Short Category winners and Judge's comments

1st Prize: Deborah Harvey

Oystercatchers

‘Aujourd'hui, maman est morte’*


One day
the day they’ve been waiting for will come

and she’ll take these words with her to the sea
unzip her coat, pull open her ribcage

let them fly as purposely
as oystercatchers

pulling the strings of the sky
and the tide

lifting the weight from each blood cell
giving her permission

 

 *from ‘L’Etranger’ by Albert Camus

2nd Prize: Robert Powell

Testament

after a photograph of a child c.1860

The boat I held could not
sail, and was not mine:
the clothes I wore felt odd,
and were also not mine.

The room was a glass box,
my mother had faith
in God’s will. There’s
an ogre with one brass eye
under a tall black hill.

And so I keep still, so still.

3rd Prize: Katie Hale

The New Dress    

The new dress understands what it means to leave. It knows this with every care-filled stitch of
its seams, the way the old one’s faded elbows and let-down hems understood what it meant to
stay. The new dress hangs on the back of the door like caught game and the promise of a feast.
It is ripe and burgundy, built to last her whole lifetime. She can see it from her final night in the
box bed she shares with her sister, who tomorrow will inherit the old dress, the one made for
staying. She thinks how her sister will stitch the hemlines to their former length, find scraps of
fashionable print to patch the sleeves – how when she wears it, the rough cotton will rub at her
waist like a suitor’s spreading hand.

 

Comments from the judge, Pascale Petit

It was thrilling to open the envelopes and read the entries, thank you to the Plough Prize organisers for sending me such stunning longlists. Reading each, I was invited into a unique imagination, a gift I absorbed carefully, always aware that the poem might be doing something I’m unfamiliar with. But I must admit that a few went up and down the ranks, and often in these competitions, there isn’t much difference between winners and commendations. In the end, I chose those that gave me the most pleasure, the ones that on a fourth reread still made me catch my breath, and have that feeling of surprise and recognition.

1st Prize (short poem): Oystercatchers

I love short poems, but I know how hard they are to write, so it was with trepidation that I read this longlist. I need not have worried – the under-ten-liner is in good health. The challenge is to go as far as in a long poem, without the length! It’s all about compression and impact, making words as elastic as possible.

‘Oystercatchers’ does just that – every word is weighted. In ten short lines I see a figure like Leonora Carrington’s ‘The Giantess’, a powerful and spare enigma of a woman, oystercatchers, (with their red bills and legs), and blood cells. Although nothing is explicit, something important is being enacted, and the epigraph by Camus adds an anchor, so that we guess his are the words being taken to the sea and released from the heart. I kept coming back to this and getting more from it.

2nd Prize (short poem): Testament

This poem is chilling, has bare elements and no explanation, creating an aura of entrapment and entropy, like an art-house horror film. The epigraph tells us the speaker is a child, but nothing belongs to them that will help them escape the ogre who, once described, can never be forgotten.

3rd Prize (short poem): The New Dress

So much is shown through the central image of a dress in this prose poem. It hangs on the back of the door “like caught game” (wonderful!), and leaves a world for me to imagine. Clothes can make the most evocative poems, standing in for people, and this dress is bristling with feral power.