2021 Ros Spencer Poetry Contest

Judge’s Comments by Mike Greenacre

First Prize:

Gang-gang by David Atkinson (N.S.W.)

Second Prize  

Doula by David Terelinck(Qld.) 

Highly Commended:

Two Houses by Kim Waters(Victoria)

My Weeds by Tineke Van der Eeken(W.A.)     

Commended:

The Astronomer by Beth Clapton (N.S.W.)

Her Father’s Life by Rose Lucas (Victoria)     

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JUDGE’S COMMENTS by Mike Greenacre

First Prize:

Gang-gang by David Atkinson (N.S.W.)

The Gang-gang is a cockatoo found in the cool wetter forests and woodlands of Australia, particularly the alpine bushland.

The powerful imagery in this poem flies through each of the 12 verses and the reader is almost breathless by the end. The Gang-gang is introduced as an actor or ‘player’ in the first stanza and this image is carried through different verses.

The metaphors of movement abound with those of place and self-reflection and by the end, you feel like you have sat through a fascinating David Attenborough documentary.

Second Prize  

Doula by David Terelinck (Qld.) 

Doula is an intriguing poem, beginning with a striking quote from the poet’s grandmother – the Doula – and we are led through her thinking about life and death and her practical approach to her work with strong imagery.

The Doula’s practical approach is shown in her ritual of chores, like the washing, starching and ironing of sheets which is, for her, a religious experience.

The poet has used succinct language to recall how his grandmother dealt with the newborn babies and those who died in childbirth. The images of this ritual are heartbreaking.

Highly Commended:

Two Houses by Kim Waters (Victoria)

This poem ruminates on the life and legacy of John Keats, as we know, a principal figure in the Romantic Movement in poetry in the early nineteenth century, and that of Giorgio De Chirico, an Italian artist who is credited as founding the Metaphysical School of Art, which profoundly influenced the Surrealists in the twentieth century. Both faced criticisms of their work in their lifetime and before his death at twenty-five, Keats is shown to doubt his talent. Kim Waters uses strong imagery in each of the seven verses to highlight his sad ending.

De Chirico’s subjects and influencers, along with his relationship with his wife, are similarly questioned by the poet, seeking evidence of the artist’s talent.

Highly Commended: 

My Weeds by Tineke Van der Eeken (W.A.)     

This poem tells of the breakdown of the poet’s family and parents’ marriage while living in Belgium. Here, the poet is the child who has learnt survival skills from her siblings bullying, her father’s drunkenness and brutality and her mother’s withdrawal, by retreating to her mother’s garden.

With powerful, heart-wrenching imagery, the poet analyses each aspect of this breakdown – the behaviour of family members and the effects on her as a child wanting understanding, reassurance and protection.

In later years, her garden of memory is covered in impenetrable and long-lasting weed.

Commended:

The Astronomer by Beth Clapton (N.S.W.)

In this poem, the poet cleverly uses the problems of the female astronomer, unable to receive signals from the stars due to satellites blocking her reception, as a metaphor for the breakdown in her own relationship with her partner.

He, the partner, once showed interest and enthusiasm for her searches of the astronomer and yet his interest is broken, spurred on by his jealousy of her commitment to the stars, as if another man.

The poet uses space on the page to show the isolation of space, with some one line verses and single word lines, and descriptions of her watching her partner asleep, as if he is giving off messages from another universe she can not decipher.

Commended: 

Her Father’s Life by Rose Lucas (Victoria)     

This poem deals with something many of us can relate to, the final clearing out of the parent’s belongings from sheds and shelves and drawers.

In this case, the poet is an observer to the woman who is finally prepared to attack her own backyard shed with apprehension of what might be there. Maybe items that would be loving reminders, or there’ll be things that are missing, or those that would tear memory at the roots of family life.

This is a father to be loved and feared. The imagery is carefully placed like footsteps to the thoughts of the woman in the stages of entering.

