National Poetry Competition 2006

Judges

  • John Burnside
  • Lee Harwood
  • Alice Oswald

Winning Poem 

Mike Barlow
The Third Wife

My first wife knew no more than me, no telling

where her needs ended, mine began. One day though

I turned the hill to find the boat moored in the field,

the house out in the bay, adrift, door open wide.

I rowed out to a message on the mat: gone

to my cousin's place in Valparaiso.

 

My second wife blew ashore in a force ten

leading a shipload of apprentices astray

with her white dress, her turned-up Nordic nose,

her precious bible clutched in a manicure hand.

No matter how I pumped, the organ of her heart played flat,

her painted smile as wooden as a figurehead's.

 

My third wife won't say where she lives.

She comes to me when the tides are right,

stays longer if a wind's got up or fog's come down.

I stroke the warm loaves of her biceps, kiss

dimpled elbows, listen for the souch

our breathing makes when we're together.

 

She has cousins everywhere. They post her money

in denominations the local shop won't take

or drop by uninvited while we're having tea. They push me

into corners, whisper her address. I turn a deaf ear.

This is my third wife I explain, who's known

many husbands, some worse some better than me. 

 

Winner's Photograph
 

Mike Barlow

Second Prize 

John Latham
From Professor Nobu Kitagawa's Notebooks On Effects of Lightning on the Human Body (Tr. from the Japanese by N. Kitagawa)

89. Incident on the Horikiko Coast (30/07/78)

Young couple alone, he recumbent on red rock

near pinnacle of sand-hill pocketed with grass,

she by his feet, sky making threat of raindrops

though earth remaindered dry. Mid-afternoon,

adjacent to sun's zenith, she touching ground

at plural potions of her body, while lightning

conflaged cracked dead-bush 6m from stone,

surge entering body by left toe and knee-skins

scorched but hardly. Consciousness abandoned

but resumed itself to her beyond thirty minutes

bequeathing no damage but burn marks, livid

at spine terminus, shaping like shouting throat.

Her memories of suction into light fibrillating

like new leaves. Man felt no perverse effects,

seven heart-flowers uncorrupted in his hand,

though since he suffers rapture of tympanum.

 

213. Higashi-Yuri-Machi Incident (22/09/97)

In Takaiwa-Yama, summer's declining parts,

school-teacher of language and nine-year son

relaxing in garden by lotus pool at light-fade,

playing go. No hailstones, no St. Elmo's fire,

so foreboding invalid, yet flash strick jay-tree

20m distance, beneath whose roots iron pipe

reclined, convoying pool-water at arid times.

Predominant currents swept below go-board

and players either side, with subsidiary flow

up left leg of father, departing from his body

at index, central fingers of right hand almost

touching board. They badly cindered, fused,

yet still holding black stone for further play.

There is death in the ha-ne, as proverb says.

Boy hurtled into water, naked as carried out,

unscathed except for fern-prints on left heel.


Third Prize 

David Grubb
Bud Fields and His World

i.m. James Agee

 

What are you going to tell us, Bud;

about the days that keep coming and

rain and wind and the sour smell of shacks

and empty fields and the silence of women?

 

How do you look your children in the eye

and what stories can there possibly be to

hide the intimidation, the neglect that nails

you and the stench of what you wear inside?

 

Let us now praise insects that survive and winter

grass and the ways the bed travels and the boy

with a broken head who keeps singing and how

the moon seems to care in occasional dreams.

 

Let us praise the locust and some birds and those

who know how a book works and the man who

sits in a field with some children and says it is

a special place where the light can become song.

 

What is song, Bud; what is its persistence when some

yell it from a distance and some hide inside a hymn

and even your own children listen to its sway and

how it rocks the soul if you let it in?

 

What is it,Bud; keeping you here between days and

the nights that are useless and the junk that you

hear some other men speaking and the solace that

every so often appears when your wife lets you in?

 

Let us praise the far distance and the biggest star

and the river that lives forever and the way a child

makes a game with some rope and the way that you

can some days see your mother inspecting her hands.

 

In the photograph you stare straight ahead, Bud;

what do you think this is all about? Are they going to

pay you? Are they going to ask you to say? Anything.

