National Poetry Competition 2001

Judges

  • Jean 'Binta' Breeze
  • Ian Duhig
  • Michael Donaghy
  • Michele Roberts  

Winning Poem

Beatrice Garland 
undressing

Like slipping stitches
or unmaking a bed
or rain from tiles,
they come tumbling off:
green dress, pale stockings,
loose silk – like mown grass
or blown roses,
subsiding in little heaps
and holding for a while
a faint perfume – soap,
warm skin – linking
these soft replicas of self.
 
And why stop there?
Why not like an animal,
a seed, a fruit, go on
to shed old layers of moult,
snakeskin, seed-husk, pelt
or hard green-walnut coat,
till all the roughnesses
of knocking age
are lost and something
soft, unshelled, unstained
emerges blinking
into open ground?
 
And perhaps in time
this slow undoing will arrive
at some imagined core,
some dense and green-white bud,
weightless, untouchable.
Yes. It will come,
that last let-fall of garment,
nerve, bright hair and bone –
the rest is earth,
casements of air,
close coverings of rain,
the casual sun.


Second Prize 

Ann Drysdale
New Fruit 

In the last knockings of the evening sun
Eve drinks Calvados. Elsewhere in her life
She has played muse and mistress, bitch and wife.
Now all that gunpoint gamesmanship is done.
She loves the garden at this time of day.
Raising her third glass up to God, she grins;
If this is her come-uppance for her sins
It's worth a little angst along the way.
A fourth. Again the cork's slow squeaky kiss.
If, as the liquor tempts her to believe,
The Lord has one more Adam up His sleeve
He's going to have to take her as she is –
Out in the garden in a dressing-gown
Breathing old apples as the sun goes down. 


Third Prize 

Rhian Gallagher
Embrace 

Unshowered, wrestling with the sea still on our skin
when she catches me, mid-room, with a kiss.
Not a passing glance of lips, but her intended
till I press back against the wall
laughing, in a body-search pose
as ready as her to forget about dinner.
 
Once, in our first months, we headed down Christopher Street
starch wafting from an open laundry, the sound of a press
squeezing a line along a sleeve. We slipped
across the West Side Highway, out on the pier
pressing our faces to the fence to catch an air of sea,
distant Liberty. Winter sun pouring its heart out
over the Hudson, she stepped into me –
the cold became a memory
smudged under our winter coats.
 
Two guys stood on the far side of the pier
looking baffled, how long they'd been there
god knows. Gulping, knees undone, we surfaced like swimmers
and almost ran back up Christopher Street
laughing. We'd been gone an hour, the night had come
there were shelves of lights up and down the tall streets,
she was all over me. Everything had turned on.


Commended

Matthew Caley 
three is just a better form of two 

Had Wild Bill Hickock
not turned his back to an open doorway
he'd never have sported that rose behind his ear
 
 
courtesy of Jack McCall Esq,
displaying that fan-tail of aces and eights
or felt his face rebuff the sulphurous breath
 
 
of his opium vision - the snorting white buffalo of death
to be precise. They say the dispute
was over some unknown woman.
 
 
Binary oppositions always betray us.
The good thief, the bad thief, vying,
for position as they were dying. The middle-man way beyond belief
 
 
No-one plunges, no-one can go flying
without the pivot underneath
the see-saw - the rumour going off at a tangent
 
 
way beyond its own locale
like light from a far star
contingent to doubtful kings.
 
 
Just as on The Road To Emmaeus
they sensed the significant other,
behind every lover
 
 
we always glimpse another
attached to their ankle like a shadow.
A triangle is only half a star
 
 
but no glance is as plangent,
nor any bolder, than the glance you steal
from over her boyfriend's shoulder.
 

Commended

Pamela Coren
the brittling of the deer

Made all of triangles upon the grass,
hoof and rump and pointed head perk
by the forest road, a cappuchino swirl
in the broad green cup of Galloway.
 
There's a gentle man upon the road tonight,
a maker of newsletters, a community man,
driving to town where the Buddhists meet,
keen to disarm the double-bladed heart;
the soft sweatered, the bald and the hairy,
skimming the soul out into the pool of life.
 
A rough night: the wind slices round Maidenpap,
shaking the moon caught in the deer's eyes,
dark as the still water pooled in bog and peat.
Sudden headlights flay the woodland and she bolts,
bang into the Volvo. Dismay shoots that good man:
he strokes the blank muzzle, weeps for the bright thing,
but folds it, careful, into the car, where it dangles
a cooling hoof from under a crocheted blanket.
 
