1st, Open Category 2009 - Ama Bolton
It happens every night, sooner or later:
the loosening of links, the soft
unhooking of nerves, the switching-off
of the outer senses, the surrender
of will, conscience, memory at the border.
You have to trust him, the young unsmiling man,
polishing a Kalashnikov. He'll take
his time checking your papers, confiscate
passport and currency and then
dismiss you with a jerk of his chin.
You arrive each night at a new destination
without a word of the language, ignorant of protocol,
not dressed for the weather, or not dressed at all,
no map, no advice on local customs,
no list of sensible precautions.
Often you'll pick up something, like a virus,
that vexes you all the following day:
a fear of fire, a gloom that won't go away.
you trudge on to the next locus
of humiliation, forewarned but helpless.
Once in a while you'll find, or will be given,
a book you've long been looking for, or the ring
you lost in the sea last year, some precious thing -
a child you thought was dead
- and grief's unwoven
until your visa's expiration.
No point in pleading with the taciturn crook
at the crossing-point. He'll frisk you as before.
There is no commerce between there and here:
he'll impound the lot: the ring, the book,
the lost baby. You will not get them back.
This is subtle and powerful work. Its subtlety lies in its unobtrusive, but insistent half-rhymes, and its alternation between the worlds of night and day. Its power depends on its relentless progress to the bold final phrase of each stanza, and in its refusal to soften its truth: ‘You will not get them back’. For it is sometimes poetry’s work to say ‘No,’ beautifully but bleakly. This poem does so, magnificently.