Members' Poems 2005

Winter issue

Theme: Loudness
Judge: Catherine Smith

"Loudness" generated some fantastic poems; selecting just six was tough. Some of the submissions were noisy for the wrong reasons – too much demanding, loaded imagery – but the ones which really caught my ear went beyond the obvious and played around with ideas of loudness I hadn't considered.



My career as a musical instrument

was short.
Already the wound is healing
into a lyre-shaped scar:

a reminder of the moment
when birds kept singing
in the ribcages of bushes
and a wind coming up the brae
balalaika'd the trees
and I, for four seconds,
became musical also.

Out of my hurt leg
ribboned a sound
unsubtle, whistling,
but indubitably music
and so loud that others heard it,
gasped, commented.

Until my heart reasserted
its ordinary rhythm
and the loudness of it ceased
I witnessed, fabulously,
how a new planet feels
at the Music of the Spheres'
sensational one-off gala concert.


The Voices 

The voices are loud today.
They shout
'under no circumstances',
'and you were',
'again and again',
'but clearly impossible, and on top of that',
'responsible, also',
'broke both their hearts'.

I do not like these voices.
I take refuge in work.

Work bellows
'Pragmatic lexical acquisition strategies
in input-rich environments
(Pickelhaube 1998).'

the celebrated poet
will offer solace.

The celebrated poet screams
'Trees, and their fall-out,
especially under the shadow
of the Maenads' irrevocable decrees,
are all we have to work with.'

speak to me quietly of your new shoes,
tell me what the hairdresser said,
give me your take
on Mrs Porkington's live-in lover.



stuffs orange cottonwool
into my ear.
The hands of my watch
held close, move imperceptibly,
in silence.

Everyone's talking code,
like digits in a cheque-book.
The radio full-blast
filters through layers of cloth.

A drop of olive oil daily:
one splitting second –
the shower's a cataract.
A death-watch beetle's ticking
somewhere close.

Each airwave breaks
against my tympanum
as sharp and new
as colours to an eye
lasered from fog. 


avoiding the limelight


Christmas Eve and I leave the Western
with my wisdom teeth in a jar,
with hamster jowls and a jaw
so yellow that on Christmas Day
I wear golden stockings,
a futile diversion below this table
groaning with turkey and everything,
and nothing I can sip or suck.

Midsummer and, in a foolish leap
from a graveyard wall, my ankle snaps.
The stookie clapped around my leg
blooms bright as snow-in-summer.
I hirple in the loudest scarlet
and orange Hawaiian shirt, gaudy
with white flowers and fish bones,
a charm to knit the tickling joint.

Despite the limelight conferred
by spectacular wounds,
I prefer to chew with impunity,
dress at any volume I choose,
and leap all walls in my way
but always I wear quiet black
somewhere, a dark prophylactic
against the silence of graves.




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.

This poem won the 2005 Hamish Canham Poetry Prize

on a quiet day

Somewhere, I expect,
a volcano is erupting.

At nature reserves coots
will be having hysterics
over nothing.

On the High Street
shops never stop arguing

In my head a song I hate
is on replay



Spring issue

Theme: Coats
Judge: Michael Symmons Roberts 
The theme of "Coats" seemed to bring out the melancholic in Poetry News readers. Lots of poems described an old coat left hanging after its owner had died. Many were well written, but my eye was also drawn to poems that took the theme and made it their own. 



Good Friends

When we were getting to know each other,
we went to London by train, to meet that Montrealer,
the scriptwriter. Oh, you hoped he'd notice
that you looked like an extra from Dr Zhivago.
Well, he did notice and much admired you –
but I don't think he could see you in the part.

You and I had only just met a few weeks before.
I saw you – or did you see me – first? If it wasn't
love at first sight, there was a certain trembling
of recognition and desire on my part. You reminded me
of a favourite black suit that I wore to death
(and I'm still in mourning).

Remember the November trip to Peaks Island, Maine –
a couple of years later. It was cold.
Colder than anything my English blood had encountered
Gloved hands buried deep in pockets and collar
pulled up to my eyes. You got me through
that blood-freezing, breath-steaming walk.

And yet, just a few days before, without you,
I was in a hot tub in a forest in the falling snow
with Tom and Rhonda and Bobbie.
There was no way I could have made an angel
in the snow with you on my back. Sometimes
it's necessary to go it alone. You would have fussed
and buttoned me up like a fretful mother.

Now older, both of us a little frayed and tattered
(just at the edges). A little softer, we fit together
like an old (happily married) couple – although
what would I know. If a husband couldn't understand
your true worth, how could he understand a wife.
That man pulled the cashmere over my eyes one too many times.

If you're still around (when I'm gone) and surely
you will be, I'd like to think you'd befriend a young woman,
who would see you as special, something a little retro perhaps.
Then celebrated – finding your way into a movie after all –
and ending
your days in a museum dedicated to the twenty-first century
labelled "Long grey coat, circa 2001".




