National Poetry Competition 2005


  • Alison Brackenbury
  • Bernardine Evaristo
  • Mark Ford 

Winning Poem 

Melanie Drane
The Year the Rice-Crop Failed

The year we married, rainy season lasted

so long the rice crop failed. People gave up

trying to stay dry; abandoned umbrellas

littered the streets like dead birds. One evening

that summer, a typhoon broke the waters

of the Imperial moat and sent orange carp flopping

through the streets around the train station,

under the feet of people trying to go home.

The stairs to the temple became impassable;

fish slid down them in a waterfall, heavy

and golden as yolks. That night, I woke you

when the walls of our home began to shake;

we held our breath while the earth tossed,

counted its pulse as though we could protect

what we'd thought would cradle us –

then the room went still and you moved away,

back into sleep like a slow swimmer,

your eyes and lips swollen tight with salt.

The next morning, a mackerel sky hung over Tokyo.

The newspaper confirmed the earthquake

started inside the sea. I watched you dress to leave,

herringbone suit, shirt white as winter, galoshes

that turned your shoes into small, slippery otters.

After you were gone, I heard hoarse and angry screams;

a flock of crows landed on the neighbor's roof,

dark messengers of Heaven. Did they come to reassure,

to tell me we'd be safe, that we would find

our places no matter how absurd it seemed,

like the fish sailing through the streets,

uncertain, but moving swiftly?


Winner's Photograph

Melanie Drana

Winner's Comment 

"Poetry is a defiant art; it refuses to be daunted by boundaries. An effective poem insists on intimacy with its reader, regardless of nation, religion, gender, or age. I've felt a jolt of immediacy, for example, reading Japanese poets from the 11th century Heian period. For a poem to be relevant, it must create connection. Yet in reality, a writing life can be intensely solitary at times. The Poetry Society's award located me in community. I believe that the National Competition generates the essential nourishment of "call and response"-- when annually, thousands of poems are sent out into the world, received, and heard." 

Second Prize 

Dominic McLoughlin
I do wish someone would ask me to the races with him/her

Ridiculous to think at twenty-three
I used to wear a hot pink tee shirt
and one dangly black earring
to the typing school in Mayfair
I was the only guy in the class except
for one man three weeks ahead of me
with a very fast w.p.m.
Key learning strategy: don't
look at the keyboard, look at the facsimile
of the keyboard we have placed on your desk.
Helpful tip: keep both feet on the ground.
By week two we had to type full sentences
I must buy a new pair of black stockings.
When we graduated with capable fingers,
on a gorgeous spring day a classmate asked me –
by the bus stop at Speakers' Corner -
if I would go to the races with her.
She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of blood-stock
and conditions of the turf. I said no,
thinking these things inevitably lead to trouble
with one's girlfriend. Little men in silk.
Hot flanks in the winner's enclosure.
Peering through binoculars, mouthing
an unlikely name from the card.


Third Prize

Kevin Saving
Dog Otter

He senses danger and is gone,

the water bulging in his wake.

You needn't ever count upon

this sight again, and so should take

the memory and then move on…


You'll never know what rendezvous he'll break

with liquid arabesques – nor how he'll trawl

fresh eddys, find new shoals to dredge.

His underwater playgrounds call

within him like a lover's pledge.

He'll wear the river like a shawl

in slicked–back freedom, near the water's edge.



Jean Baker
My Neighbour Stefan 

For I will consider my neighbour Stefan

for he is young and active all hours and a joiner supreme

for he bangs and hammers happy as a tot in a cardboard box.

For his sunny temperament is easy to bear

for he smiles and calls 'How'y doing? OK?'

as another slat is set

for he is young and ambition calls

for there is nothing brisker than his life in motion

for he never ceases restoring his fence,

creating his summerhouse,

repairing his ferrets' hutch

on wet, windy, snowy and sometimes sunny weekends

for he is, of course, young.