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First Prize:

Gang-gang

Gang-gang cockatoo inseparable from your mate;
for seasons you have made an entrance,
player in a stage drama, descended

onto the shallow bird bath. As the lead,
you represent Sydney’s last
diminishing colony of your race.

When you sweep in, deep wing beats,
you skim along the runway of azalea blooms.
In an ambience of apricity, I observe

your free flight through the bush reserve;
I know why this time you alight alone.
I watch your actor’s bow to the water,

curved beak leading to its cere,
eye staring off across your canopied
territory of eucalypts;

I weigh the wispy crest, your every
layered scarlet feather pressed
above the charcoal, the tapered tail.

I am witness to your struggle to endure;
this is no pantomime as you battle
for survival. You insist I ruminate

on the bedrock, the essence of existence.
You spur me to succumb to the isolation
of your characteristic rasping screech.

You elicit the tang of your dank habitat,
the zest of the underwood where
the valley shelves away; you ferment me

into introspection. As you sit,
still and statuesque, you usher me
to speculate on the possibility

of avian grief without comprehension.
I see you soar away and am compelled
to contemplate my milestones of memory,

the loss of influences, of mentors
and teachers, the exemplars of grace
through the decades of a lifetime.

David Atkinson

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Second Prize 

Doula

We are nothing without our dead,
                         without the hearsay
and heresy of their convictions.
Their souls remain attached to the vacant sunshine
                        of every winter morning;
                        oyster light which scallops clouds
                        and sepias memory.
I think of my grandmother as I salt
            the porridge. She was the way
                                  and the warning,
                      the potency in the pinch
                      of seasoning and spice.
            A scrim of lemon butter
                                    on burnt toast
and I taste her in the steel of my knife.

She showed me religion could be found 
          in linen sheets:     washed     dried
     starched     ironed     washed     dried—
the comfort and constancy of rote,
a rosary of chores counted off daily.
              Her prayerbook was filled
with bicarb salvation:
            a sprinkling in ashtrays
to combat the smell;
paired with white vinegar
            to remove the blood of Christ.
            I mix it with lemon juice today

            for that extra touch of white,
    all the while listening for her sermon
    in the flap of sun-dried sheets.

The third daughter of a third
               daughter, born with a caul,
my grandmother doulaed
     to all in need. There is no life
          without death
, she’d say. And I recall
              images of her swaddling newborns,
picking herbs for poultice and unguent,
brewing feverfew tea,
          binding lifeless bodies
          with winding cloths.
I have followed in her healing ways,
        my hands gloved
in descendent wisdom
     that flows from full moon mysteries,
          libations to forgotten gods.

David Terelinck

Doula: from the Greek, meaning a woman of service. Doulas provide individualised support, skills and resources through all stages of life transition from conception to death.   

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Highly Commended

My weeds
For my mother

When you gave me teeth
I did not know my voice from yours.
Your garden was loud with sparrows;
my roots dangled in gravelly earth.

And gravel it was. The noise of it!
Father’s voice drunken, yelling.
Brother’s voice, boisterous, impersonating
everyone but himself.
Sister’s voice, bossing, forever disapproving.
My voice – hungry.
Your voice? Missing.
Your garden was my refuge.
A duck, two sheep and a donkey.

With shaded ink each portrait you drew
shattered a mould. Opa’s hands tending cattle—
he hated politics. Uncle Gerard’s farm, a hiding place,
burnt during the war, his neutrality
questioned, his status forever
compromised. Women with shaven head,
paraded through the village. The Sinaai fields
trampled, liberators seeking to punish.
As cockerels fought, your rage grew roots.

And rage it was. Flemish
unheard. The language I heard in the womb.
The language of pamphlets in that other world war,
passed through soldiers’ hands in the trenches
of Ploegsteert and Passendale. Poverty, not Flemish,
excluded you from university.

How a loved mother can be a hated politician.
Shit-smeared rants in the letterbox,
death-threats, police showing up at school,
red paint thrown on our chalk-white walls.
And even within those walls, you,
a peace-loving politician,
and your children, were threatened.