Then there's the one for dead of winter,
the funeral coat, that doesn't hang
among the walking jackets for weekends
or the weekday raincoats,
but breathes the silence of the wardrobe.

It was never in fashion. Its must-have
came from need, out of that first
black urgency, prescribing
how all the later funerals would be dressed.

It was never comfortable (too tight
round the neck) and now
it's fitting closer. There's less give
across the shoulders, and the hem
has thickened, grown misshapen

and after all the crumpled salt of old tissues
its pockets are never empty.



My Grandfather's Coat 

I haven't been in your room for years.
Although they took you
away days ago,
I tiptoe around the silent room,
trying not to look
at the bed you died in.

Your shoes wait silently in single file
for you to reach in,
not for me to clear them out.
A pile of new jumpers still lies
ready for that day
when only the best will do.

I know you better now,
having seen your details,
these folds and creases,
your coat still standing to attention.

And you, the last time I saw you,
looking out of
the hospital window at
a man painting a wall,
filling the empty space
with white.




It creeps over you
like curfew;
patches join forces,
send out scales

that detach, go AWOL
shedding DNA
when you are most exposed.

Smear this on!
Rub this in!
Lay back and let
this UV through!

And as the body
sloughs and chokes
in rhythm,
the scalp is laying down

building up a skullcap

to blot out the loss

you thought was dealt with.


The Coat

After the surgery that reversed my womb –
too weak to cut my nails or face the sun –
I stared immobile from my bed
over which a dark brown, hooded coat,
hollowed to an emptiness where no face was,
shadow-played as it emerged
from the silence of the wardrobe
and hovered above my head,
neither advancing nor retreating
it stalled between horror and hope.
It appeared at that time of night
when crickets erupted in delirious trill
and the frogs foraged among dew-wet leaves
against the ritual cry of the crowing cock;
that faceless hooded coat,
emerged as from a dream,
yet not once did I consider death
nor think what I would see
when morning came.
After I made it through
those who had seen
the nightmare in my eyes confessed
they'd hid the truth from me.



Can I take your coat?

Let's work back through it all,
starting with the outer layers –
first, today's residue, dark-eyes,

bad-feels, brushed aside only
to reveal a tissue of thorns,
too much history that could be

poisonous and needs to be removed.
What's left, an indifferent varnish,
cracked like parched earth or dry lips

dissolves slowly in methylated spirit,
dabbed on with a cotton-wool bud.
Next, there's a viscous pigment,

purple bound in egg, a clinginess
that spreads all over you and must
be pared away with a scalpel blade.

And then, at last, the original picture,
dove-white streaks on cobalt blue,
love's wind in the sea's feathers.

Summer issue

Theme: On the tiles
Judge: Kathryn Gray
The word "tile" derives from the Latin, tegere, "to cover". But to write poetry, of course, is to uncover – while keeping a tight grip on the necessary, healthy mystery. The poems that made the final cut did just that for me. A special mention, too, to Paul Carey-Kent's 'The Late Tale'. The next theme is "The Future". 


The thunder's still far off, bickering
over the next county's fresh stubble, but

closer, a couple of owls, tawnies, bantering
across dry gardens, pines apart,

their tsk tsk unfamiliar, countering
school-book stereotypes, split

sleep from its darkness, lighting
the night's long heat, hot slates, until

dropping in, between the chimneys, sidling
along the roofline, side by side

and up on the tiles, they're edging into sex,
the whole restless city willing them on.



Soft-body survival is always the exception,
even on those tiles of Hunsrück slate
that roof rich Rhineland homesteads, whose stones
are compact from coeval sand and silt.
Nevertheless, we do find some lucky fossils
(anthropods whose well-developed eyes
prove them bottom-dwellers) where the Moselle
cuts through the bedrock of Devonian seas.

Fuck me. So my soft ghost won't last
long pressed in this mud, old soak
that I am and soaked to the bone, pissed
beneath an evergreen in Victoria Park.

Yet another crustacean in sedimented night,
asking to be etched onto unwritten slate.

Roof Man

The roofer sits tight astride the ridge
with taut thighs and a jockey's seat.
All morning he beds in the hips,
tucks tiles into place with a deft touch,
his long reach clearing the valleys.

Once in a while he'll ease up
knees bent slightly, balancing,
full of bravura. Hedging his bets
he shades his eyes, raking the horizon
from the best spot in the grandstand.

Later a fag end trembling between
the tips of cement-grey fingers,
he talks of his dying daughter,
a brother slipping from a roof,
not the same since – nor likely to be.

Now he's tired of hoisting ladders
in all weathers; had enough, that's it.
His crushed slatey eyes gaze straight
past me, fixed on a finishing post
that's always moving further off.

Pulling Power

Outside, drizzle seems to generate
slugs to graze my dahlias' leaves.

Night-time, and silverfish escape
from the grout beneath my slippered feet.

Latent till some obscure deadline expires,
weevils appear in my last ounce of rice.

