National Poetry Competition 2002

Judges

  • Simon Armitage
  • Suzy Feay
  • Selima Hill
  • Hugo Williams

Winning Poem 

Julia Copus
Breaking the Rule

I. The Art of Illumination
 
At times it is a good life, with the evening sun
gilding the abbey tower, the brook's cold waters
 
sliding past and every hour in my Book
a blank page, vellum pumice-stoned
 
to chalky lustres which my inks suffuse:
saffron and sandarach and dragon's blood,
 
azure and verdigris. Monsters and every type of beast
curl round the words. Each man here has a past,
 
and each man reasons for his faith. I wronged
a woman once and nothing I did after could atone
 
or throw a light upon the blackness of that deed,
whose harm lay in the telling, not the doing.
 
My floor is strewn with thyme and rosemary
to mask the odours of my craft – fish glue,
 
gum resins, vinegar and oils. With these I shape
the hosts of the redeemed, and every face
 
takes on the features of a face I've known
and every angel's face beneath the shadow
 
of its many coloured wings is hers alone.
 
 
II. The Art of Signing
 
There are ways among the stone and shadow
of our cloisters to transgress the Rule. We speak
 
in signs: a language with no syntax.
For the sign of bread you make a circle
 
with your thumbs and index fingers – like a belt
that presses silk against a woman's waist.
 
For the sign of an eel squeeze each hand tight
as one who grasps a cord of hair to kiss
 
that one mouth only in the frantic din
of the ale-house where we used to dance,
 
and later outside with the grainy dusk
unloading a sough of foot-falls in my ear,
 
our four feet shuffling together
and in time across the quiet earth.
 
The rhythm of my days goes slower now:
matins and lauds, vespers and compline.
 
For the sign of silence put a finger
to the dry muscle of your mouth,
 
the darkness that's inside it. Keep it there
 

Second Prize 

David Hart
Then in the twentieth century

Then in the twentieth century they invented transparent adhesive tape,

the first record played on Radio 1 was Flowers In The Rain by the Move,

and whereas ink had previously been in pots, now it was in cartridges.

 

They killed each other a lot and found ingenious and crafty ways to do it,

sometimes one person got killed, sometimes eleven, sometimes ninety-eight,

and some of the new equipment managed a million or more, it was, friends,

 

spectacular. Seymour, Foggy and Blamire gave audiences week by week

a chuckle, between 1941 and 1958 the New York Yankees won the world series

ten times, I did my A Levels, failed Physics twice, got Chemistry and Zoology,

 

and cycled a lot and drew maps. C. Day Lewis wrote a poem, The Tourists,

and George Steiner said, 'We must all learn to be guests of each other',

I decided, in making my own poems, against punch lines, and lost in stages all

 

of my upper teeth. Peter Sutcliffe in 1987 confessed to thirteen murders,

when I was young we had no television, but we did have ice cream in cones.

Redundant churches became clubs, community centres, galleries or homes,

 

the phrase 'The best thing since sliced bread' (or not) got into the language,

Sir Basil Spence won the competition to build the new Coventry Cathedral,

I was born by the sea then lived in cities, Matisse in his old age made cut-outs.

 

One afternoon at precisely four-twenty, on the corner of Corporation Street,

wearing old jeans and a new red jacket, sheltering in a shop front from the rain,

she saw a man stab another man to death, blood everywhere, people screaming.

 

Men quarrelled about scrolls found in pots near the Dead Sea, the library

at Norwich burned down, milk was pasteurised by law, I have four children,

all adult now, small islands became uninhabited, Harpo never spoke on film.


Third Prize 

Matthew Caley
Low Maintenance Roof Garden

We take the air of our low-maintenance roof-garden

this austere quad our best line of defence

from the smoky street where we hear arteries harden.

 

Honesty seems a new form of pretence

for here is hardly either Avalon or Eden.

Yet this gravel reach can seem a wild expanse.

 

We splay on deckchairs wilting in the sun,

as window-boxes bear the flowering quince,

the flowering plum. We live above neon, shop-signs, gargoyles, gorgons.

 

If you leap for joy do not leap over the fence

of our low maintenance roof-garden

as one did once and some have done so since.

 

The street below. The sky above. The garden inbetween

with only barren stones as any sustenance,

mica-chips, wave-smoothed glass, obsidian –

 

we lie on these hard stones doing penance

for not having a warm shoulder to cry on.

A shingle beach half way up the sky has the appearance

 

of the temporary. Yet we mark our territory aeon after aeon

and reacquaint ourselves with innocence,

lying between the stars and Municipal bins.

 

If there's anything to take we take it on sufferance.

Taking the air of our roof-garden.

It's night. We hear a noise. Pardon? What? The noise is silence

 

or dawn bringing the black hat of the traffic warden

to pin the law on the windscreen's crazy fluorescence

below. We sit tight in our low-maintenance roof-garden.

