The Plough Prize Open Poetry Competition 2016 - winning poems


Double Zero Flour

You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread  Henry Miller

San Francisco clocks chime the summer hour.
Rehearsed the route, left powdery footprints right across sidewalk,

the best double zero flour, weevils will dine well.
My head crusts, breaks through new white shirt.

It crackles, curdles, creaks along my arms,
sparks and conjures the new dawn with static.

Tie, the colour of an electric bruise,
shoes, best soft leather from Siena.

Look, a dangerous eggplant tie reflected
in coffee shop window. Is, a vivid purple, too vibrant?

No, not for a baker — before sunrise
I mix, pound, pummel, stretch, knead, knock the dough,

fill the maws of ever hungry ovens,
feel the heat, jaws of hell, fires of heaven.

Crisp the dough to beautiful bread babies,
ciabatta, focaccia, sour-dough, grissini, pizza, fruit pannetone.
I strut across the piazza, past nail bar
where slinky ladies flutter out to street.

An open window yawns,
a sharp-suited man hollers down to me.

Why it’s Antonio. Is he here for the chief baker job too?
Steady, breathe deep and slow, concentrate now.

I’m ready for probing questions,
about flour, yeast, pasta, bread-making, recipes.

Pour espresso, grappa, let’s celebrate!
My fruit panettone decided it.

Let’s stroll down to Venice Beach,
rinsed by the Pacific Ocean, and swim,

sip cold beers frosting our sticky palms,
sizzle fresh wolf-fish pan-roasted over hot coals,

watch bambini splashing in sea shallows,
while I dream new breads, like a salt-crust San Marino.


The Earth-Buriers

We buried houses underneath the earth,
removed the top-soil, levelled with shovels.
The villagers made a sign of the cross
when we tore-up their harvest, bare palms red
from burying cattle. Older women
would offer every soldier heifers milk.

We were ordered to confiscate the milk,
to dig deep pits and pour it in the earth.
They did not understand, and the women
would guard their onion patch, fight off shovels
with callused hands, their fingers stained and red
ready to die for parsnips. The church cross

followed us through the village. Hands would cross
broad chests, sat at their stools gathering milk
the cow’s teats stretching to the ground, while red
welts worked up milkmaid’s arms. Inhaling earth,
we buried the forests with our shovels.
Young men paid to love the village women.

It was a crime, to love the village women.
Their hands would clutch an icon or a cross,
they hid in petrol cans their stores of milk.
We plucked-out broken birds with our shovels
and stacked them breast to breast beneath the earth.
Our faces swelled, the skin turned thick and red

we could not shave. The beetroots, fat and red,
sat on the ground like pig hearts, and women
would bundle them and wipe off all the earth,
and dust the wooden figure of the cross.
They drained the mushrooms, sterilised the milk,
unplugged their potatoes with thin shovels.

But radiation soaked into the shovels.
The geese soon left, the puddles all turned red,
stray cats we spared would fight over the milk.
Graves were tended by the village women,
they placed glazed cakes beside the stone-work cross,
argued with husbands underneath the earth.

We hear those women when we cross to sleep,
or dig red earth, or see cows full with milk.
We buried their whole lives with our shovels.


My Glass Father

When light skims low
his chest is brindled with fir trees
and the distant fires of woodsmen

but most days I can see right through him:
his glass heart beating slow
through the long-and-many hours.

When night falls I crumple up yesterday,
dip it in vinegar; sing as I clean –
but softly, for fear of cracks.

Sometimes the green lamp
at the fraying edge of time
calls to him from the forest;

and then come the days
when he sits under the muttering birch,
lights black cigarettes

and fills himself with smoke.
Asks me to bring him
a mirror.

Highly commended (equal):

Claritas (old weird America) by Mara Adamitz Scrupe
Apotheosis by Marion Tracy


Comments from the judge, Philip Gross

My thanks to the Plough competition, its entrants and organisers for presenting me with an exquisite quandary. Every poem on the longlist was worthy of the question ‘could this be the one… one on the prize list, at least?’ By the time I was down to the last ten, every one had the quality that is the real goal of any poem: to be truthfully, vitally, itself.

Beyond that point comparisons grow hard; you are never comparing like to like. Some entries compel you with a moving human situation; some tingle with resonance from world events; some wake up our senses with sheer appetite for language. Some are flawed, in the sense a poetry workshop would point out, but then, aren’t a poem’s flaws, like a person’s, sometimes a necessary part of vivid individuality?

I rather hope that some people will disagree with me about the order of my first second and third prizes, and maybe about the two Highly Commended poems I offer because at some moments, in some lights, I thought, ‘yes, it could be you.’

 All I will say is that this final mix of five contains the boldest of engagements with events and with form, and also the lightest touches of image and imagination. As for my first choice, it casts such fine light on an ordinary circumstance that it seems, mysteriously, to illuminate a continent. Yes, the play with voice and language is delicious; I could eat it. But it is that mystery, I think, that gets the prize.


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