Commended poems from Ambit’s 2020 Poetry Competition

Commended poems from our annual poetry competition on the theme of ‘Cataclysm’ judged by Fred D’Aguiar. The theme was chosen well before Covid-19 and BLM but having such an incendiary title meant that it was a record year for entries.

Another Country by Guinevere Clark

The rain

You were leaving
for another country.
thought of our child,

walked the city beach in the last
autumn heat. Sand was thicker,
radiant like Indian gold.

Racks of fireworks – burnt
black on dunes’ hearts.
Pumpkins dumped,
still bright by the bins.

Drain waste
ripples, rain-heavy
through shale, the plaited
scars of tractors.

I have no sunglasses
to shade this. No
easyanswers for our son.

Just the silver-lit water
to meet, to consider
the edge of.

A single cargo ship,
on sea’s rim.

I see the lone engine room,
creatures in the spin – cast

heavy as bone to strata;
impossible journeys.

Deathly waters.

And in the crags
of khaki sewage, rolling
on the slope – a condom wriggles.

Phantom pearl!
a tear
to tide.

Love Poem on the Verge of Collapse by EG Cunningham

flung into space, the explorer searches for life again
a voice ringing out from the green field of time

cries I’d omit the whole season—its cruel orbit,
its uncurious yellows—the boredom and weather

of unmerciful extension. She thought in a window:if
winter means laden and spring means burst in,

then summer might hold some alchemical lack, 
real in a final and remembering sense.


suppose the fault lies in the infinitessimally small 
of measure not zero and nowhere dense

begin solving at the origin of some natural landmark 
an embankment, or river, or ridge. They appraised

the stoic sunrise, turned back against the primrose 
sunset. As if survival were a film they’d seen once,

in which a figure cleans and cleans the temple stairs, 
a famous picture of some particle moving west


ospreys fly the crossroad radio sky 
posse of wasps means high noon again

a dark and doubtful presentiment 
corrodes the ante of adoration

apple except when pomegranate 
apple except when fig
apple but more so what eve did 
apple but could be a quince
he said I will tell you the names 
of the birds and the flowers 
she sang days of drought logic, days of nyet
finally landed, they found the new ground 


and if the dust should rise
and if the seas should break
and if the earth splits open
or a voice, calling from an adjoining
room, announces no one lives here any

leave that joy in steam clean
those expat stars, after all, pierce on

and if they walk in unnatural heat
and if the song swells in the key of
1933 and if one is the lowest dimension

console the cat, let the doorbell ring
he had a smile like a staircase beckoning

ever upward, an unlocatable precipice
opening into the holy motion of that

he was running through a field
she was running in sand
they were running

Krieg by Julie Irigaray

Despite his wooden leg, my great-grandfather always
volunteered to climb up trees and pluck cherries or chestnuts.
He was the most agile of the family, as light as a sparrow.
During the second war, he was the one hiding legs
of ham in the forest by hanging them on the highest trees
so the Germans wouldn’t confiscate them.

My great-grandfather was the only one in the village
who received the newspaper every day. He paid for
the subscription with his veteran disability pension.

When the gangrene spread and his leg was cut off for
the second time, my great-grandfather begged the surgeon
not to amputate it too high. He was a farmer and no woman
would want to marry an invalid.

I found his file in the military archives. The army officer
wrote after his amputation: Leg cut 2/3 high.
Can’t stand the equipment. Imaginary pain of the amputee.

After the Great War, my great-grandfather inherited
the family farm at the top of a steep hill:
a barren plot of land, a Basque Wuthering Heights
nobody wanted, let alone someone with a missing leg.

The region was occupied during the second war.
One summer, my great-grandfather and his son moved
their cattle to higher pastures for the transhumance.
They reached a point where the Germans blocked the road.
As his son was trying to negotiate their passage,
the middle-aged officer pointed at his leg and uttered: Krieg?
My great-grandfather didn’t speak a word of German,
and the officer didn’t speak a word of French,
so he repeated several times: Krieg? Krieg?

The officer’s face lit up. He gestured towards
the wooden leg, patted his own chest: Krieg! Krieg!
 – a magic word my great-grandfather deciphered
in the German’s eyes and translated as: yes I was there
too thirty years ago I was buried alive they dug me up
but my friends are still eating cornflower roots
I lost my job my fiancée too –

My great-grandfather hesitated, then finally nodded.
The officer barked orders at the soldiers, who let
my great-grandfather and his son pass with their cattle
to let them graze in peace.

