January 10, 2016

Strokestown Poetry Prize – Past winning poems

Past winning poems of the Strokestown International Poetry Prize

As if she were close John Murphy, Dublin

My mother is chasing me. All over the house.
No. This is not a nightmare. It happened.
Thirty or so years ago. She is waving an
empty cigarette packet I’d neatly opened up
to expose a blank writing surface. This is where
I wrote my first poem. A knot of gritty phrases
about war in Vietnam or Iwo Jima.
I can’t remember where, but I’d dropped it
or thrown it away and forgotten about it:
my spider pencil crawl of a treatment;
a Sunday afternooner, a black and whiter.
The kind my mother liked, as long as Garfield
or Cagney starred. But my poem has no stars.
Just a blunt jungle of men killing each other
in childish, thrilling ways. She finally catches
me, arms crossed like a corpse under her bed.
John! It’s very, very good! You wrote a poem!

I’m seven or eight years old, and I know
whatever the thing I’ve done, it has a power
to frighten, a frightening power. One to shunt
aside until years after she’s dead. Where I find
myself in the departure lounge at Heathrow,
waiting to connect as my American bosses say.
My slim ticket ready in my hand, and hours
to kill before boarding. And it begins again.
A full thirty years since I nipped it in the bud.
As if she were close. I’m writing a poem about
my mother in the space on the back of the card.
Something very simple about us walking along
the quays on the long way home from the auction
she used to love. It’s straightforward, honest, plain.
But there’s a powerful feeling, too. Like my heart
is physically moving to the wrong side of my chest
where it should not be. And the bloody thing makes
me cry. God damn it, but I can’t stop writing it now.
I keep going on with it, on and on. What else can I do?

2015      The Nod,      John Murphy, Dublin, Ireland – read The Nod

 

2014      At the Stop Sign         Jane Robinson,  Dublin,   Ireland

AT THE STOP SIGN

 

On a day like today, with rain

pouring down the windscreen, not

much visible beyond the next car, rain

gathered in puddles by the curb and rain-

water lapping the toes of peoples’ boots

when they try a longstep to avoid the puddled rain

and with one foot trembling over flooded drains

they seem to catch their breath

and float out from the pavement – breathing

air mixed fifty-percent with rain –

until they reach the other side and click

their heels back down on the road, they click

 

their fingers at the leap, and click,

clock, off they go through a veil of rain…

Dreaming at the wheel again, the click

of wipers awakens the driver and she clicks

into action, brain empty, nothing

there but the automated click

of changing gears and revving up, the clicking

accelerator pressed by her boot –

one toe-nail turned black from wearing those boots

a little too tight – and that’s when it finally clicks:

his photos were taken right here…  she breathes

in and out more slowly now, each breath

 

measured as she tries to breathe

her way back to the day when she clicked

open the briefcase lock with a screwdriver, breath

held in case she should find some breath

of the past left behind, perhaps a rain-

spotted note or brass compass breathing

out a faint scent of the sea. But the length and breadth

of his briefcase had been emptied, there was nothing

left, except two photographs of nothing

known. The lid drifted down, exuding a breath

of mothballs while she studied the red boots

of the woman in the photos, her boots

 

so bright she seemed to float, red boots

gliding three inches at least, or the breadth

of a hand, above the pavement. Those boots

red against grey, an unknown woman in boots

striding along with a clickety click.

As in a diptych, the high-heeled boots

daubed a red spot, drawing the eyes. Boots

crisp against the blurred grey of rain-

drenched cement and fence. Roadside and rain

a background to the day, the scent of those boots

step, stepping their way in two old photos, nothing

to tell her name, or the name of that place, not

 

a clue about why she was there, nothing

but the set of her shoulders and those red boots.

The oval blur of her face as she caught his eye, no

ties to the future or the past, nothing

now will tell us her name. A breath

of wind shakes heavy drops down and none

of it makes sense any more, nothing

but two blurred photos hastily clicked

from a car, as though the scene clicked

and he wanted to make something out of nothing.

