2014 Stanza Poetry Competition 
Theme: Neglect

Winner: Robin Houghton

Robin Houghton Robin Houghton
Credit: Katie Vandyck

David Van-CauterDavid Van-Cauter
 

Hilary Jupp Hilary Jupp

CONGRATULATIONS to Brighton's Robin Houghton who wins our annual competition with her poem 'Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness'. This year's judge, Les Robinson, chose a winner, two runners-up, and ten commended poems from 253 poems sent in, anonymously, on the theme of 'Neglect', by 155 poets - a record entry for this competition, open exclusively to Poetry Society Members who are also members of a Poetry Society Stanza.

Les Robinson: My final choice was made as all three poems were unfussy yet exact in detail, taking me ‘there’ to each specific location, the moor, the shingle-spit or the garden. Each had a strong first line as a hook, and all poems had conclusions that made me pause, however briefly, to reflect on what had been written, and each of the endings stays in the memory.

THE WINNER

ROBIN HOUGHTON (Brighton Stanza) for 'Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness'

JOINT RUNNERS-UP

DAVID VAN-CAUTER (North Herts Stanza) for 'Reverse Space'
HILARY JUPP (North Cornwall Stanza) for 'Scotch Blackfaced Ewe'

COMMENDED POEMS

Alwyn Marriage (Exeter) David Penhale (North Cornwall)
Emily Bilman (Geneva) Helen Overell (Mole Valley)
Hilary Jenkins (East Yorkshire) Jane Lovell (Rugby)
Lynn Woollacott (Norwich) Olivia Walwyn (East Manchester)
Tracey Martin (Palmers Green) Will Kemp (York)

 


THE WINNER
Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness by Robin Houghton

By the rust road, a lattice strip of iron. Red-clad.
A dozen more, bent and furred between sea edge
and the Black Beacon: coils of crude traceries

discarded like mis-shapes. All objects wrestle
themselves in this easterly wind. The North Sea
heaves stones from their comfortable silence

up to the spit and the weathered calls of lapwings.
Once it was a humdrum of bombs. Top Secret.
Remains of binoculars, a petrol pump. Photos show

a meccano skeleton, listing but still on the map.
A concrete bunker’s dark mouth breathes a stink
of dereliction, down among the yellow poppies.

Something pathetic about the security gates, stuck
open and the fence gone. Touch nothing suspicious.
The police left in a hurry. Undercover barn owls,

in the eaves of Test Lab 5, wait for the ghosts
of scientists to magic saltpetre into freshwater.
The threat of unexploded ordnance moves us

and I forget why we came here. Radio tower,
police tower, old business? Spat out onto shingle
with the rest, like every wreck that lost itself to water. 

Robin Houghton has had work in a range of magazines including The Rialto, Poetry News, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House and The North, as well as several anthologies. She won the Poetry Society's Hamish Canham Prize in 2013 and the 2012 New Writer poetry competition. Her first pamphlet, The Great Vowel Shift, was published by Telltale Press earlier this year. Robin is the Brighton Poetry Stanza rep and she blogs at poetgal.co.uk.

Robin: Although it’s now a nature reserve, Orford Ness is littered with abandoned and decaying structures dating from its time as a top secret weapons testing facility. One of the iconic landmarks on this peculiar landscape is a watch tower, from where the perimeters were policed for intruders. There are hundreds of photos of it on Google Images, yet on a recent visit we couldn’t find it. The tower still appears on guide maps. It’s as if no-one’s noticed it’s gone, a fact I found curiously moving.

Les: A difficult choice for an overall winner but I chose 'Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness' for its images, by the rust road, undercover barn owls, the threat of unexploded ordnance and its overall almost photographic texture.


JOINT RUNNER-UP
Reverse Space by David Van-Cauter

The herbs have taken over now –
a hidden path beneath the arching spray
of mint and rosemary.

There is a pond beyond that hedge, behind
the empty bird feeder that swings
from the apple tree.

He used to push that lawnmower, the nonelectric
back-breaker, the green paint rusted
and all the blades blunt.

His wheelbarrow, with a hole the size of a skull,
provides a climbing frame for slugs,
storage for weeds.

His mind is elsewhere – his first date in ’32,
school uniforms and silent films,
songs from the music halls.

But as he sits, his eyes see through
each tendril hook, each patch of earth,
to the far, far end,

and buried there, the corrugated iron
of an Anderson shelter, still intact,
awaiting the next attack. 

David Van-Cauter lives and writes in Hitchin, Herts. He was recently commended in the Café Writers Commission for his proposed pamphlet J. This is the second year running he has been commended in the Stanza competition. He is a personal tutor and editor. He loves board games, music, cats and being spontaneous. He was MC for North Herts at the Stanza Bonanza event at the Poetry Cafe, London, earlier this year.