He takes it to his neighbours high on the hillside,
circled by barn and byre. One skins the beast, knife
rummaging through tissue layered like lace and muslin.
 
Slit the slot of the throat, grasp the first stomach,
scrape up the flesh. Legs and skin off;
break into the belly, draw the bowels out, tenderly.
Separate gullet from the wind-pipe, and out with the guts.
Cut out the shoulder joints but keep the sides intact.
Open the breast, neatly into two, start again at the neck,
open the carcass to the fork. The membranes of neck and ribs,
all the offal of the back-bone cut free in one piece.
Loosen the folds of the thighs, cut the carcass in two,
then head and neck off. Cut the sides away from the backbone
and fling the fair skin to the dogs, with liver, lights and tripe.
 

Commended

David Day
from a photograph of a missing person 

She squints anxiously towards the lens

as if to see some trick

of clarity performed. Her misty world,

she is convinced, will kill her some day.

A stout, old, spinster lady grips

the handlebars and pushes up the hill

towards another friend

who may not be at home,

though she is always on the way

to give some fruit, a loaf or eggs

or leave another note to say she won't be long.

 

The coroner referred the court to all the writing.

Sheets of reminders to herself and scribbled lists

of gifts went with the last frenetic signs,

the carriers of hoarded change,

sleep anywhere, the endless search

to find her mother's watch,

asking the time from anyone she met,

constant returning to be certain

that the hymn-books were arranged,

her round face seen at first light peering

out across the mill-race

where the current always pulled a mix

 

of twisting moons. She had lived a lifetime

by the family river. That night,

in her sister's house up stream

and working late, I must have heard her

 

trying to get in

but was too absorbed:

the storm was only there in pauses

down the reach. She was searching east

along the bank, beyond the town

until she fell or the wind helped her.

 

They found her staring through clear water.

 

Commended

Jim Denning
another life

I dreamt I woke into another life,

where we lived not in the middle

but at extremities of time and place,

on different levels, where we watched

forests spring up and rivers carve their beds,

seas and mountains changing places;

or our eyes became so quick, we saw

lightning hanging in the air,

a bullet revolving as it flew,

an incandescent particle defer

its moment of growing into fire.

Through caves and cellars we saw below

the ground, with dim abandoned forms

and rotten stairs and pitch black holes;

we gazed towards the dazzling sky,

where once the gentle prophets dwelt,

and found it flowing down upon us

into the airless clasp of earth and dark.

 

The people are streaming in the street,

when the rain falls or the sun appears

they turn their faces upward, how touching

to see their trust and aspiration, not knowing

the light must be eclipsed again.

Loving fathers will sacrifice

themselves to save their sons,

women will gather children round

to shield them with their bodies.

They hope to wake into another life,

rising from the warm earth,

trees rich in autumn colours,

insects busy in the grass.

 

Commended

Beatrice Garland
the delivery

I have become my own night watchman.

I am waiting for a delivery of sleep

but the truck's red tail-lights are still

down in the valley, small, vanishing as the road

turns, turns its back on me again.

I must be the last stop on its round.

 

In the old days there was always plenty,

a free good, distributed to the poor

like air or water; buckets winched

from subterranean caverns, wells

that refilled easily, silently.

No queues, no waiting.

 

Even on days when the dry heat stilled

the agitations of the crickets and

lured the somnolent snakes outdoors,

we knew without thinking

there'd be plenty that night and the next.

We could be profligate, splash it around.

 

Now I watch the big dipper tilting

a glittering panful of sleep towards

those who must not drink: the night-sister

at her station in the darkened ward,

the shadowy man in the control tower,

the lorry drivers in their moonlit cabs

 

and I envy them their wakefulness

as I envy the dog-tired,

the labourers, the merchant seamen,

the fire-fighters, streaming down

to the shore, sleep-walking, silent,

heads filled with wants and stratagems.

 

From far off, gears engage on the hill.

The headlights come bumping towards me.

I am dry-mouthed and suddenly afraid,

not wanting this sleep to be the last -

drowning not dreaming, or dreaming

of something I shall never remember.
 