Anything they might possibly understand. What words

are you going to use, to tell, to share, to cut out an image
 

that they can take to others? Talk of what and to make

what happen when nothing will? Wind. Rain. Dead dogs.

Tell us about dead dogs and how you keep hearing them.

Tell us about earth and the hot nights and the no sleeping

and the scream of the father who returns to swear at you

and the way you cannot ever remember him whistling and

how he never ever praised a thing. Never ever did praise.
 

Commended

John Daniel 
Documentary Evidence

(note: a quarrel is an old name for a diamond-shaped pane of glass used in making lattice windows)

 

I love to think of them

standing on a bench outside the Angel,

 

Walter Bogan, John Tucker, 8 in the evening

Nicholas Gay, William Amyott,

 

a candle on the table, Edward Rounsevall,

taking turns to stand on the bench

 

to peer through a broken quarrel

at the Reverend John Prince in the Angel

 

holding the thighs of Mary Southcote,

her coats around her waist,

 

William Hoyle, shuffling along,

William Payne, standing up, her hands on the wall

 

Henry Martyn, a diamond shaped aperture,

her hands on his shoulders, John Atherton,

 

the vicar of Berry Pomeroy, John Prince,

the author of the Worthies of Devon

 

his back to the wall sitting down, Lizzie Payne,

Mary Southcote facing him, standing between his legs

 

Walter Bogan, John Tucker,

outside the Angel, Nicholas Gay,

 

William Amyott, Edward Rounsevall

shuffling along on the bench

 

to peer through the quarrel,

William Hoyle, Mary Southcote 29,

 

her back to the viewers, William Payne,

John Prince, holding her thighs,

 

Henry Martyn, John Atherton, Lizzie Payne,

Walter Bogan taking turns to peer through the broken quarrel

 

John Tucker, Nicholas Gay,

her hands on his shoulders, William Amyott,

 

Edward Rounsevall, his hands around her waist,

William Hoyle, her coats round her thighs,

 

her hands on his shoulders

William Payne, his back to the wall

 

Henry Martyn, John Atherton, Lizzie Payne

until Nicholas Gay shouted

 

"Fie! For shame on you!"

on a bench outside the Angel

 

in Fore Street Totnes, April 24 1699

about 8 in the evening

 

Commended

Charlie Druce
Night Feed

We stand at the door and watch the pale night,

you, my twelve pounds of grackle bird, seagull boy,

oblivious to the moonlight and what lies beyond –

the foxes silently slipping through fences,

robbers waiting in their cars for a gap in their nerves.

A helicopter rides overhead, restless and searching.

It's all right birdie boy, it's not us they're looking for.

But its beam exposes me – how even now

I am preparing you, handing you down my alibis,

already thickening your soft new-leaf skin.

A siren bleeds and the chopper canters away.

You ruffle down in my arms' nest, eyes closing,

So we leave the garden to its own stealth

and the foxes to their rusty shadows in the wet grass.

 

Commended

Roderick Ford
The Body

He was not raised bodily to heaven as they said,

but when the god was torn from out the man,

he was without weight

and drifted like thistledown upon the breeze.

 

The children shouting with delight,

ran after him to see he was not harmed

and caught him as he passed across the vineyards

and brought him home tied to a string.

 

As he bobbed about above our heads

and his empty eyes gazed up towards the blue,

the summer air twittered through his wounds,

as if they spoke with the tongues of birds.

 

At once from the branches birds began to sing,

as if to the going down of the sun,

and even husks and stones and other mouthless things

seemed somehow to be singing too.

 

That stormy night he slipped away,

the string was hanging limp when morning came.

But we dreamed he was lifted by the winds

and sails forever high above the world,

 

close to the stars, cleansed by gentle rains,

too holy for the earth, too gross for heaven,

his whistlings still ignored by the chilly darks,

though carried far on late migrating wings. 

 

Commended

Sheila Hillier
Pollux and Castor, elephants

Preparez – vous à des ragouts,

De rats aux champignons d'egouts' Victor Hugo, Paris 1870

 

All night Krupps' cannons pound the walls,

darkness smells of soil and gas

and at Voison's, rue Cambon, a special black card

buys sauce souris on pate of rat.

