Members' Poems 2001

Winter issue

Theme: Boats
Judge: Roddy Lumsden 
We had a great response - almost 100 poems - to our request for members' poems. Reading so many nautical poems was risking a touch of sea-sickness and made the more original and unusual pieces stick out. Here are the poems I liked best. 

Outlook Good

Another Kentuckian bourbon night's swill
and swell rocks me gently in the dark as
I wait for the nightly shipping forecast
while sailors in oils slick cross deck to hear
their fate from the oracle of Broadcasting House
and long to be cardiganed and coffeed
in Studio B with a black cab waiting
to drive the tarmac miles to sanctuary,
and a solo helmsman paws over charts by
the light of a kerosene lamp that swings
and knocks his forehead with each restless turn
of the Atlantic as she takes more and
more duvet for herself and finally
kicks all the brackish green bedclothes to the
floor, and chilled by the six or seven rising
to gale force eight, he sets his alarm for fifteen
minutes' time and tries to get his head down,
and wishes he was living in Switzerland
where shipping forecasts are as useful
as pollen warnings on the moon, but
I dream of casting off from the nodding
donkey derrick of Cape Cod, with a bait-hold
jammed with slabs of frozen squid and forty
miles of monofilament, hooks, buoys, beepers,
leaders, gaffs and slime knives to dress the throngs
of swordfish I would haul on deck under
waxing moons that never wane in ocean
breaks that furnish forth fish like the pot that
wouldn't stop. 

The Quay at Gweek 

It's the proportion, the surreal element:
as though a trading schooner
was delivering at Number 13,
or in this case, the harbour-master's house.
The square tops'l towers
out of the photograph, startling white,
bowsprit level with upstairs windows.
She dwarfs the tiny creek.
You could leap into the rigging,
or boys out on the ratlins tumble,
acrobatic into plumped feather beds.
Ma Bollitho could've passed out pasties.
But light spills from the margin
making the ship seem insubstantial -
as though, if you closed the book
the apparition would be gone -
just as she would've slipped away
on the tide, before householders rose
or cocks crowed, ghosting
the shallow channel to the sea. 


That was when they would turn for her singing,
There in the pew where sun varnished the wood;
When they wondered, as the notes picked their way
Through the weather, where she went and how long
Her journey. So he followed her, her sad
Music still in his head, till, at dusk, they
Called but could find just the church door banging.
It was only the silver rain pitting
The water or her voice they heard again
From balancing waves. That was when the boats
Put out, stained crimson from the sun's setting,
Their prows like dogs sniffing the horizon.
From deep in the current, singing, like lights,
Danced on the sea, invited their waiting.
But they returned, finding priorities,
Talking now and then of their vanished friend,
Of things on land for which he never had
The temperament. And then, how it was
That music was the devil's art, that fanned
To a mad flame something he once had said:
Love and eternity, that's all there is. 

Salmon Run

As summer ends the silver salmon run  
their urgent race, while north winds chop the strait.
Each dawn I chase the Juan de Fuca sun
to trace the tide. Each evening, anchored late,
I recall blue eyes and other scuttled dreams
sunk in one immemorial knockdown gust.
I set my course and charted selfish schemes
to ride the flood on my blue-water lust.
Bold city lights seduce sea-weathered eyes -
break off and run - ports spawn too foul a rest.
cold winds freshen and shake out salt-stained skies;
against the wind, close hauled, I beat north-west.
New moon, far stars, old phosphorescent sea,
Pacific nights - forever pulling me.  

Corporation Pier, Hull

From here the ferries shuffled over there
and back, thrashed the Humber
with the broad bats
of their side-hung paddles.
This is where we stood,
rose and fell with the pier,
observing those who came to ride
to the pale grey line
that was another place.
What fools we thought them,
sailing daily to nothing.
"Who needs it?" we said,
confirmed in our knowledge
that over there was nowhere,
over here was everywhere.
Then one day you bought a ticket
and rode south, one way, declared:
"There's got to be something".
First angry, I called you by an unfamiliar name;
then within the month I'd done the same.
There's a bridge does the ferrying now,
while we continue to shuffle to and fro,
sometimes passing in the middle,
never quite meeting,
never once arriving on this pier together.