 

 Commended

Jonathan Asser
Something To Do

To lick each cobble in the mews, to feel

the individual curve against his tongue:

at night, when slugs are making love in compost;

foxes sifting air that's flowing off

the Camden Road, before they veer and trot

underneath rows of postal vans corralled

between divergent streams of railway tracks,

whose points are wishbones bathed in moonbeams.

Peace. The pylons have it, gravel heaps and tunnels

have it, stagnant pools, mountains of tyres.

 

Spaced out cars, untroubled by the shove

of congestion, glide everywhere on routes

of air. As if for practice, signals flit

from green to red and back again, observed

by flaking bark from plane trees, blackbirds thinking

through the small hours, chicken-flavoured cardboard

jamming storm drains. A student - salivating

on a biro - lit by angle-poise,

awake on coffee laced with Pro Plus, stares

beyond Nirvana posters at the licker.

 

Turned-down rest home televisions fizzle

over OAPs who've finally

dropped off. A leopard, currently a star

in nude revue on Wardour Street, is flipping

dustbins. Baby's mobile, dangling cartoon

heads above her cot, is still - a Disney

hippo looks at Daddy out the window,

crouching in his partner's nightie, licking

like there's no tomorrow, past the skip,

approaching 'Pets for Life' and '3X Vid'.

 

Commended

Julia Copus
Soft Parts

Paleontologists treasure the rare geological circumstances that permit an occasional preservation of soft parts. - Stephen Jay Gould


Perhaps there is some transcendental place,

some cove or niche

somewhere in which

the pouches, lobes and gills,

suckers, lips and tentacles

of countless ancient animals

endure. For bones are not much more

than relics really.

They are not the whole story:

a carpal or talus –

what can it tell us

of the monk-seal's passion

for sunbathing on sandbars,

the muntjac deer's

fondness for tea-leaved willow?

So little of a fellow

can be surmised

when only the brittle parts

survive, when all that was supple

has gone from a creature.

You see this with people

of a certain nature: even in life

the softness of their mouths,

their eyes and hearts

stiffen and harden

till nothing remains

to show us what they were,

that they were human.

 

Commended

Jane Draycott
What is held here

What is held here, weighing so little, keeps

close to the floor and where linoleum gives way

to wilderness, gathers in the shadows of stones.

 

The days pass like thieves, in the disinfection

of letters, the collective study of quarantine law

and the microscopic recitation of sand.

 

At the doors experts assemble for discussion

of germ theory and scum, and all the while night

like a ship at bay waits to present itself ashore

 

to pitch its tent of stars, the dome of its hammam

on which are printed all the ancient maps

of the lazaretto and the echo of your name in writing.

 

Beyond the window the world looks like a dream

where other men row their boats freely, turn

stones into bread, walk to the shops. Welcome.

 

Commended

Paul Feldwick
Coptic Street 

I want to be picked up by Terence Rattigan

in a second hand bookshop near the British Museum.

I want to be trapped in some narrow landing

between the bookshelves and a bannister

 

peering at an early edition of Louis MacNeice

in a neat dustwrapper of understated brown

and olive-green, its infrequently looked at pages

gleaming and tasty like a fresh made bed,

 

when I feel him brush against me,

smell the Trumper's cologne and the patina

of thirty years' Abdullah cigarettes.

I keep my eyes on the pink spines in front of me

 

as a steel-linked cuff and chalkstriped sleeve

slip under my arm and nicotine-stained fingers

trace a line from my throat to my left nipple.

His evening chin is rough against my neck

 

and the shop bell jingles for us as we pass

together, wordless, into the lamplit street where

women in fur coats blow smoke rings, and frost

gilds the roof of his midnight blue Jaguar.
 

Commended

Anne-Marie Fyfe
Novgorod Sidings

Virtual snow on the line, a starry

damask night, the train quits

the virtual station. Wellwishers

gather on the cinderpath. Knowing

 

how to say goodbye. Passengers

with tall hats in half windows alight

in the opening pages. A red signal

power-cut lasts an entire chapter.

 

But the couple are true; emerge from

lost strands. There is grey in her hair

now, cologne hangs in the lull

of stale compartments. Destination,

 

their long-shut summer-house. He carries

her portmanteau in one hand, an octave

mandola in the other. No need

of words. Luggage racks cleared,

 

supper-coach wicks snuffed. Unlit

factories, grain-stores, mosques dissolve

in the filter of darkness, past telegraph

poles, a lone traveller on a snow-stormed

 

bridge, isolated railroad hostels.

He notices she's lost an earring, one freshwater

pearl. A single motif. The rest is non-

linear and poorly focused. The engine

 

slows at the first tunnel, erases carriage

after relentless carriage from the frame.

 

Commended

MJC Harpur
Driving home 

I see the road-kill gourmets convene at dawn,

Magpies in white napkins, to taste pristine faces,

Rooks formally dressed, in long sideways skips

To test the insides of ears and lips, fawn fur

Still warm, gloss gone only from the eyes.