For threats there were. A father’s fury
crashing against yours. His fists
clenching when he was called
by your surname. His beatings because
we asked for it.

There are times we need to leave gardens.
Seedlings sprout; roots tangle.
As your garden floods with sorrow, mine
is choked with saltbush and elephant weed.

Tineke Van der Eecken

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Highly Commended

Two Houses

I. Keats-Shelley House

Keats never wrote a poem here.
Side-tracked by death, he could not
muster the energy for words

or master a dove-tailed rhyme.
In this timber coffin box of a room,
he listened to the footsteps

of passers-by on the Spanish steps
and reached for the white daisies
laced on the blue ceiling

above his sweat-haloed head
as the soothing hand of his friend
ironed out the pleats on his brow.

In those final weeks, he lay
like a feather, lightly on life,
his thoughts dispersed by the spray

of Bernini’s nearby fountain.
He didn’t believe his poetry
would survive and asked

that the epigraph on his
headstone read: Here lies one
whose name was writ in water.

II. De Chirico House

Two doors down from Keats’ house,
five floors up a marbled staircase
– the house of another artist.

A life, a still life, what the Master
called a silent life, curated by
museum pieces of planetary passions,

a life steeped in Greek ancestry
in which the figures became walk-on
characters: the common man,

the wife as muse, the artist
and his brother, Castor and Pollux,
drawn as horses, stewards of nature,
roiling in their equine divinity
on a red-sanded shore front.
What must it have been like

to have known Picasso and Dali,
but have no knowledge
of Kapoor, Hirst or Sherman?

Scorned by the critics he replaced
dates of his work with earlier ones.
And what of his second wife Isabella,

who in her Ingres tonal form, slept
beneath a red and white bedspread
while the Master slumbered

in a single bed across the hall,
surrounded by books, tomes
to furnace his inspiration?

What does a house, inhabited
by the mind of a loaded comet,
who painted arabesque patterns,

piazza shadows and Grecian busts,
offer the visiting tourist, searching
for a tiny glimpse of genius?

Kim Waters

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Commended

The Astronomer

She spends her life listening
            her attention turned to the skies
                          amidst screens, dials
                                      and paper spooling
                                                   to the floor—
a growing pool of nothing said
or nothing received.

The problem, she says,
              is satellites
              feeding
our greed for each other—
              maps
                           updates
                                       outpourings
of newborn love.

She yearns for the whisper of the stars.

I hear the vibrations and stammers
                           of your sleep.
Once I would have woken you, told you
of the astronomer, her life’s work drowned
              in the noise of satellites.

Once you would have heard
              eyes wide with shared regret.

All night I listen
              unable to decode the rhythm—
do you still dream
              of deciphering stars
                           of chasing events
                                      over the horizon
of us?

Once you were jealous
              of a man I might love 
              in another universe,
              I laughed—
              surely he was also you?
I wonder – was that true?

My dreams have narrowed with my skies
as you sleep
              I watch your eyelids flutter
                           in the illegible
                                     stutter
              of Morse Code.

Beth Clapton

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Commended

Her father’s life

In a shed in her back yard        her father’s
life      still      takes up space

still restless and groaning at the edges
of its now plywood parameters

shelves    and drawers    and floorboards
hopeful of containing        something            overflow

and when she tries to prise the door        detritus
tools     papers

the imprint of her father’s steely will
spill out

demanding her attention       threatening to
blot the bright sunshine in her garden—

what might be given to us    freely
parcels of kindness to unwrap and

to cherish      or
the things we can’t avoid carrying     slung

over shoulders     lessons
or burdens     the crushing weight

of what is no longer there
or what is left for us to deal with

someone else’s pain
or untended business      to tidy      so that

at least
there is room enough     to breathe

so that   what is not needed
can be sorted and          bowed to

and left behind—

on a day when spring shyly touches
leaf and bud and curtained windows

and the world turns on its quiet
pulse     she opens the door

to the wide corridors of her heart
and begins

Rose Lucas

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