For he wears gold rings in his ears

for he has gold highlights in his hair

for in his garage he saws and drills and cuts to shape

gazebo frames and doors and tiles.

For his lawn is filled with left-over posts and slabs and tools

for he is, of course, young and not tidy.

For I watch open mouthed his wobbling and swaying

on kitchen steps and rickety ladders.

I fear he will fall

for he continues lurching and swerving, but he survives.


For he is, of course, young.



AC Clarke
Meeting Bulls

(Three-way poem: across, left side only, right side only.)

Towered five times my height.                     Imponderable weight:

I gazed up at the curlbeard god's                 stone stare, remote as Nineveh

single wing raised to warn,                             each chiselled feather

meticulous, not about to ruffle-                   forbidding. 


Circled black-lacquered Cretanware          sinuous

leaped by sinewy youths, who gripped     savage

horns, jauntily backflipped;                           bronze-cast

became Poseiden visible-                                earthshaker.


Morphed in story to Minotaur.                     At the maze's heart

roared huge hunger until,                               severed,

his beasthead sprawled,                                   winedark blood

scrawling blank stones-                                    indecipherable script.


Translated into taurine growls                      athwart a path,

a ton of ill-temper. Poised on                         surprising

small hooves pawed his patch of earth      forbiddng

Do not go near the bulls.                                  As if


All empty fields, now,                                       primed for charge; 

each milky herd's suspected-                         fear

beyond reason. Horned avatar                     from ancient caves

takes flesh, thunders                                          under my ribs.  



John Duffy

The last day of Ramadan: the hard frost
has shifted from the hard stare of the sun,
the pavements are drying. There's a sense
of excitement checked; the scents of feasts drift
from behind tense curtains out across
Mount Pleasant. I imagine eyes searching
for the new hook of dawn on the moon's edge.
The sky's inverted in the gutter
fragmented clouds and brittle blue ripple,
reflection settles after the intrusion
of a wheel. From Al-Habib Hair Art
barbered boys race home to new Eid suits.
A man waits for a train, reads the Koran,
around him swirling frost and town and moon.


Rosemary Harris
Mr Happy 

My brother is pretending to be in Vietnam.

He emails at Christmas from the basement,

how he loves Hanoi.


The Tiger beer, just fifty cents, funky kids

in fake Nike, riding fast on scooters

through narrow laneways of noodles or

gravestones, or Chinese lanterns. Pho kitchens


on footpaths, women carrying baskets

of bread and mangoes. Cyclos.

Boat rides through rice paddies

where people harvest stones.

An elephant in the back of a truck.

My brother does not want

to come home.


He emails us hourly,

leaves his [email protected]


He hopes a travelling mind will lift him

out from under our influence,

the wave of the New Year buoy him

to higher ground. We pretend


we can't hear him padding around

beneath our daily lives. Boiling

the kettle. Using the bathroom.


The weight of our house is great.

He cannot climb, one foot

in front of the other, up

the all-too-concrete

subterranean steps.

I miss him.


Vietnam moves

at a strange and noisy pace,

that feels somehow normal.

"Mr Happy" travel agents.

The Temple of Literature. Women

carrying baskets. Elephants. Bananas.

Kitchens balanced on poles.



Josephine Haslam

The truth is, it was only part white;

the albino blackbird that came to your garden

two winters ago – but into my head

comes this ghost of a bird, shadowless,

a white absence, blind negative


in the snow. No reflection glides

over the lake where he flies, light and boneless,

no sound from his throat.


And though you say they never survive; the rare

or different, destroyed by their own kind

I see how he speeds out of the distance,

gathers weight, and darkens, over the miles

till he meets his own blackness, grows


into lustre; blackbryd, ouzel, merle

who quickens the heart as he sings

each night from our gate-post;

his mouth's open crocus, his eye ringed with gold.



Gareth Jones
Pieces From His Future Exhibition, War in the 21st Century

1. Threat of Terra (2001)

A snowglobe in the shape of a landmine

attached to two wires that shake intermittently,

set on a background of black velvet and glitter.

