National Poetry Competition 2011
- Colette Bryce
- John Glenday
- Jackie Kay
To The Lighthouse
i The Window
It was Virginia’s charcoaled stare
that put me off: her disappointment
in me, the reader, before I even started.
So I walked into the exam without her:
without the easel, the skull or the shawl,
the well-turned stocking, Minta’s
missing brooch. In the hall I watched
the future show its pulse and all the girls,
the girls who’d read the book, set off
together, lined up at desks and rowing.
ii Time Passes
You need a daubière and too much time –
three days’ absence from the plot. Rump
bathed overnight in brandy, a stout red
brought back from France. The liquor’s
boiled once, added back to beef, calf’s foot,
lardons, les legumes. For six hours – or more –
it idles. It can’t be over-cooked. It will not
spoil. At table, a stream of consciousness
breaks out. And it rains. It rains. If not
the stew, what was the woman on about.
iii The Lighthouse
The year I gave the book another go,
[the year my mother died], I learned
everything big happens in parenthesis –
marriage, birth, The War, poetry. Is it the full
manuscript or just the bits in the middle
that count. Is it the woman at the window,
marking the hours, from cover to cover –
or these few lines: that as she eased out from
the bank and into the water the brackets
of it opened and closed about her.
In the end we turned him into a verb:
to pont meaning to pose in ice and snow
until frozen. On the voyage south he’d be
tilting plates in the darkroom, in one hand
the developing dish, in the other a basin
of vomit. One minute he’d arrange us
in groups for the cinematograph, then rush
to the ship’s side. Once Ponco roped up
his JA Prestwich over Terra Nova’s bow,
balanced on three planks. He lost the tip
of his tongue when it stuck to the camera
at thirty below. Corneas can freeze
to peep-sight. At one hundred degrees
of frost the film’s ribbon will split.
To pont would also mean pontificate. He’d insist
on reeling the film slowly to prevent
sparks. We’d rehearse the Pole Picture:
mount the camera on the theodolite tripod,
wind twine over the trigger and guide it
round a ski stick to get the direction right.
He’d instruct us on setting the shutter, how to
use a flash in the tent with quarter of an inch of powder
and F11. En route to the Pole I sent back
negatives with the support teams, a sheet
torn from my sledging log detailing exposure
data; how composed we were, how cold.
There is no dictionary for my father’s language.
His dialect, for a start, is difficult to name.
Even this taxi driver, who talks it, lacks the knowledge.
Some say it’s Pahari – ‘hill speak’ –
others, Potwari, or Pahari-Potwari –
too earthy and scriptless to find a home in books.
This mountain speech is a low language. Ours. “No good.
You should learn speak Urdu.” I’m getting the runaround.
Whatever it is, this talk, going back, did once have a script:
Landa, in the reign of the Buddhists.
... So was Dad’s speech some kind of Dogri?
Is it Kashmiri? Mirpuri? The differences are lost on me.
I’m told it’s part way towards Punjabi,
but what that tongue would call tuvarda,
Dad would agree was tusaana –
truly, though there are many dictionaries for the tongue I speak,
it’s the close-by things I’m lost to say;
things as pulsed and present as the back of this hand,
never mind stumbling towards some higher plane.
And, either way, even at the rare moment I get towards –
or, thank God, even getting to –
my point, I can’t put into words
where I’ve arrived.
It came to the point that she was weak
past climbing stairs and in the mornings
had to wash using the kitchen sink.
I went down Castle Street to Wallace Hughes,
Electrical and Hardware, to buy a bowl. The dark shop
smelled as always of paraffin and bare boards.
The bowl was cheap; a simple hemisphere
of thin white plastic with a rolled rim,
as white and round as the full moon.
Each morning I held her upright as her white hands
swam like little fishes through the warm water. The garden
was still flowering strongly that November. I watched her
gaze at the roses through two layers of glass.
I kept the bowl and use it now for ordinary things,
handwashing and catching drips. It’s as beautiful
as the moon or as a marble basin of clear water
with fish swimming in moonlight in a dark garden.
We spent our lives down in the blackness... those birds brought us up
to the light. – Jim Showell, Tumbling Pigeons and the Black Country
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:
concrete, steel, oily rainbow of the cut.