Commended

Pet
the doctors

When they sliced him in half

like a length of French loaf

they found he was all white and gold

like the white of the coat of an egg

and the sunshine of its yolk,

which he would have liked, seeing

as he was Leeds United through

and through, to the pip of the core

of his English apple, to the marrow

of his bones and the cream of

his blood ran onto their aprons,

poured like Yorkshire pudding batter,

which would have pleased him

even more, him being Yorkshire,

from the northernest summit of

his shaven scalp to the southernmost

tip, flagging the nail of his biggest toe.

But he wouldn't have been chuffed

about them slicing him in half,

least of all before the ref blew,

with half a pair of bust scissors

and the arse-end of a table-spoon.
 

Commended

Brian Mackey
herring

All afternoon the boats are unattended.

Boxes of fish

Wait on the quay to be lifted into vans.

Who will do the work with the town full of drunks?

Everywhere you look the same indignant men appear.

They block your way to every bar,

Staring at you,

Their eyes shining with a matt truculent desire.

There will be trouble tonight

Somewhere in the streets

Or public houses you can bet

Before the tourists, and the fishermen

And herring all get home.

 

At ten thirty-three, knitting women,

Tired of it and tired but never stopping,

Look up briefly at the clock.

He might have died, they think,

In the war; burned or disappeared,

Left nothing to be boxed,

Never lost a livingness,

Had it seep away,

Stream across the floor

Rainbows in it

Through the door

Oily runnels in the street,

As he stood on Friday evenings

With his friends

Learning how to drink.

 

Commended

Paul Meyer
turning over the keys 

The weight in my pocket is now the weight in your pocket,

The house of my youth has become the house of your Saturdays,

The house of your drab Sundays of laundry and packing the car,

Of sunning yourselves and putting in an hour's fishing at best.

I come from a long line of old people, too stubborn to give up this

Life for the next. You'll find what's left of them up the road,

But you might also find a hint of them in this drab rock house

With its many rooms added on as we needed them -

Outgrowing the older, smaller, rooms every twenty or thirty years

The small, brass key is for the top bedroom on the right,

Where sixteen years ago my wife died of everything all at once.

You should have seen her, disappearing like a bar of soap

In a hot shower until one day, she whispered "barn owl" in my ear

And that was it. I carried her body down to the parlor

(Black, medium-sized key, lock sticks) and was struck by the thought

She weighs no more than the Sunday paper.

That bent, rusted key stamped with a two fits nothing,

Though once it worked on a door in Spain.

Fourteen rooms and fifteen keys and a ring of the purest silver:

A gift, I believe, from one of our children, all scattered now,

All scattered now. The cheque you sent burns in my pocket

Like a kind of poison leaf. Here, take this ring of keys from me.

Find out for your own damned self which one lets you in.
 

Commended

William Palmer
the reunion 

The mirror meets another man.

 

Behind him, through the frosted window's gap,

a once familiar country

looks in, where he does not feel, but

moves; a slight adjustment to his tie,

his fingers tensed immortally.

 

Reversed, he overlooks this land

- road, trees, the city's far off frown -

where two young women walk, arm in arm,

calling to him, "Come down.

Come down ..." They've gone.

 

The dark blue road winds through the trees.

The guests are gathering downstairs.

"Come with us. Do. You loved us so".

The bright voices, faces lit with care.

Under the window is a chair.

 

He mounts; steps into air
 

Commended

Lianne Strauss
two worlds 

Somewhere there are twelve children playing in a field.

Somewhere there are twelve children playing in a road.

Each of the children has a name and is nameless.

Each of them has a mother and father and is orphaned.

Each has seen the sky and bitten through a blade of grass

yellow or green as the rain proposed.

Each has saved a beetle from murderous hands

and murdered a beetle with a small black crack.

Each has flown the flight of the fly, with its buzz,

and a fighter plane, and a buzzard.

Each has said one thing and thought another.

Each has said one thing and meant another.

Each has said nothing and thought nothing and been nothing.

Each has thought, "I am a cloud. I am thunder. I am a beetle",

running down the field, or the road, chasing a ball.

Each has made a world disappear,

seen another rise up to meet it.

Each has seen one piece of grass become a field.

Each has gone from standing in the wood

to pinching one leaf in a road.

We are always falling through the road onto the field

or out of the field into the road.

Twelve children chase a ball.

There are twenty-four children.

The children chase the ball,

half red, half yellow, now blue, now green,

that gets away from them and rolls.