2013 Poetry Winners
1st – Sharon Black, France – Los Girasoles, Catalonia
2nd – Sharon Black, France – Just Married
3rd – Claire Kirwan, Cheshire – Running the Hot Again
4th – Peter Cash, Stoke-on-Trent – The Doubting Thomas
5th – Roger Elkin, Staffordshire – Affinities with Fire
Short Listed and Commended (in no particular order)
Fiona Bennett, Gloucestershire – Fisherman’s Wife
Stephen Wrigley, E. Sussex – Haircut
James D. Taylor, Lancashire – Robbed
Diane Cook, Cheshire – When Love Was A Jewel
Keith Shaw, Somerset – Dolly
Heather Hart, Surrey – Physical Science
Stephen Wrigley, E. Sussex – Signature
Pat Borthwick, Yorkshire – In Praise of a Very Old Olive Tree
M V Williams, Shropshire – Unaccounted For
Melanie Marshall, London – Unexpected Sorrow
Alison Hill, Middlesex – Crushed Velvet
Pat Borthwick, Yorkshire – Marbles
Roger Elkin, Staffordshire – Peony
Alison Hill, Middlesex – Stitching the Light
Martin Thorne, Derbyshire – Jumping for Joy
Kate Compston, Cornwall – Le Jongleur
Fiona Bennet, Gloucestershire – Scarlett Lips
Pat Borthwick, Yorkshire – Umbrella
Kate Compston, Cornwall – For Now
Comments from Simon Jackson our 2013 Poetry Judge
Rarely have I been greeted with such a diverse, interesting and thoroughly readable selection of poetry. From the unsettling fairy tale, Le Jongleur, to the satirical GM/modern art ballad, Dolly; from unconventional love poems like Robbed (I married a burglar./ He had nice
teeth for a thief), the well-crafted villanelle, Physical Science (It splits my atoms when he smiles at me) or For Now (I’m saying nothing./ There have been too many words) to devastating meditations on loss such as Signature, Unaccounted For, Umbrella or Unexpected Sorrow, and the loving list of Marbles’ names I want to roll round my mouth like the smooth baubles they describe:
‘Tongue’s Lick, Cat’s Eye, Onion Skins, Knuckle Downs, Ribbon Cores, Dragonflies’.
It is a sign of the growing popularity and status of the competition to have such a fine selection.
Of the five varied poems that make up the prize winners, all are worthy of first place, and I have changed the order pretty much daily for over a week. However, I am now happy with my hierarchy, so here they are, in reverse order.
5th Affinities With Fire. A witty, moving description of a day out with the poet’s father, who is so well painted I felt I knew him. The language is sharp, creative and vivid – Dad ‘unzagged the three-sided screen’, and full of jokey images and allusions, comparing their Sunday jaunt in the country to Arctic expeditions, the stove being ‘Primus inter pares’, and Dad’s comment on it’s fire being, ‘Sheer poetry that’, foreshadowing the ending.
The last line, however, while reminiscent of great poems about generations and writing (such as Seamus Heaney’s Digging) is an overly romantic an image of poetry for me and weakens the whole.
In fourth place is the ekphrastic poem, The Doubting Thomas (1603), named after Caravaggio’s painting. It follows in the footsteps of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts (and the first example, in Homer’s Iliad, describing the shield of Achilles) in using a work of art as inspiration. Like Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, The Doubting Thomas goes beyond describing the painting, to illustrate a deeper truth for our times.
It starts with the striking opening statement: ‘ The men around Him/are rough trade’. This sets the first half of the poem up to question the sexuality of Jesus, ‘a ‘lover of men’, you might say’ (just as Caravaggio was), the eroticism of the crucifixion, the piercing of iron nails and the spear…
‘…his right fore-finger
examines the nail-holes
with the surgical precision
of a sceptic’
And here is the turn, the reason Doubting Thomas has ‘been envied/ ever since’. That he was able to trust ‘the miracles/ of his five senses’, without needing that sixth miracle, faith. It is the inability of future generations to decide from their five senses that has led to centuries of schism and debate.
‘Does so much stuff/ ooze from the picked scab(…)?’
A thought provoking poem that would be higher in the results if the themes of the first and second half married better.
Running the hot again is in third place, a strong, seemingly straight-forward description, in the first
person, of a plumber. You quickly have a real feel for his preferences, his personality, his size:
‘Strong tea in mucky cups and all the biscuits, good spanners, plenty of banging…
I like to claim a house by walking in, commanding, filling it with the scale of me, the scattering of tools.’
