Winner 2003 - Patricia Lewis

 

Sourdough for Sara

Grandma's sleeves are rolled to the elbows.
Her fingers feather through
flour, salt, water, punch them
into sourdough plump as a baby's chuckle
as her mother had taught her.
And she tells us, her words dropping
like the thud of the dough
against the big earthenware bowl

that in those days she and Sara plodded
at her mother's side in a throb of heat,
that the wagon wheels beat up grey dust
that swirled like sparring wolves.
Lips dray as baked clay, necks larded
with boils they knotted blades of prairie grass
into fists for camp fires, boiled
water from the Platte where wiggle tails
scribbled their question marks;
baked lightnin' bread black as charcoal
outside, rubberized inside
in the cast-iron kettle.

And Sara, haloed in her white calico bonnet
sang as her reflection flowered river water,
sang as she squatted at the water bucket,
scrubbed the dish rag with lye soap;
sang till the first rasping rusted her voice,
till the first spasm jack-knifed her body
and the spurt of her vomit arced

into the dust. And Greatgrandma,
once past that small mound at the roadside
walked with lead in her moccasins;
talked with gravel in her throat;
saw Indians in the fire; heard hyenas
in her sleep; knotted prairie grass tighter;
boiled water for longer.

Punching, patting, folding, turning,
Grandma's fingers shape the dough
into a loaf, shape it to a letter S
as her mother had taught her.
Shape it for Sara.

 

 

 

Judge's comment:

like this poem for lots of reasons but mainly because the human heart of it feels so real and sharp. It moved me very much in the reading.

I like the feeling of the generations and the way the poem itself keeps the story alive, kneading it much as the grandma kneads the sourdough. I like the real details of the Oregon Trail -- the 'throb of heat', the 'question marks' of the wiggle tails, the 'lightnin' bread' you feel like you've tasted. I like the slow pace of the poem in the first two stanzas, where it builds up the scene almost pleasurably, but with those little ominous signs - the 'throb', the 'sparring wolves', 'the boils' the 'question marks'.

The poem is beautifully structured. The stanzas really work for it. The third stanza which both introduces Sara like a wee angel, and then destroys her, is shocking and powerful. She works the verbs to the hilt: sang, sang, squatted, scrubbed, sang, rusted, jack-knifed, arced -- and then the stanza break which takes Sara 'into the dust'. The understatement in the next stanza: "once past that small mound at the roadside" is wonderful. You don't know how old Sara was, or how old the Grandma at the time, but the 'small mound' suggests very young.

And then the verbs kick in again: 'walked with lead' , 'talked with gravel' 'saw Indians', 'heard hyenas', 'knotted grass ..tighter' boiled water...longer'. So much is not said, and part of the power lies in that. The rhythm in stanzas 4 and 5 gathers pace and energy. Stanza 5 is full of rhythmic tension. And then the final stanza, returning to the bread, with the verb participles preserving an ongoing action: "punching, patting, folding, turning' - it carries the poem forward to the bread, moving the memory of Sara with it and into it.

I think the last line is completely beautiful. I felt sure it was exactly what the Greatgrandma had said, 'Shape it for Sara'. I think the poem is also shaped for Sara, and shaped beautifully.

2nd 2003 - Andrew Smith

The Bedsit-Age

Ice is forming on the sheets as we sleep
two to a single bed. Cold air creeps
in nights beneath French windows.

It finds any gap to enter our room.
Never stalls in the face of such choice
but seeps in everywhere, chases warmth
to the high ceiling and settles down
on recent perspiration, setting it like a cast
as thin and breakable as lust at rest.

If we ever wake you know I'll break this tomb
of deep winter with a fire; reach a lit match
into the gas-oven's guts; spark its dull hiss.
You'll want me to wear my hat and coat
and snow-shoes on the frozen twists of cheap carpet
until the blue frenetic flames
have warmed the room enough for survival.
You'll throw the covers off in this new spring,
splashing in meltwaters, beckon me back.

 

Judge's comment:


I think this love poem has great charm and a lovely playfulness. The writer plays on sounds in a way I found very satisfying: 'sheets/sleep/ creeps/ nights'. Lots of internal rhymes and sound echoes, all very carefully placed and building the icy atmosphere. I like 'as thin and breakable as lust at rest'. I think you can almost hear the breathing.

I think the phrase 'If we ever wake' at the start of the third stanza is lovely, and there is a real-world bounce in the 'gas-oven's guts'. I like the way the imagery of the freeze works right through the poem - from the ice at the start, through the 'thin and breakable' cast, to the 'snow-shoes' and the blue...flames' to the final 'meltwaters'. And I like the title: not the 'Ice Age' but 'The Bedsit-Age'. It reminded me vividly of very cold rooms and very warm beds. It's also a happy poem -- and that's quite unusual. Recalls pleasure and love, not another dark night of the bedsit. I liked that.