The moon has turned a copper boy to silver
as he rows out slowly, slap-slip-slap.
His oars in rowlocks move as part of him
from habit, and his white hands shine.
He slides out, past the bobbing boats
which sleep like small round birds
upon their nests of water.
They do not want to wake;
they're the weekend sailors' berths,
or summer fun for tourists' sake.
"Fishing isn't worth it any more!"
You hear the old men say it in the bar.
Far out and dark the boy hauls fish aboard,
feeling the flap and pull, the swell and suck
against his arms. And, smiling at his luck,
he turns for the long row back,
reaching his mooring as the morning dawns
behind the hill of houses.
He heaves his net up high, and then
pours gold and silver into his wet sack,
hefts it ashore and hops up after it.
He stands, stretches, looks at the sky and yawns...
plods home to bath, eat, snatch a quick catnap.
Later he'll turn his catch to coin and keep.  

Spring issue

Theme: Sugar 
Judge:  Roddy Lumsden
Thanks to all who contributed to the bumper crop of sugar poems. I'm sure I gained a few pounds just reading them. As I expected, the best poems were often those which came at the theme sideways. I hope you enjoy my favourite half dozen below.



Painting sweetness

Onto sweetness,

I bless the cane

With my catcher's mix.



Night drops them

Through the sticky dusk

In paper handfuls.


The whole family:

Emerald, codling, silk,

Antennae weighted

With last night's theft.


They unsettle the air,

Whisper past my face,

Vellum wings

Stuttering against the dark.


It's my job

To light them home,

Bring on their sweet panic.

Their sugary drowning,


And in the morning

To clean the knotted stems,

Dismantle the mosaic

Of broken wings. 




Nursery Story

I used to rile you with that rhyme -
I sugar-fashioned, sparked with spice,
you a despised concoction: slime
of frogs and snails and, far from nice,
puppydog tails of quivering gristle.
Cruel taunting - many a little boy
is tender, lacks the heart and muscle
to stand against its mockery.
Such jibing may perhaps begin
a rancour against women, as mother
to daughter the sly joke's passed on.
I sang you down, my younger brother,
but even as I teased I knew
you were the sweeter of us two.  


Until the gasping face your TV spatters
Its lonely light across is once more mine,
I'll scour the hearts of admin girls for tatters
To clothe my happy spiritual decline.
Until I feel again that urge I've ached with,
Or once more take the metro this far south -
I'll place that thick sweet scent your body's caked with
Before it dries completely on my mouth.


It starts as the usual: run out of icing sugar,
shop's closed, and staring at a tasteless cake.
You didn't know this at the time, and so
when you enter the kitchen, slightly bemused,
it's not the penetrating buzz of the whisk
that first draws you forward, it's not your craving tastebuds,
but a staccato flickering on the ceiling
sent by the pounding taut red elbows under the sharp
electric bulb, that makes your eyes
pulsate, and your blood roll
to the grinding against the bowl.
After a time a curling fume
of white mist starts to coil
around the whisking figure; a sharp
silhouette gently smoking. Hesitant wafts
float towards you; you suddenly taste
a surprising sweetness on your tongue.
You may make a move then, inadvertently remembering
Valentines, old films, summer; you may make a move then,
towards the figure, through the spuming
billowing cloud. Then you see
the struggle to enforce
more grains from two crushed ounces
of Silver Spoon granulated. More, and more
powdery grains, no matter how small,
to shroud the cake and cover several more;
more grains, more grains, but never enough
to neutralise the salt streaking thickly
down the figure, the walls,
and now yourself.


Sugar water for shock
Sugar bags in Gopaul shop
Sugar sail South China Sea
Sugar sweeten Indian tea
Sugar smooth little Padraic's hair
Sugar stalks stabbing the air
Sugar crumbs Granny table, ants
Sugar cake, flambeaux lamps
Sugar cane, verdant, green
Sugar coating, polio vaccine
Sugar baby, Rossetti locks
Sugar Daddy, Yves St. Laurent frocks
Sugar sweet Margie Riley singing
Sugar still, rum vat rippling
Sugar lump, melting on tongue
Sugar trash, black rainfall over town


We are all waiting for a set. Around the kitchen
saucers with orange syrup are strung out like beacons.
Satellite dishes to the sun: a tumultuous pan
on a tumbling boil which has spat at us for fifty minutes.
My mother has run out of teaspoons to test the stuff.
Spilt sugar sticks to the ribs of our jumpers.
I hold up a cellophane disc and see my father
blurrily fumbling with Mrs Beeton. As bright and thin
as Lucozade the marmalade drips onto the plate; unset.
She goes out for a moment to polish her lipstick and
he is expounding the properties of pectin when we smell
burning; eight jars-worth of preserve inedibly treacly.
But I know I will come home tomorrow and find her
aflame, among pyramids of Sevilles, peeling determinedly.

