Poetry Competition 2020 – Overall Winner


Overall Winner
by Rebecca Calderon

When this plague came there were no horses heaped beside the gates of Troy,
Their twisted hooves and nostrils flayed in pain.
No signs or marvels in the sky to warn the common man.
The rivers did not turn to blood,
Nor did great swarms of flies and lice descend to decimate the trees.
It came so very quietly, too far away to harm the good.
No frogs inside the kneading troughs of basic women, ignorant.
This plague was spread by mouths devoid of pustules and boils,
Their whispering tongues still fresh with mint, immune to putrid germs.
The cobbles were not slippery with slops from overhanging roofs,
The walking poor not drenched in fetid sprays kicked up from carriage wheels.
Yet still it seeped in rapid haste, the deadly droplets apt to fall
On surfaces and crevices invisible to all.
When this plague came no one could blame the fleas embedded on the rats,
Or filth piled high outside the city walls.
Rank and rancid reservoirs of infection left to rot.
This plague required no ringing bells.The rakers did not push their laden death carts through the muddy lanes.
Instead our screens would scroll the toll of who was best and who was worst.
Conflicting knowledge festered lethal doubt inside the porous minds,
A vulgar competition of statistics chimed the hour.
Ale houses closed, the homeless driven from favoured arches,
All human life in hiding from the dreadful visitation;
The sombre darkness could be felt on melancholy empty streets.
A sprig of hyssop soaked in lamb’s blood brushed on lintels could not save
The terrifying call of a cold and early grave.
When this plague came our crowing masters flailed like corybantic fish,
Spat out from ugly poisoned, tainted lakes.
A sad pathetic scramble for the hallowed finish line.
Not one of them could find a cure.
A meagre baker’s oven would not spark a bonfire great enough,
To quell this epic thunderstorm of hail and embers for too vast.
The lonely, ageing unarmed victims had their latter years cut short.
The ones who stayed to help them fought in vain with plastic shields.
The solitude of terror, could there be another way?
Out the pestilence glowed a renaissance of artists stacking shelves.
Their sad songs fell on ears long deaf to such poetic sympathy.
But in the end they were content to sit transfixed and watched the screen,
Their wringing hands with fingernails and palms bleached squeaky clean.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:
“Rebecca’s winning poem is a deep meditation on the history of different plagues which have assailed mankind over the ages. The opening line plunges us ‘in medias res,’ with a glancing reference to the beginning of Western literature, recalling the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad. Agamemnon’s refusal to surrender Chrsyseis to her father brings a swift retribution in the form of a plague which decimates the Greek army. Other pestilences are referred to more obliquely: a Biblical plague, ‘the rivers did not turn to blood;’ a late medieval plague, ‘embedded on the rats.’
But what is particularly threatening about our plague is that it has come surreptitiously and unannounced. There were ‘no signs or marvels in the sky’ when the coronavirus struck in Wuhan. Instead, our plague is one peculiar to the digital age: our screens keep a toll of the dead and dying, no ringing bells bring the comfort of religion to those infected. Even the apotropaic hyssop which protected the children of Israel with the blood of the lamb has proved singularly ineffectual. The frantic efforts by politicians to stem the spread of the virus are likened to ‘corybantic fish’ flailing aimlessly and maniacally. The overall feeling of gloom is only marginally lifted at the end with a vision of a ‘renaissance of artists’-the burgeoning of the arts some lockdowns engendered. We are left with a picture of the obsessive washing of hands, which seems an inadequate defence against so insidious an enemy.
Rebecca has written a major piece of work on the devastating effects of Covid-19. It doesn’t just re-create the panic and fear-it re-enacts our sense of helplessness within the context of other historical plagues. A very worthy winner indeed. Well done!”

Adult Runner Up
Conversations without my father
by James McNally

My father was a subtle man –
we’d never known until he left
the multitude we were now bereft
from things reserved for ‘next of kin’ .
My father was a playful man –
lining up toy soldiers on the mantelpiece
for imaginary skirmishes over the fireplace
and he would always let me win.
My father was a musical man –
a guitar in his lap or tickling the ivories
while I held tight to a microphone,
and, together, we made such a beautiful din.
My father was a learned man –
a psychologist, he’d teach me signs
for ‘hello’, and ‘thank you’, the ways he spoke
to deaf and nonverbal children
My father was a tired man –
driving to and from engagements,
new challenges, schools and parents
who might have seen his help as giving in.
My father was an ailing man –
the first time I saw an ambulance
sirens blaring, pulling into the driveway
I was just a boy of ten.
My father was an ornery man –
at least from my juvenile perspective –
we quarrelled fiercely, and I regret
a lot of what, in haste, was spoken.
My father was a distant man
and I’d soon move on to a distant land –
still, the occasional basic greetings
the affordance of the telephone.
My father was a young man,
relatively speaking –
sixty-six, to be precise –
and left not long after his work was done.
My father was a quiet man –
so many things I wish I’d said, instead
left to reconcile with his belongings
read his papers, speak with his writing hand.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:
“The parent-child relationship can be fraught with unacknowledged tension, repressed emotions, misunderstandings. The speaker’s father has exercised a powerful influence on him. The father had a rich, varied and multi-faceted personality-he was subtle, playful, musical, a learned man, but also, and here the feelings of the speaker become poignant and disturbed, the father became sick, bad-tempered and eventually out of reach, except for the occasional phone call. Death came relatively early, depriving the son of the opportunity to open his heart to him.