David: 'Reverse Space' came quite quickly, during a recent workshop. The garden is an amalgam - my herbs, my father-in-law's lawnmower and the final image from my grandma's old house in Watford. The man is partly my next-door neighbour and partly my uncle, both keen gardeners who in later life were denied the thing they loved, due to illness. I was thinking of neglect as a kind of absence from time and space, and how the gaps between memories can shape who you are.

Les: With 'Reverse Space' I liked the image of a wheelbarrow, with a hole the size of a skull, and the distance created by the repetition in to the far, far end of the garden but overall it was the quiet poignancy of the poem that impressed, addressing ageing, forgetfulness and a sense of personal history.


JOINT RUNNER-UP

Scotch Blackfaced Ewe by Hilary Jupp

Here’s one that missed the gather.
Straggling where her lamb succumbed, this ewe
drifts her fleece over heather and furze.

Follow her, you may retrieve enough to spin.
Eventually she’ll shed it all in matted clumps,
then saunter, scruffy, bleating her call at the flock

flooding up to the common moor, their flanks,
shoulders, necks shorn close to the skin.
Each fleece clipped in one entire blanket,

while she, losing her teeth, evades the cull
as the waste of her winter cloak
falls away in her wake.

Hilary Jupp was born in the Erewash Valley in South Derbyshire, She now lives in a village in South East Cornwall where the pace of walking and the stillness of embroidery help the process of her writing. Her poems have appeared in Equinox, Smiths Knoll, The Rialto, and Poetry News (the latter of which went on to appear in the Forward Prize Anthology 2014 as a commended poem).

Hilary: On reading the meaning of neglect in my dictionary the first image that came to mind was the ewe, a sight I often saw when living on the southern edge of Dartmoor. Our home was surrounded by an area of moorland, where sheep and ponies took shelter in bad weather, to give birth and in failing health. Now living at sea level more than anything else I miss the sound and sight of the sheep.

Les: 'Scotch Blackfaced Ewe' intrigued with its description of the ewe that drifts her fleece over heather and furze, bleating her call at the flock and the sense of wildness across the moor contrasted by the flock returning to the moor shorn close to the skin and the penultimate line beautifully stated the waste of her winter cloak.


COMMENDED POEM
Clapper boards (after Cape Cod Morning by Edward Hopper) by Alwyn Marriage

It took twenty years or more
before the trees gave up their souls
and bodies to the woodcutter.

Summer, autumn, winter and spring
seasoned the sappy wood before
they cut it into boards

to build the house and paint it white,
catching the light which seemed to fall
sideways on her waiting face

as she stood for hours in the place
where she could watch
the ever-empty sea.


COMMENDED POEM
Drown by David Penhale

The night you left was lit by lightning.
Bang on cue, it struck the tower
as you gunned the engine and roared away.

Later, torrents flooded the valley,
sign-posts drowned, roads submerged.
That night much was laid low.

The day dawned haggard, bleary with longing.
I tried to conjure up your face,
my eyes half-open to the chance return.

Thick in oil-skins, ready for a drenching,
I checked on tiles torn free from their mooring,
fences blown out to sea, beyond Lundy.

Wading through sludge to re-coop the hens,
I could only stare at the stricken trees
wave across the mirror of fields.

All this was such a long time ago.

The waters receded, wriggled under ground,
culverts cleared and streams dried up.
Over the weeks the yard became concrete.

The old kitchen range gave up the ghost,
(like you always said it would),
and the generator’s crank sounds worse by the day.

The cracked cistern is totally knackered,
so I use the privy at the bottom of the garden
and double-dig the potato-patch.

Each night I write by candle-light, conserving oil,
and indiscriminately empty the bottles,
down to your last Lagavulin.

Each morning a penitential stretch,
parched and stumbling down to the well,
your absence a hang-over I cannot walk off.

Dry-eyed, I lean on the broken windlass,
drown in air like water.


COMMENDED POEM
The White Owl by Emily Bilman

Clearing from the nocturnal fields
like the white owl, memory seized
us after we sang exile’s bitter
herbs and drank the turbulent wine
that hurt us as your son, mourning
his mother’s sudden death, rejected you,
tearing up the cheque you gave him.
You left. Like the impeccable
snow reflecting our inner peace, all
too suddenly, his striated eyes turned
inwards a soaring whiteness,
barely spot-streaked, night-gliding,

with wind-harnessed wings, crossed
our road, shearing our darkness.


COMMENDED POEM
Neglect by Helen Overell 

Tumbled walls, the drizzled sheen of scattered
hand-hewn stone, thistles as flame in the hearth,

troubled sky for a roof, the door that kept
outside from straying in, skim-thin imprint –

all those faces and footfalls, outstretched hands,
that ever passed through to bring news indoors,

handfuls of kindling, gleanings of oatmeal,
or else, caught fast in that threshold, sob-tight

under a flock of stars, bairns hugged and held,
rifle-butt stumbled out onto turf track.


