National Poetry Competition 2003


  • Paul Farley
  • Medbh McGuckian
  • Grace Nichols
  • Debbie Taylor (Chair) 

Winning Poem 

Colette Bryce
The Full Indian Rope Trick

There was no secret

murmured down through a long line

of elect; no dark fakir, no flutter

of notes from a pipe,

no proof, no footage of it -

but I did it,


Guildhall Square, noon,

in front of everyone.

There were walls, bells, passers-by;

then a rope, thrown, caught by the sky

and me, young, up and away,



Goodbye, goodbye.

Thin air. First try.

A crowd hushed, squinting eyes

at a full sun. There

on the stones

the slack weight of a rope


coiled in a crate, a braid

eighteen summers long,

and me

I'm long gone,

my one-off trick

unique, unequalled since.


And what would I tell them

given the chance?

It was painful; it took years.

I'm my own witness,

guardian of the fact

that I'm still here.


Winner's Photograph

Carol Ann Duffy

Winner's Comment 

"When the news was relayed to me on the phone I think I blushed. To win seemed such a public thing to do – perhaps it's the word 'national'? When it finally sank in, I was delighted. In such a solitary line of work, to have a poem singled out for praise in this way is hugely affirming."

In 2008 Colette's poem was voted the favourite winning poem in a poll to celebrate 30 years of the National Poetry Competition." 

Second Prize 

James Manlow
The Lazy Maid

chin snug in her palm,

her elbow plugged firmly

in the knobbly joint of her kneecap,

legs a little ajar

beneath her skirts, is sound

asleep upon the stool, dreaming

of her mother teaching her

how to scrape parsnips,

which is how at 11.10pm

the mistress of the house

discovers her, stares at her

a while, sighs, then, as if

almost sensing a stream

of watchers on, looks

up suddenly and comes alive,

flush with wine and mischief,

gifting that wry-wild look

I love this painting for,

saying, it's too late for this,

and, see what I put up with?

How I adore this girl.

She won't change. It's 1655.

It's late. Let the dishes

alone. Let the cat eat the fish.

Third Prize 

Kate Bingham

There was a craze for fountain pens.

Fat lacquered ones, walnut-effect, gold-nibbed,

unlocked and lifted, two-handed,

from spot-lit glass cabinets and carried over plush

by silent nail-varnished assistants

to the desk where you and your mum or dad

would have been waiting almost eighteen years,

not talking much, you worrying because the pen

you liked best was also the most expensive.

We kept their pass-the-parcel packaging,

treasured for months the slippery, important plastic bag,

the velvety plump moulded to fit our pen alone,

room underneath for two free cartridges

and an instruction manual in 14 languages, ours first,

the 12-month guarantee, as if a pen could break down,

when what we liked best was its low-tech simplicity,

that we could want a thing invented centuries before,

that it could symbolise our coming of age.

We scribbled in sepia, wrote everyone cheques

for a million hazelnuts. On birthdays

we'd crowd into the library at lunch

and watch the tip of a new pen touch its first white sheet,

the hand behind solemn and quivering, unsure

whether to doodle or draw or let the nib

try for itself, licking the page in thirsty blue-black stripes

as if it knew this was the end of freedom

and that soon it would have twisted to accommodate

each hesitation, dot and loop, its every molecule

straining with something like love as I leaned in,

imagining a future shaped by neat italics

where whatever I wanted I need only write it down.


Anne Brooke

Like the slow trickle of water

or the crumple of paper in the hand

the wasps take up residence under the roof

as they did last summer.

At first we do not hear them;

they are cunning as wolves,

accustomed to slipping ghosted

through the splintered cracks of solid wood and tile

to build their undulating nest

away from the innocent eyes of our everyday life.


For when the irregular crackle and hiss

of spiky tapping slips into our senses

it could so easily be

the dripping of rain along the gutter

steaming in sunlight

or the steady shifting of a house dying as it stands

which numbs our every thought

until we come almost to accept the thing we fear most.


