The experience of working as a teacher in a women’s prison provided the inspiration for this year’s winner of the York Literature Festival / YorkMix.com Poetry Competition.
Avril Joy, of Witton-le-Wear, scooped the £600 first prize with her poem, Skomm. The title comes from an ancient Norse word meaning ‘shame’. Another poem of Avril’s, Doing Money, also inspired by her work with prisoners, was honoured with a Commended award.
This year’s judge, Clare Shaw, said of the winning work:
Poetry is a natural place to express the most intense feelings.
But for it to work it has to be more than just expression; it has to be transformational. Both of Avril’s poems have that quality. Skomm was an absolutely shattering poem… and it’s not going to leave me.
She added: “The standard of the entries in the York competition was absolutely amazing.
“I have read poems among these entries as good as anything in the Ted Hughes Poetry Competition, which I judged, and also as good as anything we’ve seen in the National Poetry Awards. They were truly wonderful.”
Michael Brown and Sue Norton
The awards event was supported this year by City Cruises York, who provided the floating venue, the River Prince, and a two-hour cruise on the Ouse, as 15 of the prizewinning poets read their entries to a spellbound audience.
This was the final event of the 2019 York Literature Festival. The evening was opened by festival committee stalwart Rob O’Connor, who also thanked the festival sponsors, asset managers Baillie Gifford.
Carole Bromley, who inaugurated the competition in 2013, and judged it for four years, joined Rob to read out winning poems by writers who were unable to attend the prizegiving event.
Now in its seventh year, the competition is recognised as one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry competitions, attracting a total of 769 poems from 333 poets this year.
As the River Prince came in to dock at King’s Staith on Sunday evening, Clare Shaw completed the evening with two dynamic readings from her collections Head On and Flood (both published by Bloodaxe).
The other winners
Second prize (£150) was awarded to Michael Brown, from Middlesbrough, for his poem, Hallowed
Third prize (£75) went to Sue Norton, from York for Drought, July 2018
Fourth prize (£50) was awarded to Dominic Weston, of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, for his poem, None of Us Saw This Coming
The Helen Cadbury Prize (for an outstanding entry from a YO postcode), £50, was awarded to Hilary Jenkins for The Summer I Was Fourteen
The International Prize (£100) was awarded to Abbie Neale, of Leiden, in the Netherlands, for Can You Draw Him For Us
All the winning and commended poems are below.
The winning poems
by Avril Joy (Witton-le-Wear, Durham)
there are others with her – among them her sister – their geese barely a wing less visible.
The weight of goose swells the air, the room is ripe with the scent of goose shit.
I put down my bag, take off my scarf and coat and wonder about the snow covering
the road. Outside the wind is up and the yard is frosting over.
Better make a start, I say. They pick up pens, open books. The girl with the goose
on her head declines to write, says she cannot concentrate,
for the load, the poundage, her shortened neck, compacted spine
for centuries of carrying: scamu, skomm, shame, the bird force fed, gavage-pipe
in the oesophagus, on its back, legs splayed, neck craned, half-buried in its chest
the words whispered in a father’s bed.
She says she cannot stop thinking, None of us can Miss, the nights are the worst…
corralled, wings beating they leave their bodies, fly up in a blizzard.
A captive murmuration.
Jesus, look at the snow. Will you get home alright Miss? What about the kids?
I look out at the fattening flakes, the absent ground. I taste the goose, all twenty pounds
of it, sweat and stink,
the snow falls on my tongue, the lightest it’s been,
I’ll get home alright, I say, now close your books. What will it be?
A story, say the girls with geese, and they fold their arms, lay down their heads.
by Michael Brown (Middlesbrough)
Drought, July 2018
by Sue Norton (York)
patters and drums the plastic watering can.
Redcurrants hang leaves that crease like silk,
berries, hard as rubies, shrivel with drought.
Under the sweetcorn drifts a smell of dust,
earth crazes like lightning, slabs into paving.
Wildfires in Sweden blaze hot news. Flames
crackle Scots pines beyond the Arctic Circle
but hey, our kitchen tap chuckles into our kettle.
