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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.