Main Prize Shortlist 2014 – Full poems



is what I want – your soft fingers, that trail

at a pace that I imagine you imagine as yourself

drawing the limits of the skin, just half

solid, you outside moving in, and me pulled

to be all surface, mirrored, still as the whole

orchestra that hangs on every tick of deft

and mathematical command, a faith

expanding through the volumes of the house, the hall,

the almost weightless ash inside the grate,

the air over the frozen roof, the orange

cosmos of the vapour strung along the street

reflected by the tight hard stars – to take

their delicate echoes back, find nothing strange,

and prove each thing for what it is – complete.

– Ian McEwen




Inventory: Recovery Room

A thin yellow curtain shivers around my bed.
On the cupboard, a clipboard displays failing, falling numbers.
An IV stand bows its head from a tall metal stem and sends
a tube from pouch to cannula to vein, drip-feeding me morphine.

A plastic plug lies on the tile, no longer wiring the TV to the wall.
That blank screen is black now and shows only my reflection:
pale face, blue paper gown, surgical socks stretched up to the crotch.
On the windowsill, a row of bottles stare out at rain with dry eyes.

My breasts are funneled into plastic cups. The machine waits.
With each whine-whirr, it stretches my flesh, then lets go again;
the sensation as strange as a pinned and needled leg.
Nothing happens.

I think of milk, of beestings squeezed from a cow’s udders,
the feel of my fingers in a calf’s mouth: the fierce suck,
wet tongue muscling hard against the ridged roofs of a mouth,
the echo of a mother’s angry bellows from the meadow.

Within my chest, an itch begin to stir, turns to a tingling surge.
The machine’s slow suck and release yields a single drop
of yellow liquid. It leaks from me, drops into a plastic bottle.
Another slow drop forms and falls… Another. Another.

I sit and feed the machine, politely, quietly,
as through some bodily alchemy, electricity pulls milk from me.
By the wall, an empty cot, a hand-knit blanket neatly folded.
On top, a tiny hat and an unused nappy, flat.

Note: Beestings~ the nutrient-rich colostrum of a cow

– Dorieann Ni Ghriofa






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




How the body Remembers


Last night I was woken by a loose scrap of siren

and found you, face pressed to the night,

watching some drama unfold on our road,

cobalt strobing the silence


the way it lit up the street that September

in Trastevere, washed over you blue after blue

where you lay among fag ends and chair legs

until they lifted you on to a stretcher


and breath guttered back through your lungs

as we lunged over cobbles in a language

unknown to us and you found yourself

back in a nine-year-old body


careening through London’s cacophony

of sirens, bomb flares through blue glass,

the City in flames, your eyes wide

with terror and me holding your hand.

– Geraldine Mitchell




The Crocodile Bag


An African nun tucked it in my cradle.

I grew to love its glossy scales,

side pockets to hide things in.


Mother, dressed in full squirrel

said it made her shiver –

some reptile that once lurked in the Nile.


I yearned to clutch it under my arm

carrying: compact with mirror,

a lipstick called ‘Strawberry Kiss.


I polished its hide with my sleeve,

propped its mouth with a pencil

to keep it mould free.


Released in a drawer, it glided

in eau de Nil seas

of mother’s silk negligees.


shoved in the tallboy of oddities:

orphaned socks, mismatched cufflinks,

rollnig pearls of a necklace.


It surfaced last week on a tide of old shoes,

lay there unravellled –

the hide of a fabulous beast.

– Marie Coveney




November Rain, Swanage


That time we exchanged several emails a week

were the months of visits and therapies I could hardly


even in sympathy for you grasp the fearfulness of.

And now your time has become a more a more ordinarily


work-beset sort of time, while mine, much less

occupied, too much mine, needs urging firmly


towards things, like today this poem-like letter

or letter-like poem, in which I want to say


the thin November rain on Swanage Beach

is moist on the hand still, the chips are warm.


I can easily tread the winding cliff-edge path

and see the fulmars curving there, stiff winged,


easily feel the sand underfoot at Arne,

easily see you without a picture to prompt me


pausing to scrutinise shell, weed, stone,

crouching to see what coded sign the receding


tide leaves, till the sound of small waves breaking

is the sound of you taking the world in.


The walks we’ve had seem one long walk, its speech

one long conversation that won’t be interrupted


till it finishes, one single walk on which at first

you’re in this skirt then magically it’s jeans then


a green rainproof, a new winter coat with lobster-

hued buttons. The photographs are a trail


of illuminations, like a novel with no plot,

just images, of sun and sea, a cliff-edge


with a single poppy, or purple thistle-heads;

a tale of rock, yacht, flower, cliff, pub garden,


a fishing-boat drifting between jagged chalk-stacks

while out on the sea’s shimmering opal, sails


lean white, umber; a story of silent accretions

of place, moment, weather, season, with its own


episodes and diversions, its motifs, like the note

of your footwear metamorphosing: shoes to pink crocs,


to trainers, then boots, their step accompanied once

by stabilising Nordic walking sticks-


one of which you lent me to forestall any possibly

headlong stroll I might take down the one-in-five


slope to the beach at Durdle Door and its rocks.

How strange that with all that light on water, that colour,


The oceanic opals and turquoises, sharp red

highlights of poppy, knapweed’s imperial purple,


Harry Rocks’ dazzling white and croc-pink thrift,

it’s the grey November rain on the beach at Swanage


fills the mind to satiety with its music.

The stumps of the old pier curve into mist,


sad as the wake of a ship on which someone’s leaving,

ghostly with silenced decades of promenading


on summer evenings, its silver bands singing clear

above each quite breve of wave falling.


And when you point at a steam-train pulling out

towards Corfe, as if to show me what a steam-train


is, or lean on a soaking gate, absorbed, smiling

into a vacancy that contains, it must be,


some funny thing you’ve just remembered; or stand

a few feet away, a few years away, with the sea


glinting round you, sumptuously, deeply blue,

foaming obligingly white over rocks, while you


subject a packet of peppermints to the kind of scrutiny-

intent, relaxed – jewellers give diamonds ( it’s the wrapper


you’re focussing on, preparatory to offering me one ) :

you return those places to me, me to those places;


as these words, maybe, when the prints are scattered,

or I’m not around, might return to you a day


when the thin November rain on Swanage beach

was moist on the hand, and the chips were warm.

– Robert Hull




The Darkness


In winter I awaken to the dread

of losing something indefinable,

and darkness stretches out around my bed.


September flips a trip switch in my head

and daily living seems less feasible;

in winter I awaken to the dread.


On All Souls’ Night I’d gladly hide instead

of letting on that I’m invincible,

as darkness stretches out around my bed.


By December, it’s as if the world were dead:

to flight the darkness seems unthinkable.

Each winter day I struggle with the dread.


I wish that I could hibernate instead

of coming to and feeling vulnerable

to darkness stretching out around my bed.


I try to think of shorter nights ahead

though springtime now seems inconceivable.

In winter I awaken to the dread

of darkness stretching out around my bed.

– Amanda Bell

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