We refill our cups, think someone else is in trouble.
None of us saw this coming
by Dominic Weston (Shepton Mallet, Somerset)
he keeps patrolling the edge of the blisterpack of multivitamins
for the over 50s
on the breakfast table
It’s not cold but he’s doddering about the place
like he’s forgotten how to walk, reluctant to fly, even
when we try to waft him off
he keeps coming back to the same corner starting his patrol again
I could kill him
he’s stuck in some kind of loop
like when you ask him to get something
from the other room
and he comes back empty handed again and again
I was on the upper deck
of the Ben-my-Chree
creeping into Douglas harbour
past the Tower of Refuge
there he was on the deck below alighting on the handrail
following it round as far as he could go
then starting again “I just want to know my exact national debt”
all he’d say, I could kill him
I don’t want to kill him of course but I could, easily
instead I watch him alight again on the corner
of the half pressed out sheet
for the over 50s
none of us saw this coming
The Helen Cadbury Prize
(An outstanding poem by a York entrant)
The Summer I Was Fourteen
(after Geraldine Connolly)
by Hilary Jenkins (Rosedale East, Pickering)
and find Ruislip is at the far edge of the world.
That first morning we take your aunt’s dog to the park,
and lose it. While she waits for it to return
we spin the city on the Circle Line – twice-
leaving a trail of silver stars
then visit Guy the Gorilla in the zoo,
and Ian McKellen in Hamlet –
forgetting to tell her we’ll be so late back,
so she shouts a bit.
In the morning we offer to wash up
and break one of the wedding present glasses –
I’m surprised she can still remember her wedding.
We slink off to Camden Town with a bottle
looking for a boy we’ve fallen in love with
in the Observer colour supplement.
Later we find a copy of Oz blowing around in a street
behind Ladbroke Grove. I hide it behind my back
while we try to convince a ticket inspector we’re still thirteen –
he asks our birthdays over and over but we’ve been practising.
In Harrod’s Home Furnishings we lie on a bed with Oz
and swig woodpecker. We take another look at the map.
Can you draw him for us
by Abbie Neale (Leiden, Netherlands)
across paper, mapping her walk
home from school to the police.
She details the ducks, daisies
and buttercups. When she draws
the traffic lights she pauses,
talks about ducks again because
ducks aren’t the scary part.
There’s no green for the wings
so she outlines the lamppost instead
where she saw the man waiting.
It cranes over him like a surrealist
showerhead. She pretends to probe
the beige plush carpet to show
how she picked the flowers
like a sandpiper pecking for prey.
The man didn’t go.
Bea says she walked towards him
because that was the way home.
She didn’t want his smile
or his sweets so he tripped her
and that’s when she ran.
Our mother’s mouth falls open.
The feeble noise that escapes
makes Bea give the pen back
and a quiet panic settle
in her throat, like feathers.
Highly Commended poems
The Hard Problem
by Giles Goodland (Ealing, London)
the matter of thought. Waking once
when ill it seemed clear I was
also the bed, the ward. But
I lifted my head and these spilt
out. Spots of me on the pillow
or just shadow.
The get-well-soon balloon descended, trailed
its umbilical, followed visitors’
backdraughts as if trying to leave too.
Something that language does to you
to do with language. The head
carried out the body out of the room.
At the lake I took the image as
preferable, since contingent on
leaf-fall, wind-scuff or fish-pucker, to
the actual trees. The surface shot back
what I don’t know. I was wobbled,
mirrors cracked in me and in place of mind
to have what, spirit of pronoun. Growing
in amethyst caves not much more than fist-
sized, the brain that science sees cannot see
its litness, screens in each cell waking.
We clean them by sleeping, these cells, knowing
how flowed it is in us, vat of brain that
tilts, spills sentence, and comes again,
animates, feels a way, senses
self as a head that extrudes from the eye,
as if towards light, pushing, hardening.
