Poetry competition report 2019

Judged by Liz Berry

Ambit has always loved wild things: bold, challenging, joyful, feral, utterly ungovernable – that’s the kind of work that Ambit has made a home for these past six decades. It’s the kind of work that’s exciting to write and exciting to read. At sixty, Ambit’s passion for thrilling work is fiercer than ever so it feels only right that the theme for our competition this diamond anniversary year should be ‘Wild’. 

Poets responded to the ‘Wild’ theme in all sorts of wonderful ways. I read poems about nature – back gardens to vast bays, moors to mountains – and poems which spoke of the wildness within us, wildness of the body and of the mind, wildness in love and grief. There were many poems which worked with myth and folklore, the wild threads which run through our everyday stories. 

Poetry competitions are painfully hard to judge, especially near the end when all the poems are just so good. You read them again and again and all are appealing in different ways. Eventually, you have to just go for the poems which stay in your head and heart the longest, technically good but with that fizz that means there’s something special at work, that little crackle of electricity in the pre-storm air, that feeling of yes, something’s happening here. The poem may not be perfect – often they’re not, what poem is – but a special poem makes you forget all that and fall in love with it for all its messy wildness, its ability to reach out and touch us, draw us so close we can feel its breath in our ear and its shiver down our spine. 

So here they are – those wild and shining poems! I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did. It was a joy to read and to choose them and I only wish we had the space and time to hear more. But that’s for another issue and the next sixty years… 

In the Burning Season by Yvonne Reddick

I was captivated by this wild fiery folkloric poem. I loved its dark, scorching story, its odd sensuality, and the way it holds just the right balance of lyrical detail and narrative. The voice is wonderful and those last taut lines send us back into the poem and the story again and again, finding new things each time. I wished it was mine!

Night Fox with Stars by Jane Lovell

Foxes in poems are very familiar but this is something special. The descriptions of the vixen and her night-time world are so vivid and beautifully made, so infused with longing – “the knuckled backbone of the night”, “dragging your dreams from their moorings”. What a gorgeous thing this poem is.

Halves by Ella Duffy   

A carefully crafted selkie tale, this poem wins us with its pull between the wild – of the feminine body, the sea, the animal, birth, violence – and the tenderness of love between mother and child. It ends with a pleasing twist, mother and daughter reunited in a final perfect  image – “dipping the shy grey of our backs/under foam and back into rumour”. 

Commended – in no particular order

Random Statement by Susan E. Holland
What delicious language, what wild words! Lots of enjoy in this poem and lots of pleasure to be had trying to pull together its threads. 

Wild Garlic by Beatrice Stanley
There is much sensual, vivid writing in this poem and it has such high moments. Wildness in nature, wildness within, wildness between us. It loses its way a little at the very end, tidying up too much when it would have been better left open, but with a little work this would be a beauty. 

Rose Garden, Polesden Lacey by Helen Overell
I really liked this quiet poem, its story held so close to its chest, the suggestion of illness and the wild in our bodies which might betray us. 

In the Cafe by Jane Craven
There are a good many poems in the world that I love without really understanding them and this was one of those. There’s something beautifully intriguing about this poem that kept me re-reading it and trying to find my way in through that “dark and woolly borealis”. 

A Tiger Tongue Can Lick Flesh Right Off the Bones of Its Prey by Rosa Campbell
What’s not to adore about that title?! A joyfully mad and runaway poem full of all the right wild ingredients. I’d like to read more by this poet.

High Low by Yvonne Reddick
There is such tenderness in this poem, for the wild landscape and for a father. Beautiful stuff. 

like a wilderness by Meda Stamper
There was something compelling about this poem in all its ungovernable flow. You seldom read poems about infertility and hardly ever poems which speak of it in this lush, biblical, whirling way. 

In the Café 
by Jane Craven

Time was you could come in from the rain
and hand your coat smelling of wet sheep
to a girl behind a Dutch door 
and she would give you in return 
a metal-rimmed circle of paper 
with your number on it 
and would hang your London Fog, your navy 
pea coat, mink, or brass-buttoned blazer 
on a rolling rack, hangers scraping like an abacus.
And below all the conjoined hems, 
undulating in a dark and wooly borealis,
was pure space, the Open 
only animals can see. 
How they look past us, the ones who pace
behind bars of a nineteenth century jardin,
those we startle with our footsteps in the hunting
fields, coffee warming in our pack, the brindled
cat at the bay window. They are born
with a long gaze which has great meaning for them
in spite of the numberless distance, 
and blackness, for they are beyond 
watchful, ready to leap 
from this world to meet what will surely
come back to claim them.  
A Tiger Tongue Can Lick Flesh Right Off the Bones of Its Prey 
by Rosa Campbell

the day we make jam everything is as vulgar as strawberries
globule of womb blood blooms on the side of the toilet bowl

& your tongue inside my mouth feels like I could squash it
against my teeth with a wooden spoon to release the juices

it is covered in tiny seeds like the toughness of the tiger tongue
I tell you about but you’re asleep & miss it & instead you tell me

about the burry man: head to ankle in little teething pods
somewhere between hair shirt martyr & green man, I wonder

if his tongue is covered too? would make it hard for the whisky
to get past but it would feel like this: your tiger tongue flat

against the jammy gates, searching for sainthood, god
how did it come to this? menstruation & the bubbling pot

on the stove & last night the full moon was in Pisces, no joke
I notice myself in love with the tides & can’t find a patron saint

of periods which is bloody typical when a man every year
covers himself in the seedheads of two kinds of burdock

& drinks silently for nine hours, arms festooned in flowers
for the ferry fair — but beside [citation needed] I finally find

my vulgar saint of strawberry seeds & velcro papillae:
in August 1948 there was a “wee burry man” named Judith

Random Statement
by Susan E. Holland

I stay at the fractal
end of a peninsula on the western
seaboard, and dislike Nature:

its hubris


need to be noticed – or hidden

couthy charm


Ospreys, Blaeberries, The Hill, The Mull.

The slight annoyance of someone interrupting
a perfectly good silence – or conversation – 
by pointing out a gannet’s diving – 
the swift clonking origami of its disappearance,
then grunting flustered re-emergence.

I like even rank drifts
of poisonous plants like Hemlock Water Dropwort
that line agricultural ditches with a frilly grid
of little leaves, that shelter sedge warblers.

And lesser twayblade’s modest stab
at cell division, its intricate compact
with near-invisibility in a growing opening
under old exploded leggy heather.

And the oily fleece-lined silence
trapped in a fank still used for shearing – 
on the floor a shallow scree of sun-baked sheep’s crud,
guzzled by creeping thistles, sideways;
while the ragwort’s cornered, wriggled
to a stick by striped cinnabar caterpillars.

Rose garden, Polesden Lacey
for AJ
by Helen Overell

Such depths of blue — delphiniums,
as tall as us, dance along the border
in the shelter of the old brick wall
that keeps the roses from straying,

imagine painting these — watercolour
washes in cobalt, in ultramarine,
splashes of rose madder and alizarin,
deeper hues for the spaces in between,

the flowers, there all along, leaping
into view, the way a PET scan screen,
scrutinised, yields images of hairline
fractures gnawed by troubled cells,

the heel of your hand presses the rib
that aches most — tonight, wrapped
warm, badger watch, greyscale shrubs
and trees, glimmers of banded white.

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