Judge: Carole Satyamurti
This was a sparky set of entries with some predictable recurrent themes which were sometimes treated in original ways. There were, inevitably, several September 11 poems, a sizeable copse of autumn trees and a heartening amount of lust.
A curious choice
for the all-powerful Lord of Hosts
to speak through
a burning bush;
when he could have gone for
rolling thunder, say,
or the blanketing silence of snowfall.
Maybe it was a grudge he had been harbouring
against a peculiarly ugly shrub,
designed just before tea-time on the sixth day
when his concentration wavered.
The Bible is not specific on horticultural particulars.
The flames lick up, hot on the face,
and the bush is not consumed.
Perhaps he liked to hear his voice
made gravelly by smoke
like a jazz singer?
Or was he trying to warn Moses
that men who say
they've heard the voice of God
are playing with fire?
The Borrowed House
Back at home the blue stain from the candlewax
has washed clean out of the tablecloth,
the flowers you picked for the table
are topping off the compost,
(will you ever need that lesson again
in how to eat spaghetti?)
the log you upended to smoulder
for charcoal is still lying in the grate.
Here, three counties from my home,
in this borrowed house, the iris bloom
which should have shown before you left.
Slowly they unfurl, turning from a May Day fire,
leaning from the vase at half their usual height.
They're old as well as new.
Without an upright stance
their heads stoop towards the walls.
I fear the lower buds may never flower.
It took coming here to realize the last few weeks -
the drive through rape fields, the wide horizons,
the waking in a place you have not been.
No longer do I crave your daily voice,
my memory loosens to bring me evidence -
the origin of a tie pin,
welcome snores at the beginning of the night,
a lark you believed to be there,
a brother dying in your arms,
the construction of crockery on the drainer
when you did the washing up,
"I don't want to be a guest right from the start".
This, I shall paint into the present, and this -
a picture of you naked, miming.
The scene - a prison room, the officers are sitting down.
You act the part of a detainee, you're told to
bend your knees, stretch your arms,
as if sitting astride a motorbike.
You must make your body shudder with the rumble of the engine.
As you play out for me this torture from inside Insein jail
flames from the hearth mark you out in gold.
"We had to stay like this for hours".
Because you know these things,
you tell me about the candle flame between us:
how alchemists thought fire was a substance
a bit like ectoplasm, ready to burst out
of whatever combustible - coal, wood, wax -
the heat was unlocking.
Because you know these things,
you take me into the drama of fire
in which oxygen and heat, like rescuers,
smash the bonds chaining molecules together,
giving them a new, energetic lease of life
in an exuberance of heat and light.
Because you know these things,
you make it sound like a carnival
and I can see them dancing, free-spirited,
in their fiery, extravagant costumes,
in unrelenting heat;
and because you know these things
you tell me one of the products of fire is water,
an oddly satisfying notion;
and how particles of soot blaze yellow;
how as long as there's fuel to feed on,
fire will keep on going, setting light to itself,
a process, not a substance;
and because you know these things,
you talk about the Firekeeper,
whose life would have been to guard the flame
and keep the carnival moving,
and how you'd like that job;
and because I know these things,
I know you're not talking about fire.
People bring flowers from Safeway.
I read the bar-codes for something to do
but mostly I watch my friends cry
and wipe their noses on the backs of their hands.
Shot into the ether, bowled over and up
as the clocks slipped back,
I'm unrehearsed for this shift: all this
pollen and cellophane crackle
here among the lilies and freesias.
I'm trying hard to catch an eye or bend an ear
but my friends just stare at the tarmac,
the burnt grass and the mud. They remember head
banging, Tzant and Tampera,
but can only imagine
after that: last Saturday's dazzle;
my exploding Astra turned furnace;
the hiss of burning flesh.
All this pollen makes them sneeze.
It goes through me.
I do my ghost dance. I'm learning fast.
I blow up their nostrils
and down the backs of their necks.
He lifted the ice-lid, inches thick,
and leant it against the shed like a lost hub-cap.
Goldfish flickered alive, then he went inside.
Days later, they found him frozen: Dodgy fire.
When I visited, after his wife died of cancer,
he sat smoking a fag till it burnt his fingers;
screwed it out on the hearth's red-tiled frame,
then slowly, shakily lowered the flame
as though adjusting his own desire.