 

It's a challenge to garnish donkey with cepes;

there's a gold market for cats of all colours

and now that all the lights are extinguished

everyone's face looks like someone else's.

 

At the Menagerie, a bear roams untended,

the African parrot is losing his feathers.

Castor feels itching deep in his trunk,

Pollux pads in the snow and shivers.

 

The gates of the Jardin des Plantes have been chained

for over a week, but now carts from de Boos

are waiting outside. Zebras are easy, Martin the bear

puts up a fight, so they draw on a ruse

 

and Adolphe Lebeeque, whom Castor knows well

wheels out the last kilo of branches and fruit

which he tips at the base of their sandpaper tree

as others take aim from the rainwater butt.

 

Baggy grey lumps too big to be dragged

so they're jointed there in a scratch abbatoir.

Feet sliced away first, and eager talk spreads

to long lines outside the Boucherie Courtier.

 

A starving gourmet hurries out,

the carrier pidgeon's fragile message

unfurled says, Yes! There's going to be

a siege menu of 'variety meats' and elephant blood sausage.

 

Goncourt dines that evening, the sky

is brilliant with the enemy's flares.

There's consomm' Oliphant, and filet de mullet

and rarest, by Choron, the trompe sauce Chasseur,

 

nearly spoiled by Adolphe, who wept in the snow,

arms round the dead Castor's trunk, while at a distance

the butchers stood waiting to finish their work.

Adolphe wouldn't let go and they cursed at the nuisance.

 

Commended

Julia Lewis
On returning your homework

over which you appear to have spent

several hours, I feel obliged to remark

it's not necessary to make still life

of the conical flask and teat pipette.

Diagrammatic sketches suffice. But yes,

I note you are handy with a pencil;

It is older and wiser than your pen.

 

And yes, you may surprise me. No, not

by washing my car, or wasting your money.

Shop roses are, in any case, travesties.

Consider preferring, as the lingua franca

of flowers, a peony: its three-week season

precludes an impulse-buy. You may even

come to prefer to give them to yourself.

 

You will please observe form. Use

my title and surname as other girls do.

Pigeon-holes are strictly for late

assignments. Poems remain locked

in your diary – the heat of whose pages

might hatch their escape in due course.

As for you question, it's unanswerable

 

precisely because it is a question.

The world will demand answers

before you are ready. Be as vague,

for as long, as you can. I assure you

there is nothing mysterious about me.

Rangers just scored, the first of the season.

My husband is mending the garage door.

 

Commended

Sue Lozynskyj
Jenny Greenteeth at Giverny

I am here in his garden,

part of a crowd which rings the lily pond.

 

Escape is a few wet strides in.

A cold circle climbs my body to the neck.

As I move under his Japanese bridge

and lose their voices, my hair spreads.

 

I study his lilies from below.

Light spears each petal, smudging pink

into haze, where stems slant down

to hungry tubers.

 

Willow twigs reach through

the clouded lens of the pool,

I slip under root arches

to where lattice is fine as fishnet

till gloom deepens and their footfalls cease.

 

Then I'm out, over lavender.

I scale cool walls on a fractious rose

and under the white coverlet on his bed, wait

for the chatelaine to find me.

 

Commended

Benjamin Morris
Heat wave

In the photo under the headline

the two girls, chin-deep in the lake,

are grinning from one ear to the other,

their faces pressed together so tight

 

it looks as if one's mouth ends where

the other begins, a long unbroken chain

of milky teeth. It is scarcely eighty degrees

in that country, and they call it a heat wave.

 

Let me tell you what I know of heat:

I have seen the horizon bend and warp

as though turned, in a flash, to taffy;

I have seen trees uproot themselves

 

from the earth and crawl under each other

for shade. Where I call home you can hear

houses sigh and grumble as the glue

that binds them melts, or you can,

 

in the stillness of the early evening,

as the sun contemplates its sinking,

smell the cobwebs coughing into flame.

Downtown at noon, the buildings

 

shed all their windows and doors

and bend their spires to snag the passing

clouds¯this, this is what I know

of heat. O frail country, if this

 

is where desire has led you, if this

is what you want, then follow me

no further-for all I have to offer

are the shouts of two grown men

 

chasing after lightning, trying

to anchor the storm, as ten miles over

in the next parched parish

the shadow of a barn eats the black dog whole.

