The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
5 of the best: poems from the Slipstream competition
SLIPSTREAM Open Competition Results
1st Prize £250: John Gallas 'Driving behind the chaff tractor'
2nd Prize £100: Valerie Bridge 'Trespassing in the Secret Wood'
3rd Prize £75: Al McGivens - 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp'
Highly Commended £10: Mark Totterdell - 'Ice Cream'
Highly Commended £10: Charles Evans - 'The Other Eden'
Please forgive the anomalies of formatting – it's been a bit challenging copying and pasting from the Slipstream website!
2013 SLIPSTREAM OPEN POETRY COMPETITION
Judge’s General Report
This was so difficult! The first phase of elimination is relatively easy. Many poems are heartfelt; few are both heartful and skilfully crafted. (As I say to my students: ‘Raw emotion poured upon the page / does not a poem make.’) The second phase consisted of separating the possible ‘yesses’ from the ‘maybes’. This was tough; and I ended up with about 25 yesses.
What I was looking for throughout were poems that spoke to both my heart and my head; that were carefully but unobtrusively drafted and shaped so that form and content worked together, in synergy; that spoke to something of what might be called ‘the human dilemma’ – by which I mean poems that in some way crossed the threshold between the solely personal and the more truly collective or transpersonal. I like a poem to open out towards the universal in some way at the end, and avoiding tight closure or the ‘punchline’ ending. I like to know a poet knows his or her craft, so I notice things like line breaks, assonance and consonance, imagery, use of sound, and so forth. I want a poem to be intelligent but not in-your-face clever.
I noticed how many poems there were written about specific painters or paintings (from a workshop, perhaps?). Many were good; one in particular broke ‘out of the box’. I also noticed how many used formal metre and rhyme. Although I myself am not terribly keen on formal verse (apart from the sonnet), I enjoy it when it’s well-handled and not archaic in ‘feel’. It certainly adds a dimension to a poem, and requires an extra level of skill.
From the very beginning, I thought I had my winner. At the last minute, though, another quiet little poem slipped in as an outsider challenger. This latter has stayed with me in a way that none of the others has.
Ist Place – John Gallas
Driving behind the chaff tractor
Content thus slow, my quiet mouth agape
with minor awe, I feel my dusty lens
receive the pattered storm of useless chaff,
and blink. The sun-splash weaves
along the falling leaves.
And in this guttering, spermatic light
it seems the seed of some unfruitful Adam
swims in barren show against the glass,
golden and unblessed :
how sweet is second best.
You coupled children, couched in beds of wheat,
where generations thrive and dreamt-of summers
lie in store – enjoy your harvest. I
will rattle home behind
this tractor, and not mind.
A confession: it is hard for me to articulate why this poem so spoke to me. All I know is that it quietly wormed its way to the top of the ‘yes’ pile. One night, I went to bed thinking about the longlist I’d been rereading, and fairly sure of my first-prize winner, and the second. This poem wasn’t either of those two. When I woke up the next morning I knew for certain, however, that this one was, in fact, the winner.
It’s rooted in the sensory world. It speaks directly to my heart without being sentimental, overblown, or clumsy. It doesn’t push itself at me. Its intelligence gives it a quality of inner light (in fact the whole poem has a sort of dusky glow to it). It’s quirky; original in its subject matter and metaphor (chaff of course being what’s left after the fertile grain has been winnowed off). It’s handled with quiet insight, restraint, subtlety. The poem’s (author’s) intelligence is never thrust at us, and yet it reveals a great deal of sensitive insight. It’s beautiful to read aloud. I notice the chiming sounds throughout, and the non-intrusive end-rhymes on lines 4 and 5. The diction is careful and lovely (and even though the beginning has a formality to it, it avoids being stilted). I notice the choice of line-breaks. I enjoy very much ‘minor awe’, and the ‘pattered storm of useless chaff’ with the careful quiet line-break there leading to ‘and blink’. (I don’t know why this should be but that ‘blink’ conveys a kind of vulnerability alongside the more obvious connotations.)
The poem is both deeply sad, and yet not at all. There is a lot of resonance in this poem; many layers of possible meaning. I’d say there is an awareness throughout of how harvest and fallow times, past and future, joy and sorrow can and have to co-exist. There’s an awareness of what has been lost, both personal and collective; of what might be and what can never be; of feeling grateful for what you have even while others have what you might perhaps have liked for yourself – a great span to this poem.
While I find the poem very moving, it never descends into self-pity, and the ending exhibits an emotional generosity and serenity, or at least acceptance, that makes it the more intense and moving, for me.
2nd place – Valerie Bridge
Trespassing in the Secret Wood
in a flutter of giggles, like ancient schoolgirls
wearing tatty uniform: Barbours, walking shoes, clip-boards,
we half hurdle the wall, where it’s almost fallen down.
Now inside, outside voices mutter into mobile phones. We overhear,
hush up, our shoes slithering over roots, brambles, hands grasping
at nettles, fallen branches: ash, oak, hazel, beech, and eavesdrop.
They’ve rung off. On the far side, under the myopic gaze of the big house,
a trail of earth pockets, badger scrapes, fresh latrines, solid footprints, indentations like
a set of clues waiting to be read on a board game.
We are black on white, striped by tree shadow and sunlight.
You take a photograph later. I wonder if we will come out,
or be swallowed as camouflaged entrepreneurs, up for a jaunt
on badger territory. Will a boar emerge like a steam-rollered stripe,
almost a Tom and Jerry disaster, in a wave of old humbug, whiffling
at smells? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are in with this mob.
I would like to invite them to a Wind in the Willows party.
To say thank you to them for an appearance of avuncular generosity,
suspect they’d prefer the haunting of solid oaks under their badger skies.