Exhibition catalogue: Everything is Everything
by Julia Marshall (Oxford)
#2 Running footsteps in the dark
#3 The warm rubber taint of a burst balloon
#4 Hole of the last ring doughnut I bought you
#5 The gap between our fingers before we held hands for the first time
#6 Wind support that stopped me falling off a cliff
#7 Undeveloped photographs of the places I’ve never seen
#8 Displaced air from where our bodies lay
#9 The weight of regret
#10 Whiff of green-apple shampoo on someone else’s hair
#11 Pause from an audience before it applauds
#12 Shiver of a passionate fingernail
#13 The recognition I have no self-knowledge
#14 Item on loan
#15 The joy of giving an unlooked for gift
#16 Aftermath of a tickle
#17 Last migraine before I gave up cheese except I never did
#18 My heartbeat when your eyes smiled at mine
#19 Stomach drop lurch of a 3am phone call
#20 Ambush of a secret I haven’t kept
#21 Envy of laughter erupting from a stranger travelling solo on a train
#22 A remembered future
#23 The contagion of hysterical negativity
#24 All the memories I would have kept
#25 The unlight of a flat-batteried emergency torch
#26 Warmth of a lover’s scarf
#27 The burst of stolen breakfast blueberries on my coy tongue
#28 The missing picture of the unknowing moment the last time we met
#29 The distance between (unfinished)
#31 The hope of an unopened envelope
#32 An evaporated Summer storm
#33 The excoriation of gloss paint from a house we never bought
#34 The imagined consequences of bad timing
#35 Reflection of the empty sitting room projected into the garden, animated by moths
#36 An excess of dubious wisdom
#37 The implausibility of writing a really good poem
#38 Conversations we never had
#39 The truth of an undiscovered lie
#40 My half-life.
A female pheasant chooses to cross Plumy Feather Lane
by JIll Munro (Crowborough, East Sussex)
into my poems ─ one was just another word
for a complaint and one was a boy who changed
into a white-winged, black-tailed Ptarmigan,
a highland grouse, and in the strange way the world turns,
just as when you’ve had a tooth extracted
and return home to find a flyer for Gentle Dental
has been pushed through your door, when you are musing
on your over-use of ‘grouse’, how it would be writ too large
in a WordArt typography of your poems, when you are driving down
Plumy Feather Lane and out of the dark, mottled brown shadows
under the ivy-covered trees at the side of the lane, a mottled
buffish-brown, portly bird waddles across the road in front of you,
it is then you realise ─ this is a female pheasant.
Ke-tuk, ke-tuk, ke-tuk.
by Sue Norton (York)
We took a bucket to a standpipe,
lit fires with black logs,
shiny and patterned in places
with prints of unfamiliar leaves.
Coal grew grey fur then split,
its red heart clogged with ash.
Smoke lazed up the chimney.
Blue tongues darted and licked
and we sucked glacier mints
scrunching the wrappers, not noticing
Peppy the polar bear gripping his tiny floe,
adrift in a deep blue sea. All evening
we fed his image to the coal.
Like a wife
by Estelle Price (Wilmslow, Cheshire)
my father works his way to the bay window, checks
that nothing untoward has happened in the night.
Sometimes I am there, trussed in my teenage dressing gown
hem frayed, the script ready in my head. He begins by asking
if I remember. Surely I must remember our first one,
the two-door Austin with the leather seats and walnut dash?
‘We were proud of her, weren’t we’ he says, ‘singing our way
along the A39 to Devon, Primus, tent and sleeping bags
tucked in the back.’ And I agree, even if it wasn’t me
who sat beside him newly-wed, who leapt out to lighten the load
on the wooded slopes of Porlock Hill. Then we gently grieve
until he turns clouded eyes to mine tells me how long long ago,
well before my time, he’d ride up front with his Dad in a lorry burdened
with war, windscreen stripped of glass, headlamps masked.
‘Cold it was,’ he says ‘but he looked after me, your Grandad.’
Like a wife I ask him if he’s warm enough. He nods. I wonder
whether now is the time to talk about the road,
how unexpectedly it can bend, enter a valley filled with haze
making it impossible to know whose are the voices that chatter
in our heads, how then it’s time to be a passenger again?