Helena Nelson

Joint third 2003 - Matt Merritt

Yellow Bellies

It might as well be the sea, we say, and
gaze across wave after flowering wave.
These cinema skies, your eyes, the last
few days, inundated, never dry, and as

time, tide and rain play their restless push
and pull game, we are swept along to the
same sinking moment. Percolating from
every pore underfoot is the truth - the likes

of us were never cut out to cut loose. What
on earth kidded us all we needed was space,
when every molehill's a mountain in this
place? What should keep us awake nights

is not the bitterns, or the frogs, but the pumps
that can never stop. We pray, but we'll
wait for our Vermuyden until flitting day.
The huge horizon softens and dims, and

somewhere, we know, the ocean is rushing in.

 


Judge's comment:

I had to look up 'Vermuyden'. The fact that I didn't know the word did act as a barrier for me in this poem: I wasn't sure whether it was a place, a battle or a person. In fact, it's the man who reclaimed the fens in the 17th century, and after I knew that, I liked the poem very much. I didn't mind having to look him up either, but I do wonder about that barrier. I think this is a good poem.

At first I hesitated about all the commas in the first stanza, but I think the poet is trying to capture waves in the sound, because the wave movement continues into the second stanza and it is very controlled. If I have a misgiving about the poem though, it is the complexity of lines three and four. However, I like the way even the line breaks help control the rise and fall of sound: "..we are swept along to the/ same sinking moment". Like the Bedsit Age, I think the central metaphor (which is also a reality) is carried through beautifully.

I like the sharpness of the question in the third stanza, and the playful irony of the tone. I like the sound of the poem read aloud: it is very pleasing the way the 'say, save, dry, play, place, space, place, awake, pray, day' sounds ripple through the text. And the sound of the last words: "ocean is rushing in" is so very different that it is really scary, especially given that it was just 'the sea' in the first line, but by the end, the risk is 'the ocean' and the 'sh' sounds are like a great gush of water. No wonder they are 'Yellow Bellies'. Who would not be afraid in this environment?

Helena Nelson

Joint third 2003 - Robert Griffiths

Night Terror

At four am you scream from your dark bedroom,
our prisoner, our secret, our madman;
through the cold, purple night you scream
at the bleak tree-line and the dead moon,

and I struggle out of my own thin sleep
and slide from the tentacles of my nightmare,
to your room's muzzy, black, washed-out slop
of light, and breathe its searing air,

to find you face down inside god knows what
useless suffering makes you sob like this;
what knowledge has come knocking at this cot,
its chill straight off the wastes of bitterness?

All I can do is lift you out, and clamp you tight
to the ledge of my collar bone, and sit watching
the long night we both cower from, and wait
in the roofless, rained-on sadness of your crying.

 


Judge's comment:

Night Terror opens extremely well -- that idea of the baby as 'our prisoner, our secret, our madman' is very good indeed. Reminded me of Mr Rochester's wife in Jane Eyre, as it was no doubt intended to.

Again it's a poem in which sound works really well to knit the fabric, not only in the rhyming structure, but in assonance inside the lines. In the first stanza I liked the 'am, scream, bedroom, madman, scream, bleak, tree-line, moon' - these sounds build a mysterious gothic atmosphere. I am less certain about the second stanza which I think has too many adjectives for its own good, but I do like the third stanza which is sharp and effective. I like the knocking sounds in 'what knowledge has come knocking at this cot'.

I think the first three lines of the last stanza are perfect. Wonderful writing. The last line has a kind of beauty about it,a long mourning howl, but I think the earlier lines are better and that the end may be trying just a bit too hard. Having said this, I think it is a good poem, and one I would remember.

Helena Nelson

Best Local Poem 2003 - Martin Parker (Langtree Week)

The Pedal Car I Never Had That Won The War

When I was small it was a time of making do.
Of Ration Books that smelled of bacon, tea and butter
But promised little more than just their smell;
While fathers in proud, nervous ranks went off to war
And mothers darned and spent their days in queues;
When cars and tricycles and metal toys,
Forgone for bullets, bombs and submarines,
Existed only in a boy's imagination.

Only in dreams was it a time of pedal cars -
And mine was red and sleek and very fast,
Kept hidden in a garage in my head,
But real enough for me to hear and feel
Each time I filled the garden with its roar
And thrilled the crowds with speed records every day.

And, while I dreamed, the pedal car I never had
Was dropped with ill-served heroes over Arnhem,
Rained terror for terror on Berlin,
Slid, silent, under fiords to mine the Tirpitz
And saw the old world end beneath Enola Gay
To make a new one where small brothers could have cars.

By which time I was far too big for one;
And old enough to learn that winning wars
Is so much less like winning than it ought to be
To those who hope for dreams.