And as in painstaking rhythm

they begin to mark what they count as theirs,

the slow stripe of possession,

stings golden with vengeance

for the many small deaths gone before,

then at last we hear them

as they ease through the folded swathe of conscience,

crawling just there under the skin

and filling our tormented ears

with hazy dreams of flight.


Chris Hardy
The Wedding 

Suddenly they were there, a wall of men, all singing.

Surging towards us down the lane

Behind the harbour,


One playing a guitar held high and secured by an elbow,

In the center a young man

With a garland on his head,


His face flushed, led firmly by each arm,

His father gripping one side,

Smaller than his son and stronger,


With a harsh, grey cut, and a face as red

As the plug of wet grape skins

We'd seen him throw to the goat.


A groom on his way to a bride,

Befuddled and unsteady,

With a dazed grin.


Wounded soldiers, slugged with brandy

Then rushed to the surgeon,

Carelessness rising in their cheeks,


Or youths dragged to the gallows drunk,

A laugh quivering round their lips,

Not really knowing,


Must have looked the same.

Though this groom knew,

And was not afraid,


Just surprised

That this famous performance

Was now his.


Round the corner the girls step from their cars,

Raise their long white skirts,

Bend, remove their heels,


Then, holding back their veils,

Bare-legged, run through the dust,

Flickering like moths in the dark,


To the chapel on the shore,

Crammed with golden candle-light,

Like a beehive,


Where we'd stopped the night before, in a storm,

To ask Mary, though we were asking the sea,

To help us get away, and go home.


Angela Kirby
Mr. Panutka's Finest Hour 

Mr. Panutka purses his mouth

and, after some thought,

moves two pins

an infinitesimal distance

somewhere to the south

of a left shoulder-blade

as, on tiptoe, he circles

the general and head on one side

runs his eyes, knowing as a starling's,

across collar, vents, button-holes,

lapels, appraising the miracle,

this cut of the cloth, this way

he has persuaded it to hang,

mercifully by-passing

that which the general

still thinks of as his waist

and this is Mr. Panutka's finest hour,

this, he realises now,

is what he was born for –

to measure, cut and fit,

to tack and sew these fragile threads

to-and-fro across his President's

dress uniform in which,

very soon, though Mr. Panutka

does not yet know this,

General Ramon Garcia Ramirez

will be shot, at ten o'clock exactly

on the morning of June the fifth,

by one of the mothers

whose sons he tortured

and, smiling over his coffee,

fed to the flesh-eaters

in his shimmering lily pool.


Peter Knaggs
Scunthorpe Police Swoop on Lunatic Bean Fetish Man 

Back in Scunthorpe, police

confirmed they'd made an arrest in the baked beans

case. A Scunthorpe

man has been taken into custody. Mother

is interested in this incident.

I phone her right


away. "Mother can you hear me alright?

It's been on the telly, the police

have arrested some loony. Remember that incident,

that woman, barefoot, beans,

yeah, that's right mother,

they've got this fella in Scunthorpe,


in Waterstones, in Scunthorpe,

he tried it again right,

told the girl to close her eyes, mother,

poured beans on her nude foot. She called the police.

The police kept some for evidence, the beans,



this is about the seventh time, seventh incident,

all young women, in Scunthorpe,

all shop assistants, each time beans.

They think he's doing it for Comic Relief, right,

so they pull their socks and shoes off, for a laugh. The police

have warned them, nowt to do with charity, mother,


he's a fraud, an impostor, a nut-job, mother,

seven incidents

in the last two weeks. The police

in Scunthorpe

became suspicious when, right,

he didn't ask for any cash. He's been


known to take a photo of the bean-

smothered foot, mother.

These young lasses must be shaken. He sounds like a right

weirdo. It was on the news today, the latest incident.

It isn't safe to be a shop assistant in Scunthorpe.