Driving to Much Wenlock
by Di Slaney (Bilsthorpe, Nottinghamshire)
through the grill, the Jeep packed with ripe
fleeces from Friday’s shearing. I’m showing
flesh today with shirt sleeves rolled, wipe
a tickle of sweat from my top lip, a prick
of wrigglewarm under my skin, and turn up the
radio for ‘Sunshine on Leith’ as heat licks the
dash. I squint. April pulses like a randy tup
in all the lush fields flashing by the window
so I roll it down, the smell of pee and clags
rising in my nostrils with flickerburn to run. I go
faster, see all the weight of wool behind, dags
poking through netstrings with their reek
of shit and earth, see without mirror, see back
and sides without moving head, feel sleek
cream locks creeping from behind to meet black
tufts on me, one long wrap of grey and downy
thel to swathe me as the sky and road merge
and I baabreathe through my mouth, baabrown
cudjuice leaking from my lips and oh, that surge
of powerjoy to leap from this box and jump, jump, jump
away into the green
Songs of Saudi
ii. Suheil’s song
Dhahran, October 1990
by Di Slaney (Bilsthorpe, Nottinghamshire)
from my ivory tank, a stubborn fish
stuck in a pond without water to protect
against gas and bomb, only a mirror to busy line
reflect this solid tank, a stranded fish
in this rich place, no lack of anything
even gas and bomb, only a mirror to
see me talking, although missing you dial tone
in a rich place with no lack of anything
is not the point. The mirror wall
shows me talking, and missing you
so far away means we’re tied together ring tone
but that’s not the point. The mirror wall
makes everything bigger than it is,
you so far away and us not together,
but separation builds deeper ties, ring tone
makes everything bigger than it is,
the sky truth blue, the sand heart gold,
and separation ties us deeper, builds us up
while the sun sulks red each night empty line
my truth sky blue, my heart sand gold,
and their tiny half-heard voices make
my face wet red each night
without a bed time story ring tone
and their tinny half-lost voices make
home a question, here in the safe house
without my bed time story
that home is family is home ring tone
without family here in the safe house
with taped windows and CNN,
as my family makes home without me
and the heat reeks through the aircon, busy line
licks the taped windows, and CNN keeps
those fighters coming in my dreams.
The heat seeps through the aircon
but your cool voice in my right ear dial tone
says fighters are nothing but dreams,
and the pond without water will defend
and you are my voice, my right, my dear one,
and I am the man in the bathtub, calling you. ring tone
by Alison Stewart (West Hunsbury, Northamptonshire)
in the scalding bath
only her face was left
floating on the surface
painted eyes staring
up at you when you were
only eight and too young
to be a mother
even so she held you
responsible and in between
the discovery and scream
she cursed you rotten
drowned you in her
left a ring of scum
on the white porcelain
called you a bad
and even now
you believe her
by Mark Totterdell (Exeter)
and in your dreams it makes the ground less hard.
Your lumpy duvet slips and will not stay,
a cover of thick cloud that’s blown away.
The sun’s your final coin to feed the meter.
You can’t control the setting of the heater.
The moon’s your bedside lamp. Just watch it wane.
Your power supply is on the blink again.
Your roof needs fixing. In it, shining bright,
are several thousand tiny holes of light.
Your windows are of air. Their zero-glazing
is 0% efficient. It’s amazing.
Your front door is the gap between two trees,
and all the world has access to the keys.