 

Each corpse shows where an occult route ran

Counter to the kerb. I count the milestones:

A white cat, rabbits, an owl gripping a vole,

A badger which bundled over the cat's-eyes

Not quickly enough. The day grows older.

 

The school-run strokes and combs them

Into ruts. They last longer on the B-roads.

On the main arteries shapes are wrecked,

Pelts whipped into nine-tails, empty gloves

Pulverised, all species devolved into mud.

 

Only a fox's ears survive the pantechnicons,

Still pert and vertical at noon they signal from its

Spreading map how flexible cartilage crows

Over failed bone. Each year it takes longer

To drive home, the place where I am still perfect.

 

Rain washes the gutters. Dusk wakens the fox.

The gourmets have gone to the keeper's gibbet,

Or tremble in flitters from roadside thorns.

This must be age, which I never saw coming:

Its face flies at me from the driving mirror.

 

A river mist noses across the night road.

I am on the last leg, the way familiar, the tar

Surface clear. The day's carnage is smoothed

Into molecules and metaphors, and memories

As warm as leverets, which refuse to move.
 

Commended

Helen Oswald
The Dark Skies Society

Less light was what they wanted.

Less light and a chance to look up

to see tonight's old stars shining

and dying. Dark skies and fewer

street lamps leaking Lucozade

into a space once reserved

for heaven, where they might glimpse

Venus opening her door a crack,

or, leaning out of an upstairs window,

overhear God making plans in verse,

honing the moon into half-rhyme.

 

They believed - and said they had proved it -

that light pollution could cause cancer,

near-sightedness, insomnia and for some

drug addiction. They understood the heart

needs a dark place to thump undetected,

to go underground like a badger, burrowing

its own blind streets, to back out unseen

into fields where the beet sweetens.
 

Commended

Alan Reid
Rain

We were saving electricity. There was only

the lamp-glimmer of bluebells on the table,

though it was dark outside: torrential rain

battering the windows fit to burst;

sky-rumblings; lightning's ghost-flash

passing on the walls, leaving behind

a spider-crawl sensation on the skin,

a gloom that boded ill.

 

Then later on,

about five-o-clock, a sudden brightening

as the rain stopped, and the earth was one great ear

listening to itself, intent and tuned

to oozings, seepage, to the wash and rush

of overflows.

Beribbonings of cloud

trailed across the sky. A flock of birds

whizzed by like arrowheads, falling away

into the glare-liquescence over Glamis.

The Dundee bus passed with a hiss of wheel-spray,

while I stood at the door and watched my father,

wet through to his vest, a fag lit, striding

home from work along a path of opals.
 

Commended

Neil Rollinson
Wildlife

You get addicted to the ink,

or the pain; one of the two.

When she came in here for that rose

 

on her shoulder, I might have known

it would come to this; years later,

her body painted from head

 

to foot in a thousand colours.

I read her now like a picture book,

a china vase, a dream of my own making.

 

I've pierced her ears, her nose,

put studs in her nipples,

a silver ring through the hood

 

of her clitoris. I've covered

her breasts with moths,

her thighs with dolphins.

 

Her back is a forest of shrubs

and birds, her arms are vines,

her belly a nest of vipers.

 

I've touched her where only

a lover should touch, have heard her sigh

in the cold November gloom

 

of my studio. I've felt her burn,

at the brush of a finger, and hardly

a word passed between us.

 

I think of her sometimes laid

in her bed, the buzz of my needle

still in her skin, a lover

 

tracing the braille of a new tattoo,

or holding her, gently,

amazed at the wildlife swarming

 

under his hands, how she moves

in the flicker of candles; or watching

her sleep, how he loses himself

 

in the richness and intrigue.

The journeys he takes.

The stories he finds in her skin.

 

Commended

Susan Wicks
The Meat Thieves 

'Drivers wanted. Thieves and alcoholics need not
apply.' Job ad in a butcher's window.
 
And yet we're good with meat.
Our agile fingers know how to pick
a crusted lock. Corn-fed chickens wait
quartered in the cold safe
in a fur of breath. Under our coats
we hide small finds—an ear, a stiffened wing,
a wishbone; rabbit's kidneys slide their satin eyes
into our pockets where the fluff congeals.
We can tiptoe through blood
and leave no footprints: friends will testify
we were far from this square of sawdust,
far from ourselves.
 
When we first saw meat
swing from your hook our hands started to shake
as we reached for the bottle. Now we stroke apart
the cutlets on their spine of bone. The marbled fat
is cool, the suet clean as candles;
mince curls like hair
from the greased machine. And each discarded heart
is a maze of hidden chambers, every valve
gasps open. In a gold wave
 
the sawdust swells underfoot:
all we can take is ours
 
and the getaway car waiting,
packed tight from roof to floor
with perishable goods. We'll part the air
in a screech of burnt rubber. While you turn
in your sheet we'll stitch up your town
with a zigzag of tail-lights,
hooting and whooping at a job well done.