Imre Nagy stands cold in bronze
on his bridge in Budapest. He
with bent necks float beneath his feet.
When his communist heart faltered
he turned Hungarian; his neck
did more than bend. His eyes are fixed
forever on a building once pocked
by angry shells. Now its walls are staked
with metal spheres to mark the hits, and
Over the road,
outside a spiky Parliament gothic
as Westminster, squats a black candle,
huge, in polished marble.
Its top curves like melted wax
round its all night and day flame.
A single guard's
on duty, chilled and young. His rifle points
to the silent sky. It's last night he
* National fire
Judge: Roddy Lumsden
The number of entries for Members' Poems continues to increase. The island theme brought many responses to Donne's famous line, and the smell of midge cream and tea in flasks came to mind as so many seemed to have braved the Scottish north west.
Boat burials, chambered cairns, mounds:
the O.S. map was littered with them.
A broch. We stood inside fortified rooms,
the rump of a tower by the sea.
Pottery pieces had been found,
stone and bone spindle whorls. Remnants
of crucibles and moulds for bronze.
Jewellery. A fine ladle.
What haunted though, was not the ancient
stone alcoves and stairway, but a croft:
south-facing with crouched outbuildings
roofed with huge slabs from the shore,
nettles massed in its walled yard,
the course of a burn round behind,
flagged by yellow irises, sedge.
Extraordinarily, this disappeared
in a hundred runnels maybe,
under the bare flagstone floor
of a room with chairs, a table, Rayburn.
One wall was already cave-green.
But the view through the last window
was the ghost: tea-towel, rubber gloves,
hung on a pull-out rail to dry,
the washing-up bowl upturned.
Stop here on this cliff edge
and consider the woman hanging out
washing on the lighthouse island.
In four years of marriage,
they say she's never left the light
or raised a glass to those on kinder ground.
The sea twisting its hair
shouts to her from sparking rocks but none turns
her head, not even the boatman
who has stood on the stair
and watched a surf break in patterns
round the silence in her wind scraped garden.
She knows the eyes that watch
and could soon acknowledge a squall or steel
stars. But the lighthouse keeper's mind
is elsewhere, beyond reach
of food on the kitchen table
or the things she plants that die in the ground.
So she pegs the washing
and he, stone lipped, his chilly obsession
till dusk paints shapes that tug the line
and finds her, still gazing
at the light, more a suggestion
than a statement, sensing perhaps, late rain.
The music from Listen with mother, and
an Al Read monologue. Heartbreak hotel
of course and next, the trio from Cosi
fan tutte where they wave the boat goodbye.
Yes I could fish, light fires, build a shelter.
The Stones Not fade away (five). Stand by me,
John Lennon's version and that Schubert thing
Inspector Morse plays in his room alone.
Of course I'll miss my friends and family.
Last disc, Miles Davis's Time after time.
I'd keep that if the others washed away.
Only one other book, Sue? Can't I take
Goethe and Pooter? And my luxury?
Paper, an inexhaustible supply.
The hotel was open and I was the only guest.
Robert Louis Stevenson stayed here once.
Dinner in the library. I found a book
by Teilhard de Chardin and read by firelight.
In bed I listened to the motion of islands,
boats creaking at anchor on the ocean's swell –
wind forcing the waves to give up their coloured stones
washed away from submarine marble.
I watched the shadows, black-robed figures
filing inexorably against walls of white
down the night stair to the choir to chant
near where the bones of Scottish kings are laid
It's here, on paper: left to yourself,
you drew your picture, wrote your name!
The usual giant "M", its peaks and troughs:
your mark. But then, the unlooked for miracle:
unsteady pencil letters struggle
and splash across the paper sea;
sight an island of orange (your body),
veer north, and manage a last leap
across a red peninsula (your head),
to end with a tantalising unfinished "w",
missing just one upstroke.
Perhaps it sank beneath a wave, exhausted.
It's the hole-punched cover of your first book:
a shaky record of your mardi gras,
the pictures hard and firm in your mind,
but slipping in your hand:
the painted masks; the big blue bird;
the car with music blaring from its open back;
the dance along the streets, and people
waving at you and cheering from far windows.
Theme: The Unknown
Judge: Roddy Lumsden
I could easily have picked twenty fine pieces from the 'Unknown Poems' pile – as ever I liked those which approached the theme sideways.