Patroclus and Achilles
by James Turner (Morton on Swale, North Yorkshire)
me any less of a man
I think patroclus felt he had to
he had to fix cars point walls
I thought I’d broke him
I was I feared exposure
now I look at it for what it was
in the cold and the snow and the arthritic beds
knocked about springs
he asked why I hid from
the bastard sun
I said because I had scars
on my back and needles
in my eyes
for a time I worked with pigs and
I would clean out their sties with a power washer
and sometimes think about spraying my skin raw
or whether other animals behaved
like I did
for a time I worked with sheep
we would lead them through foot baths
and sometimes I wanted to walk crack-footed
through the Formalin 40
thomas had that same look of lust
in his eyes
and patroclus always sort of endured
sort to endear
fucking hinting all the time
I dreamt about a caravan
I dreamt about an annex that
we eventually furnished went from
sleeping bags to mattresses
The Silence of the Birthing Hare
by Jane Burn (Leadgate, Durham)
make no noise when we must tear out a child –
biding time, bush-hid are the things that feed
on our open throats, waiting in the wild
for the sounds that betray our pain. The smell
of blood already baits the air. Don’t speak,
don’t yell, I warn myself. Just grit and shell
your litter of young. Bear and bite your cheek,
writhe inside your meagre scrape – out they come,
ears glued with birth-mess to their bullet heads,
with eyes full open, ready tooth-filled gums
and slick with dampened hair. Just one born dead –
five yet might live. I warm them, kiss them dry,
their heartbeats small beneath the night-fear sky.
by Jinny Fisher (Glastonbury, Somerset)
Boys are assigned a number, to be marked
with indelible ink, inside their shoes.
Boys are taught only by men
who have been taught only by men.
There is one woman, called Matron.
She treats all ills with paracetemol or laxatives.
When a blackboard rubber goes missing
and no-one owns up, all boys
are beaten by the Head.
Dormitory floorboards creak
as older boys track down younger –
silent and shaking.
Bigger boys are invited to masters’ quarters,
for ‘personal attention’.
Boys wake in chilly, damp sheets.
Boys who can pitch a note are chosen
as choristers, learning Evensong and Matins
from boys around them.
These choristers find a home together –
their friends are animal misericords
under choir stalls’ ancient seats.
And they shall cocoon themselves
with canticles and anthems –
Dowland, Purcell, and Bach
shall comfort them always.
by Victoria Gatehouse (Ripponden, West Yorkshire)
in Ago Bay, bare backed and free
from the compressed weight of oxygen,
the skin around my eyes unmarked
by the seal of a shadow mask. Let me rise
before dawn, join the women who make
dockyards tilt and dip with bamboo flares,
hair bound by tenugi, long knives slipped
into fundoshi at their hips. And let my strong toes
propel me down to thirty feet and my lungs
become the lungs of the sea, bronchioles streaming
like weed, alveoli blown out to a coral-red bloom,
two minutes grace to gather sea urchins, lobsters,
to scrape alabone from rocks, and before I break
the surface, exhale that long slow whistle
to prevent the bends, let me haul up a bucketful
of oysters, just one pearl being enough to feed
a family for a week. And if I’m to bear a daughter,
let her swim before she can walk, let her hair
spread into a thousand salty whispers at her back,
let her pray to the glimmering eye of the shrine
for my safe return, and when she’s twelve
or thirteen, body waking to the push and pull
of the tide, let her heed my warnings
of octopus lovers and sharks and I’ll concede
to use of Neoprene. And if she follows her mother,
takes on the muscle and clout of the sea,
let her body be a twist of flame the ocean can’t douse.
by Katharine Goda (Durham)
those small, imperfect, perfect, bundled cells.
No frankincense. Smells already assault a mother primed
to protect. Just not from unseen dangers in herself.
No myrrh. No cure for the pouring out of love and hope.
Blood and tears extravagantly splashed. And nobody to hold.
Friends bring the key to a quiet home,
send yellow roses, meals we know I cannot eat,
‘phone – straightaway, not knowing what to say
but adding to my loss their love, their sorrow.
A worry doll like a tiny foetus, offered helplessly
as we hold each others’ arms and, crying, nod.
Cups of tea while I shiver in warm rooms
or on benches where wind blows through my thoughts.
We wish we knew what happened to a soul.
Your star, I tell them – how I’d looked for it, imagined you.
It will move. I’ll try and fail to follow its light, departing:
out, out, into unreachable night.
Drugged by your gift of hormones for a few more days,
soon a fading blue line will be the only truth you left behind.
