Annual poetry competition winners 2018

Thanks to everyone who entered our competition, judged by Malika Booker on the theme of ‘Home’. We had a record number of entries and are delighted to publish the top three winners in Ambit 234 and online, and selected runners up on our website.

First Prize: VOICE by Majella Kelly

To go into the Home was to be given
your voice on a spoon and told: swallow it.
When they shaved our heads, our voices recoiled 
on our tongues like dead nettles in empty cups. 
When they took our names away, the tiny 
venomous hairs of shame bore untold holes
in our throats. When they insisted on silence
 on the birthing table, just to remind
us we had sinned, the itchy hives of guilt
distended, red and angry, in our bellies.

And when she said: the child of your sin is dead,
my heart was an extinguished fireplace. 
But when I opened my mouth to cry out, 
I spoke only in thin grey wisps of smoke.

Second Prize: Sapling by Belinda Rimmer 

My father thought he could cure his knee
by swinging his injured leg over the kitchen table.

I’d collect my dolls to watch from the doorway.
He’s ruptured his cruciate ligament, I’d say, 
as if I understood the words.

From there I could touch
the taper and curve of his wooden crutches, 
propped against a wall like saplings;

could imagine my black crayon 
had made grains in the ash-wood,
lines headed one way, then the other – a pirate’s map.

If my father caught me looking I’d flip my gaze
into the garden, to the beginnings of a plum tree,
delicate in the sun.

But it didn’t draw me the way those crutches did. 
Years later, that tree still stands. On visits home,
I’ll settle on a blanketed lawn to sketch it,

adjust my pencil to suit the light, set the lines to be reborn.
I know this tree and its moods better than I knew my father.

Sometimes I’ll think of his hands
gently planting the next-to-nothing of a sapling, 
of his shadow where other shadows now fall.

It’s as though I can see him.
A stranger picking plums.

Third Prize: How to unbar the door to one who does not knock by Arthur Allen

I.    How to unbar the door to one who does not knock

Silence on the deer-less track and quiet
as hoof-prints in fallen snow
here comes the ghost of my old dog.

        Writ very small, in white thread on white cloth.

He doesn’t break the branches where he goes, or touch the snow
and there is no path where I project him like birds
he makes a passage of no marks.

          ‘oblong sky’

In the dream it is known that a child could grasp
that he is saying more than what he is
saying but he came to woods-edge hiddenly and existed only outside my earshot
because he is going to die / they will let him leave /

His little ribcage at the head of the past
beyond mud and shallow water.

How to get ashore and let you sleep well: inside the long chase ahead.

                A jewel-like infant
       on a voyage without baggage.

How to become the nerve to throw oneself down

and rise in easy passage and progress forward
across seemingly endless shallows.

                                                                                                 I say two prayers,
                                                                                                 one for my dog and one for myself,
                                                                                                 and we enter the mountain.
                                                                                                 Knut Hamsun Pan

Runners Up

The Wood Case by Ian Spencer Bell

The bees came yesterday, two swarms joining,
whirling around my windows upstairs. I was

at my desk when a few made it in along the left
sash cord, not stopping for the stop bead or pulley,

and spit out against the windowpane,
and played taps for troops who’d come

to witness the end. The bees are here,
I said into the phone, and I’m allergic

and alone. And a man came with a feather
and a drum and a black dog named Maggie.

Don’t be afraid, he said, they will not hurt you,
and beat his drum while they swirled overhead

and Maggie ran laps along the length of the land.
They found a hole in your house, he said,

beneath your Mastercool. So many had nestled in.
But I will find the queen and I will get them out

and in a box and to their home, he said.
Home? What’s home? The place you are? I could no longer see.

The windows were browned with bees and all this
buzzing business was getting to me. I went to the studio

to put down a clean white sheet to sleep,
when an old Virginia neighbor came to mind

who’d run over his daughter with a plow or mower or
some other means I cannot gather. I only ever

get the blue of the grass and the red of the handle.
My god just a buzzing box. There is no home.