Ower streets am in yer wings,
ower factory chimdeys plumes on yer chest,
yer heart’s the china ower owd girls dust
in their tranklement cabinets.
Bred to dazzlin in backyards by men
whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.
Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white breathed prayer of January
and rolling back up like a babby’s yo-yo
caught by the open donny of the clouds.
Black Country / Standard
wench / affectionate name for a female
yowm / you are
cut / canal
owd / old
tranklement / bits & bobs or ornaments
onds / hands
jeth / death
jimmucking / shaking
babby / little child
donny / hand
We found a moment’s break between champagne
and seating-plan to bolt into the dark
and dusty mop-cupboard we’d clocked before
and though it had no lock you turned your back
then lifted up your dress and suffered me
to thumb your nicest pants aside and pop
the needle through your skin and push it in.
And this is what I’m thinking of up here:
the Best Man, dazzled, running out of speech,
rooting for the groom and bride, the fruiting
of their marriage bed. I cannot make you
out among the guests. You’ve been gone too long,
all undone in a too-bright cubicle.
Gentlemen and Ladies, raise your glasses.
If you are back and standing at the back,
your glass high, I can guess the tenderness
with which you lift the brittle thing and watch
its little bubbles making themselves out
of nothing, climbing the strings of themselves,
bursting infinitesimally and
becoming, nothing after nothing, air.
This is my daughter asleep in the morning,
one hand between the silvery poles
of her cot, that remind me of birch trees.
She’s going to theatre soon:
the surgeon will snap her ribs
to reach a heart which can’t wake
itself properly inside its blue forest.
She mustn’t eat. So when she stirs and calls
my arms down for the first feed, I turn
to the wall. She beats a fist,
the size of a large bee, into air.
Her feet swim faster as if racing
a blind snow flood,
and I am the snow. Later
it’s I who can’t reach
my child so far under,
her face a locked, white egg
in the thicket of tubes.
Helen Klein Ross
How to Furnish an American House
How to furnish old American houses (Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1949)
Our first problem is how to hide
as much as possible. We want nothing
distressed. Snakes on walls create
a restless feeling. Red is rarely suitable
in large doses. After dark, a panelled room
seems to close in upon us, but it is not
an oppressive sort of enfolding. Housekeeping
can be somewhat simplified by small rugs.
Do not make the mistake of painting
old hinges black. Oil portraits are effective
but little damage is done by simple pastorals.
Rooms should be friendly without abandoning
reserve. Insincerity often manifests
in over-ornamentation. The most elusive
quality is what we call charm. It cannot
be planned for deliberately.
Springtime of the Nations
A sympathiser advises a friend
The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies—the partying over—
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses. All
we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts,
and vowed never to let glass touch glass
again in Hungary. And so my friend—
I remove my drink from your pleasure
in my health—in due homage
to the twelve—the silence between us
heavy, ominous. In my hearing, glasses
will never chime. All through the night
they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.
It was terrible music to the demented.
The boulevards next day were ashen
with pollen. The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.
Our Lady of the Pylons
When she is re-designed, will we
still know she stands for us – that repeated
shape potato-printed, lino-cut, repeated
through the hills?
She gives herself away and away,
the aching weight of power hung
from each shoulder: her prayers hung
to each light switch. Grey paint
elides her figure to a burr
of cloud. She is waiting for the birds
to trust her. Lip-level with the birds,
their pointed banter all
the company she gets. Her shadow
laid on corn, on tar, on earth,
is levering the sun around the earth,
to explain the hollow landscape,
and her faint construction-lines
are the gateways to a sky. Hum for us
Our Lady of the Pylons, hum for us
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Little gas flame sparking in the mulch
Cog-tooth of a Scandinavian iris
Micro-totem to a god of shyness
Petrol bubble birthed from earthy belch
Tree kingfisher chink, shorn off mid-brawl
Driblet-beast from thirty fathoms down
Half-exploded teardrop of a clown
Alien seedling, sown amidst a squall
Blot made by a buggered cartridge pen
Bubblegum in Violet’s champion gob
Goblin bleach got worryingly smart
The genitalia of a very ill man
Lightning caught and boiled down to its nub
An arrowhead that’s softened to a heart