Summer issue

Theme: Hands and Feet 
Judge:  Roddy Lumsden
Thanks to all who sent in poems on the theme of hands and feet, our biggest selection yet, including a fair number from well-known writers. I found it hard to pick these few from around twenty very good poems.

Three Kinds of Measurement

Hands and or feet were always the easiest way
to scale the pyramid; the length of an arm
from elbow to outstretched finger-tip, a cubit,
and the digits, a finger's width, for the detail.
The foreman's palm, smaller than most,
measures out the span over the opening
into which the sun fails on the twelfth step,
shunning a cold kiosk of shadows.
The legion's march northwards counts every
double-step, trampling strange plants into
salty flats, beating out nature with the crimp
of sandalled feet; the dux liking a rhythm.
Scouts calling out perils and cures;
their tracks sent back to the milestone
in the sunlit marketplace which racks up
the footage of men without homes.
Now the fathom, extended fingertip to fingertip,
might be measured with the help of a vagrant,
a human T-square strapped to a batten, and
dropped into weed to touch the lake's bottom.
It was done in the interest of science,
but the squire was not present himself,
he was sixteen fields away, absorbed in
reckoning his lands with cannon shot.

note: a cannon shot travels three miles. 



Feet Watching Television From Bed

Feet treading the Silk Road, crushing the remorseless-
ly vacant air while commentators chat between them;
feet investigating littorals, feet limited only
by a bedrail and the calculated space beyond it.
Feet deceptive. Feet which mock the weatherman,
unlabelling zephyrs, spinning anonymous hurricanes
past his control. Feet perfect or imperfect,
supple as grammar; feet alphabetic,
renewed and renewing. Feet which nudge.
Feet piggy-playing, feet uninnocent,
characterful feet which ride their leaning arches,
their callouses, like a brood mare. Feet searching
crucial yet humble; tentative feet.
Feet which seek company, feet which will turn,
luxuriant, to the other pair when screen's switched off;
feet silent, cold with mystery. Feet triumphant.
Feet clutching, nuzzling, coupling; feet at rest.
Feet which ban further talk of them. Loved feet. Ours.

Fancy Rat Connections

A rat's tail, that's the thing
That makes you recoil, because
It is bald, naked, exposed
And seems to have life of its own.
But have you ever been drawn
To the paws that are not paws
But delicate miniatures
Of our hands and feet, neat
Duplicates, pink and pale
And touchingly tipped with pearl?
If anything should give cause
For unease it's these, these
Slim replicas that betray
Lost links to our humanity.


Dog waits in and out of shadows.
Dog dives around chairs and feet.
Dog looks for the spill of hands.
Dog sings the Ballad of Less and More.
Dog sleeps with one eye open.
Dog's life isn't negotiable.
Dog circles moons of language.
Dog barks for homecomings.
Dog is a name away.
Remember you can't lose Dog.
Sooner or later, Dog will find you.  

Myson Midas

At first it worked like a clock, the timer's plastic
teeth gritted in the day's hours to vent that puff of
steam each dawn: a gun to raise the drowned.
Then radiators ticking, water climbing the house,
a wash of heat that dried the air, warped window-
frames and kept us from the snow. One day it
stalled, monarchical and crazed, boiling paint-blisters
until the gas-man calmed it, his hands soothing it
the way a shepherd lambs a softly bleating ewe.
It sulked for weeks. The gas-man almost lodged with
us: checked resistances, changed sensors, untangled
wiring looms, fingered pipes to track a fading pulse.
Intermittent faults are hard to find. Too true. What he
couldn't guess, his hands groped for in gloom lit by
rubies on the diode board. He felt a drip and
staunched it, clipped strands of copper, coaxed gaskets,
Morsed free a sticking valve, and with a fine-
haired brush did archaeology on seams of dust.
Dog-days of random heat ensued; we never knew what
happened when we left the house, if scalding plumes or
flutters of the pilot flame erupted there to flare and cool.
One day I found him, head-pressed to the boiler's guts,
swearing in iambics at the bastard thing, his hands em-
bedded, coaxing hope. They came out carbon-stained
but cupped success: a ghost-flame lit his worn, angelic face.
He left for good; an absence; idling heat. Now, at two-am
a taxi tracks the street. Someone steps home alone to
bear their empty house. We lie awake, touch fingertips,
hear rooms exhale last whispers of the miracle his hands
have brailled here for our fumbling hands to read.  