And now, there is more rain

pouring down the windscreen, enough rain

 

to drench his photo-woman who had drops of rain

sparkling on her shoulders, or mist, or nothing –

its hard to tell at this distance – the red boots

dancing across the page and no breath

on his windscreen, while these wipers continue to click.

Jane Robinson

 

2012   Duparc: A Programme Note   Jim Maguire, Wexford, Ireland

 

Spare a thought for Henri Duparc, re-inventor of the French mélodie

who left just seventeen songs. The world can only imagine

what might have happened if

he’d started younger and not gone for the law;

if the first clutch of songs hadn’t come in such a rush

or been so surely made, so hazed with longing – the sense of exquisite things

laid to waste – they were spoken of in the same breath as Schubert’s.

What if he’d had Schubert’s bohemian streak, or if someone had spied

the wisp of unearthed wire hiding behind the curtains

of his grand bourgeoisie childhood; if his bones hadn’t grown

so tired or his ears so alive to the latticed, God-hungry silences

in the attic that, still in his thirties,

the music died.

 

If he hadn’t lived till he was eighty-five.

 

Spare a thought for his composer friends,

fellow students of the humble outcast, César Franck –

excitable, nature loving Ernest Chausson,

stately Vincent d’Indy, unbohemian coterie

who’d come to depend on his warmth and light,

the quickness of his ear in setting to rights

their muddled inner parts

 

the shock of their strapping man crocked

by the slow creep of a vague disease,

his discrete self-removal from the scene.

 

No farewells or photographs, just the salon air turning cold

and ashamed – how one person leaving the room

can deprive the rest of a tenderness

they’d imagined as their own –

as if they’d glimpsed themselves in the buff

of his empty chair, the picture they cut,

lush-whiskered, old-before-their-time respectables

reckoning up their lives,

each to be ambushed in his grief by the clear strain of a relief

never to be spoken of but woven into the folding screen

of austere, other-world harmonies

that was their unshowy, always unruffled riposte

to the gilded ceilings of the Opéra.

 

Spare a thought for the mouldering oak

of aristocratic pudeur

which said a brother-in-arms must be left to come through

unaided, unpitied… Where had they moved him now,

Monte-Marsin, Tarbes, Lourdes?

 

Years of seeing him everywhere, the sleeve of a writing arm

transformed in lamplight to the travel rug across his knees.

How still he seemed on the shore of the frozen lake

perusing the pages of their latest news – Saint-Saëns

making a show of himself in the journals again,

Chausson falling victim to the bicycle craze…

 

If only they’d been spared the hankering between the lines

of his gracious replies – For a week now, a crimson bird

has come tapping at the window where I work…

How the quietest of his words could flare in their dreams

like sheets of a burning manuscript…

 

Hardened by pain, he found softness in paint,

an easy flair for braiding

the light into stooks and fennel plumes,

all along catching glimpses

of the blue manor of Rosamunde

in his children and in the sweet and humble poverty

of Francis Jammes and his heavenbound donkeys…

As if the whole enterprise were a gearing-up for his last

quarter-century – blind, paralysed,

sinking deeper into the arms of Christ, a wife

who outlasted him but left no trace beyond the footnotes:

Ellie MacSwiney, amateur soprano,

translator of his Élégie (after Thomas Moore),

dedicatee of a song by Fauré,

who’d sailed from Cork to France at seventeen

the summer her father died.

 

2010  Angelus   Lawrence Kessenich,  Boston,  USA

   For Mena

 

In Campania, at her grandfather’s farm

fieldstone house secure as a castle

she sleeps beneath the high eaves, underhung

with swallows’ nests like pots of clay.

 

She walks the vineyards with him, too small

to see over the vines, her eyes full of leaves,

fat grapes and, overhead, the bellies

and wings of birds about their business.

 

She longs to see the birds, to be the birds.

