WINNERS OF THE 2007-8 COMPETITION
FIRST PRIZE: ANN ALEXANDER
The Importance of Locks
A husband might turn up unannounced,
or his wife surprise him, midway through
a private act. A woman might sleep
in the afternoon, and neglect to close
the kitchen door. A man might find
his identity gone, along with his wealth.
A star might find herself exposed
and crucified, on the evening news.
A woman might steal another’s child.
A man might lose his coat; his wife
might search his pocket for clues, and find
proof of the things she already knows.
Or a man in a safe house lose his life
because of a window that wouldn’t close.
Or a prostitute might end her days
curled up in the boot of a punter’s car;
a child go through his mother’s bag,
and steal the money she needs for clothes.
A nurse might forge an old man’s will;
a hacker break into her online bank. Or
a doctor might read a patient’s notes
or a patient might read the fleeting look
in his doctor’s eyes, and ask to see
the secret notes on his failing health.
And every one of them understands
that then and there and for ever more
private things are things of the past,
for everything’s out in the open now,
and nothing is secret, and nothing is sure.
Sometimes a poem just happens – but ‘On the importance of locks’ was written to match a theme: privacy. I belong to a literary group with a difference. We don’t read selected books, we choose a theme and find examples of it in literature. Sometimes, as with this poem, we write something ourselves. What a thrilling result!
SECOND PRIZE: MICHAEL TOLKIEN
Elegy at Pantasaph
For my Parents
I pass yew groves and blackened angels
presiding over Victorian tombs,
cross a bulldozed space where red sorrel
and speedwell cover the distant dead,
then find them in a suburb of new plots.
A bypass roars like breakers. So many hands
holding on for dear life.
It shakes me with the stillness of those who rest,
have no address to find, nowhere
to drive or be driven, their years numbered
in granite. Tribute from a chisel shows
no more than time served,
when each breath taken and released
brought changes known only
to those who learned to love against all odds.
These new stones with their gilded screed
feel like last greetings cards.
They buckle as I say: sit for ever
in easy garden chairs, cats
at your feet inhaling beds of lavender.
Leave were it not for a brisk close-cropped little figure
swathed in fawn. Darts at a headless
grave, crosses herself, mouths
a prayer, and scuttles off like a leaf.
Pause and calculate. Sixty-three and sixty-six. Their score
against mine. A scale to weigh up
chances in this cold spot
without the windbreak they provided.
Bring back their last moments that still
seem the bravest anyone’s endured.
Meet the distant stare of mullioned windows.
Look how that dutiful soul
so tightly wrapped jumps into her car.
Soon I follow her along the lime grove
past the closed priory.
Every go-slow hump is someone’s grave,
and voices from the rookery
tell me what it’s like to survive.
Within less than two years my parents died and by 1984 were buried together at Pantasaph Franciscan Friary. Soon after the main North Wales coastal road was cut through to bypass Holywell. The first 1988 version of this elegy now seems overblown and portentous, its nine stanzas rhymed a-b-a-b-c-c. One reader felt that Larkin stalked through the graveyard in a long coat, muttering the gloomy, rhymed philosophising that closed each stanza. And so it lay in a ‘mould’ring heap’ of rejects, until in 2005 I suddenly felt the need to tap its latent energies and confront the experience its manner and form obscured. Almost at once I worked with a rhythmic pull between four and five stress lines, sketched two stanzas and abandoned them. In 2006 I tried again, retained the narrative but cut excess comment and detail, dispensing with rhyme apart from slight end-of-line and internal hints until the half-rhymes of the last stanza. I now wonder whether this final ‘unlikely’ lyricism contradicts or reinforces the relentless subject matter. Altogether I’m reminded of what Carol Ann Duffy once said to me: the important ones usually get written!
THIRD PRIZE: JUDITH HOPE McFARLANE
She gets up in the morning’s dark
And bathes in night-cooled water.
She plaits her snowy hair up tight
And dresses in the soft star-light
In case she wakes her daughter.
Above, she hears the foghorn call
Of ‘Suff’rer’, driving down
The mountain, in the old ‘Blue Bird’,
Just making sure that he is heard
En route for Kingston Town.
She takes the path down to the road,
Now hurrying in the dawn.
Her nimble feet belie her years,
Her aches and pains, her daughter’s fears;
Fleet-footed as a faun.
My late husband’s family were modest Jamaican farmers, and his Aunt Ida lived with one of her three daughters in a wooden cabin near the top of the Blue Mountain range, where she grew mainly oranges and coffee. I first met Ida when she was 80 years old and working the land daily, tall, lean, dignified and wise.
About twice a week, she went into Kingston ‘to see to business’. As the cabin was about a mile from the unpaved road that the daily bus used, she had to use a deeply-cut and very steep footpath, usually in the dark, and often with a large bundle of goods wrapped in cloth balanced on her head.
I was struck by the simplicity of her life and expectations and wanted to commemorate her as I remembered her.
She died peacefully in her home, in 1985, aged 89.