Autumn issue

Theme: Kissing 
Judge: Roddy Lumsden

There was a predictable record postbag for this quarter's romantic theme, including a surprisingly high percentage of humorous poems. Mind you, kissing is a curious business. Below are some of the poems I liked best.

Nine months after visiting Dr Antinori's clinic

One-hour old replica
my younger twin
sprung fully-formed from me – no mingling
with weaker lines,
my Dorian Gray
blossoming while I wither
my second chance,
already your dusting of eyebrow
arches quizzically, your lip
trembles with frustration.
I know what makes you tick.
I'll share your loves and rages
as angry with your weaknesses
as with my own.
We'll be the world's smallest cabal
two bodies, one mind. Our laughter
will drive your mother mad. Our falling out
will be a cataclysm.
We're the truest blood-brothers
not a cell's difference.
Kissing you I seal a pact with myself.

On Being Kissed

My great aunt said I always should say, "No",
And at the time this gave me pause for thought
For how's a girl to cut her teeth and grow
In country matters if it comes to nought
Each time she finds that she is being chased
Because she makes sure never to be caught?
I think that chastity's for the straight-laced
And on this point I'm going to insist,
"I don't think virtue's really to my taste".
Take it from me, it's thrilling being kissed.
Don't let the killjoys nip it in the bud;
They simply do not know what they have missed.
I shall have fun until my name is mud. 


I view the square solution to the air
of shape, one certain moment. Of all
the contours roads must take, this one
directs me swiftest to your cool mouth.


The Doctor Makes a Suggestion

Have you thought of reconstruction?
he says, hand on my breast,
testing for irregularities, quite easy
for someone like you, just a muscle
brought round from the back, a couple
of operations to even things up.
He's young, answers questions and wonders
if you have more, is moderately optimistic
about my chances. Marie in the waiting-room
tells me he has a girlfriend at last.
I put on my bra, insert the left breast,
size two, tear-shape
and think of you kissing that space,
closer to my heart than anyone before
and to the things that change it.

To Hungarian

I am learning the movements of your tongue.
In my mouth your steady agglutinative
syllables even out my sing song diphthong
habit and the breathy aspiration with
which I blow out island meaning is land locked
as my throat's stress falls slowly into yours.
Between my teeth the English plum is crushed,
its orchard juices swallowed back 'til out pours
the wantonly rolling Magyar strangeness
of your unknown consonants. Your earthy
rhythms challenge my iambic self and press
their patterns into me until ably
and with articulated vowels equipped
I catch you suddenly between my lips.


She says to call her Lorelei. What sort
of name is that! Someone should tell her not
to drape herself on rocks. Still, one can see
the nymph she was before all those cream teas;
imagine how she peekaboo'd through long
bright strands of hair; recall her larkspur eyes;
the pink of her cool linen dress; her soft
young lips and oh, those rosy-nippled breasts.
But she's not read the 'Graceful Ageing' books
so there's no queue to kiss her quick despite
the cap which tops her hennae'd curls. She drives
a gold Frontera now. The traffic crawls
behind this massive metal hulk, complete
with bull bars and the rest. Are they afraid
the beast may stop, belch smoke, then slither round
and stare at them with strange unfocused gaze?
From Middleton-on-Sea to Elmer Sands
all tongues are stilled when Lorelei steps out
in orange satin Aquaslim with mauve
Dame Edna specs. Her hidden charms include
a singing voice no lifeguard can resist –
we lost one just last week. We watched them kiss
far out at sea. Then back she swam alone.
No lifeguard will patrol this strip of beach.