National Poetry Competition 2010
- Sinéad Morrissey
- Deryn Rees-Jones
- George Szirtes
Robin In Flight
Let’s imagine for a second that the robin
is not a contained entity moving at speed
through space, but that it is a living change,
unmaking and remaking itself over and over
by sheer unconscious will, and that
if we were to slow down the film enough
we would see a flying ball of chaos,
flicking particles like Othello counters,
air turning to beak in front just as tail transforms to air behind,
a living being flinging its changes at a still universe.
This would require infinite alignments. Each molecule
privy to the code of its possible settings,
the capacity of a blade of grass to become
the shadow of a falling apple by pure force
of the tree’s instinct. Every speck of world with the potential
to become stone, dog’s breath, light twisted through glass,
filth under fingernails, the skin’s bend at the bullet’s
nudge the moment before impact,
the thought of a robin in flight,
the thought of the thought of a robin in flight.
On winning, Paul Adrian commented: "The National Poetry Competition is wonderful in its democracy: open to all, professionals and amateurs alike, and judged anonymously, it focuses solely on the strength of the poetry. The calibre of the past winners is truly intimidating. Winning it is a bewildering, terrifying honour, and a tremendously flattering endorsement. It felt like somebody snuck into my head when I wasn’t looking and rearranged all the furniture. I’m waiting patiently for the judges to realise their mistake."
Joint Second Place
I give you my wish; my half of the bird’s
fused clavicle picked clean of flesh. I give
you its winged thinness and its seed head curve
to stand for everything I own and love.
And though I want it most to be the one
that brings you back as surely as the bird
that turns for home, it isn’t that.
Nor is it the unearthed bone from Grimm
that speaks the truth and knows its provenance;
but only what we’ve taken from the supermarket hen
we cooked for lunch. Still, it’s this
they say will bring you all you long for.
But if that doesn’t happen, know that every bone I have
is for you a wishing bone and every wish,
for you, the best there is. And if
when it comes down to it and we’re all done
the bone is all that’s left, I’ll give you my tibia
and fibula, the femur, knuckle, pelvic girdle, skull,
this finger with its ring on, spine that holds me up,
every part in fact of the empty cage that’s held
the inner workings of the heart, the breathing lungs.
Joint Second Place
A History Of Glassblowing
The records show that in Shanghai
at the end of the Yuan Dynasty,
the year 1364, a glassblower blew
a mermaid that came to life, and swam
away. And in Cologne, in 1531, a team
of glassblowers blew an orchestra,
instruments and all, and these played.
Then on Hokkaido, in 1846, a blind
monk blew his own Buddha to pray to,
and the next day he was able to see.
In Natchez, in 1901, a glassblower
blew a paddleboat with gamblers in it,
one of them lying dead. And in Oaxaca,
in 1929, a small version of the Sierra
Madre was blown, with golddiggers
on its lower slopes, and the whole
town filled with gold. In Letterkenny,
in 1965, a woman blew a flock
of glass sheep, wool and all, each
of them with a tinkly baa. In 1993,
in Séte, the harbour glassblower
blew a lighthouse with its own light,
and in 2004, in Timisoara, three
glassies blew a new solar system
that they let float up and away.
Visiting The Country Of My Birth
The tyrant and his wife were exhumed
For proper burial; it is twenty years since
They were shot against a wall in Christmas snow.
The fish in the Black Sea are dead. Waves roll them
To the beach. Tractors comb the sand. We stand at water’s edge
Whispering, glassy-eyed, throats parched from heat.
Stray dogs howl through nights like choirs
Of mutilated angels, circle around us on hill paths,
Outside gas stations, shops, streets, in parking lots.
Farther, into wilderness, we slow down where horse
And foal walk home to the clay hut by themselves,
Cows cross roads in evenings alone, bells clinking.
People sit on wooden benches in front of their houses,
Counting hours until darkness, while
Shadows of mountains caress their heads.
On through hot dust of open plane, to my village:
A toothless man from twenty years ago
Asks for money, says he used to work for us.
I am searching for prints of mare’s hooves in our yard
Between stable and kitchen window, now gone
With the time my two feet used to fit inside one hoof.
We sit down to eat on the porch when two sparrows
Come flying in circles over the table, low and fast, happily!