On first reading it seems well wrought but simple, even stereotyped, until the real narrator’s voice breaks through, the sexually repressed, middle-class lady whose house he has taken over. It is her thoughts of the plumber that drips into, and clouds, the first person narration.
‘My grip/ is ardent, physical and sure – not for/ the likes of you, love.’
Much deeper, more complex emotions and issues of class, hierarchy and attraction are opened, especially by the last line:
‘I make You feel guilty in ways you can’t explain.’
My favourite poem, right from the first reading, was ‘Just Married’. This is a perfect, pearl of a memory of young lovers pretending to be newly-weds on an exotic vacation.
‘I wore a trinket on my finger,
you wore your arms around me
as I signed the guest book Mrs Duncan.’
Undoubtedly erotic, yet imbued with the innocence of youth and almost religious optimism of young love.
‘Your tongue parting me like a confession’
I particularly liked the final stanza, the cherry ‘juice dribbling/ onto the chaste white sheets/ like a first time.’ It leaves us with an image of sacrifice and erotic love (as Graves said, ‘Cherries of the night are riper/ Than the cherries pluckt at noon’).
There is not a wasted word.
However, the vaulting ambition of Los Girasoles, Catalonia wins it the first place. It touches on so many themes – birth, aging,
death; nature and its transience; art; the holocaust. The language is vivid and the imagery rich and effective: ‘fig trees heavy/ as clouds of purpling rain… honeyed walls… land glowing with the tan of late September’.
Very different to the images of the sunflowers, ‘heads bowed, limbs brittle/…wiped out/ by the labour camp of summer’. These resemble the crone in Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman, not the younger woman and child, ‘pale fruits on sun-flushed sheets’.
We try to forget the uncomfortable; age, infirmity, the death camps; the old lady is cut from the author’s print, the sunflowers burnt, the
slaughtered forgotten, but something still clings on, ‘even as the thunder breaks/ and the rain begins its slow applause.’ A beautiful closing line, echoing the fig trees in the opening.
1st Place – Sharon Black for “Los Girasoles, Catalonia”
Through vineyards, past fig trees heavy
as clouds of purpling rain,
and oranges spilling over honeyed walls,
the land glowing with the tan of late September –
I stumble into fields of sunflowers.
Heads bowed, limbs brittle,
they are wiped out
by the labour camp of summer, forced to stand
ten thousand deep
as the season passes sentence.
I think of Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman,
mother and child pale fruits on sun-flushed sheets,
the grandmother crooked towards them,
all protruding joints and hardened abdomen,
all stained and sagging flesh.
In the print on my wall, the crone
has been cut: all that remains is a fist reaching
into the scene as if grappling to pull
the withered body back into the frame –
an instinct as strong
as a newborn struggling up an Everest of flesh,
or an old flame clinging
to the stumps of last month’s harvest
even as the thunder breaks
and the rain begins its slow applause.
Sharon Black is originally from Glasgow but now lives in the Cévennes mountains of southern France. In her past life she was a
journalist and taught English in France and Japan. In her current one she runs a holiday venue and organizes creative writing retreats.
Her poetry has been published widely. She won The Frogmore Prize 2011 and Envoi International Poetry Prize 2009, and was runner-up in the Wigtown Book Festival Poetry Competition 2011. Her collection, To Know Bedrock, was published by Pindrop Press in 2011. www.sharonblack.co.uk
2nd Place – Sharon Black for “Just Married”
In a cheap hotel in Patara
we pretend to be newly-weds:
I wore a trinket on my finger,
you wore your arm around me
as I signed the guest book Mrs Duncan.
They gave us their best room,
champagne, Madonna lilies,
a bowl of cherries on the dresser.
Later you set them on me from neck to navel
and bit them off, prising fruit
from the stone, the last one clenched
inside me, your tongue
parting me like a confession
onto the chaste white sheets
like a first time.
Please see above.
3rd Place – Claire Kirwan for “Running the Hot Again”
Strong tea in mucky cups and all the biscuits,
good spanners, plenty of banging – that’s what I like
about being a plumber. I thrive in plaster dust
and water. I live by inexact measurements.,
the bending of pipes and rules. I love the glint
of copper in the morning, you answering
the door timid, half dressed. I like to claim
a house by walking in, commanding, filling it
with the scale of me, the scattering of tools.
