2019 Prize-winners and Judge's Report
1st Prize: Heidi Williamson
With a rootless lily held in front of him
Like someone stepping slowly ahead
of an old-fashioned car, or the person tasked
with carrying the country’s Olympic flame,
he must hold the lily as he walks, sits, speaks, listens.
He holds it low, his arms relaxed,
accustomed to its movement.
The long stem reaches to his breastbone.
The lily’s pale skull barely moves as he moves.
Open and upright, the petals are stiff and fragile.
The yellowy-orange stamen is a risk.
Everyone knows it could stain you.
With each breath he inhales its scent,
each exhalation ghost-feeds it.
Each person he meets will ask
or choose deliberately not to ask.
Each person sees the lily first,
then perhaps the man.
Some wonder what the lily does
when he sleeps. Or what happens
when this stalk, as it surely must,
fades and withers. Some suspect him
of slyly replacing it to freshen its bloom.
Each person considers touching the petals.
There are those who think it distasteful
to bring the lily out into the open.
To them it’s like a begging bowl.
In many ways his lily is no different
to any lily of theirs. Though they’d never
say it aloud, a few have a terrible doubt
that he somehow deserves his.
Sometimes he allows his focus to shift
through its arch-backed petals.
Sometimes he forgets he still holds it.
2nd Prize: Claudine Toutoungi
After your biggest mail-out yet to 4796 of your
closest friends and acquaintances, three replied.
One said yes I can come. Another said yes I
might come. A third said no, I can’t come.
Then it was time for sleep because it was
Thursday and for anti-ageing purposes
you always tried to be asleep by five.
In your dream there were eight Toyotas
six Kias and a Lamborghini. You totalled
all of them in fifteen separate crashes.
Ended up in hospital where you met
a shepherd, a vegan and a gerontologist.
The shepherd taught you to count sheep
in Cumbrian—Yan. Tyan. Tethera. Methera.
The vegan was mute and the gerontologist
advised you to ditch the number 3, the letter
C and all your relations. What all of them?
you queried. But I have 417 and that’s only
my nuclear family. In the dream it came out
as enucleate family, which over time got
interpreted by five psychiatrists as passive
aggression, toxic narcissism, Capgras
Syndrome, low blood pressure and angst.
You went with angst because you enjoyed
saying Ich habe angst and because it had the
fewest letters and because partially it was true.
3rd Prize: Sara Backer
I’m not afraid of Death, whose teeth I’ve scraped against my own
so many times, or Illness my antagonist, or Nightmares,
which I enjoy, upset when they break up with me.
But I’m afraid of Angels—edematous hoverers in paintings, sad
about futures they can’t reveal. Bacteria—brainless, invisible, deadly.
Corners. Escalators. Grinding.
Halloween candy. Jumping from rock to rock to keep up, fearing slip
and skull-crack. Kitchens that aren’t my own—hazardous traps of
breaking the favorite mug, slicing the brown bread wrong.
Love—which makes me wary, twitchy, obliged. Moths, always
seeking audience for their suicides. Opals, those milky flickery gems.
Poison. Quizzes. Rust. Tipping. U-turns. Vagueness. X-rays. Yelling.
Brutalist concrete cages of assorted Zoos: chain stores, prisons, schools.
But I’m not afraid of Snakes, their darting tongues and slither. And I’m not
afraid of Water. After dark, I steer my kayak by white lilies and loud loons.
Report from the Judge, Greta Stoddart
Firstly, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading all the poems I received. They each had something to commend them and I was interested in the mind behind the creation of every one.
I was struck by the number of poems that wanted to tell something - a story or an event (one in five told of an historical event.) So much so that I started to wonder if a new form shouldn’t be invented, a kind of short, formal fiction, perhaps.
I was most drawn to poems that were events in themselves. Where - as I read - something was actually happening to me on a physical, mental and emotional level. Where I felt the language to be working towards some sort of insight, both for me and the poet.
So what is a poem that is rather than tells an event? I think it’s one whose stance, language and tone create a kind of unique and inviolable reality. A poem that is not simply a narrative, however dramatic nor a description, however lovely. But a poem that contains its own imaginative logic and linguistic verve. That moves towards some sort of revelation, be it secular or spiritual. You can see I find it hard to say exactly what it is. Which is as it should be, I suppose. Perhaps I could offer here the one definition of a poem that I return to: you know a poem is a poem when you can’t imagine it being anything else.
