The Strokestown Poetry Prize (Category 1)
1st Prize John Murphy, Dublin, Ireland The Nod – read The Nod
2nd Prize Miriam Gamble, Edinburgh, Scotland. Betty Staff’s
3rd Prize Pat Winslow, Oxon, UK Goat Symphony, Southdown
1st Prize John Murphy, Dublin, Ireland
The Nod – read The Nod
2nd Prize Miriam Gamble, Edinburgh, Scotland
In retrospect it turns out that her bouncer was like an octopus,
nimbling across the floor to take his fill from the bar,
perched back sweetly at his post
before a body would think to look. It’s the 1950s,
so she doesn’t have cameras on the door or on the dance floor.
He flashes his teeth, parades the tart liquor on his breath
to the queue of nice specimens from the Shankill who, in a breath,
will shift their coloration like mimic octopuses,
stepping out neatly and daintily in pairs across the floor,
picking out from the clutch of men at the bar
with expert eyes the silver-haired foxes in their fifties
who’ll keep them in drink, and the young bucks with whom they’ll take up post
for the slower numbers. His back straight as a post,
Betty’s partner steers her through a tango while the punters catch their breath.
She was a wan child when she came here to work, but by the 1950s
Betty’s living the life, she’s like something out of Octopussy
or some such yet-to-be invented model for glamour, and there seems no bar
to her success, though mastery of the dance floor
isn’t everything, and there is space on Betty Staff’s floor
like you wouldn’t want, no matter the scores of bills she posts
in the city’s theatres and tea-shops, the high-end hotel bars.
Betty’s a snob, they say, under their breath.
When you go out dancing you want to go octopus,
and there’s no jiving at Betty’s, and this is the 1950s
and where else can you not go jiving in the 1950s…
Who does the stiff bitch think she is? Would it floor
Betty if she knew this? Would it sour her puss
to know that her dance hall is the hall of last resort for the post-
pub heading-for-the-swinging-60s crowds? Put to it, an octopus can hold its breath
for thirty minutes out of water, can navigate a bar
of land as expertly as Betty Staff holds herself at the barre.
Things won’t always be like they are in the 1950s,
though Betty’s already learned to hold her breath
by the 50s, not that you’d know to watch her move across the floor.
Betty believes in appearances, she knows how to keep her post.
At home, her husband flails like an octopus –
more than once he will knock her to the floor, and free of breath.
But to the jewel-clad notion of the post-war 1950s,
Betty will play the mother octopus – Straighten your neck. Die nacht ist wunderbar –
in ever more deadly earnest.
3rd Prize Pat Winslow, England
Goat Symphony, Southdown
The rafters fill with sun. Swallows dive beneath the eaves.
Slow salt licks follow, hay tugging, the hypnotic sucking of teats.
A solid doe stares slit-wise, breathing shallow and hard.
She presses close. You play her fine white beard.
Pregnancy is a held note, her stiff gait
a bow drawn again and again. You wait.
The tugging stops. The sun disappears.
A pigeon’s wing beat, stuttering applause.
Another day. Businesslike, our sleeves rolled up,
shushing through loose straw, shit pellets and water slop,
bottles of colostrum and towels to keep them warm.
One walks the circle and lies down. A heave and rise
before the crescendo of effort. Hooves and nose
pierce the bubble, a matted head, a quick slide,
slick with mucus, mouth and nostrils cleared.
Elsewhere, a frank breech, up to the elbow, grip and twist,
upwards and downwards, tail first, a flail of soft limbs
and another stillborn like an empty sock outside the barn.
There are five swallows and a new bale of hay.
The hose trickles in the concrete yard. You stay
for tea and lemon drizzle cake and rub the snick
of a bee sting still fizzing on the back of your neck.
Smart as rain bouncing off buckets, rainbows of tractor oil,
the ting-tang of pan and strainer, a cheese turned in a bowl,
a steel spoon for salting, fresh chives, a roll of plastic sheet.
The sun, when it comes ringing through the air, is brass bright.
Everywhere the boot-clatter of kids, their debudded heads
patch-faded purple. The way they cluster to be petted or fed,
like some pre-war northern street scene
or an orphanage where the nit nurse has been.
The leaves have lost their acidic temperament.
Age spots and crinkled edges have withered them.
Wasps in half-filled jam jars, hardened mud ruts,
a collie with a dusty grin, echoey water butts.
The shelves are stacked with freezer packs
of spiced meat for barbecues and picnics.
Soon there will be plates of rice and red wine
and swallows yackering on the overhead line
and a moon bellowing like a sun-struck gong.
The Request Geraldine Mitchell, Mayo, Ireland
The moment still scalds after all these years,
opening the door to find you there with flowers,
the sun behind your head, heat and dust
gusting into my flat, a look of fear—
Palestine, home lost, and now this plea
to give you a pass in your final English test.
A small request. I have a home,
a job, firm ground beneath my feet.
Surely not too much to ask?
I stand on the threshold of my first floor flat,
look at my feet. The moment still scalds.
The sun behind your head. The dust. The heat.
Alan Weadick, Dublin, Ireland
There is this other test
you don’t dare pass or fail:
the older boys guiding you down
to the abattoir on the bank
of the Camac, slicked every other day
the stink-bomb pink, snot- green or yellow
of Clondalkin Paper Mill’s mush.
They stand sentinel
on either side of you
as Albert the Slaughter,
gracious still in hung-over sweats,
leads the heifer out.
Nose to the rusted bars
of the gate, you have to watch
as he pats the tufted head
and gives the blessing in one ear
that will have to go unheard below
the bellows of its companions out back.
After the shot, it seems as if the animal
will never fall; hind legs inching apart,
neck- flesh puckering in a dowager faint,
eyes thrown to the heaven of a slower time.
When the crew sets to work, rendering up
with their blades and their hooks
what is soon left limp enough,
your early mentors only have eyes for you
as the blood washes across the floor
toward your riveted sneakers.
No joy for them in your poker face,
a spotless mirror of theirs. Or later,
as you slouch home at dusk,
listening to your own experimental curses
cut a swath through that thrown-up suburban
settlement, empty stomach grumbling.
Beatrice Garland, England
One pulpo entero eviscerado from the Canaries
splatted on the kitchen worktop,
where I get to work on him with a knife.
His tentacles reach five feet from side to side:
a fine rubbery beast, pink-fleshed, veiled in grey.
Two close-set blue-black eyes watch me
stroking the knife softly, handle to tip,
unhurried, to and fro along the whetstone.
The ball of my thumb tells me it is ready.
It is tough work to carve the limbs from the head –
a limp pouch now, a ghost drawn by a child.
Long rows of suckers, frilled, tenacious,
catch at the underside of my hands, bringing
the severed limbs to life. I pull them away
to slight resistances, small popping sounds.
Coming to the boil are four quarts of water
containing leeks, peppercorns, garlic, carrots,
thyme and bayleaves. In he goes, in hapless pieces
which rise and writhe with the water’s movement.
The head, no longer looking at anything,
disappears, pulled under by his own suckers.
One hour later, no longer beast, I strip away
his veils under the cold tap, slice his shrunken limbs
into fat discs. O he is helpless, in oil and paprika.
And later you, my warm-blooded vertebrate lover,
climb into bed beside me, reach out …….but my head
is full of octopus, pulled under, drowning in kisses
here and here, then there, and there again.
O Octopus, I am undone – but how sweet
your resurrection, your revenge.