National Poetry Competition 2009


  • Ruth Padel 
  • Neil Rollinson 
  • Daljt Nagra 

Winning Poem 

Helen Dunmore
The Malarkey

Why did you tell them to be quiet
and sit up straight until you came back?
The malarkey would have led you to them.
You go from one parked car to another
and peer through the misted windows
before checking the registration.
Your pocket bulges. You’ve bought them sweets
but the mist is on the inside of the windows.
How many children are breathing?
The malarkey’s over in the back of the car.
The day is over outside the windows.
No streetlight has come on.
You fed them cockles soused in vinegar,
you took them on the machines.
You looked away just once.
You looked away just once
as you leaned on the chip-shop counter,
and forty years were gone.
You have been telling them for ever
Stop that malarkey in the back there!
Now they have gone and done it.
Is that mist, or water with breath in it?


Winner's Photograph

Helen Dunmore

Winner's Comment 

"Last autumn I had these two new poems and felt that they might be part of new group of poems that I would write.  But I wasn't sure.  I knew that the poems would be  judged anonymously for the NPC, and so they would be read purely for what they were.  I sent them in October, a couple of weeks or so before the competition closed. It was quite a spur-of-the-moment decision, because it was easy to enter online. It's a huge boost - the fact that these three poets and judges picked out The Malarkey  means an enormous amount to me." 

Second Prize 

Ian Pindar
Mrs Beltinska in the Bath

Pavel in profile

his eye at the spy-hole

watches Mrs Beltinska in the bath.


Steam from the spy-hole

rises and unravels in the dark

cold apartment at his back,


where a TV with the sound down

shows the River Vltava

bursting its banks.


And as Prague’s metro floods

and the Mala Strana floods

and the Waldstein Palace floods


and the National Theatre floods

and the Kampa Modern Art Museum floods,

Mrs Beltinska sinks her treasures in the suds.


The first Czech bible (1488) is drowned

in sewage water, but the warm orange glow

from Mrs Beltinska’s bathroom


coming through the spy-hole

gives an odd kind of halo

to Pavel’s head seen from behind.

Third Prize 

John Stammers
Mr Punch in Soho

You would recognise that hook nose anywhere,

his hump and paunch, the shiny pink erection of his chin.

Withered, crossed legs on the barstool

dangle like transplants from a much smaller body.

He could have found his ideal slot in the Gestapo,

been a dab hand with a blinding iron.

And the scold’s bridal would have been right up his Strasse.

He has, they say, killed seven police:

old-time rozzers on the beat

more deserving of a saucy come-on from the street girls

than the last rites down a back alley.

And two wives. Poor old Mrs Punch finally copped it

one night after he’d done a few dozen barley wines

and as many double gins. She fought fiercely

against an assailant or assailants unknown

the Pall Mall Gazette reported.  Never caught.

Never charged. And pretty little Mrs Punch

number two won’t be taking a bath

in those bubbles again. That’s the way to do it!

Just picture him afterwards, cock in hand

like an old chimp with a hard, green-tipped banana.

And the baby, where’s the baby?

It’s something to make the Devil into the good guy: 

how children cry out for him

to drag Punch down to hell for eternal punishment.

But he’d throttle Lucifer when his back was turned

and be back on that stool for closing time.

Or maybe that’s where he’s been all these years

of grown-up sleep, peaceful and free of nightmare.

It’s what you can’t see in the stare of his wooden yellow eye.

Don’t look, there’s his stick, the awful stick!



Cherry Smyth

In Japan, in a laboratory in the hills, a man is whispering to water.

A man, whose wife has left him, is focusing on structure through

a powerful microscope. He’s astounded when each isolated drop

seems to listen, absorb the words, change like a face transformed

by smiling or a splash of shock. He studies how words like ‘family’

or ‘betrayal’ alter the crystalline mandala, as if the vibration

of his heart shakes and resets each miniscule aquatic form.