Mixed media


2. Siege Mentality (2026)

A view from the clouds of luscious green country,

veined with a network of canals and rivers,

ringed by a fortress of dams, then desert.


3. Instant Karma (2017)

A deserted townscape in the middle of a storm;

a church steeple at the centre: no evidence

of people, animals or plantlife; some rubble.

Oil mixed with sand on canvas

4. Spot the Bomb (2005)

Aerial shot of a crowded bus stop

at rush-hour; a mosaic of umbrellas

against a grey city street.


5. The Spoils (2010)

A child's right shoe capsized in the gutter

adrift with the stream down a slope, until

it reaches a grate, drops forward and wedges.

Monochrome video


6. The Source (2029)

A moving 3D vector image

of a single H2O molecule.

Digital graphic



John Levett

The North Sea, oilskinned, under wraps,

Has staged these street-lamped afternoons,

Its wings, its sky's hydraulic flaps

Powered invisibly by moons


As dusk sparks up and slowly draws

Above the pubs and burger bars

To drop clean through the coast's glass floor

Its perforated packs of stars.


In shelters where they come to score

Their colonies of hoods and caps

Float on the oceanic roar

Inside a shingle bank's collapse,

Its snarled-up lines, its drum of stones

That slow the sea's spin-cycle, drown

The ring-tones on their tin-eared phones

To pull the sky wordlessly down,


And still they shell-out, still they think

He's brilliant as he strips them clean

Of store-tagged I-pods for a wink

And warm foil-wraps of Ketamine;

And crooked, as Octobers craze

With smoke and soluble sunshine,

Blood spiders through rag tourniquets

In autumn's faintly tracked decline.



Rob Mackenzie
In the Last Few Seconds

In a smudge of tail-lights you watch your soul go,

then you spin round corners you would have taken

slow before you gulped back the rum. The bottle

rocks on the backseat.


When a soul slips off, does it shed its body

and the drink that drives it? Or keep guard over

falling debris? Nights like this drop like voices,

warning that all roads


end in vapour; nothing turns blank so gently

as a hairpin bend on a high cliff. Headlights

catch the grassy verge where you lose control, rouse

breakers like sparklers


from the wind-scrubbed inlet. The impact crushes

bones to powder, slows up the sinking. Husks of

crumpled metal, covered in rust and seaweed,

smear at the bottom.


You expect a flashback, a potted bio

of divorce and automobile replacement –

how one breakage led to another – film noir

bleaching the blackness,


but instead stars blister across the sunroof.

Cracks appear. You wait for the tunnel sponged in

light from some new world. But the car splits water,

floats in its shadow.



Imogen Robertson

All I can think is, if it blows right now

three of us will die with J.K. Rowling

twisting our wrists; two with The Standard;

one with a bible in a zip up case,

rice-paper thin and underlined, and me,

scissored between the half rhymes of

a sonnet you have made, and that I have never read before.


It is all innocence, surely,

this stiff blue slip-shiny bag that this slight man holds so

carefully on his knees. Something for his daughter,

he loves her so much it burns red under his black T-Shirt,

like a torture scar.

Or it's some food of celebration, ordered weeks ago and planned for.

He will pull away tissues and fold them back to the soft applause

of his mother, and his sister will smile. He's going home.


Our train hisses then halts in a swelling of white tiles

between tunnels and the population shifts around us,

carrying their old stories, making new.

I wet my lips and, to prove myself a fool,

sit next to him. The smell of his sweat

reaches over and flicks my lips and eyes.

The sharp blood and bones of a working man.

I shall clamber back into your book, and mime the words

like incantations, like prayers.


But if he stands up now, cries out

closes down the circuit, will my last thought be

'but friend, there is no God.'

Or will I see, in all that light and sound,

a dream of my lover, looking up from his work,

suddenly certain something, is terribly wrong.

Will there be time to see your book fly from my hand,

before I am nothing more than my flesh,

and all the pages flutter down unread between us.