He lifts her high to look into their nests

at perfect oval eggs, at hatchlings

scrawny, pink and vulnerable.

 

When he arises to work the fields, barking

dogs wake her. She listens to the newborn

swallows just outside her shutters crying

for their breakfast with the dawn.

 

From her bed, she stares up at the vaulted

ceiling, at the painted angel flying around

the light fixture, naked save the loincloth

rippling across his muscular thighs.

 

His wings are white as a swallow’s belly

and from a basket on his arm he strews

flowers across a faux sky, each growing

brighter as the sun outside rises higher.

 

Finally, she throws off the covers

pulls the shutters open. Sunlight

like a hundred chandeliers bathes

the angel in glory and herself in joy.

 

 

2009   THE FEVER WARDS   Padraig Rooney, Switzerland

 

I must be half-asleep in the fever hospital

above the town. Cathedral bells and coughs,

and candles lit beside the winched-up beds

beneath the moon, the northern stars and frost.

The roof is gone and in its place a canopy

of cloth of gold and parasols that flutter

along the path towards the sanatorium.

We’re moon bathing and taking in the air

as the fever wards come down around us

in brick dust and granite blocks and spores.

A wrecking ball destroys a stained-glass window

and swings back out as though a pendulum

were marking time across the patchwork fields.

It showers us with glass and shards of lead

and leaves a broken mosaic on the quilt.

We’re outside catching breath and watching

the customs huts asleep in their own silence,

the creamery cans that man the ends of lanes,

the polytunnels’ darkened mushroom beds.

And on the bedside table a Lourdes Messenger,

a thermometer and damson plums from home.

They smell of coal as though they’d taken in

the smoke that used to puff behind the orchard

before the war. The northern trains are gone

and in their place the disused sidings, sleepers

that smell of creosote warming in the sun.

I’d rise and take my folding cot and walk

if only for this fever that shakes me nightly,

all my nerves on stalks like rhubarb leaves

to catch the rain, or gongs announcing dinner

or benediction in the nurses’ home.

      

      

2004 LI BAI’S LAST POEM   Paddy Bushe,  Kerry, Ireland

(Li Bai, the great poet of the Tang dynasty, is said to have drowned while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in a lake)

 

 

I

The more my boat rocks, the more

Exuberantly the moon disports itself

Among the ripples. I dip my oars

 

Into one shining facet or another

Of that reflected light, and I zig

And zag somehow to the lake’s centre

 

And spin myself to a shaky stop.

On the shore, a lantern flickers.

I can hear the cry of my peacock

 

Bounce itself from star to brittle star

And rattle into silence. I uncork

My wine-jug and ceremoniously pour

 

A measure for myself and a measure

Ceremoniously, as always, for another.

 

 

II

All of my life has been other, is absence:

Farewells in wine-shops, Meng Haoran’s sail

Diminishing down the length of the Yangtse,

 

Poems to and from Du Fu, their characters

Like heads bowed in exile, like wild geese

Crossing a cold moon above bare branches.

 

All those merchants’ wives, those distant

Administrators yearning for their families,

Were versions of myself, listening

 

Desperately for footsteps along the path,

Searching the Milky Way for friends,

Combing the wind for the hermit’s flute,

 

Raising a wine-cup, a jolly good fellow,

Cavorting with the moon and my own shadow

 

III

Another cup of wine. The shadowed

Mountains across the lake are watching

Like judges in their long dark robes.

 

Lighten yourselves! I do not threaten

The order of the state. Let the record show

That even I – yes I! – was once tempted

 

By imperial affairs: a court academy,

No less, of compliant poets, commissioned

To spin line after silken line of flattery,

 

While an emperor searched for immortality

In elixirs, or the arms of Yang Guifei. I sang

His or her praise. For a time, it trapped me.

 

Listen, moon! That fool of a man, his concubine,

Are less to me now than this cup of wine.

