The Hamish Canham Poetry Prize 2009
Winner: Sheila Hillier

Sheila Hillier’s ‘Jack Lattin of Morristown’ – a wonderfully rhythmic celebration of reckless bravery, writes Carole Satyamurti

Hamish Canham, who died in 2003 at the age of 40, was a remarkable writer and child psychotherapist. He loved poetry, and his parents, Hugh and Sheena Canham, have generously endowed an annual prize in his memory. The prize is awarded for the best poem published in Poetry News during the preceding year.

Deciding between the final three poems this year was not easy for the six judges on the panel, but in the end we were happy to award the Hamish Canham Prize, 2009 to SM Hillier for her poem ‘Jack Lattin of Morristown’. A compelling story, told with a rhythmic zest, the poem reflects the beat of the dance it describes. It is a celebration of reckless bravery, of a refusal to be moderate.

The two runners-up were Kristina Close, for ‘Lara Brown is Not Available’ and Emma Danes (who had three poems in Poetry News during the year) for ‘Self-Portrait as a Drop of Water’. We liked the mystery and restraint of Close’s poem, the vivid and detailed sense of the narrator’s apparently endless wait for Lara Brown. Emma Danes’s poem is a sparse evocation of what it might be like to be a drop of water aware of itself and its surroundings. Its life is brief and powerless – as is a human life, perhaps, despite what we like to think.

The judges also enoyed the three ‘Highly Commended’ poems: Liz Berry’s ‘The Last Lady Ratcatcher’; Patricia Morgan’s ‘Woman in a Film’; and Frank Dux’s ‘Storm at Sea’.

Sheila Hillier
The rhythmn was in me as the devil was in Jack, says Sheila Hillier
“I’m delighted – amazed – to have won. It’s a great honour!” said Sheila Hillier, one of the most remarkable aspects of whose poem is that it was written at one sitting.

“I’d happened upon the story of the real-life Jack Lattin’s short life and death in 1721 and had stored it away with the idea that it would make a good subject for a poem,” Hillier explains. “The picture of a man dancing appealed to me, as did the challenge of capturing a dancer’s rhythm. As a regular reader of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess it struck me as a story with a mythic dimension – the long dance, a young man sacrificed. Finally, I got up one morning and wrote it, almost straight off. Without being precious about it, it was as if the voice of Larry Grogan, the poem’s narrator, was in my head: the rhythm was in me as the devil was in Jack!”

Sheila Hillier is Emeritus Professor of Medical Sociology at Barts and The London, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. She began writing poetry in 2001 and was strongly encouraged by her teachers at the City Lit, Alison Fell and Julia Casterton, and later by Mimi Khalvati and Todd Swift of the Poetry School. Her poems have been published in The Interpreter’s House and Ambit and she was commended in the National Poetry Competition in 2006. Her first collection, A Quechua Confession Manual, is published by Cinnamon Press next year.

Sheila Hillier
Jack Lattin of Morristown

A wager dreamt up on a noisy evening
with him back from Paris talking in French
in a Kildare accent, calling for oysters,
the candlelight there making everything mauve
but the jet on his waistcoat and round wigless head
black-fuzzed, his huge eyes as bright as a frog’s.
Cloncurry was there, Rahilly the poet,
Lady Mary’s daughters, Begnet and Clare
their hair twined about with organza ribbons,
not blue as expected but indecent yellow.
And all of us laughing as he made the bet
uncrossing silk legs on the tapestry cushion,
bowing towards the ornate velvet chair
then leaping impatiently on to the table,
the rush of his movement extinguished the candles:
“the devil is in me to dance twenty miles,
from this house to Dublin, new steps every furlong,
Larry Grogan come with me, I’ll fiddle, you’ll pipe!”
His faced glowed as red as coals in the grate
while I started a reel to get him in practice
and he danced out the door, it was two in the morning with a
summer moon over the silver white road,
and he danced and caught up those going to market
who cheered him, bent down under firkins of butter.
Past hawthorn, past barley, past old Castle Mansfield,
he wore out the patents, insulted the leather
the whistling and cheering frightened the thrushes,
crows flapped away senseless, the liveries alarmed,
no rest at crossroads, no stopping at ditches,
drinks on the move to the gates of the city
and Rahilly, Wogan and Walsh there to greet him.
The work of his heart was more than his years –
this fiddler, this dancer was danced black and blue
he died the next day, not quite twenty-two.
Oro! Oro!, brave Jacky Lattin.