 

Commended

Catherine Smith
The Biting Point

Thirty years dead and still curmudgeonly,
my grandfather is driving me through
the fog-numbed streets of Crystal Palace
at five a.m. He's in the plaid dressing gown
he wore to die in, and he's shaved,
badly, flecks of dark blood stippling his chin.
We're the only Austin 1100 on the road;
he tuts, crunching through the gears,
he blames the damp, the bad oil,
the years it sat cobwebbed in a garage.
My grandfather slows for the lights,
not best pleased when the engine stalls –
it's no part of his plan, I know,
to crank the key three time before
the damned thing fires – the times he's told me
a good driver knows his car's temperament
like the back of his hand. As a milk float
toots behind us, he mutters, frowns,
eases one foot off the clutch as
the other trembles over the accelerator.
Listen to that! He's triumphant
as the engine warbles its surprise –
as though it's found a new voice,
a different register, like a woman
suddenly discovering a talent for opera.
That's known as the biting point, he says,
I'm just telling you so's when you get
A husband, you'll know what's what.
We coast down Fountain Drive, the car
sighs and dreams, a purring baby now.
My grandfather's bolt upright, sliding
the wheel under calloused palms
as the BBC transmitter winks in the distance –
the last thing he mentioned, the last fixed light.
 

Commended

Malcolm Watson
Instructions for Initiates of the inferno

Wear your hard hat at all times, even though it's made of blue

plastic and molten iron is tapped roughly 1300˚C. It'll

help when the boys on the platform drop refractory bricks

on your head when they're bored with nothing to do.

 

Be careful going around corners, where they might try to

knock off your hat with the high-pressure hose. Avoid

splashes of hot metal, which will not only burn or blind you,

but, being very heavy, will likely break your leg.

 

Remember, molten slag, unlike pig iron, sticks to your skin.

Make sure you're hard to find towards the end of your 6 – 2, unless you

want to "volunteer" for a double shift. Insist the man behind you in

the queue for minor injuries at the nurse's station goes in front of you.

 

Get friendly with the loco men You'll find that you can kill

a twenty-minute walk across the site, especially handy on a 2-10.

Make sure (important this) there's not a corner behind you at a tapping,

unless you want to run through molten metal, should there be a spill.

 

Keep your coat on when you nip down to the pipe room for a kip;

you're hard to spot between the black pipes in the dark on nights.

Except the change-hands know the best spots, and they'll slip

in quietly to bollock you, then chalk you up for shitty shifts.

 

Never jump the yard-wide troughs of white-hot iron flowing faster

than a river, even if the old hands nonchalantly do. One trip,

one error…Just go the long way round. Watch out for gas leaks; it pays

to move around the platform, especially on windless or misty days.

 

Take no notice of the old men with their burns and scars

(or the one-legged bloke who's now a weighbridge clerk

who used to work in the casting bay). Or their tales of suicides

and instant disappearances in the pots of molten iron,

 

leaving nothing. Nothing. Not a hair or bone or jacket button

or hob nail boot, or watch or pen knife, glasses case or buckle

or pennies in their pockets, or anything to bury or to scatter. Only

a smoking film of grease that's gone as quickly as the popping bubbles.

 

Get your mate to clock your time card when the bus is late. Keep your fingers

off the chains when shovelling sand into the sling, or blue clay for the tap-hole.

Pray for no mistakes, no misunderstandings when the iron begins to run. Do not be

hypnotised to seek a consummation with the beautiful fire. Be awed. Be wary.

 

Commended

Deborah Warren
Nakedness

Bathsheba washed herself beside the palace

flush with the hope of feeling David's eyes

heavy along her shoulders and her hips.

A beautiful woman always realizes

someone s watching; secretly she tenses –

Artemis, for instance, at her pond

tinged by the cypress, knew before she saw him

the soundless presence there of Actaeon.

 

But you're not really naked if you know

somebody could be watching. Let him stare;

you've got your wits about you as defenses.

Nakedness is being unaware:

Blanketed up to the chin, when you're asleep –

that's nakedness. The slack face in the bed,

stripped of more than clothing – it's not there.

And watching a sleeper in that absence is

to see through flesh and more than lay him bare.