It seems to have been an exceptionally long and bitter winter, and world events have done little but add to an increasingly angst ridden mood of despair and disbelief. That is perhaps why so many of the 135 poems offered in this competition dealt with death, pain, illness, mortality and loss. There were political poems triggered by Trump ‘talk’ and fear of another ‘Cold War’. There were poems addressing pollution, the refugee crises, homelessness and migration. Many poems dealt with personal relationships, family, isolation, memory, the possessed and dispossessed. ‘Our voices in our own surprising / shades…’ One didn’t get the impression of a particularly happy or congenial country, and even where landscape was invoked ‘the teeth of mountains / are clenched on the throat of the world.’ Most of the time a kind of grimness pervaded recalling those early New Zealand ‘man alone’ novels of Mulgan and Pearson.
So how to choose. It was difficult, and absolutely subjective, I’m sure. One looks for some point of contact, an empathy, something to engage the mind. Some energy, and a sense of confidence. It isn’t after all just what a poem says, but how it says it and whether there is some recognition of pleasure or surprise at something well done.
For the first placed poem, I chose ‘Road To Murdering Beach’ by Majella Cullinane.
I liked the confident way it addressed the reader in a very conversational colloquial voice; the way a narrative was told with minimal detail, concentrating instead on imagery to convey the ‘feel’ of the story as we plunge through ‘the charcoal sky of dusk beneath the sea.’ Although the actuality from which the poem takes its impetus is violent, the poet steers us away from the obvious and concentrates on the imaginative – on ‘the shadow’ of what lies behind, and even in this respect we are given a choice. We can ‘feel’ or not ‘hear the last murmurs of the dead’ and be like the kahu – the harrier hawk, gliding high and free above the ‘tide’s exhalation’ rather than in the gruesome details of what happened here ‘in the skitter of grey-pink clouds polishing waves’ so many years ago.
I liked the way the poem comes full circle, beginning and ending with a bird, and found the ‘suggestion’ of history an enticing way of capturing my attention and ensuring I found out more about the past of this beautiful beach.
There was very little humour in any of the 135 poems I read and as things became more like the winter we’ve just endured, I was delighted to come across Ruth Arnison’s ‘Finding Billy Collins in the fiction shelves’. Here was a bit of fun and a playful take on Billy Collins. If you don’t know Billy Collins, look him up and have a chuckle. More than a chuckle. Certainly here is the very opposite of tying ‘a poem to a chair with a rope and torturing a confession out of it’. I liked the humour, the snappy, conversational style imitating Billy Collins, the way you are invited to go back and read that poet – and Emily Dickinson, whom someone said somewhere, would have kicked his ass. Suddenly you are reading more than the poem in front of you. You’ve embarked on a journey of exploration and that’s a real bonus. You’ll be immersed for hours.
Out of the 135 entries – judged blind – I chose four Highly Commended poems: the names of these and the two winning poets were revealed to me only after my assessment process had been concluded. This year’s Highly recommended poems are ‘Lumb Bank’ by Sarah Grout, ‘Notes from a refugee’ by Ruth Hanover, ‘Bridge’ by Carolyn McCurdie and ‘Cambodia (a deconstructed country)’ by Susan Howard
I hadn’t heard of ‘Lumb Bank’ and had to look it up, so that poem too took me on another journey. In the course of the poem I visited The Ted Hughes Arvon Centre for creative writing in Yorkshire and saw the ‘red tulips wave to no-one above Sylvia Path’s grave’ in Heptonstall. I got re-acquainted with the American poet Sharon Olds whom I hadn’t read for years. I looked up ‘The Dead and Living’ as the poem itself seemed to centre almost unwillingly, on death. ‘I have been forced to wrack (my italics) / through words recalling / the death of my father.’ Powerful words suggesting deep-seated reluctance, pain and grief while ‘cauterized’ suggests a wound being seared or burnt. A painful business, like the writing process itself, where the poet confronts her own ‘wound that will not heal’. .
Often a poem – or even just a line – lingers in the mind. It might not be a very sophisticated poem, but something about the way it offers a picture arrests one’s attention. That’s why I liked ‘Notes from a refugee’ (No.79)
‘Notes from a refugee’ comes straight at you. It confronts you forcefully to ‘Look at me’ and engage with loss, poverty and homelessness. It’s didactic and there is nothing fanciful about it, but it is plain and straightforward and demands your attention.
You have to at least ‘look’ at the situation.
With ‘Bridge’ (No.85) there was that little frisson of delight at the end of the poem when a vague childhood memory ‘I never trusted as true’ suddenly materializes after ‘sixty-four years’ and becomes a reality. It is the sort of experience we may all have had at some stage when we revisit old haunts, never quite knowing what we may find. The memory of ‘being lifted to a window / to watch a train go by’ but really having nothing firm on which to base this possible ‘myth’ becomes almost electric when we are suddenly, unexpectedly confronted with stark – almost frightening – reality of the ‘iron-clad bridge’ sending a shiver down our spine.
With ‘Cambodia- a deconstructed country’ (No. 110) we’re presented with ‘a paradox for brave visitors’. We see an ‘unlayered country’ that ‘still waits for justice’ and while we sympathize, the poem sometimes borders on the cliché that diminishes its effect. You have to be very good to get this sort of thing across and I remember years back, looking at an anthology of poems that had comes out of the Vietnam war [Where is Vietnam? American Poets Respond, 1967] and thinking there was really only one – a poem entitled ‘What were they like? (Questions and Answers)’ by Denise Levertov, that stayed in the mind – even now – and was absolutely memorable. But poems like ‘Cambodia’ need to be written to remind us – to resist, and to continue to be (even if somewhat grandiosely) ‘the unacknowledged legislators.’
© Riemke Ensing
Winner: ‘Road to Murdering Beach’ Majella Cullinane
Runner-up: ‘Finding Billy Collins in the fiction shelves’ Ruth Arnison)
Road To Murdering Beach – Majella Cullinane
I’ll let you in on something –
I’ve never dreamt of being a bird,
see only the shape of myself plunging through water,
a fish flecking its tail, fins stroking waves
in the charcoal sky of dusk beneath the sea.
Nights I have dreamt this, and come up to breathe
in a room curtained in darkness. By a window
I have watched headlights stream down the road,
sunlight hide behind the old villa next to us,
heard the pledge of autumn in the sigh of another leaf
the wind sashay the green orange pines on the hill,
and in the skitter of grey-pink clouds polishing waves
I remember what you said to me once –
there are few who can feel the shadow
of the murdered behind them at twilight,
can hear the swing of hatchets, the thrust of spears
the last murmurs of the dead. There are others
who listen hard, like a child holding a conch shell
to their ear, but hear only the tide’s exhalation,
the plaintive kāhu, the flap glide flap of wings.