And two parents missing you – always, always.
by Katie Greenbrown (York)
Everything labelled Holiday-Only
Your Step Mum threw up her April hands when it was all over and done
This deep, this long after Easter?
Our Emma, she’ll not get past Ripponden
My smile is weak as tea
Feet made fat by wet boots
Good leather lasagned by the four mile hike in calf deep snow
With two crying children in tow
More gravy love?
Cheeks burn coldly by the gas fire
I shake my head
How did you end up walking into Hebden then?
Can I give you lift? He said
Blue pick-up truck the only living thing in the thorough white
There won’t be any buses, the valley’s blocked
I had to check the flock up top
Where are you going with the kids in this snow?
You’re all soaked through
Tubs of sheep feed lugged across
We pack three to the front seat, smallest on my knee
So what’s the story? Or maybe I shouldn’t ask?
I won’t be able to get you right to town love
But I can get you as near as
I put one small hand in each of mine
Windscreen wipers bat fresh flakes to either side
Mum how far is it? Not too far I lie
I set my jaw for town like a sat nav
I can carry you one at a time on my back
That’s the best I can do, I say
Nothing’s open, but there’s a light on in Age UK
She looks up, stands up, Glenys get towels love
And put the kettle on
See if there are leggings for the little ones – and socks
No, don’t worry about the floor love, we can mop.
How far have you come? Cragg Vale? You never!
Well, at least it’s stopping
Not exactly, I think. He has his own weather.
Joan of Arc
by Rosanna Hildyard (Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire)
silence. The mothers and the
fathers were so pleased: nothing needed
pass my lips; no need to feed or
listen. All under control. Mouthed up in my
grey hood, I spent my time alone in
stone or tiled places; mostly
toilets, but some cloisters (there were plenty, in this
cathedral city). I fasted faster, harder. In
control. I must be good, free of
greed. I didn’t tell about the mouths I felt.
Not hearing voices: first, a verucca growing in my
sole tooth pushed through
translucent gum. I kept it
zipped. Eating a pear, I felt
tumours: tiny calciates. I spat it out and after that
starved even more. My belly fought back and
nipped me in the night. I had
saw-ridged toothmarks on my
neck and wrists. But no
blood, no broken skin, no
noise. No one listening except God; no one to
hear. Here, I wondered if it was a
parasite? and not just me. What do your
voices smell like? asked the
father, trickily. They bite, I said.
Why didn’t you tell us, then? asked father.
I was as loud as I could, I said.
This is what truth looks like
by Patrick Holloway (Porto Alegre, Brazil)
You were 17 & driving your VW Polo
along the coast road
right behind that café where you scrubbed dishes
& you thought
just drive off the cliff
& the waves beckoned beautifully below.
You pulled over & caught your breath
& then continued driving.
You received a text message 2 years on
from your brother
who you hadn’t spoken to for far too long,
it said this:
I love you, you’ll always be my little man.
You often wonder how many times your mother
& father have had similar thoughts.
Now when you look over your shoulder
in the mirror you notice the same back
fat that your brother had
that you never had before.
You always write as if your brother succeeded
even though he didn’t
not the first time
or the second
or the third.
Sometimes you stay up the whole night
unable to sleep
because you wish he had.
by Avril Joy (Witton-le-Wear, Durham)
you run, they put you in prison.
Your clothes are hidden, you wear a t-shirt and briefs,
it’s cold in the house, mattresses are damp
and soiled, ashtrays stuffed to overflowing.
They come all hours of the day and night – sometimes
in pairs, sometimes three or more – to do as they please
according to cost: to fuck, to cut, to gag and cuff,
tie up, fuckery, sodomy.
Cost more for anal, he says, more you go bareback.
There is no charge for burning with cigarettes,
for splitting lips, no charge for the blood that runs,
the bruised head, the cracked nose.
You have no shoes.
Outside the trees are withered and leafless, the moon
is up, a barely seen shadow of itself,
it is not the winter moon of home.
You never going back, he says.
There is a hole in you as big as yourself
only your edges are real and your ribbon-less hair.