Also, a poem needs to know what or how much to leave out. Or it needs to intuit it, have a sense when the unspoken is part of - or indeed at the heart of - the poem. Sometimes I feel a poem’s success rests on just this measure of telling and not telling. Here’s a Goldilocks moment. Too little and the reader is nonplussed and frustrated at having to overthink and make up for the lack of information. Too much and we feel we are being spoon-fed and sit there sated but dissatisfied. Just right and the potential meaning widens and resonates long after we have finished reading. The poem goes on inside us somehow. And the meaning continues to yield itself - maybe slightly differently each time, just as we feel slightly differently - each time we read and re-read the poem.
This can be how a poet uses the poem as a means of discovery. By not being able to say it exactly or directly we will, through language, come to a truth we didn’t know we were seeking. There’s an impulse - emotional usually, urgent sometimes - to say something and the poem allows the poet to realise what that is.
Poems can, of course, be different things to different people. For me, a poem can create a space - a state - of wonder. Where we receive and reflect on another way of seeing the world, however tentative or ambivalent that may be, depending as it does on the paradox of language. For this to happen a poem needs to be open to the reader. And to be open to the reader it has to be open to itself.
To summarise or simplify then, I like poems that are original in image, tone and use of language, that offer a vision askance and revelatory.
And I hope you agree that all 3 winning poems have something of these qualities.
With a rootless lily held in front of him
What I love most about this poem is what it doesn’t say. Although there is great clarity in the language - the syntax is sure and measured, the diction restrained - there is at the heart of the poem a mystery: who is this man? why is he holding the lily? what does the lily signify?
The scene is simply and vividly evoked and the controlled tone creates a powerful tension that lends itself brilliantly to the unexplained central image. An image that seems to resonate in my mind offering up powerful themes of identity, punishment, humiliation, sanctitude.
The poem has had the courage to leave out the basic tenets of explication - the who, where, when and why - but has responded fully to the important question of what. So the what - this strange and lonely procession - is beautifully described, allowing the reader space in which to watch and wonder. The lines in their subtle directness hint and suggest but ultimately do not explain. In this way the poem becomes larger than the single event it appears to be describing and touches on, and takes in, other moments in our history.
I love this poem for its humour and thought-provoking artfulness; the way numbers are used as stepping stones - or compulsive mental aids - on a bizarre and disconcerting trajectory. We follow this person on a weird journey- by-numbers to arrive, finally, at a moment of stark self-awareness.
Most of the poem is in fact a dream which has the vividness of a peculiar but truly experienced everydayness so that reality and dream-life appear to interweave and inform each other - as of course they do.
There’s a perfectly-judged, flat speaking voice at play here sustaining the dream logic, allowing conscious and unconscious mind to run alongside - and counter to - each other so that by the end of the poem the dream has led the speaker to a realisation that they appear to accept in their fatalistic but not wholly unhappy way.
I love this little psychodrama of a poem because it’s clever and funny and offers its own skewed truth but also, as we become increasingly aware of neurodiversity, how it takes us into a mind possibly quite different to our own and how we might learn from that.
One of our most common and potent emotions - fear - is expressed here in ways that are both subversive and illuminating. The speaker is not afraid of the usual things but turns instead a fierce - and strangely fearless - gaze to those things we think harmless or wonderful or just plain banal and by doing so opens up a brave new array of irrational fears.
What the speaker confesses to being afraid of takes us deep into a very particular psyche. And just as we, as individuals, each have our own fears - and, by extension, foibles - the poem shows us in its bleakly witty way that the world is full of dangers that possibly we create for ourselves. Along with the small comfort that though we all might harbour such neuroses we are not alone in having them.
I like the way the long-lined tercets suggest the accumulation of fears becoming drawn out, endless, claustrophobic in the disturbed - and disturbing - mind of the speaker.
The lovely and surprising ending takes us to a place of refuge, or maybe even enlightenment - in any case a place (real or created, it hardly seems to matter) of haunting consolation.
Peace can be found in this world so full of anxieties and potential harms. Our minds are cranked up - thanks to other people, mainly - by fear and panic. The subversion running through this poem is both welcome and warning; welcome in that the poem shows us we don’t have to fear the old fearful things, but warning us that fear will find a focus no matter what. And perhaps we need to be mindful of that.
And I would like to Highly Recommend the following poems:
I, the Tenant by Christine Paice
Flight Manual: Lepidoptera by Christopher Lysenton
Searching through the 1911 census returns for Co. Kerry, looking for a needle you aren’t even sure is there to be found by Steve Pottinger
Tight Lacing by Ian Harker
Returning to Fire and Water by Mary Gilonne