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Celebrating the life and work of Ted Hughes


 

Visitation

 

May, and the vestry’s plagued

with them – little detached

eyebrows raising and reinterring

themselves like defective Lazaruses.

I clock the underbelly of a chair

eked apart by busy mouthparts,

wool erased with two years’ blind

hunger that halts only at manmade fibre.

I call the priest

who calls for intervening forces: four

men in overalls who will raise

the stakes and blast the suckers dead.

Fifty centigrade: as hot or more so,

we agree, than hell.

(I watch one inch under

the cope chest and resolve.)

 

June, and the van arrives quiet,

orderly. They disable smoke alarms,

bomb the offices with fumes. Once-

white vestments are persuaded

to relinquish secrets. The whole

affair’s in disarray, wedding records toppling

ecclesiastic silver, lost property bunched

round vials of chrism. The act itself will only

take a minute. Regardless, come Monday

the critters are still crawling from the

cracks, and not only our intended:

the method’s universal. Behind the door

a small cohort of silverfish lies gasping

on the lino, antennae pivoting as if still

expecting rescue, still hoping for a miracle.

 

Penny Boxall, Winner, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Shock-construction

It’s true I make counterfeit books.

You may touch them and smell their must.

Heavy enough to fool a judge. Frail

the way real books are frail,

and filled with words exactly like the words

in the books by your desk or your bed.

Words that all together make a darkened city –

only this city appears on no map.

It’s a secret Soviet city, with four indoor pools,

a physical therapy centre, a sports garden,

five shooting ranges, and a single cinema

packed out every Tuesday,

when the latest film is released.

But the film is already a decade old,

and this isn’t even the Hollywood version;

it’s a Kazakh knock-off – sometimes Ukrainian.

It hardly matters. The cinema lacks a projector.

Instead, amateur actors ghoul around

behind a stained silk net.

One of them, you realise at once, is me.

Me, but my love for the girl is faked,

my story a muddled, overcooked script.

You look around now for the exit,

blunder in the dark for a dark you know.

You will make your report in the morning.

 

Jon Stone, Second, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Lamb

Settlers long-dead, their chattels gulped

deep inside the mire with every saline tide. 

They rise; awaken that fear in you:

 

being held for centuries, your bonetight leathers

preserved and warped in layered darkness. 

You stumble across reed sumps and sand

 

piles where shy birds hide and flies seek dun,

low-bellied cows hard at their indolent munching. 

You stagger the sunken coast road, its salt-

 

crusted brinks, its mounds of broken harvests,

smatterings of shattered scapulae.  You lurch

into a ditch to let a raven-haired farmer speed by

 

hauling a trailer of mulched peat at the back

of a clapped-out silver Maestro.  You peek within

on the blanketed back seat: a metal detector,

 

samphire, the blue carcass of a saltmarsh lamb. 

Imagine him bent at a kitchen table, sifting

his darkened haul through cracked black fingers,

 

culling out the bones of a new work – the unfastened

bones, black bones, dried and unfastened –

licking his lips as the lamb fat crackles, spits.

 

Kaddy Benyon, Third, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Gifted

It was your gift

one that continued to grow

so all that I invested

paid interest and dividends.

At first little but isolation and light

and sheep who reassuringly

turned their backs on me,

and the single buzzard who looped

the painted sky.

But later, week by week

blackthorn breaking out on the hedges

cow parsley tickling the margins – vetch

speedwell, primroses and overnight

a field of buttercups.

Later still as spring blurred to summer

meadowsweet and willowherb

as the larks spiralled in song.

Not things to hoard

but neither did I have to share,

they were there of themselves, not for taking,

my enjoyment was irrelevant

but one day the sheep were sent away

and I miss them.

 

Virginia Astley, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Ravensong

Your death gave way to water dreams:

rising tidal giants, salt shelled

leviathans crashing through broken sleep.

 

Unanchored in our clammy sheets,

a pulsing undertow drags me out to sea,

tips a hinge of rusted horizon

 

to the peeking spire of a part drowned

church.  Diving inside its bluewash

hush, my sluiced ears note muted raven

 

song.  Somewhere in the upturned

arkwreck of rafters, a shadow flits forth

and back; drifts in pockets of used air

 

to perch tempting as a shoulder devil, whistling

its hymn through hollowed out bones.

 

Kaddy Benyon, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Grey Heron, Ullswater

Only a bleat bounding over flaccid lake gives                                 

any sign that I am not alone in endless ache of space                   

blurring between shores. I hunker down,                             

hemmed by boughs whose tips are newly painted green               

but not yet woven with their later livery. Hills jut                         

from fining layers of mist to fix me with their bulk,                                   

corralling the infinity. I sit for ages staring,                          

scouring for focus in this still.                                  

                                   

A glimpse of white at the periphery belies my watch.       

Heron, stiff and sentinel, nearly missed                                                       

against the tree and witchy sky. Could be a plaster scarecrow                             

from a garden pond. A breeze riffling

its cowlick tuft betrays vitality. It stands and stands,                    

punctilious chopsticks poised above the tank,       

certain of success. No rake for other prey;             

it holds its prehistoric glare.                                                  

 

Explosive burst: it fires its face towards the loch,                            

sinews taut to flare out wings as ballast for the launch.

Back to itself I see between the tweezer-arms a fish,

bigger than looks possible for bird or pond.