The shape worn in you is the shape of rock.
Most of you has disappeared
but the girl in the white communion dress visits
your dreams, climbing the steps
cut in your clavicle, parting flesh from bone.
Outside cars wait like crows.
Between before and after
by Afric McGlinchey (Clonakilty, Cork, Ireland)
Like an animal, she knows how to hide.
She watches what goes on in the valley below,
people passing in vehicles, or watching screens silently
at the base of the mountain.
She’s gone somewhere high, far from those who decide
who is unacceptable.
Far from what is unacceptable.
I can imagine her singing
that no one wants death today, that nobody’s going to die,
especially because this is the lightest of borders and her feet feel safe.
Want an apple?
A free ticket?
Offering nonchalance, then accepting a coffee with her mouth open
on the third roof on this third week –
perhaps her luck turning
into no one refusing to let her stay.
And the bicycle she is riding hands free is not hers, but yes, hers is the spirit
through provinces of irregular shapes and erratic lawlessness.
Get past the black nights; you’ll find open doors,
I wrote in my letter.
She’ll be wondering what’s next. Only we’ll know
(involuntary noise) what went before.
This Fella Knows Me.
by Christina Raísea Murphy (Oxford)
He comes to me and asks
‘Are they ever going to stop killing us?’
At first, he let on that he just so happened to happen upon them, here and there,
links, scrolling Twitter sessions, YouTube recommends gone wrong.
Then came the searching, in the dead of night, in the time it took for the kettle to boil,
in the moments so peaceful you forget you’re alive.
This fella has to be the straightest bi guy you’d ever meet in your life, not
by accident or by dare, but by a nature so present it shares his marriage bed.
He is on that search for that Father or Mother God, or seeing that we’re all queer here,
that Creator who saw fit to scatter us down to the world –
Thrown over a rooftop. He can’t stop watching the guys. As they’re thrown over a rooftop.
Normally, he pauses or rewinds to the moment when gravity takes hold of them, and their
fail to unfurl, and these men tumble into an abyss blind to their beauty, an eternal chasm
waiting for another taste of the splattered gore that once made their bodies heavenly.
‘What’s the point in making us, only for everyone else to undo us?’
Well, he doesn’t quite put it like that. He asks, ‘Can’t they just stop fucking killing us?’
I can say to him is that everyone remembers that Icarus fell, but everyone
chooses to forget that first, Icarus took flight-
which makes about as much sense as this guy being so compulsed, even though he’s only bi.
I dared him once to watch till the end,
the mouths of the crowd open and shut, like hungry chicks in a nest.
There rose a question that we can never utter, so we both said fuck it, called up
a few gays and went out dancing.
And the next night, they shot up Pulse nightclub.
And I don’t know what this fella watches anymore.
Painting my mother
by Abbie Neale (Leiden, Netherlands)
I’m well acquainted with a square paintbrush head
and the faint murmur of pigeons in the morning
but this week the wind, like a warning, blew
down my chimney and it came with the cold
and my fingers didn’t know how to hold it anymore.
Until I spoke to her. I confessed it in the car of all places
because that way she couldn’t look at me.
She knew this type of pain, she had felt it too
and when she parked in the driveway we stayed there
for hours, talking it through.
That night I thought how lucky I was to be loved by her
and slept like a baby curled in the womb.
I woke, and there were plant leaves on the table, poppies
and safflowers and a circle of linseed and walnuts
in the living room. The oil was boiled with pine resin
in unlined steel cans, the canvas was ready
and for the first time in a while my hands were steady.
I worked without a chair, and the wind was still there, but
now I liked how it made the paint bend in the air.
Her cheeks and her chin I made red,
and the dripping blue that came from her head
moved to her shoulders and undulating chest,
creating the shape of an S, and dipped into the plains
of her belly. Then into the sweeping brushstrokes
of her face I added two eyes, parchment-white,
like the blossoms that floated in through the fireplace
and three coats of varnish to let the artwork harden.
