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.

Judge's comment:
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.

Alison Brackenbury

2nd, Open Category 2009 - Nick Mackinnon

The masks of Apollo

The helmets of the first men on the moon
had mirror visors so that aliens
would not see human faces, though we'd beamed
the I Love Lucy pilot episodes
some 18 light years out from home by then,
to horrify the Sirian gastropods,
while Earthling paranoia would have bloomed
had Selenites worn mirror visors too.
But who would want just anyone to know
that lovers use their feeding tongues to kiss,
that valves to seal digestive tracts can smile,
that humans keep their balance with their ears,
and when I say I've seen some other girl
the holes that let your light in fill with tears?

Judge's comment:

This deft and sparkling poem attracted me from many angles.  It cleverly introduces fresh fact into a well-worn story – the mirror visors – and humour into space, especially for all of us who remember ‘Lucy’. I was very moved by the slowing of the rhythm from the brisk wit of the opening to the more thoughtful close, with its move into full rhyme, ending in ‘tears’.  The simplicity of the final line restores the bloom to the rather tarnished image of ‘Martian’ poetry.  Here is humour with a heart; and formidable skill.

Alison Brackenbury

3rd, Open Category 2009 - Stephen Boyce

Vows, late Summer
for J and S

When the room falls silent I'll sit with you
and remind you how, like bonsai masters,
we planted on rock - ishi seki -
anchoring the roots of our slant tree
with its soft cumulus of leaves,
its col of moss and bark.

When darkness comes knocking I'll help you
read the patterns of our love;
how like the spirals of shells,
cones and seed-heads they are:
mathematical and improbable,
beautiful and enduring.

And if we falter I'll take you where
the ladder-maker splits chestnut limbs
and joins the matching halves
with rungs wider at the base
than at the apex, the whole apparatus
flexing as we climb,

and I'll show you how the view from the roof
is always of a garden, its borders
like a summer dress thrown off,
with a little gate into the orchard beyond.

Judge's comment:

This poem is an exquisite blend of the exotic and familiar: the beloved and the bonsai. I admired the poem’s own song-like patternings –‘When..’  ‘When..’- and its bold thematic marriage of science and art. The account of the ladder is deft and involving, an unusually practical twist to a poem. The outstanding feature of the poem, in my reading, is the sudden throwing open of its perspective at the end, with the lovely simile of the ‘summer dress’ and the tenderly described ‘little gate into the orchard’.  It is a long time since I read a poem of such enticing invitation.

Alison Brackenbury