Judge’s Report, by Sue Wootton
There are many ways to make a poem, as evidenced by the over 200 entries to the 2014 Caselberg Poetry Competition. Yet by the time I had read, re-read, filtered and re-filtered, finer-filtered and even-finer-filtered, there were only eight ways to make a poem which proved robust enough to make my short list.
Each of these is adeptly tuned, attentive to itself at every turn. What is said is inseparable from how it’s said. Syntax and grammar are unhitched from the conventions of prose and harnessed to poetry, so that they work to heighten linguistic patterning and compress or release energy. Line breaks work with or against the current, letting things flow or creating little dams across which backed-up pressure builds and overspills.
All of my short listed poems were strong on the page, but four were especially rewarding when read aloud. Some pitched a particular sound over and over. These words, for example, distributed in key pulse-points across the first stanza of ‘Defence of the leaf’: veins – bone – broom – drain. Or these, tolling like a bell through the entirety of ‘Towards whatever it is that keeps things apart’: swans – swans – bronze – afternoon – Dunedin – again – phone – wand – playground – some – some.
In seeking aural effect some poems relied more on the control of pace with line break. Skill with this, along with the powerful imagery in the poem ‘Auden’, held me charmed and intrigued through multiple readings. A love poem, it begins with the question of how to paint water. After an awkward beginning, the poem descends in fits and starts through difficult self-acknowledgements to the ‘source’, a place of deep, lyrical and abiding wonder, before bursting to the surface, re-energised, recommitted.
‘Mulching’ begins by eschewing loftiness in favour of plain-ness, and proceeds to wend through the garden, speaking straight about plain old slugs, plain old frost-cloth and plain old blackbirds. But the poem can’t speak about the earth without also letting in the sky. Despite intentions, it won’t be clod-bound: there’s music here, and light, and – oh lofty thought – grand abstractions such as hope and love and meaning, aspects of life which, the poem suggests, also require tending. Gardens aside, to read ‘Mulching’ is to waltz with a good leader, someone capable of pausing gracefully when need be, who also delights in the pleasure of swirling uninterrupted through a swift run of turns.
It was extremely difficult to decide in which order to place the winning poems. In the end, my winner is the poem which I felt was most powerfully and enduringly packed with resonance, which goes on giving up a little something new no matter how many times it’s read.
First Prize: ‘Mulching’ by Brian Turner, of Oturehua
Second Prize: ‘Auden,’ by Annelyse Gelman, of Dunedin
‘Defence of the leaf’ by Mary Macpherson, of Wellington
‘Towards whatever it is that keeps things apart’ by Lynley Edmeades, of Dunedin
‘Large Ocean Island’ by Jessica le Bas, of Nelson
‘Seminar’ by Brian Turner, of Oturehua
The first time we hung out
we were painting water, deferring the insufficient
overabundance of words (e.g. “hi”)
to make triangle eyes in the corner
of your studio. Even then
I was happy, was more than my
self. You can never get used to
the feeling of falling. When we met
I was a hell of a hollering
inside, glowing nauseous, tumbling to bioluminesce
and frankly ignoring the paint
because you will always look like something
and I have too many generic abstractions
of first scenes as mutable as the last
and goddamnit I’m a lousy painter.
In all our haphazard topographic maps, our
fatalistic whatevers, we were together.
I am with you when I’m not and I’m not
superstitious but you’re still
my only parenthesis, my source.
Come February let’s go to the lake.
We’ll look at the water, surprised, wondering
what water looks like.
Defence of the leaf
There’s dryness that contains words like crunch and crack,
glamorous yellows baked to a shine, stained corpses, tissue
stretched between veins, former beauties faded to bone.
A woman whisking her broom across the asphalt tries
to articulate her feelings – like herding the world’s variety
into a bag. The words anchor her to the leaves and path.
She doesn’t want to sweep up every day – no matter how much
she likes the idea of water rushing down the red-tiled drain.
The woman buys a ring made from the F4 scrabble tile.
Fun and cheap, she thinks. She also knows her mind leapt to fuck.
To disguise this she tells her friends that a list of words – fine, free,
fond, fern, fizz, flat, fail, fury – made her want the ring. Her friends
think of the camera aperture – one that snaps the subject into focus
but leaves the rest a blurred dream.
Every day new leaves fall – the slender point of olives, rounded
feet, scattered over the path. The woman wonders why.
One site tells her about autumn and how water can be stolen
by cold air. But this is summer, so she skips to heat, lack of water,
or the puzzle of soil nutrition. Maybe the leaves are just old.
She stares at the screen. On the path, fine needles darken
from crimson to the purple-black of goth lipstick. They’ve fallen
from a tall rata she’d never noticed before.
fire fast fans fear fame flew foil flux
On TV there’s news of gum trees burning – their elegant shapes
silhouetted in inconceivable walls of flame. Her botanist neighbour
tells her about European settlers, who, frightened by the dark chaos
of an unfamiliar forest, and believing it limitless, cleared the fastest way
they knew, by burning. On the hills opposite their houses the fire burned
for three months, all the way to the coast.
She stares at the hills that wrap the sky like a large complicated animal.
The hide is bright with new bush and studded with houses
from aspirational suburbs. On bare ridges are the steely fairy-tales of pylons.
The woman wears a ring shaped like a scrabble piece.
It sits, bold and shiny, on her finger and draws comments
from a young waitress with a liking for defiance. The woman thinks
F4 must be a litmus test. Leaves are scattered all over the path.
An essay she’s reading asks whether, ‘daily life, ordinary life
is non-historical?’ She looks to the ridges and the electric sky
above them, but wants to end with leaves, dried into the shape
of themselves, lying like surprises, anywhere they fall.
Towards Whatever it is that Keeps Things Apart
What is that, I asked.
Swans, you said, a regatta of swans.
And together we let our eyes hold fast
on the water, the kind of bronze
that comes with afternoon, Dunedin.
Your son was throwing his shoes
picking them up, throwing them again.
Then you were on the phone, diffused.
I showed him how to put a sock
on a stick, wave it like a wand.
All the world was our playground
and every action a need to be in it –
this world, with its children and adults,
some ready for it, and some not.
Jessica le Bas
Large Ocean Island
for Mama Puretu Maoate
The desiccated soil, peevish with coral
The pulse of her hands, her sly tools shaking
Making small graves between the old roots
She buries new fingers of guava, prays for them
A quiet succulence rests,
she says, in the heat of everything
The significance of this mellow island
is that there is none. With its tent-pitched peaks,
and its ring-roads circling the then and now
Adrift; a disc of polystyrene on an oily ocean
We came ashore accidentaly, in a quiet show,
she says, the luxury of isolation
A day of alarming rain, the plastic-coated tourists
with their fried faces, their yellow teeth
An apron of uncommon heat is folded,
packaged and remoulded. Taken home like a flag
They will put sunsets on Facebook, our blue lagoon,
she says, who will audit the visitors?
Where they talk about procedures,
getting it right, and I’m trying to
pay attention while wondering
how one puts deeds into words,
how to slander people nicely, if
ever it came to that.
my best, thinking rhetoric’s more
comforting when mostly all you hear
are pleasing assurances, like who’s
best at bending, and into what.
It’s as if for a while you’re away
in a brown study, as your father’s
mother used to say, until someone
pipes up, says, ‘Give us the truth’
and someone else says, ‘Whose truth?’
Then, for a solemn second or two,
there’s silence as in a church
in that moment before a coffin’s
lifted from a bier, and the organ breathes.