By grace the man rapped at the door and said,
I have Gray with me now and she will help,

and with these feathers we will scoop
the bees from your house.

Castleiney by Eimear Laffan

What spell-check wants to convert to coastline. After a ruined castle marooned in a field of horses. After a river more inclined to runnel. With an oak you could hang from. Your toes almost touching. Father’s callused hands holding a chicken neck. Ready to wring. A rock thrown at a rabbit made vassal by a weasel. Warm vessels sucked for red. The sanctuary light not allowed expire. Sacred Heart of Jesus prominently placed in the kitchen. Polish that missed the nail colouring the carpeted stair. Grandmother by a brass bed kneeling. Blue rosary beads tripping over veiny fingers. Bare feet beneath a bridge. You are all water and country still, knowing only native fluidity. Like Huckleberry Finn, he says, when you lead a cousin through the swathe of your territory. Closer to landscape then, it becoming you, you becoming parcel. Driving your father’s body across childhood fields in a hearse. Clumps of daffodils down lanes that end with a start. Rain that falls and falls. You have never seen it come down straight. The horses have their coats on. The cottage door is open. Nobody lives there anymore. You have to take care damp doesn’t settle. Caisleán Aoibne, in Gaelic, cash lawn eve nah. A rope pulled by the sacristan to make the clapper thwack. A ring in the nose of a bull in the corner field. What may or may not be a beehive beyond the trough. Things that sting. The weather report coming over the wire again. Recent rain from Malin Head to Mizen Head. A squall at the heart of your person. How a body relays place long after it’s gone.

Phonograph by W. Jason Miller

The needle falls
as if a body’s being
on the floor above
is the trunk being
shut on our
’76 Cougar XR-7
as we 
bathing suit
to the reservoir?
This song is for the summer
we didn’t talk of father.
It’s thin
in the middle
trying to drop the 
needle between  
divorced songs
of “Promises” and “Golden Ring”
where I tremble now.
Scratches are forever.
I cue it gentle
re-check the angle
then hush for
weight to fall.
One slip—
I’ll split whole verses
to the other’s favor.
Let it fall on silence—
choosing neither.
I stand unbreathing 
watching to hear
the needle circle
where the 
wax’s static 
is the calmest weather.

Home by Jennifer Rawson

I. Dissection
My humid lungs & summer storms, 
rain like a bucket clapping
clearing pollen from Loblolly Pines 
the way tea with ice and sugar drowns 
the bitter taste of our colored regret — 
a porch swing, shade, crosses torched, 
the pop and crackle of flour in oil 
like sparklers in July, the ignorance of sin — 
all there in the quiet, like breathing, 
only noticed when it’s gone.

II. Atlantic Divide
In the chasms, salty water—
like gravel
 between my toes, 
like paper cuts on the stretchy skin 
between my fingers.

III. Recalculating 
Cells regenerate until my face 
is unrecognisable. My hair is all wind 
blustering over sea cliffs, whipping 
up surf, pulping seaweed. I see 
now — the bruised sky of our forefathers, 
that the rain had always been tears. 
Here in the green damp of a hillside, 
ocean currents in my eyes, my body 
a coastline, I find 
some memories rewrite themselves 
until I’m a little girl in the woods 
with a trail of white breadcrumbs 
and no idea where they lead 

Sunday by Mark Wiltshire

I would call ahead / and think about her going about her business / loading sweet treats / on a plate upon the kitchen table / and a bowl of roast potatoes / one of crisps / slices of cold meat / buttered bread / yes / laying out the spread / on a Sunday always like this / this familiar feel / and it being what we do / but this now being a Thursday / not in the kitchen not the plates not the spread / but a Thursday elsewhere / and talking about her brother / how she cut him down from hanging / poor sod / how the nuthouse nurses told him to / poor sod / how the voices in his head joined in / ‘to thy high requiem’ / poor sod / and she found him like that / in their long-gone youth / before she made a home / before it was incumbent on her / to butter bread for grandsons / and lay it down / once again / covered with a towel / poor sod / for its own sake.

Runners up not featured are:
Nashwa Gowanlock and Sohael Patel

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