‘A little machine for remembering itself’
The Judge’s Report
James Brown writes:
While reading the entries for the 2012 Caselberg Poetry Prize, I was also reading a book of aphorisms by Scottish poet Don Paterson called The Book of Shadows. One kept nagging me: ‘Mediocre art is far worse than bad art. Bad art does not waste our time.’ Certainly the more competent a poem, the more time I had to spend comparing it to poems of similar quality, but I didn’t find the exercise a waste of time. Having to make a case for your value judgements brings the background mutters of your predilections and prejudices into the open, and being forced to confront them is no bad thing. Plus, the art I was teasing out was good.
I went to another Paterson aphorism: ‘A poem is a little machine for remembering itself.’ What I wanted was the poem that most stayed with me.
‘All the things I never knew’ looks back to the speaker’s childhood, but, more than details, it gives us a soundtrack. The poem isn’t just an ode to Bobby Gentry’s hit, but also to ’70s commercial radio and its penchant for the sentimental (think the mournful saxophone in Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ as the exemplifying emotion). So the poem traverses dangerous territory: as Brian Turner says: ‘Sentiment’s okay, to a degree, sentimentality or sop are not.’ Like Bill Manhire’s ‘My Sunshine’, ‘All the things I never knew’ makes excellent use of rhyme and rhythm to mimic popular song, and the moments when the lines disrupt the expected rhythm are perhaps even stronger. An aging Bobby Gentry strumming her former hit is a perfect image of nostalgia, while the poem’s constantly falling cadences serve up a gentle melancholia that evokes, in the speaker and ourselves, all that might have been but perhaps never was.
‘The Tithonus doll’ is also a fine lyric poem. The unrequited love the doll Elizabeth feels for the ventriloquist but cannot communicate to him is beautifully rendered. In Greek mythology, Tithonus (a mortal male pursued by the Goddess Eos) was granted eternal life but not eternal youth. The poem reverses this: the (female) doll has eternal youth but is not alive.
Poetry, too, desires to voice the unvoiceable and to live forever. Every time we read or recall a poem the ‘little machine for remembering itself’ ticks over. Long may it continue.
First Prize for 2012
All the things I never knew
In ’67 there was Ode To Billie Joe
and big-haired Bobbie Gentry.
In my town that was 1970.
Bobbie on my transistor radio:
she was Mississippi Delta sultry.
Bobbie put the cunt in country.
The first record I ever owned,
and I wore out its little groove.
Bobbie watches headlights move
across the wall.
A little rain begins to fall –
a little rain to end the day.
It falls differently in LA.
Choctaw Ridge is far away.
Bobbie’s bouffant hair’s gone white.
She sits out on her porch tonight
with her guitar. Her voice is scratchy,
and she’s feeling kind of low.
She’s singing Ode To Billie Joe.
I’d like to phone her, just to know
whatever it was the lovers threw
from off the Tallahatchie
Bridge. The bridge collapsed in ’72.
All the things I never knew.
Second Prize for 2012
MICAH TIMONA FERRIS
The Tithonus doll
The ventriloquist clips his hands around her waist,
as if to hold her there. Her voice could coax
this man into a heady corner, but her ache hangs
in the air like heavy silk, her tired eyelids
only half regard him. Oh Elizabeth!
she wants him to say. To hold her chin, demurely
like he would a lady.
Tonight again, audiences will throw rosebuds.
For twelve years she has willed her own to grow
but each night he unbuttons the back of her dress,
slips her limp body out with careful fingers.
Sometimes he may hold her hips, look at her kindly
for a moment and she will try with all her might to speak.
The following five entries were Highly Commended
The Hinge Seasons
The talk these days is of all things known
and the arrangements we’ve made of them
Yes it’s everything to be under this sun
We move in circles surrounded by ourselves
and the memories we’ve been gathering
Now we recollect times
when things were better
Facts. The seasons fall one over the other
and then there is snow.