‘My grandparents’ souls’ I think aloud, but my cousin says:
‘No, the sparrows have nested under eaves, look
Past the grapevine’. Nests big as cupped hands, twigs
And straw. Bird song skids in the air above us.
Into still-remaining rooms no sewing machine,
Or old furniture with sculpted flowers on walnut wood.
No rose bushes climbing to window sills, outside.
And here, our water well, a vase of cracked cement. Past
Ghosts of lilac, pear, and quince in the sun-bitten yard I step
On re-imagined hooves, pull the chain, smell wet rust.
Unblemished sky ripples inside the tin bucket,
Cradled in my arms the way I used to hold
Warm goose eggs close to skin so not to break them:
‘The earth will remember you’ my grandparents once said.
Here, where such dreams do not come true, I have come
To find hoof-prints as well as signs from sparrows.
ju ju baby
John Canoe you come with me
I show how danger fly like upside down bird
like woman jumping from high perch where she no right to be
into your crumpled bed
John Canoe she not for you she marble and stone
when moon shine in churchyard she darkness and witchwoman
and you going Ice-fishing? I C E – F I S H I N G ! !
I laugh till I fall out of tree Wait let me paint picture
you drive north in her car lazy turn wheel
arm draped over like you already conquer both of them
she lay her hand so touching on your knee
you skid in snowdrift slip on frozen lake nobbled and glum
stepping from coo coo warmth to gasping winter breath
pay big money for wooden shack and you all humble!
my ex-man humble like butter on hot day
as you pick up bucket of bait all wormy smiles no teeth
pick up hatchet thermos with half-warm coffee
two apples what else we see? two chairs one lamp
one small window one-fishing rod one person laughing
one hole in ice speaking with splashes moans little lapping sounds
fish tonight she say voice melting like onions and crayfish on beach
as you sit over hole in ice take turns hold the rod
though only thing you maybe catch is raw-scaled muskellunge
someone throw back cos it got lamprey
Okay John Canoe we skip next two hours
Tempus no fugit here it drag the feet like no good water-snake
When I green-minded look again through window
what do I see? two lovebirds? two cute kissy kissy mouths
bunched up with sweetie-pie? two happy people?
No! you’se holding stick with empty fishing line
drinking beer clumsy as astronaut dressed up in pile
of Chinese laundry maybe she plan some serious ironing
What she give you? you ask yawning if you eat bait eat six bait?
Eat twelve she say I want see tails hang out like you is greedy pelican
I drift away crouch in pine tree till that Tempus fugit boy speed out
like lovesick bullfrog like nine months go already
John Canoe you put your fishing line in big bad place
wait till ju ju baby come like astronaut like Michelin man
with black hole face webbed fingers
lamprey grin little tiggly wiggly tadpole tail
Boy With A Knife
He was standing in the middle
of the field, throwing a knife
from hand to hand: the boy
Mr Marshall brought down
at weekends – whispered
to be let out from a borstal.
We heard thumps and squeals
coming from their caravan.
I was told to keep away from him.
But I liked wounded things:
a baby rabbit the cat brought in;
birds with broken wings.
As I got closer, he aimed the knife
into a clump of Lady’s Smock,
spearing a frog.
‘Present,’ he said,
dangling it by the leg.
He looked down at my feet:
at sandals I’d woven from reeds
to look like the Roman sandals
in my history book;
at bare toes like a row
of tiny bald creatures
pleading for their lives.
The Sleep Of Wasps
For days I have watched them
in their roadmender jackets
heads to the wall, airborne and air-born,
threading a crack, touch-feeling
a route into the ventilation grille.
One evening I puff a cloud inside.
When I look next day, their house
is made of paper, stalked like a brain
cased snugly in the wall-void.
Their bodies parked, as if in
a port of delicate craft, after
a sandstorm, or as if touched
by sleep, the dust they folded under.
I brush away the poison
and unhang the paper lantern
and as I hold it a breath of wind
blows its roof away to show
its inner tissues, the pupae
responding inside their cells
like baby’s fingers.
I call my son to see this—
this stillborn blindness that will not live
and he tells me to put it away.
Standing with him in the sun
this white powder coming down on us
is only sunlight, through puffs of cloud.
But those grubby digits he had seen
reached towards the light we stood between.
When I let the chickens out, I hurl mixed corn
in a golden arc across the frosted ground.