I like to leave my mark upon a place:
a greasy finger, an error in the grouting,
persistent drips. Strong tea, strong views –
and no-one argues, just the young apprentice,
compulsory and sullen, someone else to blame.
Yes, blame and drains and the satisfying flush
of labour on a scorching afternoon, radio blaring
and running the hot again for no good reason
but the love of steam and the whistle of pipes.
I’m a big man – I built this bulk and muscle
through the repeated use of brute force,
beer and chip shop dinners. My grip
is argent, physical and sure – not for
the likes of you, love. I live another life.
I send you tottering off in your high heels
to hardware stores to ask fixtures
you don’t understand. I’ll talk sport,
the weather, what’s wrong with the world,
the wife. I’ll slip occasionally into
philosophy – dripping my pearls of wisdom,
colouring the waters, clouding them.
You see me eye your extra virgin oil,
pretty garden: women’s things. I make
you feel guilty in ways you can’t explain.
Clare Kirwan performs as part of Liverpool’s Dead Good Poets Society and her work appears in a wide range of journals and anthologies
including The North; Iota; The Found Poetry Review; Binnacle; Orbis; MsLexia and Sculpted - Poetry of the Northwest. Her first collection: The Silence Museum is published this year. She also writes short fiction. www.clarekirwan.co.uk
By day she works in a library – like Batgirl.
4th Place – Peter Cash for “The Doubting Thomas”
The men around Him
are rough trade
- the same peasants who appear
in Supper at Emmaus
where Jesus (who never married)
in a solipsistic way
- ‘a lover of men’, you might say.
(who was not at the supper)
has asked other apostles
what he missed:
as a naïve realist,
he is of little faith
until he has seen and touched
So, a tactile vision:
his right fore-finger
examines the nail-holes
with thesurgical precision
of a sceptic
whom nothing convinces
xcept for the miracles
of his five senses.
Does so much stuff
ooze from the picked scab
has to fetch a swab
away the vinegar-brown
of the ecretion?
Here, the Doubter
is won over
by the raw experience ….
Hasn’t he been envied
5th Place – Roger Elkin for “Affinities with Fire”
Dad reckoned that if Amundsen could lug this trinity
of matches, parafin and Primus stove to Antarctica,
and Mallory, Hilary and Tenzing them to Everest,
they were Just the ticket for our Sunday country-jaunt:
so, parking-up, he unloaded his biscuit tin with tight-fitting
lid; unzagged the three-sided screen he’d Sellotaped from
cereal box; and unpacked his Primus (brass tank never let empty)
tripoding through spirit-cup, and on and up to burner ring,
its metal braised with rainbowed-greyey-brown.
While Mum busied the girls unpeeling greaseproofed packs
of sandwiches, we lads were set to register the manly things,
Dad’s affinity with fire: a flickering swish of match, its red-pink
head scratched to spluttering flame then angling till settling
to steadiness ready for putting to the burner jet. Breaking
into smile, Dad pronounced, Sheer poetry, that.
And then, Look, lads, this doesn’t hurt, as, dancing flame
running up his skin, his split-licking finger and thumb snubbed
out its glare with a sizzing nip. Next he set to pumping stove
in a liquid rhythm that pressurized the paraffin through tube
and rising pipe to the primed-up burner where,vapourized and
spraying via the jet, it took in air, till flowering in bluey sootless
flame comfortably phutting under Mum’s aluminium kettle.
once the brew was made, Dad put the Primus aside to cool
before stacking his tranklements inside the Ford Cortina.
Decades later, side-lining Dad’s spit-licked-fingers game and joshing
with my kids, Primus inter pares, I wonder if they’ll find like me
their own affinities with fire: the poetry flame that hurts …
Roger Elkin's poetry has won 45 First Prizes and several awards internationally, including the Sylvia Plath Award for Poems about Women. He has 10 published collections, including Fixing Things (2011); Marking Time (2012); and Bird in the Hand (2012); and 4 more being considered. Editor of Envoi magazine, (1991-2006), he received the Howard Sergeant Memorial Award for Services to Poetry (1987). A published critic on Ted Hughes, he was shortlisted for the Bloodaxe New Blood publication (1987); and the 2003 Strokestown; and 2007 Keele University Poetry Prizes. He is available for readings, workshops and poetry competition adjudication.