We are what the winter took
and summer gave back –
slightly changed by the slow settlement
that wears the bigger pieces down
to more manageable sizes –
but still collecting memories
and alive to the simple generosity
of that saucer of rainwater
sending up light to the ceiling.
Go My Own Way
I pierce my own ears with an Anzac
Day badge in the back of the Social
Studies class, hiding behind the fat
chick who mortifies her flesh
with chocolate eclairs. I understand,
but am skinny myself.
I deliberately fit out of cliques.
They like Abba; I go for Punk:
it’s my aesthetic. I scour the Old
Testament for Tamar, the fallen
woman by the side of the road.
I read and revere The French
Lieutenant’s Woman: the cape, the Cobb,
the-staring-out-to-sea. I am fifteen.
The world is fragile, old and very small.
We’re shrunk to dolls, our rhetoric’s a mutter.
I follow syllable by syllable:
the goldenrod sheds pollen in the butter.
Rachel Hadas, Pantoum on Pumpkin Hill
The show kicks off with a mile-high solar disc
dangling rows of superstars, buffed
larger than life and nearly twice as tall.
Banners of light shriek into the sky
and disintegrate into nothing much. Like me,
the world is fragile, old and very small,
scraping below the sawdust to spot the magic
to keep the Big Top sane.
Outside the tent, candyfloss and puppets
yank us to one side, but we yank back.
We march bravely, resolutely forward.
We’re shrunk to dolls, our rhetoric’s a mutter.
Once upon a time we held hands and wept
as we choked in rubble.
Broken statues leave us little more to glean.
I cover my head and follow in the field
where words have died a slow and painful death.
I follow syllable by syllable.
Green weeds rise and encroach the square;
goats scoff down grass and chinaberries;
the smaller rats begin to eat each other.
Across the hardscrabble yard
I write about the last glass vase of flowers.
The goldenrod sheds pollen in the butter.
Once when I was living in Florence
cycling home in the early hours
I heard an owl high in a campanile
and took a wrong turn down a wooden ramp,
an excavation in the Piazza Signoria-
and found I was in the city beneath the city
cycling between small ancient houses,
through alleys vaulted by the world of light
and the paving stones I knew. They say we go
into the ground to know where Death
will take us, but I had entered this other world
in lively wonder – for I was in love with poetry
and the spectral light it casts over
the past and present and perhaps even the future,
though it is hard to say for sure what light
poems will cast over the time that is to come
or even that they will survive. I only knew and cared
that I was alive in the catacombs and tumble
of a lost city, and that what I thought an alley
was really a thoroughfare leading to the river
between small shop fronts such as you might find
in cities like Herat or the Byculla backstreets
of Bombay – Mumbai as we now say.
I had to dismount to push the bike and it seemed
I must have been heading somewhere beneath the Uffizzi
for I had come to the waterside, though still
on a stratum below the world – I could hear
cars moving above me on the via Lungarno,
the swish of their tyres on the rainy street,
close to the corner of the Pontevecchio
where Dante once waited, alone and forlorn,
hoping to catch a glimpse of Beatrice,
as the pall-bearers carried her to the tomb.
Nothing ever happens twice, and yet as I stood
in the must and dank of that excavation,
in what must have once been the Etruscan city,
I felt those old stones tense up, as though they could sense
the poet in the shadows, waiting for the cortege
to pass him once more, and again and again and again.
After the Art Gallery
down the street with rectangular
Naked tree branches break
glass and stone
to diminishing pieces,
hold them aloft. They sway,
in delicate miracle.
Outside a café two men
are laughing, ease back
at the waist; the light leans
towards them; the road curves
away. They are beautiful,
in the parking building,
Lines of white concrete pillars
measure white space, clear room
on the floor for
of sun that promise
to move. But not yet.
of metal hover
of broken uniformity.
I open one up and
drive it away.
Please Note that the copyright for each of these poems remains with the Author.