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honourable mentions - 2013

Plague Years by Simon Miller

I grew up in the years of plague, though only now I understand;
The blown sand that made your nose bleed, the rain’s advance,
The flash- crackle, the turning of smashed hollows to rich ooze,
The sudden-bursting green; each season was newly discovered.
I was Thunder’s Child, I bled rain, I was the jackal-boy, barking;
Sly at the backs of boys who came and then disappeared again.

Wild melons sprang from the gritty earth and crawled on tentacles
To colonise our yard. I knew. I heard the rustle of their stalky vines
In the night. Sometimes they were yellow and knobbly, moon-flesh,
Like dead puffer-fish stranded at the limit of a thousand-mile’s flood;
Sometimes fat as pulpy cannonballs that broke like heads beneath
The senseless battering of our sticks. Abundance taught us cruelty:

Nothing was safe from us. Like Icarus, flying ants, flick-fluttering up,
Through the false light of our porch, left traitorous wings abandoned,
Piled in papery heaps, like the shield-shells of slaughtered warriors:
To put your hands amongst them was to sift a papyrus of dead skin.
Even so the action here was all offstage, the death was elsewhere,
The drive behind this swarming mystery lost to our morning light.

But when the corn crickets came they were our perfect enemies,
Defiant red eyes pin-pricked, a dot of existence chancing into evil.
They were armoured, grey like metal ghosts, every leg barbed cruel
And poisonously alien, antennae sweeping semaphore back and forth
They crawled the land in rudely swollen, scrambling crowds, shamefully
Eating their comrades. There was nothing holy or of goodness in them.

When you pulled off their legs they popped apart, sudden as apple stalks,
Trailing a stump of orange like mango flesh. Someone had a bucket, so we
Filled it, listened to the scratching. Crickets big enough to cause terror died
Under hurled bricks. You made collections: right legs, left legs, antennae...

The thorny exoskeleton was a particular prize, peeled off bravely like a scab,
Piled as proof that the mandibles could be tamed by expertise, constantly
Cautious of that bloated thorax, which legend had exploded with acid blood.

I wanted to cry but I was fascinated too, the game was fear and not a game.
And not long after that, the frogs came.

A Drawer of Stolen Condiments by Daniel Bick

Thick
clumsy pixels,

sachets of faith

hold taste buds to ransom
by squatters on the tongue,

filling the lint undergrowth
of a pocket’s fathom

and graze the conscience savoury.

I shut the drawer.

Steeple Gidding Church by John Gallas

I
I came to find a cure for love,
for love had come to grief.
I laid my head on the step above,
and knelt on the stone beneath.

II
Now ravel up my heart again,
it is wounded with the slice-flounced edge
of a tin can top,
and my bike is down in the grass.

III
How did this come to pass ?
Worn-off heads of three dour fellers in coats of blood.
Empty monument with Veiled Woman.
Rubbed-out urine glass.
Angels arranged above.
Lord, where is my love.
I have prayed and read.
But he is still dead.

IV
Withered knives of holy words
steeled in lines of black intent :
who on earth
knows what He meant.

V
Upon the bright road out
I fell into a bike race.
Wheels in the dark, wheels in the light.
Something busy for my heart.
We take the hill with fury.
We sway up Sawtry Height,
and fade into the spreading wheat.
So it goes,
bleeding in my racing top.

Ad Break by Cathy Bryant

So obvious, like most truths, when you realise:
she's so happy, cooking that great family dinner,
because she poisoned it, probably with that loocleaner
that delighted her so. He's long gone, though,
driving that car on deserted mountain roads
at sunset, and along a long clean beach.
No one could look that smug but a hitman
who's pulled off the big job; the admiring model
who turns up at the end (to show he's not gay)
will surely die at his hands, and he'll wank over her,
his expression of grim manly enjoyment unchanged.
The sorry bunch of lads drinking lager or vodka
to celebrate their latest successful gang-rape
hasn't changed in thirty years; nor have the beauties
flogging pots and jars of expensive faux-confidence.
And now - the relief! - back to the news and documentaries,
- sponsored by the untrustworthy and evil.

Generations by Eleanor Waters

Curled up, foetal,
snug beneath layers of
concrete-cotton
you recline.
Your clouded laugh
opens a void in your face,
a portal into
a violent chasm.
Each tooth houses
someone that you’ve loved.
You cannot still yourself,
fidgeting –
an endless fluctuation on
an EMF meter.
Your watch glints
with the smile
of a dead relative
and its worth weighs
upon your newborn limbs
like a shackle.
Knuckles whiten,
lips crest
and eternity splinters
inside the fortress
of your jaws.

