National Poetry Competition 2008

Judges

  • Brian Patten
  • Frieda Hughes
  • Jack Mapanje 

Winning Poem 

Christopher James
Farewell to Earth 

We buried him with a potato in each hand

on New Year’s Day when the ground was hard as luck,

wearing just cotton, his dancing shoes plus

a half bottle of pear cider to stave off the thirst.

In his breast pocket we left a taxi number

and a packet of sunflower seeds; at his feet was

the cricket bat he used to notch up a century

against the Fenstanton eleven.

 

We dropped in his trowel and a shower of rosettes

then let the lid fall on his willow casket.

The sky was hard as enamel; there was

a callus of frost on the face of the fields.
 

Dust to dust; but this was no ordinary muck.

The burial plot was by his allotment, where

the water butt filled up with algae and the shed door

swung and slammed as we shook back the soil.

 

During the service, my mother asked

the funeral director to leave; take away some hair

and the resemblance was too close; and yet

my father never looked so smart.

 

I kept expecting him to walk in, his brow

steaming with rain, soil under his fingernails

smelling of hot ashes and compost;

looking for fresh tea in the pot.

 

Winner's Photograph
 

Christopher James


Winner's Comment 


"If there is an unspoken Grand Slam circuit for poetry prizes, then the National Poetry Competition is definitely Wimbledon – it’s the one everyone dreams of winning. When I got the call at work one morning in February, it was the like hitting an ace at match point. I’ve entered most years since 2002 or 2003 and usually at the last minute when you think, well, you have to be in it to win it."
 


Second Prize 

Charles Evans
Libretto 

The heroine lay dying in her pasteboard cot

Seized by coughing, clutching with both hands

The big tenor who knelt at her side

It was too much

I slipped from my seat, stumbled through feet and knees

Mounted the stage in a burst of saving love

For heaven’s sake, I said, she’s a sick woman

An attic is no place for a consumptive

They hustled me to the wings

 

She took the stage, flaunting her gypsy skirt

In a fast spin, taunting with jutting hips

The workers who crowded close

I saw the danger

Hurried down, pushed aside the protesting musicians

Climbed the steps in a last bid to stop the brawl

Calm down, I told them, love’s all right in its place

But there’s no need for knives

They escorted me to the foyer

 

He reached out, touching the breasts of the peasant girl

In a sly gesture, reassuring her

He was a rich man, her key to a new life

I was disgusted

Stood up, decided to give him a piece of my mind

Burst out in a last attempt to protect her virtue

Come off it, I shouted, we all know what you want

Take your hands off that poor girl

They marched me to the door

 

Outside, I saw the bus, splashed through driving rain

Slipped in a puddle, fell heavily on the oily road

Under the big Jag, which screeched to a halt

I gathered my senses

Sat up, heard the chorus of concern

Broke into song in an effort to find the key

Take it easy, they said, the ambulance is here

This is no time for singing

They cut short my aria

 

Third Prize 

Clive McWilliam
Holding On 

My tiny aunt was always afraid

she might be blown away. She fluttered about

in the draft of her house chasing snails

that slid under the door. Each night she climbed

a steepening stair to lie beneath the stars’

straining light, hidden in sodium glare.

 

Her four room cave in the shade of passing

buses, where daylight goes

to snooze, with two knotted dollies

standing guard in a chair

and a wardrobe of tiny shoes.

 

You must have left the door ajar

the night the snails brought you the light

of stars on their backs, for the wind got in

and swept your house and blew you clean away.

 

Commended

Mary Courtney
Feeling Trapped (A True Story)

Jonathan Trappe had a dream, sitting in his office swivel chair,

gazing vacantly out of the window. He imagined taking to the air.

Just taking off; buying fifty-five huge helium balloons;

a fantasia of reds, whites, greens, yellows and blues.

And he saw himself in slow motion frames, inflating each one,

tying each with string, hefting a huge clod of a stone to put on

the swivel seat, so that the balloons wouldn't lift it away,

not yet, at any rate; not until all fifty-five were tied in place.

A cacophony on the arms of his chair, a bored filing cabinet grey.

 

And then he imagined easing the stone off, right down to the date.

He could see it now. Raleigh, North Carolina, June 7th, 2008.

Early morning, commute time to work, half past eight.

And that was it. He decided this dream could not be late.

And so he left for a coffee break and walked at brisk pace

to a shop in the town centre, staring at his reflection facing

him in the window, beyond to the bright glare of party games;

striding in, he picked fifty-five huge helium balloons; matter of factly

paying for them, with no fuss, like it was an everyday activity.

The next day, he left work , and took to the air, in his office chair.

 

Commended

Charles Evans
Three in the Woods 

In the woods she skipped at my feet, swung on my arm,

pestered for stories, as the dead leaves drifted down,

and my wife, thoughtful, slightly apart, walked ahead,

when my small daughter looked up to the high branches

and pointed suddenly to the black bird which swooped

clattering, from the bare tree-top, wheeling across the

dark clouds, as she jumped for joy and tugged my hand,

and I lifted her in my arms, shouting at the sky

Mrs Big-Wing has gone shopping! and my daughter

clapped her bright red mittens, and laughed aloud.