This is a deeply emotional, searching and humane poem. It is cogently structured with ten four-line stanzas, unrhymed but with a recurring refrain ‘my father was’ at the beginning of each stanza. The strict form controls the otherwise seething passions which bound father and son. The poem is a testimony to the son’s genuine love, but also to the difficulty which attended the relationship.

Was there a painful falling out later in life and is that why the son is left pathetically looking for ‘reconciliation’ among his late father’s belongings? It seems the poem expresses what was
never said by the son, hence the ‘without’ in the title, a small word the careless reader could easily miss. We shall never know, but this is unquestionably a major piece of work.”

Highly Commended
A Nurse’s Presence
by Audrey Maclean

Many thoughts race through my mind, as I hold the old man’s wrinkled hand,
Will he even know I’m here, feel my hand, or sense my fear?
I sit beside his hospital bed and try to clear my busy head
He lies supine in front of me as I re-focus my thoughts respectfully.
Wondering … what kind of life he led? Did he ever fall in love, get wed?
Did he make his dreams come true, or were his days spent sad and blue?
I watch his chest rise up and down, ribs tight against his borrowed gown,
Counting breaths, … watching, … waiting. Time stands still.. …. contemplating.
I’m glad he’s not here on his own, no one deserves to die alone.
I try to make him know I’m here- I squeeze his hand with gentle care.
What did he hope for? What was his job? Did he have a cat or dog?
What football team did he support, or was rugby more his favoured sport?
I scan his face, he’s pale and thin. I look for clues etched on his skin,
He’s not in pain, this I know. Surely … it’s his time to go.
The sands of time drain out before us. The magnitude of this … enormous.
Has he made his peace with God? Is he ready for the road ahead?
I want to ask him this last question, but it’s too late now for intercession.
He passes, as I hold his hand, there are no more grains of sand.
I find it hard to pull away and fight the urge to hold, and stay.
I am privileged to play my part- witness to a life depart.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:

“One of the hardest things about a Covid-19 death is that the patient dies without the comfort and presence of loved ones. Death is the extreme test and it has to be faced alone. Well, not quite alone: the nursing staff are there and offer some kind of love and support. This very moving, poignant poem is the testimony of a caring nurse and her thoughts and feelings at the moment when a patient she has cared for professionally, selflessly and altruistically, dies. Inevitably, she tries to conjure up what sort of life he’s led. A gentle squeeze of the hand is all she can do to reassure him he’s not alone; they share a common humanity and the nurse instinctively knows even extreme suffering can be lightened when shared.
The nurse’s loving care even extends to her patient’s post-mortem journey: is he ready? She feels overwhelmed by a sense of ethical responsibility-she is, in a way, a surrogate for a loved one, a privilege she is fully conscious of.
This is one of the most moving poems I have read in a long time. All the lines have a caesura, so that two thoughts are bound together in one musical line. The internal rhymes are unobtrusive and sound natural. The final alliterative line brings the poem to a satisfactory conclusion. This is an excellent piece of work, much needed in our troubled times. It is almost certainly based on real experience.”

Highly Commended
by Elena Scialtiel

Cones of herbs and spice,
Chickpeas, couscous, rice,
Dates and almonds for ghoriba,
Fresh fish from the river.
The pungent aroma
Of mint and cardamom,
Leather, wool, argan tree,
And rosebuds for pot pourri.
Incense, a whiff of Jannah,
Myrrh, crystallized manna.
Maroon swirls of henna:
“Get a tattoo for a tenner!”
Candy-cane aprons, pompon hats,
Saffron-dyed prayer mats.
Men in linen and moustache
Bake flat bread on wood ash.
Bees buzz over figs and grapes.
For upholstery and drapes,
Girls weave tassels in the Mellah:
“May a son be born, bizmi//ah.”
Cross-legged boys chant the Quran,
In the maze of arcades of Tetouan.

Judge Charlie Durante’s Comments:
“This poem is an assault on all our senses, especially the olfactory. Elena conjures up a sensuous salmagundi of colours, smells, textures and food as we are plunged into the throbbing life of a Moroccan Kasbah. We are also reminded of the delights promised in the Muslim paradise (Jannah)-this is no ethereal Christian heaven, but a very palpitating earthy reality. Walking along the crammed, narrow streets, we realise life is lived al fresco; everything is displayed for the enjoyment and pleasure of the passers-by.
There is a hidden logic behind the poem’s colourful lines. We start with our taste buds being awakened. Then our nostrils are titillated; our eyes rest on the multi-coloured display of clothes and mats. In the former Jewish quarter girls weave tassels and a pregnant woman is commended to Allah. We end our adventure with the Qur’anic verses echoing in our ears as we emerge from the labyrinth of Tetouan. The sheer exoticism is seductively conveyed. This poem is a tour de force, a riot of colours, sensuality and smells. I am sure this is the best advert Tetouan has had for a long time. Elena is to be congratulated for assembling this strikingly vivacious poem.”