The Knife Sharpener by Anh-Quynh Hoang

The knife sharpener ain’t the wooden weird-looking instrument
with a honed circular metal plate that spins
round and round and round – that callous cycle,
that screeches when a rugged razor is rubbed against – the creaking protest against
Father, Mother, Fate, Life, Love, Man, God… and Money,
that rusts in the humid backstreets – where the stench of urine haunts,
invades the nostril, chokes the lung,
No! Not that knife sharpener which takes its throne on his shoulder
along the ups and downs.

His shoulders,
one of which is lower than the other, flesh-loaded and bone-pressed, on which
the ugly instrument heavily resides,
shrink in and slouch forward like the down-plunging rapids of toil that
resists the gravity of Poverty,
curve and wave up-and-down at each step – the waves, lost in the ocean of
chaos and madness,
labor non-stop till they find their shore.

His steps,
with leaden feet on the worn-out rubber sandals which dread
the scraping friction of the forsaken roads, of the stomach-scratching Hunger,
would sometimes halt in silence
in front of a newly painted “castle” – a house of smirking hope,
while he eyeballs its doors and windows to eat the food of – Envy.

His eyes – his waning eyes,
sunk in relentless visions of the morrows, blurred by years of sorrows,
are not the windows of his soul: they look far less noble
with the strained red veins – the bruised roots of a searing tree daily seek
the trickling undercurrent of Mercy, lying
way too deep in the Earth’s crust –
the crust of Man’s soul: almost impervious.
No! It’s not about tears – he doesn’t cry like his shrill “knife sharpener”,
Nor about the sleepless nights filled with
the bawls of the one-year-old grandchild.
Not about the nickel and dime from the sainthood of philanthropists
nor about the clemency of the detached God Most High,
It is about – being Human:
Human to others and Human to self.

Shelling by Nick Taylor

There’s the question why do it I feel whisper his lips
as I sit with a fist of purses in the t-shirt sack of my lap.
We’re all so used to the economy of frozen bags,
like shot, bulleting the pan,
that this seems historic, archaic,
the stuff if not of mush then period drama,
kitchen sink or living folk museum,
from back when we used to have to swing for our supper.

I want to call him over and show:
the definite pop, like a finger
from the drum skin of cheek,
that comes with a clear break;
the huddle of each eager green hip,
jostling to burst from the grin of sheath,
like living infant marbles, tumbling out from work
to summer; offer up the veined and scented wrapping
so he can smell the idleness of production, the cash free
traffic of seed and mud and sudden urgent rain,

feel the down of each spent pouch.
I want him to crouch and sift through
the boisterous and tiny alike, crunch
a few fresh samples in the raw, remember
how living may be different, cheaper and patient,
how the movement of fingers in the pursuit of food
can feel like the unbuttoning of love, not battery.

Welcome Traveller by Lucienne Flavell
Dedicated to Leah

I can't sleep in hotels.

The sound of closing doors
and talk of people leaving,
shakes the air inside my room.

Rain furrows the glass.
I look through the window
to see families and their luggage
spooling back in their cars.

I shut my curtains
against the gloaming
and lay alone.
I spend the night staring
at the white washed walls.

Take Five Decades by Cathy Bryant

The men of the generation
that actually liked jazz
and intellected about it
at apprehensive nodding girls
are all dying off now, obituaried
by their dwindling band of peers
sighing for the joys of cynicism, youth
and hard drinking. They were once felt
to be the new measure of all things
with their biting cleverness and wit.

They're replaced by my lot,
the dreary left-wingers still trying
to be nice to people and to read
as much as possible. Our tastes run to
folk hippy glam punk disco reggae
metal goth soul new romantic pop rock
- and we would like to like rap and hip-hop.

And so dies jazz, unmourned,
from early trad to big band bland,
freeform and experimental;
and a generation of angry males,
literary lions in tweed and twill,
are reviewed away into history, and
what (yeah!) - what will the young
rappers write about us in thirty years,
when we die, huge and silent
on stilled turntables?

Still Life by Dominic James

Along the curving beak of its shadow
the eye of the flame tracks light on the muzzle,
sockets that gleam, mosaic front teeth:
the goat’s skull is rapt, in mesmerised interest,
by the empty tilt of its skull,

the skull is akin to the bottle,
both calcified down, like the skin of the wall,
nothing is brittle. The bottle, half full or empty,
in the glass of its heart holds a vertical drill,
the ink-blotted pupil, a goat flame.

All things conform to the hinges and horns,
shards of a brain, the empty-headedness of the thing,
the animal sense of a skull, lit by a candle
in a bottle on a table otherwise dark:
still life where there is none at all.




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