and by . . ."

Now, under the Essen Tree

surrounded by walls of wind

a propped-up streetlight leans

in reverence, as if to pull

power from the lines of heaven

over the valley brimmed with exhaustion.

Dew falls like a blessing

on the congregation, settling like spores,

seeping into her first decision

like the beginning of another end,

and bareheaded she goes

as if to leave all consequences behind, her handkerchief

tucked in her waist,

freeing her hands to clap.






They bottle the viscera,

top with oil and bay,

label it with name and date of death.


It is late May.

The queens are nesting,

ploughing through the thick air,

swarm in tow,

in search of space to rest and

pool their drifts of papery eggs.


The body is laid out,

skin cured to amber, drawn over ribs.

Inside the cavity is dry as leaves,

waxed and smooth.


She finds his lips slightly parted and

tasting of honey,

crawls in.

Traces in the furrows of his hardened

tongue draw her

to the throat and down.


They wait many weeks.

Lips peel back to a macabre leer.

Activity around his ears and nostrils


Abdomen distends, becomes

golden, translucent, seething

with tiny black shadows.


They wait, then slit the skin.


A storm of tiny-winged hostility spills out,

spirals upwards.

A great sigh fills the air,


then a sweetness.






Frontier Song

Home is where the heart is so I dig

a heart-shaped hole and stash his heart away

beneath the rug I made and lock the door

and nail the windows shut and pat the pig

that gets me through the winter, do not say

whose blood it is that's spattered on the floor.


Home is our beginning so I start

to plaster up the sixteen bullet holes

that make a constellation on the wall.

Violence is necessity, not art.

Vodka I consume till vodka flows

through veins that bleed till I have killed them all.


Home is where the children of the state

reserve a plot to die in. When I die,

secure in my home, I'll remember when

we danced around a fire, how we ate

the pig that made this pig. I need to try

to eat again tonight. Drink vodka. Then








Anderson Shelter


Each time that smell returned:

damp hessian, spider's breath,

creosote and black earth crumbling

from the garden fork.


Ribbed steel burned under his

palm; a blazing afternoon spilled

laburnum blossom outside

in the garden's glare.


Dust motes glittered, floating

as scattered spores of light;

the shelter was a dream ship

drifting from the land.


Now he's staring from a house

where someone like him used

to live, leaning on vinegar-

scented window glass


intent on what is left of

what it was that held him –

the ebb of afternoons

that might be happening still


if the boy had let them, not risen

to play pirates, dirty his knees,

blow dandelion clocks at the

yellow ensign of the sun.





Rain in Harrogate


The rain persists, a gauze across the scene

beneath my flat, misting my outward view.

It slaps the tarmac road and dull slate roofs,

the crappiest rainiest day there's ever been.


I lounge indoors for hours, longing to drown

in the wads of raindrops walloping the bricks

and guttering down the street. I float free and drift

to prouder streams canalled through braver towns.


Allocated an armchair seat I grieve

to see the puddles hog the Yorkshire rain.

A face in the crowd of dripping lime tree leaves

on Dragon Parade, obscured among the twigs

I shout when the water's rescued by the drains.

The town is so small, the run-off channels big.






Green and tawny wool is breathing in the dark

long damp exhalations

with their stumpy scent of over-watered plants.


The radiator gurgles like a baby

awakening inside his painted metal cot

conjuror of all the warmth four walls can hold


while a thin angora coverlet of dust

lightly draped along the shoulders of the tub

is waiting for a fingertip to trace our private names.


Red tiles sweat. A blonde cobweb in plaster strays.

The corner by the door is bulging

with a secret cache of steam.


The bathroom is embedded in its seasons

a soapy springtime nestles in a gentle, sifted dirt

moss growing in the grouting, ferns dying in the sink.