Viruses, bacteria in the veins
wait for the defences to grow weak

as self-doubts, vague misgivings, wait
till the world deals a blow. Unforeseen,

this setback, though familiar when it strikes:
you've been a magnet for it all your life.

In a Glasgow tenement designed by Alexander 'Greek' Thompson

I strip away sixties orange vinyl
find Victorian swirls in red and green,
leave an island of it floating
on the newly painted wall.
I pull off reeded hardboard to reveal
the marble mantelpiece with cast-iron grate;
expose floors tiled in a Greek key design.
Prise off a panel, which hides an indicator board,
names of rooms painted on the glass.
If only I could unearth the footsteps
of those who've walked these rooms before.
I imagine their traces
embedded in the fabric of the building,
recorded like glyphs on a stave in Benesh notation,
to show a dancer moving through space.


The Woolwich Tunnel

What can be seen on the tiles of the Woolwich Tunnel?
The long white corridor under the Thames
That smells of piss and bleach and damp.
Walk past the film crews making advertisements for banks.
Walk past, find a space and look at the wall.
You can see the world above you.
See the young couple kissing on the Woolwich ferry
After a day packing caster sugar.
A blue hairnet caught on her coat.
See them go into a warm smoky pub for two pints,
Then get on a bus and go to his house
Which is near the 'No Poll Tax' bridge.
The Woolwich tunnel echoes and stores all life above
In the memory chips that line its walls.
Look again. What else can you see?



Autumn issue

Theme: The Future
Judge: Roddy Lumsden
Babies and the elderly featured in many members' poems about 'The Future', set against an edgy view of our world today. Various types of scrying also made an appearance. Given the inscrutable theme, it's no wonder that many of the best pieces were short and to the point. 



Phenomena in poise
Contain what will be done:
The statue in the stone,
The music in the noise.
All that time affords,
All that's yet to be:
The coffin in the tree,
The poem in the words.



If Horses were Wishes

If Brendan read your Tarot
all your ships would come in
on the same day, at the same time,
storming Brighton Marina
like a fleet of Arabian sea-stallions
with the Devil's own breath in their sails,
while William Hill, that bastard,
coughs up your 50p accumulator
at 1,968,000/1.
Yes, if Brendan read your Tarot
you would spend tomorrow
drinking with sexy Czech strangers,
dancing with Emmylou Harris,
& giving Leonard Cohen lessons in love,
while the names of photo-finish winners
& poems, dark & warm,
fill your mind like Guinness
gleaming from the tap.
For when Brendan reads the Tarot
the Magician lollipops footballs
right to the back of the onion bag;
the Emperor bails out your mates
– oh, it's happy days for even Steve –
& as the night sizzles like a chicken kebab,
the High Priestess slips into your scratcher,
gilding your vanishing dreams
with the full-tilt light of the Moon.



My Plans

At forty I intend
to be drumming my wings,
pecking food on the air,
my call to be heard.
At sixty I expect
to have grown great flippers,
hurl air as I breathe,
flurry a forked tail.
At eighty I suspect
my legs and neck will lengthen,
I will take to crunching treeleaves
and silently laugh.
And if I am a hundred I guess
my tongue will hang, my lungs
thump and one day I'll simply
trot off into the fog.



Looking Ahead

You stare in the mirror as if you wish
to go through, your hair clotting with silver
water, to arrive safely under new
lights, to end despair and breathe the good air
of freedom. You are at the border. Cross
now. You see what you are becoming. Wet
arms pull viscously. Your cold face answers
to a kiss or a slap. It is always
summer, you thought, and yet there is a darkness
hurrying in. Up again, then. Move out.
There is another stopping-place beyond.
Legend describes it as an oasis.
You drink and taste only sweetness. After,
in the mirror's stare, you remember nothing.



There is a friend I wish could go on such a journey

A mountain range evolves with the light.
In the shade of almond and olive trees,
a wash of lavender and sage –
their scents more pungent from touch.
Evelyn said of Salvia Officinalis:
'the assiduous use of it renders Men Immortal'.
I continue my depiction
in my pocket-size Molsekine notebook,
black elastic keeps the contents safe
and there's a discreet pocket at the back.
If only, when gravely ill, we could
look forward to the land I envisage.
At dusk I hurry past the wild boar's den
to the waterfall over forty metres high,
far below, the cryptic, blue-green pool
where trout, grayling and chevesne
feast on damselfly nymphs
or gather in deep water under a fallen tree.



Telegram Boy

You mustn't think that the slippage
of ninety years or so protects you.
My old black bicycle still turns
up that hill, deathly slow;
reaching into a pocket –
capricious, fickle finality.
They understood chance in those days
waiting at their windows:
blind chance; a fighting chance; a
sporting chance in the turn of the cards.
I was always just around the corner
delayed action withering a bloodline.
So you have not been spared,
not really. Extinction is a perpetual,
unalterable presence.
The shadows of my wheels still stain
the lengthening landscape;
silenced arms reach far beyond you
in indelible lament.