Harbour by Monica Kam

We will be re-locating this poem, which has been displaced in the site move from one epoch to another. Coming soon…

Paradise by Catherine Selby

There’s Paradise in the ash that falls
on my shoulder. It breaks then disintegrates
against my bra strap. Flakes of brick
mark my skin and smudge.

Pieces of fire scatter on the backdraft.
Scorch the split-end fields
of hair. I pull my dressing gown over.
The car is hot to touch. It chokes.
The cat paces in the back.

Daylight has already fallen and spread
over the ground. Normal shapes disintegrate.
The windshield wipers won’t wipe
smoke. But the stop light on the highway
is clear as day. Still on rotation and
as we get nearer I want to get out and lick it.

The trees on both sides of the road are fire.
The weight of gold arcs overhead.
It is still snowing ash and coal. The traffic is escaping
along the exit road but there’s no way to know
when you cannot see what’s ahead.
And you don’t know if it’s you that’s dead
or just the people behind you.

Bienaventuranza by Yvette Siegert

Because a cluster of jasmine was surrounded by seawater in the smallest nook of the evening. Because there was an archer and a storm that felled a yew tree and a grid of blessings beneath them. Once there were stars for this. Clarts of flat anxieties filling the telescopic dark. Because our sisters vined together like brittle coral halves. Because our mother mistook the gardenia, her favourite flower (and Freud’s, it seems), for a rose. Because first she carried a broken city. Because our grandmother was named after the Evangelist, as our great-grandmothers were the namesakes of lamentation. Because your lungs were shaped in the bureaucratic hum of morning. Do you know what morning is? Because it is full of ancient trees here. Because the blonde woman in The Time Machine, who loved our father once, describes a people without a history. Because our names could make us from here. Because on the day you were born, our mother saw an archangel in the window, and the year you were born, the hands of her sister were left in a sky-lit room. Because there was a war between them. Because that war was in you. Mo-zo-te. In my sleep, I call you Teté. The will-o’-the-wisps know something of this, the jack-o-lanterns, the night birds, all their names like incantations. Because one day, our mother’s brother raced along the highway, pursued by that ever-elusive archangel, crying out, Blessed are the pure in heart. Dear Blessed, dear curling quark of lightning,

I’m thinking of a

number between nought and God

and wish you’d tell me.

(Bienaventuranza is the Spanish term for ‘beatitude’.)

The Sixth Day by Ben Strak

there are dead bees in the piano
making it sound wrong

and there are dry dead bees
lying slightly opened in the hall

and on the street there are crushed
dead bees in drifts, too many to sweep

and the sky has lost its usual hum
and is milk-white

and the flowers bloom unvisited
and close at night

Kopachi/Pripyat/Vilcha by April Yee

In the cloud that drifts online, I discover
an image of myself, notebooked, remember
I toured Ukrainian villages in April,
the anniversary of their before and after,
the date they understood dirty and clean,
touched new energies released into air.

My recollection floats ungraspable as air.
The high-res photograph does not recover
dead actions to the hippocampus, now clean
as a blank notebook sheet. I remember
the detailed email from my father after
I said I’d go to Chernobyl that April.

He cited a scientific study: Dear April,
Mushrooms, exposed to soil and air,
Can remain radioactive for years after.

For breakfast, the local hotel covered
pasta in mayonnaise and dismembered
hot dogs. I also half-recall the clean

white shirt of an engineer. He’d keep clean
our air in a then-future, now-past April
with a steel sarcophagus to stop the embers
from dispersing particles in global air.
His metal tonnes could fully cover
the Statue of Liberty, he intoned, after

a meal of many courses. I marveled, after,
how he kept his white shirt so pristine clean.
A visiting Japanese mother, face covered,
gripped two Geiger counters an April
and a half since Fukushima blew the air.
She earthquaked her body to remember.

Actually, I use records to pretend-remember.
I Google articles I must have written after
that trip, read emails maybe sent from air-
craft raining pollutants over unclean
nimbuses. I trigger cruellest April,
places where every root was covered

in irradiated air and nuclear embers.
After, I wash my consciousness clean,
allow the cover to contain all of April.

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