He mouths ‘eternity’ in Arabic and ‘goodbye’ in French and manages

to photograph the crystal as it clouds inside like a blown fuse. Now

others will believe him, will apply the knowledge he’s not built for,

why these lexigrams appear, as if water held the capacity of mind

and how minds change when love’s ear hears nothing anymore:

how different from the first unspoken, this last not speaking.


He’s tired. He doesn’t mean to murmur ‘mercy’. It’s almost a

forgotten word. The droplet he is viewing becomes a spiky lattice,

with a strange core, like the trapped blue-white sea of a cataract.

His vision softens. He asks mercy for himself, from himself, until

the mantra rises to a song from the southern shore his wife would sing,

a song of waves and Bo trees, whose words he’s no idea he knew,

and he sees the water tremble as if for the body that once carried it.

‘Forgive me’, he says. He photographs the feeling.



Frank Ortega
Searching for an affordable Crossbow

The women in the Umbrian mountain village

gather around the hood

of the parked blue Alfa-Romeo

touching it reverently

with the palms of their hands

whispering “Roma”, “Roma”

at the heat of the engine.

They stand on medieval cobblestones

marvelling at such things as head, distance and speed.

The older women, the ones in black,

think only of time.



Jane Yeh
The Body in the Library

It always starts with a dead girl

                                             somewhere in the picture:

Lukewarm and pretty, in an organdy crinoline,

One arm sticking out from under a credenza.


There is a foreigner with dark hair and a secret

Who says Eet ees not me! when he is questioned;

A shady dressmaker who’s missing a finger;

A doctor struck off for fiddling with his patients;


Another girl, in a bedroom (the second victim),

Dolling herself up in French scent and mascara.

Pretty lips and curls smile back at her from the mirror.

She has a date with the killer. She just doesn’t know it.


The detective follows the clues. He is a metaphor

Like the girl in the library, like the guilty pistol,

Like the dressmaker’s friend with a fatal knack

For murdering women, like the end of a story


Or its aftermath: the part that doesn’t get written,

Four years later, when the case has been closed

And the bodies have been forgotten— how the dead

We have failed to keep remembering are alone.



Jon Stone
Jake Root 

Sure as I’m dying, I need it. Bring

them nuggets of zingiber, fire-packed rhizomes

to mash into candy or jam between pillows,

ward off hag-rodeo. Bring that curio

brings me luck, most outrageous medicine,

puts charge in me, want for that juiciest medicine.

Let me gnaw it and gob in the westerly

(right up my back as I’m making the dead run).

Mix it with nutmeg and ground John the Conqueror

so that I might have the upper hand. Bake its

pulp in a bread to gag dapper gamblers

like Death. It’s the best bet – ask Dr. Bronner

or Dioscorides. Get me that jake root,

that stick of mouth-gelignite, brute tongue-number,

that flashover powder, that head unblocker,

that knothole of daggers, that good thrumming petrol,

that woodknuckle jumplead, that sting-in-a-knock,

fresh from the citadels, fresh from the spade,

or not fresh – vintaged in mother’s cupboards,

stowed in a clay jar, fossilised, strung on

a necklace worn by a princess or priestess

fresh from a grave at the foot of the Andes

or fresh from a boat from the faraway islands

or dangle it still strung from her gleaming neck,

or have her chew it to glistening, hating me.

Whole or in pieces, tenderised, tampered with,

stuck on a blade, in a bowl – but I need it

now and I need it now and I need the

tubers, the fist of them, blunt fat fingers

damned with the furious ting, with the ointment,

the crystals, the dust and the bundle of nodules

fermented or dashed in a cake or concoction.

Bring me it, that I might go tooled up,

my last breath searing the eyes of the footman,

splinter and spice in my trinket teeth.



J.P. Nosbaum
After the Washing

The toss, the tumble, the nearly making it last minute

plummet.  The damp, the shade lightening, the lifting of fibres

away: the visible softening tumbling toss of the towels.