You have to wear wellies if you go feeding peanuts by a finger nail moon,
keep on balancing on branches. They’ll whicker at footfall, slip cut-out
shadows, hunker back into their sett, but keeping track.
I expect they think we’re cartoon characters, making so much noise,
flattening things as if they won’t make a come back and be there,
solid as oaks, long after we’ve gone. Perhaps they’ll send out an invite,
and we will have to wear masks and full length costumes, and if we grow
a stubby tail and whiskers, we’ll shave later, climb out like pantomime
school girls waiting behind the set, cardboard scenery, for the first act to start.
We’re unaware of the thirty foot well, a police search, the missing lad,
found hours later, hosts of stars fixed as spotlights in his staring eyes.
Our feet suspect snares badgers manage in blackout, nothing else.
This was the poem that I imagined would be the final winner. It caught me immediately, and stayed with me as I read the rest. What I particularly like about it (apart from my own personal engagement, as a pro-vaccinator, with the proposed badger cull) was its ability to take me right into the scene, alongside the women. (I’m intrigued by what they’re actually doing, presumably illicitly, in the woodland with clipboards: I like to think they’re sett-surveying for the anti-cull National Trust, or something similar, in the badgers’ cause.)
The use of sensory detail is exemplary and sustained, and the sense of movement, too. The three-line stanza form drew me on through the poem. I particularly enjoyed ‘an appearance of avuncular generosity’, and the specificity of all the detail.
What makes it, of course, is the shock in the last stanza, handled without sensationalism. If there’s one thing I wasn’t so sure about it was a slightly whimsical anthropomorphism; in the end, I think it was this that demoted it to second. But a fine poem, nonetheless.
3rd place – Al McGivens
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp
In 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp' by the painter
Rembrandt we see the body laid out by the examiner.
The trade-mark light illuminates the chamber
And the very candle seems to flicker
As the students make their observations and gather
In a group around the cadaver.
Now here, observe 'The Dead Christ', by Holbein the Younger,
Or again, this time by Mantegna.
The similarities are striking, no? The dead guerrilla
And the body as examination site, simulacra
Of Christ, the body as propaganda…
All courtesy of the Leica
Lens. Look where the bullets went in, see the stigmata?
Even here the likeness continues to blend
Fact and iconography, it merely moves from the visual end
Of the spectrum to judicial execution. When condemned
To death by official sanction the modern trend
To martyrdom requires the executioner to send
Proof. After the photographs they cut his hands
Off and flew him out on a helicopter to Vallegrande
Where they put him in a shallow grave. As the chopper lands
Officers from the CIA confirm the kill. Nobody really understands
Revolutions anymore, except maybe in the tourist shops
Where the slogan and the picture appear on cigars, T-shirts, bikini tops…..
Korda didn’t copyright the image so it never stops.
You say you want a revolution well, now you know it’s fine
To transpose the fight to soft furnishings and poster design.
Hasta La Revolucion Siempre!
This poem is a truly extraordinary achievement, and someone else might well have placed this first. It deserves it, in many ways; but ultimately a choice is subjective, no matter how well we recognise exemplary poetic qualities.
The poem is laid out in 7 stanzas of diminishing line-count (7,6,5,4,3,2,1) with each stanza closing each line with its own set rhyme and yet managing to avoid the rhyme taking taking over, and all this leads to a) a cohesion throughout the disparate aspects of this poem, and b) the final inevitable isolated closing line. I am amazed at how the poet handles the breathtaking elision, via a shared experience of mutilation, of a Rembrandt painting of an autopsy with a Holbein painting of Christ and then the death of Che Guevara.
I also admire poems titled to take us in a particular direction that draw us off the scent, so to speak, and then lay out for us the real matter. I also think poetry has a useful role in political and/or philosophical commentary, especially if it manages to avoid polemic.
The one thing that didn’t convince me (though necessary perhaps to the form and message) was ‘Hasta La Revolucion Siempre’. I realise it couldn’t easily have been placed elsewhere, but it seemed too obvious an ending.
1 Ice Cream (Mark Totterdell)
We’re walking towards Land’s End,
fields to our left, a vast sea to our right.
Ahead of us, an ice cream van like a shiny spaceship.
I turn to you and say
Can I have an ice cream, Daddy?
It’s my little nod to childhood.
I’m 47. You smile. Moments later
you turn to me and say
Can I have an ice cream, Daddy?
You’ve stolen my line without even knowing.
We walk on with our cones.
I’m bearing mine like a flaming torch.
The sea is such a long way down.
For its simplicity. For its lack of sentimentality. For squeezing my heart, and then doing it again.
2 The Other Eden (Charles Evans)
By the banks of a foam-filled river an embedded
razor fence protects children from the pollution
of outdoor swimming, while high above in a Duplex
apartment Nigel and Fiona micro-wave a de luxe gourmet
supper and prepare themselves for Crisis Counselling..
They're a lovely couple. Nigel drives a Porsche and Fiona
has bulimia in a village where a dreary Norman ruin has
made way for a six-lane bypass through experimental crops,
and two-headed lambs frolic near the tarmacked public path
by a huge plastic billboard which reads Eden Development.
People walk by, not talking but listening on headphones
to piped music which sounds tinnily, not disturbing
the call of geese and swans amplified within the pasteboard
shapes which drift lazily on the processed currents
of sleek smooth water which no-one enters.
Further out of town an empty church crumbles gently
into mossed bricks among ferns and briar, while rooks caw
on derelict walls and foxes slink by forgotten graves. No
hymns sound, the organ long since silent. Only the broken
stones remember music and voices, joy, the other Eden.
Because this needs saying, and poetry too can speak out – and is often very effective at challenging the ‘established order’. Because it’s impassioned but not (just) a rant.
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