After the climb I'm martyred enough to buy bottled water
from a mute boy in white, whose eyes gutter
like dark candles as I pay. In the Rue Poulet
all the Côte D'Ivoire-in-diaspora's out today
hawking prawns, sandals, tea towels, plantains, hair.
Words I memorized in school shake the bars of the air,
brazen birds of sound, more infinitely foreign
than any archetypal, textbook Sylvie et Jeanne
wondering when the train will arrive, sentenced to travel
forever through mal à la tête and endless drivel
about food, weather, le week-end, faire du sport,
their frequent discussions of Saint-Lazare ou Gare du Nord
bereft of useful counsel like: don't sit
in the taxi's front seat if you can help it.
Jeanne et Sylvie, mes amies, are you even now
descending wide-eyed from the train? Do you
still turn each corner as if you'd never turned
any corner before? Is there a France to understand?
Do I alone not understand the world in general?
Is it rational that I'm frightened of the girl
attending the public toilets? I'm not one
of you, her naked fingernails intone
as she pushes back my change. You are not
one of me. What kind of day-after-day must it
be, presiding over the shining toilets
and the faint perfume of shit which permeates
the orange disinfectant, as truth peers
through the keyhole of a lie? Can we say that truth is
the world itself, for which there's no one word?
Here, Saint Denis knelt beneath the sword,
rose, took up his head, and walked. A miracle:
saints' blood christening an amnesiac hill
where still some fin-du-siècle whore-ghost leans from her window
nightly to call the monster-man, the twisted shadow,
misshapen stain on the cracked pavement, who hangs like a gymnast
between his sticks, who – knowing that what will last
is not the lovemaking but the loneliness –
raises one crutch, meaning yes.
He fell in love with a photo booth – just down
from the MacDonalds he used to go to with his daughter
every other Sunday, before his ex moved to Aberdeen.
It started with presents left behind the curtain:
a box of Milk Tray, a dozen roses, a porcelain Beefeater
purchased from a boutique in South Ken.
There's a cop with a megaphone, crime tape
flips in the breeze. "We'll get you the Cheese Burger
with rings, Simon; we need to know what flavour milkshake."
rise against the moon, stir the stars and skim
the chimneys prodding the sky at the end
of the land, or shift my shape to owl or hare
and arc across the moor.
Mine is the craft bought with the midnight touch,
nine-times, of the logan stone, and in church
with wine, the wafer saved to feed a toad,
and three times said 'Our father', end to start,
to woo the outside gods.
Mine are the charms to summon sudden storms
when rich ships ride the tide, shine lights
to warn of thrashing seas, bounce balls of fire
up cams or down the shafts and tunnels
lined with copper veins.
Mine is the gift to sail in a bladebone boat,
call down the wind or sell it to sailors: knots
on a thread to be unstrung, one for a breath,
two for a gale behind, three to blow
the vessel safely home.
Yours is the power to steal my strength
with an onion stuck with pins to pain my limbs,
a waxen manikin thrown into the flames,
a silver bullet, a shovelful of fire . . .
if you should dare.
My Life Elsewhere
Photos composed of layers of shrubs,
corners of parks where birds hid in unmarked aviaries,
tranches of woods so dark you'd not make out what flew.
Valerie, my mother'd say, photograph your schoolfriends,
grandmother, the dogs.
I went my own way, recording nothing much.
If we'd stretched those pictures beyond their hazy limits,
she might have found the shapes, slightly off-camera,
that shared my absent life.
like awkward elbows,
a tipped jug, water,
of fixed resin.
Or suds slick fingers,
settles on tiles like a blue feather.
Those same fingers, an old craze
of Bakelite shocks a breaker
open, when all we have are fuses
crossed by nails.
But mainly the surge
of sharp crystal
when your kisses glaze
my mouth like perfect icing.
Judge: Richard Price
This issue's topic was 'Creatures'. Many of the entrants took this literally, and I have to admit to a certain tiredness as I read through many of the poems. They didn't move much beyond an observer watching an animal and thinking thoughts about it. Poems don't have to be like that, and even very great poets may not have minds good enough to say something bright about an object they have cast in the role of meditative focus. Good poems are not always good poems because the poets are articulating good thoughts. But I did like these (and I even broke my own rules for some!).