 

On the path we slid in the wet mud, splashed our boots,

as her mother, ahead, touched the oak and wandered

alone between tall trees, when before us, a squirrel

paused, eyed, picked up a nut, then rounded the trunk in

a grey flash and I took the hand of my small daughter

and we followed him laughing round and around,

as she splashed for joy through the brown puddles, and

her giggles echoed in the dark wood as I called out

Mr Humbly-Grumbly’s gone for his supper! and she

whirled the red mittens in two bright arcs at her side.

On the bank we slipped on the damp grass and slithered

into ferns and wet bracken, as far off the lone figure

turned and watched unmoving, and I waved while we

stood and wiped the caked mud from our coats, when

I saw, motionless, not ten yards distant, one forepaw

raised, the thin red fox peering through leaves, and

I hushed my small daughter and motioned, as he silently

slunk back, and her eyes widened and I whispered

Mr Slinky-Pants has seen us! over her muffled squeal

as she held one red mitten over her open mouth.

 

By the lake we stepped carefully to the edge and watched

as we saw the thrust of tiny flippers, and a green frog

darted like a spear below us, and my daughter called out

beckoning to where her mother stood like a statue

on the old wooden pier, and gazed out into deep water,

and did not turn or move, as my small daughter looked

back to me with the question unasked in her eyes, and

I drew her back in my arms and said softly to her

Mummy’s talking to God, and she pressed to her cheeks

the bright red mittens, and began to cry.

 

Commended

Christopher Horton
The Minister as a Horse

No one can quite remember whether it was

during the Select Committee or a cabinet meeting

that he first whinnied, then flared his nostrils

in the direction of the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport.

Certainly this wasn’t minuted and either way

such things are often overlooked in Whitehall.

 

You might have thought the formal opposition

would have raised an objection

when, before a cross-party vote,

he bolted through the central lobby and headed out

towards St James’s Park to chew the cud,

or that a conscientious constituent would have written a letter

expressing deep concern when at the opening of a hospital

he tried to eat the ribbon.

 

But this is not what transpired and, miraculously,

he survived the reshuffle, proudly strutting out

of Number Ten in newly fitted hooves.

Only after he had been put out to graze

in the House of Lords, did someone enquire

as to whether, in polite society such as this,

it was really the done thing to toss one’s mane.

 

Commended

Kate Newmann
The Wild Cattle of Swona Island, Orkney

They’ve lived there for years, the aurox,

Since the last inhabitants left them

With the island, casting off

Into the fierce conflicting tides.

 

Two bulls, four calves and six cows

Roam the boggy fields,

Hoof-prints like runes

Across abandoned acres.

 

Once a year, a vet makes the journey.

He watches them from a distance,

The way a cow rests the bulk

Of her ribcage on the soggy earth.

 

The way the last boat,

Bleached on the rucked shore,

Arcs its empty ballast,

Holes worn through by scratching hides.

 

The days fall away like rust flakes

Off the useless gates. Their breath

Meets the mizzled air in currents

As unreadable as the ocean’s drowning pull;

 

Wind rough-tongues their eyes and ears

Like a calf being cleaned.

They are the part of us – warm-breathing –

That will always return, that never left.

 

Commended

Helen Oswald
Brighton

In the end, we never made it to the Pavilion

but preferred instead to imagine

the gauche chinoiserie of Regency folly,

a camp flourish of minarets standing out

against the bitter English rain.

 

We closed our eyes and conjured faux Indian

domes knocked out from a nation’s first

concrete casts – brown and smooth

and looking, for all they’re worth,

like cardboard.

 

We paused to recall the mudslinging

of hoi polloi, their descendants now

baying for Gehry’s blood, his daring

to aspire on the seafront. This crowd

would throw up Tescos for a Kubla Khan.

 

We meant to come in praise of whatever it is

that insists against the odds upon gilding

a dolphin on a lamp stand, that craves

primrose rooms and chandeliers shaped

like fuchsia blooms hung upside down.

 

But most of all, we liked to picture

a garden inspired by a glutton whose devotion

transported peonies, erected hollyhocks.

We see ourselves drowsing among his poppies,

inhaling the cheap scent of those blousy stocks.

 

Commended

Christopher Southgate
In my black hat

Thora Dardel sees her portrait by Modigliani for the first time in forty-six years.
 
I am not the woman you see sitting in the corner
at the private view. My name is Dardel.
In nineteen nineteen, in Montparnasse,
I was painted by the dying Modigliani.
He sketched me in a café. He devoured me
with his eyes. He took me
to Rue de la Grande Chaumiére, number eight.

 

I see you hesitate. Yes, how faded I have become.

You ask whether he was good to be with, this Amedeo?

Ah no. He drank continually, and spat blood,

and still if Jeanne had not been there, and the child,

he would have consumed me. When he was dead

Jeanne walked backwards out of their window.

There was nothing left of her, without him.

 

I could see her in a small painting behind his head –

a long oval face with almond eyes,

heart-stopping, lovely, cursed eyes

that cursed you as you looked at them.

The flat smelled of coal dust.