I was her daughter, I was a woman
in a Waterhouse garden.
by Jo Peters (Otley, West Yorkshire)
so we did not see your study, your roses, your grave.
In the heat how a thrush shouted with abandon, how politely
a notice rejected us, as we looked at each other as if to say: what now?
Here words streamed from your pen, here after all you were happy:
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Here the voices you had dreaded returned to terrify you:
I can’t fight any longer. Here in the threatening wartime spring
German bombers thundered from the sea and over the rounded downs
with the little churches in the hollows. Here dolour, desolation, despair
bowed your head, weighed you down, heavy as stones.
I’m glad we came the wrong day, Virginia. In your house,
surrounded by your particular possessions, how could we not
have imagined you as you put on your coat, your hat, took up your cane,
set out over familiar fields to the river?
You left your hat and your cane on the bank like stories.
Self Portrait with Maritime Museum Mermaid, Hull
by Wendy Pratt (Gristhorpe, North Yorkshire)
Probably Fake. She is blackened with age.
There is an X-ray of her body, which shows
wires for a skeleton, whale ivory for teeth,
glass eyes. Her skin is monkey skin,
her tail is a fish tail. Chimera mermaid.
Her little breasts are flat, drooped. Old-lady
mermaid. She has no hair and her mouth
is open to its fullest extent, a constant,
soundless scream to the people whose eyes
she looks straight into.
When I take the photo of her, I don’t realise
that I am in it too. Overlaid, my hounds-tooth
coat and red hat, my mobile phone, my face,
have shadowed her. My face is laid over hers,
so perfectly, that I can’t see my own eyes.
We are a little freak show, all wire and fakery,
empty of biology and withering in a box. Only,
someone put this thing together with skill,
if not love, and someone painted those glass eyes
with care and filled the little head with tiny teeth
and fooled the world. And people still pour past
the little box and look, see? The plaque
cannot be sure that she is fake at all.
I move away, untethered. I leave the freak show
and swim up to the rafters to be with the skulls
of Right whales and Narwhales. We don’t
even think of the IVF clinic today. I am thirty-nine.
My husband cries, finally, over our lost babies.
We hold hands. I am swimming away.
by Alice Tomlinson (Murton, York)
caught out saluting magpies as I tried
to cross a triple-carriageway on foot
at rush hour. Ushered in, a diva in dark
glasses, I’m ensconced in the far corner
of a worn-out room, crying harder
than I ought to, weeping over narrow bed,
abrasive blanket, constant noises seeping
from above. When calm’s restored
I get the tour: tv room, dining room,
the jigsaw cupboard (every puzzle missing
half a dozen pieces) and the bookshelf
(all unhappy endings carefully redacted).
On my first night, when the building
catches fire, a stranger carries me
into the carpark’s freezing air and slowly
counts to ten, then takes me back inside,
lungs full of non-existent smoke.
The noises from above grow louder.
Nobody can guarantee I’m not being
forced to sleep directly underneath
a torture chamber; they just move me
to another room. Each time I wake
there’s someone different watching
over me, perched hag-like on my chest:
I recognise a nurse who seems to hate me,
an unhelpfully suave doctor
with immaculately turned-back
sleeves, an orderly who never smiles.
I couldn’t say how long I’ve been here;
they are only keeping track of breaths
instead of trivialities like hours and days
and weeks and months and years.
by Mark Totterdell (Exeter)
stretch-necked and lolloping towards the loch,
with a lamb or something dangling,
it was shot on grainy film, blown up
to a big figure footing it through trees,
unarguable but for japes and ape suits,
it ravaged the village with flame, on unlikely wings,
was slain by a local hero with a lance
that is still on show in the church, but not this church,
it left a ripped-out carcass on the moor,
and one ambiguous paw-print in coarse granite sand,
a blur on a photo where the scale’s not clear,
it peered through a midwest midnight window,
huge black almond eyes in a cartoon face,
in a time of odd lights and alleged mutilations,
it pads beside you, claws clicking on tarmac,
then turns to suck the marrow from your spine,
lick your brainpan clean of serotonin.