COMMENDED POEM
Farm Sale, North Yorkshire by Hilary Jenkins

The old farm with its pink windows is for sale
on the far side of our valley and always magical,
but now close to, I see the casements are rotting, a sad
red, roof and gutters sag like the old iron bedstead,
unlotted, just hauled into the yard.
Inside the ceilings curl down, a nest, not this year's, in the grate
of the range, in the shippons manure become peat.

Somebody's garden hints between nettles, brambles, elders,
while in the sale field , laid in rows, the centuries
of family and farm- the milk churns supplanted
by the tanker, a 48 egg incubator (patented),
horse tackle for everything the Victorians invented
seven variously able-bodied tractors,
(the crowd slowly dragging round the auctioneers)

bicycles, a three-legged stool, and a blanket box
lined with the Sheffield Evening News from 1866,
when a house maid and cook, and a French widow lady
all go to a dealer, and he also outbids me
for the pancheon, big enough to bathe a baby,
and scrap metal merchants will get the rest
to be sorted melted and lost.

Was I thinking of the bowl, and how
to start the next batch, a portion of dough
was kept, for I went back later
and found in a skip a mirror
for my kitchen, and a keepsake,
Pilgrim’s Progress, the school, the child, still stuck
inside, to carry home, smelling of mould and mice,
starter for my journey in and through this place. 


COMMENDED POEM
Nazareth House by Jane Lovell

There were no constants, those first months:
no voice, no waft of soft-worn cotton,
no rapt embrace, no looming shapes
with which to anchor my position
against sunlight, time.

No memory of that other place:
a quiet room, a different quality of light,
those drifts of silence settling into hours.

Perhaps I grew strong on the punctuality of feeding,
the silhouette that cut across the window,
the arm that crooked the length of me,
the few short seconds I could hold a gaze
before it drifted.

At Nazareth House, across a perfect lawn,
the sunlight flies to sharpen every petal of the dahlias,
the sprawling rhododendron.
There are no gates.
Behind the sixties windows, nuns still tend the helpless
and abandoned, swish through corridors
with feeding cups and folded linen,
now to tend the fading elderly
unwinding into ghosts against the TV blare.

The search ends here. I do not need to go inside:
I have my constants, bloodlines, stretching out
before me.
Behind me, only white skies, clean light
and, winnowing the air like larks,
the thinnest threads of chance.


COMMENDED POEM
New Winds by Lynn Woollacott

Apple trees fell long ago to the red fungus,
rose bushes shrivelled to brittle twigs.
Early leaf fall finished off
the trees in the distant wood.
The holly bush clings to life, black flies
gather into its curled leaves and lick frozen sap.
Hedgehogs with hunched shoulders
and visible ribs rummage among bones of blackbirds.
Slugs crawl onto windows, wailing
at their new found size and expertise, they’ve
adapted to the green fungus that thrives on polymers
of spider webs. There’s been no fattening up
of foxes, squirrels or hare;
most mammals have taken to hollow dwelling
in gardens. They huddle together, dish out
the last of the acorns, share crisp ladybirds,
munch on rain beetles that fell with the cold spell.


COMMENDED POEM
Speech by Olivia Walwyn

 
She listens to him tie
their names together
                in some
strange hybrid he’s created
                for the occasion-
first
ones not just the second
ones and when he does
she finds
it the gift completed
with the loop the bow
the two
of hers the paper
starts to peel away
in petals
 
the details the gloss
she can feel it
hovering
below her ribs where
her diaphragm
               dilates lodged   
in a box cracked shut
her voice the speech she
didn’t
 
make having been
given, emptiness
               shifting in
 
                its place.

COMMENDED POEM
Kankrebihar by Tracey Martin

Up from the plains where piles
of morning rubbish slide
into the street, daily detritus
of commerce, and labourers
wait, desperate for work.

Up, up past the national park,
past the sal trees' flaking bark,
past checkpoints manned by lazy soldiers
and landslides of granite boulders,
unhinged by the monsoon rain.

Into the valley of migrants, washed down
from the mountains. Here lies the town,
coming to life after the war,
a muddle of houses and small stores,
and piles of gravel for new roads.

A little way out on a wooded hill,
for centuries left to the deer, until
a spade struck stone and slowly
the faces of Buddha and Saraswati
emerged. Ancient jigsaw pieces.

Each stone numbered now, the plinth restored
but still the picture's incomplete. No record
of the temple's birth or how it came
to be so utterly dismembered. Rain
washes the faces of the gods, their secrets.


COMMENDED POEM
English Journey by Will Kemp

The train skirts the bricked-in brickworks
guarded by some barbed wire, an old mattress
on rough ground strewn with knickers
and crushed cans, the shell of a burnt-out car.

A pub with people outside dressed in black:
the wake perhaps for that local lad
blown up on night patrol in An Najaf.

Smashed windows, streets with no trees,
the hull of a church proclaiming
MAN U SCUM by DANGER KEEP OUT

a detail that may have flashed by as he lay
bleeding in the dust, sky like that tarmac
back home, always speckled with broken glass.