As you see I wore my black hat

and kept my hands in my lap.

I have lived in Paris, and Stokholm,

and Montevideo. I have family who love me.

But tonight at last it is clear.

I am not the woman you see sitting in the corner

stiffly, slow-speaking, preferring her own company.

I am that young student, head on one side,

in a black hat, in love with Nils Dardel,

devoured in an instant in a café

by a sad-eyed Italian who died soon after,

and I always shall be.

 

Commended

Harriet Torr
Tsunami Girl

Her belongings, like skins,float back to the original effluvia of

ocean beds.An archive of buttons, newly dyed with fish

spawn,congealedwith masonry skill,disturbs the isotopes of an

ocean’s plan.A crustacean, plotting the symmetries of a

worldbetween its kelp stones,stares at the hems and petticoats

trailing him.

 

The pink ghosts of muscles still fasten

round the dress and an occasional sea bird

dips its beak into its folds, deciphering its smells,

the idiosyncrasy of its shapes, the neck stem displaced,

the dislocated spine of its buckle digging the waist

where a strong hold of sea lice thrill to its curves.

 

TV men with diving suits and tanks

return for a second take;

the satin dress holding itself up to the poles of the waves

like origami dancing, twitching lace mimicking breath,

sand filled pouch, its warmth.

It dances past the slow differential of a fin

its acrimony of scales, its Mache print of skin

 

to the laughing girl shedding herself

like Narcissi in the tsunami wave.

 

Commended

Malcolm Watson
The Bitter Herdsman 

Once we were armourers to the gods.

We fashioned Zeus’s thunderbolts, Poseidon’s

trident, Artemis’s bow. We built the massive walls

of Argos and Mycenae, and laboured in Hephaistos’

forge’s fiery glow. Zeus allotted us this land where grapes

and corn and apples grow without the need to plough or sow.

 

Now we are shepherds and like all shepherds, live apart, alone

and sullen in our caverns in the hills. We’ve lost the art of smithing.

Couldn’t make a spoon. We have no ships or markets, don’t know

how to farm or bake or trade. We have no laws or government,

We do exactly as we please. They call us uncouth monsters.

We don’t care. We have our sheep and goats and curds and whey.

 

But after that tremendous storm, they came, the locusts

and the pismires, parasites and weevils, stinking lice,

a nest of fucking insects following a shifty fox.

I went to sleep blind drunk and woke no different.

I should’ve chewed the bloody lot. The bastards

poked my eye out with a burning olive tree.

 

That smart-arse said his name was Nobody. Nobody!

They’ve left me stumbling in the dark to herd my sheep

in everlasting night, a lamp without its oil, lighthouse

without a light, a torch without a flame. Who’ll

ever have me now? And worst of all,

no-one, no-one at all,

believes me.

 

Commended

Anne Pierson Wiese
The Writer

People in the neighborhood called him The Writer
because he loitered on certain corners for hours
at a stretch, making notations in pocket-sized
spiral notebooks. At all times of year he wore a dark
dirty overcoat. At no time did he interact
with passersby. The rumor went that he was
a Lebanese man who, either here in Brooklyn
or back in Lebanon, had lost his wife and children
to a house fire, which had driven him mad. He was tall,
thin and furtive. Nobody could glean what he ate
or where he slept. I thought perhaps he did neither,
having been transformed by grief into a surly
exempt essence needing nothing but an infinite
series of pages no larger than his palm
on which to record a repeating pattern of dots
and dashes – some morse of misery or misery
of remorse. One year, similar rows of dots
and dashes began to appear in fluorescent
marker on the front steps of people’s houses. Anxious
homeowner conversations ensued. It was the view
of some that the spooky but benign scribbling
had become a recognizable language –
that of revenge. The Writer was marking his targets.
He would arrive in the night with gasoline
and matches to take from others what had been taken
from him. But it was no such thing. There were no fires,
no raging explanations of what it was all about,
no confirmations or translations, just the dull
simmer of his continued solitary assessment,
as if he were the last man on earth – or the first.
 

Commended

Anne Pierson Wiese
Somebody's Husband

If I had a gold locket with my husband’s picture

in it – which I don’t, and I were dead – which I’m not,

and I could still think while being dead – which I

couldn’t, I’d be happy to think that some young woman

with a penchant for the past had found my locket

in the showcase reserved for special items

by the cash register in the secondhand store,

suspected it of possessing magical

properties, asked that it be extracted

from behind the World War II medals

with their umbilicals of dried ribbon

and the chip-winged porcelain hummingbird,

and bought it for a little more than she could

afford at that time in her life.

 

I’d be happy to think of her wondering

who he was, what he was like, trying to glean

from his miniature fading features with what

abandon he might have tossed his cap off on his way

through the front door after work, whether he was

a talker, a man who kept secrets – or both,

whether he might have been – discounting time and space

among other things — a man for her. I'd be happy

to think how love for somebody's husband might live

in a locket, a soundless echo of the human

act – the hands that scrupulously trimmed the black

and white photograph into a wobbly but workable circle

and slid it behind the wisp of glass from under which

it could never again be recalled, so right was the fit.