National Poetry Competition 2007
- Michael Schmidt
- Penelope Shuttle
Through the Square Window
In my dream the dead have arrived
to wash the windows of my house.
There are no blinds to shut them out with.
the clouds above the Lough are stacked
like the clouds are stacked above Delft.
They have the glutted look of clouds over water.
The heads of the dead are huge. I wonder
if it's my son they're after, his
effortless breath, his ribbon of years-
but he sleeps on unregarded in his cot,
inured, it would seem, quite naturally
to the sluicing and battering and parting back of glass
that delivers this shining exterior
One blue boy holds a rag in his teeth
between panes like a conjuror.
And then, as suddenly as they came, they go.
And there is a horizon
from which only the clouds stare in,
the massed canopies of Hazelbank,
the severed tip of the Strangford Peninsula,
and a density in the room I find it difficult to breathe in
until I wake, flat on my back with a cork
in my mouth, stopper-bottled, in fact,
like a herbalist's cure for dropsy.
“I am absolutely delighted to be the winner of the 2007 National Poetry Competition, and amazed that my poem spoke strongly enough over all those other thousands of voices. And I feel honoured to follow in the footsteps of two other Irish women poets who have also won in the competition’s thirty-year history: Medbh McGuckian and Colette Bryce.”
The Hairdresser from Beirut
He's been here two years.
I wonder if the others ask
as I do not, why he left, or
of all places, why he chose
our well-meaning suburb.
We sit before his mirrors,
him behind, or to one side.
He’s still young, and slim
with a little belly. His hair
curls where it will. I ask
stupidly if he did this job
before he left, then answer
for him, of course, he’s not
had time to learn it here.
And that’s enough, surely.
If they were willing in Beirut
to leave their hair untended
they would have done so
more than once in his life,
career. But they are not.
A friend or enemy will see
to how you look, dead.
as you are, it’s up to you.
So Anne Frank writes ─
should she bleach the hair
on her upper lip? Once
a woman, and I knew her,
killed herself, her eyebrows
still sore from plucking.
Encore, Mr Fox!
monsoon oolong spoon ...
Reynard lies along the garden wall smoking.
‘I thought you were a cat,’ I say.
Reynard takes off his i-Pod,
sits up, arranges his brush:
‘Sorry, would you like one?’
And he takes out an egg-shaped case and opens it.
It’s full of feathers and chicken skin
twisted into the shape of cheroots.
He reads my mind: ‘Not as gross as they look.
Once you get the taste, no going back.’
And he flicks away the but and fits a fresh one
into a chicken’s beak holder.
And he parts his fur and shows me his tattoos.
Each one’s an episode of cunning starring him.
He says, ‘I really must get round to writing my life story.’
He says, ‘I’ve had the title for years:
With One Bound Our Hero Broke Free.’
And he takes down his red guitar,
wattle axe, rufous banjo, and he starts to sing:
‘Do You Remember Love?’ and ‘Even this City
Reminds Me of Another City
Under The Moon.’ He has me singing along.
Then he gets up and turns up the night
like an astrakhan collar and there’s just me;
backs of houses, some lit, others not,
fragments of code; and, on the garden wall,
a jar of white jam full of luminous fruits,
luminous wishbone fruits.
… sound of smoke rings in the night
I'd taken out the bones so that
he settled easily, dropping into a lazy S,
unless draped -as now- across a bench,
or hung - yesterday - from a branch.
Wherever I choose to rest and release
the weight of him, I am careful
to keep intact the parted tuft
of soft white hair.
I pitch camp and taste
the lichen-edge of billy water,
bite into a stale crust,
the sound internal of the jaw
working loud as feet through snow.
In the fly-cast drift, the hour-line
played out between my fingertips,
I wait for the river to tighten.
In the silence between each breath,
birdsong- hesitant; lacking a confidence
that will return, perhaps, when I am gone.
I collect myself, shake him out
in a slow wave, watch the crumbs scatter
and the dust rise, and shouldering him,
move on to the next town.
Coming Down to Drink
What beasts are these coming down to drink
at the shallow pools in the river bed?
The drought has drawn them out.
And now the herdsmen;
two, three. One squats; the others stand leaning
on their spears. They do not watch the herd.
Their eyes rest in space. A breeze rises, stirs
the grass - and memory. Where have I seen
these men before? and these elegant beasts
with outswept horns?
The squatting man now stands.
The herd is clambering back up the bank,
dry clods breaking away under their hooves.
This too is memory - as is the rain,
large drops at first, spattering the dust,
a sudden coolness falling on my arms.
Rachel A. Dilworth
VIII: The Magdalen
Cresting the gradual stairs in the Museo Del Duomo,
you come to the Magdalena, who is nearly a river
of hair. Here clothes, if they be clothes, Donatello
has ragged to tresses that leave her only more bare ─
snaking the bight of her thigh’s line, giving
rib into hip ─ in their tumbling watery upset.
How it engulfs her, how it falls and falls, this living
hair ─ this impression of restraint unkept.
How right, you think, knowing she simply caved
to abandon in that moment when she knelt
and wept. Standing, she looks not beautiful or saved
but tender, wretched, aching with all she has felt.
Supplication is want. Is this, you wonder,
what we feel before the devils go, or after?
First, Charlie Chaplin as a runner bean ─
there are seven of him. You can’t tell
which bean he is. They all have hats
and turned-up shoes, wear tight jackets
that are pulling, wrinkled slightly.
These look-alikes don’t make the catalogue ─
maybe Charles Jones who photographed,
arranged them side by side, had never
seen Charles Chaplin’s trademark pose?
The selectors don’t have any such excuse.