Dave nearly making it, jogging to Strauss.  The onetwothree,

onetwothree, onetwo–       –Hal peering through his portal,

its red gleam of eye.  ‘What are you doing, Dave.  Dave


what are you doing.’  I’m drying, Hal, you hung Frank

out to dry, but me–you put me in the tumbler.  The eye

goes blank, Dave slows to a walk, falls.  Penny theatre plus


inflation means 20p per centripetal pull: the real force, the fine aslant,

askew, the not so bloody obvious pulling you where you don’t think

you’re going, the falling always.  The 20p


drops. Ten more minutes playing Hal, making Dave dance.



Julie Collar

When the men came to speak to my father


I was sent out into the garden.

I could hear the cold hissing in the cracks

of the concrete,

could feel its boldness,

how it longed to slip between my edges.


Hands buzzing like wasps,

I practised my skipping, counted steps,

the lash of the rope

on my calves only right,

only proper.


    I looked out of my eyes

    at the crumble-bricked wall,

    the white rose

    blooming still. Then


    I rose up in the air and looked down

    on myself.


    As if I were the Angel in the painting, hovering.


    As if I were the Virgin crouched in a heap in the corner.


    I saw

    the straight white scar of my parting,

    saw my bunches bounce,

    knees cold-mottled

    above white socks. The fear

    a series of yellow wavy lines

    zigging from the dog-tooth

    check of my duffle coat.


    The smell of it nettles, the smell of it cat’s piss.


My father was in that room

alone with those men

with only my mother to protect him.


I did the only thing I could do –

I skipped,

my back to the French windows,

my arms raised out like wings.



Peter Kahn
Burlap Man

Lakeview, Chicago.  Summer of ’91. 

“…how do you uproot something that’s already taken hold?”    Historian, Arnold Hirsch, on failed attempts to remedy segregation in Chicago. 

One simmering afternoon, he blocks your path

with an open paw.  Tells you he’s a panther escaped

from Lincoln Park Zoo.  He bleeds papaya juice,

pees coconut water, shits burnt sugar cane.


Tells you his claws are tree branches that won’t stop

growing.  His tail was eaten by a boa constrictor

and he’s afraid of fire and water and trees

and the #36 bus.  Tells you he’ll marry you

for $3 in quarters and a pack of Marlboro Lights.


Nappy tufts blast atop his head, shroud his cheeks. 

Think Sula’s Shadrack.  Make him barefoot,

six foot four, wearing nothing but a sweat-stained

burlap sack and you have Burlap Man.


One bright night, as your darks tumble and you fold

your whites, you see him stopping traffic, like a moon

walking tree, on Halstead, waving his sack high in the air. 

You join a crowd to hear him belting out Black or White

to heavy honks, beep-beeps and cat calls,


his privates jangling like tropical fruit. 

As sirens shimmy and shout towards the street

party, he gets down on all fours and crawls away,

never to be seen again. 



Sam Riviere
Rain Delay

"We've discovered Superman's address, and got to the bottom

of the wing-beat rate a beetle needs to stay dry in the rain,

all of which brings to mind the last stand of a certain man

on this very field, what, sixteen years since, is it Greg?

You’ll remember Amit’s aztec gaze, how he’d play

from a firm back foot, pick his point above your arm,

directing when to kick your wrist and place the pitch, swatting

shots off like dizzy moths – something of the battling mantis

in his awkward height, a bored elegance addressed

by the long circles of his arms. Back home, of course,

he’s thought a god, and there always was an uncanniness,

a gift for timing, drawing luck – the rain, like now,

sometimes came with his beckoning, and that feast of charms

rattling about his neck, his slightly eerie victory dance

scuffing dust in geometric shapes, setting a hex

along his crease… The fast bowler from the islands

faced him here in ‘86, a brutal little ball of a man

with a witchunter’s ardent, direct line. A sad day for sport

when the delivery caught Amit short, bouncing up to touch

his chin, the sweet spot of a perfect uppercut. Down he went,

and never really came around, but you’ll remember, Greg,

the swarm of unlikely blood-coloured butterflies

that descended on the pitch, a couple of which can often

be seen this time of year, out there now, batting between the drops.’