People keep trying to make lions their creatures
My pride holds forty but they'll break away
I watch them through the thicket of our culture
I track them day by day
This lion licks its cubs into love's shape
This lavish tongue is cleaning up after prey
This lion yawns, watching hyenas brisk about small fry
Asia gives warning in this amber eye
This lion's cave resonates hell's mediaeval maw
This lion set prophets and saints on their highway
This lion is learning tricks from George Bernard Shaw
This strong lion gives out syrup in glossy tins galore
The bees buzz over the leakage from this lion's sweetly
This lion shrugs off the Brands bonanza, from snacks to sports, flexing its claw
This lion is Biblical; this lion is stuffed with straw
This lion haunts Venice, the British Museum and fountain spray
This lion is dazzling fans in Egypt with a golden ray
This lion plumbs the circus of display
This lion's roar electrifies the tent and children cry
"We're glad this lion can't get out to play"
"This lion's bite is very likely worse than nurses' pay"
This lion paces after the Night Traveller and may –
This lion peers at a man on his back in striped array
The lion whispers, "Don't talk to me about tigers; have some savoir-faire
"Get up and be a man," it breathes in his ear
But he'd rather be lionised, with, "Bravo! Hip-hooray!"
My Last Lion a Hunter and Trainer's ghosted Autobiography
Richard Coeur de Lyon, apparently, was half the man his
title would imply
Two faceless lions magnify the gate of Mycenae
Two lions guide and guard the way to Places Great and High
A lion locked in rock lent Scottish Kings sway
A lion's pelt embraces the shoulders of chieftains' ceremony
This lion is moving in its majesty
The Lion King is a moving kids' movie
"Come live with me and be my lion" some say
Each creature as I play
At taming, making mine, shadows away,
Stoops to the hidden pool:
That elsewhere, unknown
The last time that I saw her
(Over a year, it's been),
She was the loveliest creature
That I had ever seen.
But now we're re-united
It really is quite strange
She's nice, but nothing special
Funny how people change.
have infiltrated my garden:
I see their ears, squeezed petals of tiny roses,
listening for the footfall of cat;
their quivering bodies, foxgloves
between tentative fingers;
their eyes, the glistening beads
their pattering feet leaving clear pearls
on the laurel.
Mice have infiltrated my garden:
their miniature silences held between breath
of breeze and birdsong.
She is enough to fill
a Beatrix Potter sketch book,
this immaculate rat with rosé eyes;
handful of fur and bones,
clean as a white napkin.
She could out-pinky anyone in a tearoom
as she sits on her haunches,
delicately eating half a grape,
holding it like a prize trophy
in her Henry Moore hands.
Asleep In The Bath all Night
I woke, cold as a fish
and covered in goose-bumps.
My calcified lips and mouth
full of upturned needles left me speechless.
Above my nose, my wet black eyes
swivelled wildly in their sockets.
My arms retracted and my fingers,
now delicately webbed, trembled at my sides.
A ridge of spines arched from the small of my
back to the base of my neck; my legs contracted
and my feet fanned as, with my newly acquired
cold blooded and slippery resolution,
I shrank to the size of a man's thumb.
Become at last a stickleback, I dived
through the surface scum
of lime and guava bubblebath
to make this nest of hairpins
in which I hide from the cat.
Meeting the Creatures
Saw them at Wembley just the once.
Got two tickets because I liked the songs,
liked her more. As Gothic as at the beginning,
she kept charcoal round the whites of her eyes,
caked her lips in clay from eighty-three,
wore the slave collar that set her free.
A raven mini-dress. Pitch hair to pale skin.
He should have been irrelevant at the drum,
but after two hits I wanted to be him,
and not just because he got to sleep with her,
who'd become irrelevant when they let us hear
the new stuff, but just for the sheer
electricity he was banging at that kit.
I needed to be a part of it,
needed to smash the tom-toms into next week,
have my earring fly around, persistent wasp,
the perfect crash always just inside my grasp,
the snare roll a kind of lust.
So I had to tell Jayne it wasn't Siouxsie
who had me going. It was Budgie.
I thought she'd be pleased, take it easy,
but the ride we were on seemed to finish
that night, leading to times when we'd just punish
each other, then to nothing. There were other fish.
So yeah, I saw the Creatures, and they made
the things that go on between my dates
that little bit different. Not, you know, like Slade.