Wild horseshoe flicks for life lick round the bill,                

a chilling vice that knows its strength.                                            

The heron’s eye is glass; its head shakes tersely

twice, dog worrying a bone.                                                                                     

 

Maw manoeuvres fish in jerks to line up for dispatch;

throat slackens; fish is drawn in rhythmic waves                  

as heron rears its head. Writhing like a kitten in a sack,

the fish asserts a fiery rumba even to the pit.                                

A pause for drink to swill the quarry down. The heron                  

stalls and agitates its wings and hips, out-dancing            

the dance. Tamping down the urge to retch it back,                     

the heron judders to a stop.

 

Mere seconds till it plants its feet with delicacy,

as if avoiding muck, then flexes backward knees to thrust

into the air, legs trailing as an afterthought,

in silhouette more pterodactyl than stork.                         

I watch its ponderous climb out of the steaming bowl,                 

off to stoke its brood, and feel the heft of history.  

The fells will still encircle us with mammary cast,              

solid in their cradling.           

 

Linda Burnett, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

           

 

How to make a Sea-Raven: an Origami Poem

 

Begin quietly, and in the dark,

with a bird base that has been lost at sea.

 

Do not be sad like the steersman,

or neglectful like the moon.

 

Lift an hour or two from the anchor-rope,

and take up the wide, blue paper .

 

First, make the midnight plume

by folding ink and echo across the horizon ;

 

and then unfolding,

carefully back where the raincloud lies.

 

Press softly with thumb and forefinger

along the darkling air, whose flying-line may be

 

the whisper of a cleaving eye,

or the prow of a beak.

 

To make the skulking- tree,

take the neap-line from a leaden flood

 

and crease into black, boughed points.

Stand it beside the waters.

 

Display your bird.

Darkness drifts down in folded lines to the sea.

 

John Gallas, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

All the Cities I Knew You In

You may have glimpsed me but I never saw you.

How I wished I could find you gnawing on a hunk

of meat in a college bar in Berkeley, one hand on a thumbed

paperback, the seat opposite, empty, waiting for me.

How I scanned the black jean clad men on Bedford Avenue

with white wires dangling from their ears, remembering us

sharing Jeff Buckley’s soul on the One train, racing to Harlem,

our unlikely summer home.

 

How many years I made sure to flick my black eyeliner all the way

across my upper lid lest you happened to be caught in the carrels

between Screenwriting and Fiction on University Place. More than once

I was surely thought a shoplifter, so furtively I made my way through

the maze of aisles checking I had not passed you without recognizing

how the decade might have morphed your brown hair from long

to short, how your left hand might have gained a gold band where once

there was only the heart tattoo I drew, between your thumb forefinger

in red biro in the Lecky library.

 

Even last Christmas Eve in Dublin, when I knew it could not possibly be you,

I rounded the cobbled corners of Temple Bar in hope the caustic strumming

coming from Merchant’s Arch might be spilling from your tanned hands.

As you imagine me on corners at sixty, I imagined you on College Green,

on Shattuck Avenue balconies, on couches of friends of friends that tear-drenched week

of the L.A. drought, in the backstreets of Belfast, sitting on the bench outside the National

staring in to the Thames and glimpsing your reflection just before the rain.

Umbrellas were thrown up into the air, blocking the view I thought I’d found,

at last, of you.

 

 Catherine Higgins-Moore, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

Out of the city

I’m glad you took us out of the city when you did,

from all those High Roads and brake-shrieking Hackney cabs

from Routemaster rumblings, the clack clack of surface railways,

the whine of the underground, and aircraft sighing slowly over

the haze of exhaust fumes and chimney smoke, hanging above it all.

 

If we had stayed, where would I find my poems now -

in the narrow spaces between the tower block and the terrace,

in the ranks of identical bicycles slanted by the station, gaps in

the cafe chains, or flickers of light in all those heavy-eyed hotels?

 

Instead of knowing the words of birdsong, or finding lines in

the striations of petals or whispered by trees, I’d read the tags

of graffiti or pick up throwaway lines from the gutter, find some

iridescence in the oily rainbows arcing across the tarmac.

 

I might trawl fresh ideas from the sameness of the river,

pan for gold in light reflected under piers and bridges,

find resonance in the church bells and clock chimes, or a

rhyme in the iambic pentameter of trains crossing points.

 

I could trace each changing statement of the skyline and

rewrite it in a plainer text, block out the shifting silhouettes

against the polluted blue of the night sky, then by dawn be

the one light still shining, the dying candle I once held out for you.

 

Mary Anne Smith, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016

 

 

Antediluvian

I learnt to swim in the swill of ginnels

choked with dirt and knotweed, in streets

where cars circled like lost whales,

devoured bridges. I swam strong,

shouldering new maps on the deep.

 

I became familiar with rooftops, islands

picked out in patterns that had lost all meaning,

their folly chimneys foolishly proud,

remembering fire, the bloated bodies

that once warmed themselves deep inside.

 

I lay with mermaids, home to spawn,

on slick tiles, told travellers’ tales

of a time of earth and stone, a time

of road and field, of hard ground,

soft lives, and the lie of lasting.

 

Unsure, I sway, ankle deep

in silt and broken lives, swaying

in the stink of filth and sodden flesh,

the sky clogged with empty houses,

every window reflecting black.

 

Oz Hardwick, commended, Elmet Poetry Prize 2016


 

 

 

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