1st Prize: Cynthia Miller
To become a dragon first wear its skin
When she married, my mother wore a cheongsam
of red silk bright as a bolt of dragonfire. Her mother
tipped her from the bath and poured her into it, all
brimstone brilliance and the hottest part of the flame.
The tailoring perfect, each button knotted and curled
like a dragon's whiskers, and she liked that it was a touch
demure but slitted high enough on the thigh to turn heads.
The cool material felt like slipping out at night
to lie on your back in the sea, or the drawn-out pleasure
of a cigarette after sex, sheets pooled in the sticky heat.
Shoes, of course, buckled dragonskin. Imagine a bride,
knowing she could swallow any man whole. And later,
imagine a newlywed, packing a bag for his things
(coarse denim jacket stinking of hay and Oreo nicotine smell),
and finding the cheongsam at the back of the wardrobe,
pressed and forgotten. She cards her fingers through
whispering tissue, remembers the dress clinging like smoke.
Imagine memory as a whetstone. She sharpens herself on it.
2nd Prize: Dena Fakhro
It began in my teen-age years – furtively – fumbling the wrap of
a pack of blue Stuyvesant as I slipped out the corner shop.
They came with a warning inspiring wanton thoughts –
bad seeds planted by films and glossy magazines.
Extensions of sullen pouts sat worldly in my brown
suede pocket like a feather-weight bullion block.
The first time was two o’clock – lounging – an empty room,
elbows propped on long table, palms under chin,
pack tossed on newspaper, headline I forget
sneering at phantom guests and breathing oak from floors
or relishing the absence of others – a box bathed in autumn
light filtering from French windows.
Mosaics on armchairs stained where hands had brushed,
tinkering of piano keys – flat notes shrill beneath the touch –
I peeled off the red ribbon tie, unfurled the plastic vest
which I bunched into a fist and tossed aside.
Flicked open cardboard hinge, smelt sweat beneath foil
sleeves, I tugged at the cover and saw a soldier’s hands.
Tan-yolked on top, egg-white below the compact sponginess
of fine ground autumn leaves – packed long-stemmed fingers
of praying hands – I plucked a digit ripe clean from the bunch,
tasted tip on lips and tongue before the long drawn kiss.
Sucked through pursed lips, lit the nail end of a long dry ashen
thumb choking a cloud which melted with my head in giddiness.
It blew wars into my mouth, fired pepper-spray to the back
of my throat in a long, delicious, burning rush.
I drew down fire into lungs punched drunk with corruption,
washed out spume on a sigh, lime and effervescent
like dragon’s breath, fingers and tongue tarred from
my smouldering kiss with those burnt and falling trees.
3rd Prize: Robbie Frazer
192 miles with Carla
I put my signboard in the back seat
and we tacked through the fleet of trucks
in the parking lot and onto the
hot open road. She looked dry.
Where you goin’?, she’d asked;
lips and beef jerky: I’m Carla!
Her jaw, blade straight, softened in powder,
her earrings swinging, one-handed.
Her face was smooth and pale, no hair;
her colours borrowed from elsewhere,
she smelled of meat and sweet freesias.
Pleased to meet ya, she said,
her voice crunching under the wheels.
You looked like you need a ride and I
need to hide myself from sleep you see.
She drove in bare feet.
Hon, get me a cigarette? She pointed;
I rummaged around and found a penis in a jar…
Oh right, she said, that’s weird, I know,
but that’s the worst I have to show you.
Whose is it, I asked - It used to be mine, she said.
It’s in a jar, I said - I had nowhere else to put it…
In twilit silence we slid northwest.
The sun was the colour of a two-bar heater,
switched off and still warm. Taking me back to
distant days huddled in layers
of endless tea and jazz in my fuggy room.
The window’s gap sucked on her cigarette,
licking it clean of ash, blushing the tip.
She smoked like she knew what she was about.
The hairs on her left arm were vermillion,
soon to be lost to the door’s shadow.
She treated her hair like a sleepy toddler
slung this way and that, stroked and tolerated
but her eyes, hazel?, were made for the haze
of a long, long road. She seemed to have no edges.
I’m throwing it from the Golden Gate, she said.
I rested my hand on her shoulder,
the strap of her top under my fingers,
we drove into orange darkness
Comments from the judge, Pascale Petit
It was thrilling to open the envelopes and read the entries, thank you to the Plough Prize organisers for sending me such stunning longlists. Reading each, I was invited into a unique imagination, a gift I absorbed carefully, always aware that the poem might be doing something I’m unfamiliar with. But I must admit that a few went up and down the ranks, and often in these competitions, there isn’t much difference between winners and commendations. In the end, I chose those that gave me the most pleasure, the ones that on a fourth reread still made me catch my breath, and have that feeling of surprise and recognition.
1st Prize (open category): To become a dragon first wear its skin
This title grabbed me immediately, promising much, and the poem delivered, right up to the razor last phrase “She sharpens herself on it”. The instant I finished it I felt it was the winner. The 18-line block has an aura of red, of dragon and silk dress that captivates the reader, breathing fresh fire into the space around it. It is delicious, erotic, potent, and ephemeral as smoke.
2nd Prize (open category): Courtship
‘Courtship’ has a slow burn, gathering momentum and intensity, until it’s about so much more than a first cigarette. It’s relentless in involving the reader, all senses firing, into the narrator’s heady ritual. By the time I got to “It blew wars into my mouth” I felt I was in the thrall of the poem, taken by surprise into its depths and those depths have duende and terror.
3rd Prize (open category): 192 miles with Carla
Once read never forgotten! How could I forget that penis in a jar? And the story of how it got there? This poem gave me a ride to the Golden Gate in relaxed but dynamic lines, with authentic sounding dialogue, and had me riveted to the seat! Carla is painted with all our senses, larger than life. I love that we don’t know what happens in the end, it’s like we’re suspended over the orange mist.