Well it is now, now they've made an arrest. The police


have bean after this beans man since that incident

in Mothercare, seven shops in Scunthorpe,

this beans nutter has hit, until now avoiding the police.



S.J. Litherland

She was a small singing bird, a young wren

you caught in your hand and felt her heartbeat.

You chose two rings, one for her foot and then

one for your hand. She fluttered like green wheat

beginning to sense the wind, not ready

for ploughing. She flew into the bush and

when you came for me, I saw your greedy

eyes still alighting and smelt the ring band

on your finger. While we were arguing

the two rings fell from your pocket like crows

at a wedding, the giving and wearing

intentional as double knots, zeros,

the two rings plural and not singular,

irreducible in kind and number.



Catherine Ormell
What say you for these dreadlocks?

Someone, some false friend persuaded her to sell her hair;

now you might think she has a tumour.

She is an old, old baby, stripped of her prettiness,

ridiculous, the pink casing round her mind

keeping me out like a strong room box.


'Oh Mum it will grow,' she says.

But I miss that soft charm she carried around her

and her features unsettle me in their order,

as if mouth would change places with an eye,

an eyebrow drop jowlward.


She mocks my solemn look but still –

I can't wait for the crawling hairs to soften

the terrible varnish of her wooden poll;

coaxing the unexpected notches and pits

back into their feathery nest.


She says the shearings went to Padua

where there will be another woman,

who wears them softly tonged into curls,

or arranged in scallops over her breasts.

Even as her white face sets to stucco.



Linda Rose Parkes
The Deer Woman

after David Lynch


When Alvin encounters her on the road,

she's just run over her thirtieth deer

and is crying out across the ravaged plains

in dismay and despair of the gentle beasts

which spring out of nowhere.

Will he lay his hand on her sleeve,

boil a kettle he takes from his trailer?

And as he hands her the strong, sweet tea,

offer a tale or rumination to summon the genius

of solace, bring an end to the deathfest stalking

her trail although she blows her horn along

that stretch of tarmac and slows right down.


And at that moment as she drives out of view,

does she sense the fragile and sinuous

connections which sometimes take

the shape of a deer listening

at the shadowy edge of the woods?

And that for every collision in the landscape,

every dislocation and burden of grief,

there's a magic property in words

which can tilt the earth in just such a way

that man, woman, deer may let the other

pass like tremors of light breaking

through the surface.


But he looks around him at the drained fields

where a single tree stands blasted of leaves,

can find no sense to string

an honest meaning.

That night he barbecues

under the stars, succulent deer

in its crisp juice and the silence

pours unction on his soul;

while the woman continues as a magnet

to the creatures who fall under her wheels

like figments of an impossible language.



Olive M. Ritch
The Hand Game

Let not thy left hand know
what thy right hand doeth.
And let not your mother
hide their secrets in silence,
for only she knows the secrets that lie
in the lines of the palms
of your hands. She knows
but cannot speak the words, tongue-tied.
Slumped in her chair
she takes from your hand
the medicine, three-times daily
and smells your nicotine breath
when you tuck her in at night
before switching-off the light. Sometimes
you creep back in and your mother knows
the colour of your filial love
from the tone of the touch
of your Jekyll hand or your Hyde hand.


David Swann
The hills

If they were boats, the rain had tipped them
the wrong way up, put their hulls in the sky.
If they were walls, the walls worked. They kept
strange things out. They put us in our place.
Their loneliness scared us. If they were prone
lions, they were old and under the weather.
If dogs, dogs that had gone off their back legs,
that lay around all day on the town's edge
in loveless packs, the wind shivering in furs
of grass. Curs maybe. Unwardened. Unlicensed.
You could beat them any way you liked:
stick in needles to make 'phones work.
gouge them for slate. Their owners never came.
Sometimes they were less even than dogs,
sometimes they looked more like bodies
under sheets, in the rain. And finally
I knew them as trains, fleets of prows
pointing west, that restless folk rode away on.


Deborah Warren

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.