Valerie Laws
Lifting the Lid

(Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm)
Full fathom five in A&E, my father
Lies white as a cuttlefish blade, suddenly granted
The sailor’s death war denied him. Water runs
Clear from his mouth and the puncture wounds
Where they pumped in saline to keep his heart afloat
Too late. Holed below the water line, he’s drowned,
Awash, beached, bleached, my pale hand red raw beef
Beside his dead man’s fingers. Our nails, I see
For the first and last time, are exactly the same shape.
Lividity branches up his sides like coral,
As the corpuscles see-saw and sink,
Silt in the veins. The nurse has battened down
The long-sighted eyes that made him a pilot, too young
For the navy in a war he couldn’t wait to join,
After a fisherman’s childhood, the curve of cobles
At Cullercoats like the sweep of an eyelid
Over the North Sea’s blue.
I think of him sinking, in his sweat-damp bed,
The paramedics baling in vain, his drowning,
Puzzled voice, ‘I think I might be dying,’
The aneurysm, an unseen fist in the gut,
An anti-heart, leaking into his belly, blood pressure
going down, ‘I can’t breathe,’ down, ‘can’t breathe’,
down for the last time. Swollen as a stranded seal,
as if he’d swallowed the sea, his keel of a chest -
his blanked face - I lift one eyelid, see his eye true blue,
Like those of our Viking ancestors, fierce as the harsh views
He and I fought over, now rinsed clean of blood and rage,
Truly an iris, afloat in its bowl of wet, white china,
Blue as the bruised top of limpet shells
Sanded by tides, the slaty violet of mussels, the white
Like crusts of barnacles, sea-scoured bone.


Neil Lockwood
M Trouvé (1)

recaf 'Leading the way in pay to play'(2)

‘Move...’(3) Addendum (by finger in the dirt) ‘Bristol’(4)

Nice thought whether heartfelt or wistful.

‘Police follow this van.  Hatch is time delayed.’(5)

‘No tools left overnight’(6) de rigueur white vans display.

‘Dairy Farmers of Britain’(7) ...unite - playful.(8)

‘There for you - Spar.’(9) ‘People who care – Tufnell’(10)

Messages found on the motorway


All human life is there, ‘Exhibiting Success’(11)

‘Animals’(12) too.  Horse power, on the hoof!

‘Body Kraft’(13) with a K. ‘Unltd fr3 txts’  

‘Xpress Scaffold’ .(15) Signs of a misspelt youth?

‘Forward.  Back.  Back a bit more.  Stop.’(16) Express!(17)

This is modern life.  ‘Metal on the move’(18)


(1)  M Trouvé (in the tradition of ‘art trouvé’) composed from 55% reclaimed materials found on Motorways.

(2)  recaf (sic) are a Worcester-based supplier of “Juke boxes; touch screen games;  jackpot gaming machines”

(3)  Immediate Transportation Company

(4)  As seen, written after the company strap line - ‘Move...’ Bristol

(5)  Group 4 (with minor amendments)

(6)  Ubiquitous

(7)  Dairy Farmers of Britain

(8)  Not as seen (but adding ‘unite’ seems to complete the thought)

(9)  verbatim

(10) verbatim (but omitting the possessive ‘s’)

(11) Highfield Exhibition Services

(12) Also ubiquitous

(13) Body Kraft (Dudley) Ltd – “a kwality* service throughout the entire accident repair process” – *only kidding

(14) Very fast (possibly T mobile) van

(15) Xpress Scaffold Systems Ltd.

(16) Virgin Media

(17) Lots of these but this is actually just the word!

(18) Multi Metals Limited