 

 

IV

Place, too, becomes a kind of absence

For the wanderer. Even after sixty years

I can still pine for the distant grasslands

 

Of my childhood, their huge perspectives

Along flowered valleys to the high passes,

The tents, the cattle-bells, the whooping herdsmen.

 

My breath still catches on the pine-incensed road

Into Sichuan. I sigh day after day for fishermen

Poling bamboo rafts on the river at Yangshuo,

 

And my heart still scales the hundred terraces

Of Dragon’s Back Mountain, where white cranes

Walk in a dream, entranced by their own elegance.

 

Agh, more wine! The traveller’s curse

Is to ache to be everywhere, all at once.

 

V

No more wine. I fling the empty jug

Through space at the moon’s reflection

With the rage of a lover whose love

 

Has turned bitter. The image breaks

Into a thousand slivers that pierce

My eyes, my heart, then turn to flay

 

Me alive. Alive? There are ways to be alive:

In peach blossoms in spring, in the flow

And flood of the Yangtse, in those high

 

Stripped places where I must journey soon,

Never again to raise a parting wine-cup.

In the lake’s mirror, the shining moon,

 

That just now I shattered, is shaking

Itself whole again. I must embrace it.

 

 

 

 

2003   Kamikaze      Beatrice Garland,  England  

 

Her father embarked at sunrise

with a flask of water, a samurai sword

in the cockpit, a shaven head

full of powerful incantations

and enough fuel for a one-way

journey into history

 

but half way there, she thought,

recounting it later to her children,

he must have looked far down

at the little fishing boats

strung out like bunting

on a green-blue translucent sea

 

and beneath them, arcing in swathes

like a huge flag waved first one way

then the other in a figure of eight,

the dark shoals of fishes

flashing silver as their bellies

swivelled towards the sun

 

and remembered how he

and his brothers waiting on the shore

built cairns of pearl-grey pebbles

to see whose withstood longest

the turbulent inrush of breakers

bringing their father’s boat safe

 

yes, grandfather’s boat – safe

to the shore, salt-sodden, awash

with cloud-marked mackerel,

black crabs, feathery prawns,

the loose silver of whitebait and once

a tuna, the dark prince, muscular, dangerous.

 

And though he came back

my mother never spoke again

in his presence, nor did she meet his eyes

and the neighbours too, they treated him

as though he no longer existed,

only we children still chattered and laughed

 

till gradually we too learned

to be silent, to live as though

he had never returned, that this

was no longer the father we loved.

And sometimes, she said, he must have wondered

which had been the better way to die.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2001   In There   Martin Dyar,  Mayo, Ireland

 

The swollen mare, an animate hillside dolmen,

was the warmest thing in the field.

In the rain we approached her

with the vet who would insert his arm

into the tight cave of her life,

under her tail, in there, where I imagined

tongues of Braille-flesh spoke things on his hand

that my parents paid him to translate.

 

And I could not imagine her insides as dark.

I thought there had to be something there,

clearer than daylight, the stuff and the place

so profound to be said of, life comes from.

She groaned but stood still, an inconvenienced

yet tolerant oracle in our inquiring midst.

 

Sunk to his shoulder in hot equine encasement,

the vet fixed his eye on the distance and read.

And then, the check-up complete, his sheathed arm

glistening with the grease of horse health,

he smoked and spoke to my parents.

 

With the sight of the mare’s soaked oak neck,

big veins there like suede worms,

my eight year old mind pulsed,

her mane of treacle laces, her bulbous inky eyes,

maternal in ways that made me feel safe and sad.

 

Drizzle drifted through

where steam from her body met

our visible breaths,

two clouds of creaturely presence

diffusing together in February light.

 

Pleased, we descended the hill,

my ankles weak upon the hoof craters,

the Lilliputian castles of manure

unmade by Mayo weather; the rain

falling steadily upon

the ocean of sympathy that was

that sacred word, foal.

 

Martin Dyar