I know it’s junk, they shouldn’t have it, they don’t
need it, but everyone deserves joy somewhere.
I’ve been looking for something I once had and miss
and want again. I meet him in the beach café.
He has soup. I sip tea. He has over-wintered
vegetables on his allotment. I see it on his hands.
I imagine all that soil on my body. Sometimes
you know what’s bad for you, might be good.
I phone my mother every morning to start her day
- the way she knows it’s me, the way she says,
hello dear, before I’m speaking. She needs someone
to complain to. A mother is a precious thing. I know that
now I’m sure to lose her. She’s losing nouns and I have
to rummage in my brain to help her find them. I tell her
yesterday I thought I’d lost a dog and lost my voice calling.
I found her back at home, shaking, not sure if coming home
was good or bad, or neither, or both. There’s no reward
for coming home if no-one’s there, no one you love, no-one
to put out a hand, or smile to see you. My mother knows
and tries to hold me in her voice. Mothers do what they can.
Sometimes they don’t get much to work with. She knows
I’ll chase that golden arc, hoping for the joy in it.
I hope so much, hope the wine, the food, will taste
as it’s supposed to, hope that friends will stay,
their elbows on the table, The Low Anthem singing
To Ohio across the garden, where all those flowers
I fell in love with will be just a promised on their packets:
night scented stock, musk mallow, lunaria, pale phlox.
In this falling dark, when hens shuffle on their perches,
I hold my breath, listen to the sound of my loud heart.
Read the dictionary, and you will learn such things about human
pleasure as will make your hair curl. – Les Murray
Like that pleasure itself is a verb
both transitive and reflexive –
the pleasuring in, and the pleasuring of.
Like that the English fucked a century
before they made love, and the prim Victorians
first found need to give names to erogenous zones.
Like that the ivory orb, of some contraption
called an anal violin, strung with catgut,
was plugged into pucks, and bowed from the Orient
to the Ottoman Empire singing
like boy sopranos. And that sacred grounds
have sacred names, less whispered than
sweet nothings between stones. Like that
the bill and coo of flickered contact’s said
to burn the lips, a thousand times more hot
and tantalising than thirst, and that
secrets vanish from the fingertips
like guttering match flames or a skittering
artery’s pulse. Like that the breath, when hollowed
from the lungs and cabined in the throat,
seems to shovel cyclones in the ribs, and the taste
of skin at naval, clavicle, and hip
is chartable to tongues as deep-water channels
to a night-rigged ship. That spasm recalls
drawn swords and cords wrenched from their rings,
and frenzy fires the brain. Bucking is the habit
of male deer, and writhing draws a crooked
swerving veil. Breathless disperses steam,
through contortion’s knitting. Electricity’s
an alloy of silver and gold. And crackling
resounds. Shivering splinters. Quivering’s
a guitar tremolo fluttering over bellyskin,
and the kick kick kick of a snaredrum’s roll’s
like javelins spiking into consecrated earth.
John Wedgwood Clarke
None of us can be with you as you prepare.
You send us out for a walk. It’s been
raining for hours. I keep looking back
for cars down the lane, but it is only
the streams gunning for stones
along the edge of the loch. Overhead
the glass insulators on power lines
measure the rush of the sky with their
frozen rings of mineral stillness, blue
as Glacier Mints. The day walks all over us,
but still we listen, still we arrive at
the small point, the static caravans, windows
dark as teapots, smoky fingers, old
photographs by an eddy of gold baubles
spun under a carriage clock. The burn
brims with the tide, held up, full
and coiling in the lea of the point,
the mountains and clouds in its mouth.
fresh water floats; you can see it
mixing, the skeins and clouds of translucence,
smoke from an icy fire. You were always
‘emptying the waters’ down at the shop
to keep us afloat, sliding brimful trays
of condensation from under the fridges,
balancing planes of water before
pouring them into a galvanised bucket.
The lights of the nuclear submarine shed,
on the other side of the loch, flicker
through a squall. Dusk. It will be soon.
It will never come. The radar, among birches
beside the lane, spins silkily, spins its
disappearing web to the hiss of propane
from a mildewed cylinder. Like scales
from a golden fish we never caught, or
an unplayable stave of notes, birch leaves
shine in the green-black gloom, ineffable
as your stubble, a kiss from the darkness.