They chose the big brown onion, faultless,
looking like ─ a big brown onion.
Then, the war-wounded, second stage:
rescued, sea-rocked back to Blighty,
held in hospital - rawly shocked and ill,
no longer knowing how they’ll walk.
Instead, the catalogue displays them
at their third stage, wearing false legs
and stoic faces for the camera.
It leaves out the first photo: all seven
balanced on a long seat, side by side.
In blank space beneath the bench
one footless leg compels the eye.
Reflection, July 1938
All day and night you tread water
in a well, hear soldiers shooting,
burying groaning bodies
on the mountain. When the bucket rattles
down, you dive. Near dawn
an exhausted conscript shines a torch.
He’s drunk. Hello, he calls
in posh Moscow Russian. Hello, you mouth.
Disappointed there’s no echo, he frowns,
shakes his head. You frown, shake yours.
He smiles. You smile,
wave back until he gets bored.
After 'Much Ado About Nothing' Act II, Scene 3
I heard a shout from my master’s orchard.
Boy! a man called. He did not know my name.
Not my master ─ a guest called Benedick.
I ran to him. I said, Signior? I watched
and waited. In the window of my chamber
lies, he said, a book. Go fetch it quick
to me here in the orchard.
I am already here, sir. I said,
meaning I would be that fast. Instead
he showed his wit and said, I know
that, but I would rather have you there
and here again. And so I left, face full of blood,
and galloped to his chamber. At his window
was a glass, half full of honey beer,
a comb for his curls, a discarded hood,
and yes, the book - a golden glow
from its spine, and the smell
of its covers! - as if the calf were just killed.
I opened it. It was not my business
to open it. I opened it like the draw
of the curtains on my other master’s play
and saw the dark swirl, the characters
playing their parts, dancing on the floor
of the page, spouting words that May,
to those whose business
is reading, be heard through the book’s silence.
To those who do not have such talents,
this is a great magic. And so I closed
the book and ran back towards the orchard:
down the oaken stair; into the darkening garden;
through the arch of columbine and rose,
until I stood, alone, in that same orchard.
By Benedick and by William, I have been forgotten
and all that I will ever have said is
Signior? and Sir, I am here already.
My Year of Culture
After Kathleen Ossip
We’re walking home late from the theatre,
my lover and I. She’s wearing pearls
and a linen trouser- suit ─ it was a ‘well-made’ play.
Sweetheart, I say,
the writer drank snake blood for inspiration.
She flicks her tongue.
We’re lying in bed reading the supplements,
my lover and I. I’m wearing yellow socks;
the D.A.B. can’t find a signal ─ she hopes I kept the receipt.
Ma cherie, I say,
the static you hear between stations is an echo from the Big Bang.
She grapples the bed-clothes.
We’re in the Blake room at Tate Britain,
my lover and I. She’s using her catalogue
as a fan ─ it’s the hottest May since records began.
Hey, she says,
there’s nothing shameful about going naked.
I loosen my tie.
We’re drinking gins with tonic in the Opera House,
my lover and I. I’m wearing a russet silk suit
with matching Turk’s head cufflinks - we’ve seen Otello.
Sweetheart, I say,
would you take a pill that healed existential doubt?
She whistles through her teeth.
We’re in a gondola on the Grand Canal,
my lover and I. She’s wearing white jeans
and Ray-Bans ─ we arrived by train from Milan.
Hey, the gondolier says,
you want I show you the house of Lord Byron?
We shrug. We’ve seen it before.
We’re in the front row at a reading
by the next great Oulipo stylist,
my lover and I. She’s wearing yellow culottes
and orange Converse All-Stars - everyone here’s a writer.
Hey, she whispers,
what’s the optimum lexical density of a reading?
The poet delivers a poem made of snarls.
I have circled the planet.
Above the tawny land of my ancestors,
the Arc of the Covenant on its holy mountain,
I saw the inside of a cotton bag
yanked down over my head; at my wrists and ankles
percussion of steel, blood and the links’ negation.
Oh my grandfather in the Emperor’s palaces!
I have been freighted between the continents
like roses from Columbia, packed half-frozen,
secret above the cloud-layer. Calculate
the weight of my soul in food-miles, airfields, stars.
Wherever I was unloaded, it was the same
in tropical heat or frost, in the hood-blurred light
off whitewashed walls, in hangars;
the warders trained
by the same chalk-stripe men, in lecture rooms
I try to imagine: Powerpoint images,
role-play perhaps, with laughter, or simulation
on a mannequin sewn in India or Taiwan,
its hessian skin my colouring, my scars.
Ray Charles Visits Suite 1, Radiotherapy
Department, Christies Hospital, Manchester,
Looking at the ceiling day after day─
the Siemen’s air-conditioning vent,
protruding speakers, lights,
the sound proof panels,
she tolerated the radio’s
monotonousness until today
when, out of the blue,
Ray Charles dropped into the room
with ‘What’d I Say?’
and she followed his every word,
each bluesy chord,
the entire pulse of him
wondering how and why
he’d found her in England
after all these years
since the time she’d heard him
in California playing
that big arena in 1965.
Wow! He was amazing then
and was, she thought, pretty wonderful
today too, recorded, invisible, even dead
and probably no longer blind
since he’d had vision till he was seven
and might be able to see again
if there were any justice
her boyfriend has held
her hand that night
as if he’d been afraid
she might leave him
the way husbands put their arms
around their wives
in the waiting room
hoping the wives won’t die soon
and leave them and their children
alone the way she herself was alone
in the waiting room and now on the table,
till Ray came in ─
she wished she’d had her red dress on.