2022 Ros Spencer Contest Winners


Gayelene Carbis                                   Country                           


Rhian Healy                                        Red                        


Shey Marque                                      Afterlife of a Housecoat

David Terelinck                                   Stopping at the Acropolis


Scott-Patrick Mitchell                    Your Body is a Shipwreck

SoulReserve ———- —————– 1064°C 

JUDGE’S REPORT —————— Coral Carter



After seven years the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize is now an established competition on the Australian poetry calendar. Of the 277 poems submitted I chose 98 for the anthology. The poems gave me an intimate glimpse into lives and thoughts of poets in Australia and beyond. Poets wrote about bushfires, COVID, extinction, old age, stolen generation, immigrants, refugees, memories, landscapes, grief as well as the ever-present themes of love, death, nature, desire and identity.

The winner: Country—Gayelene Carbis,has some straight forward and difficult observations of the political situation in Australia and other democracies. Free speech is at the heart of this poem as the poet records events and observations of the past and present, but feels gagged and sees that others are too.

———— A man I speak to says don’t quote me, I could lose my job. I think
———— Twice about writing an article for The Age.

And yet she does speak as Behrouz Boochani wins the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature and Non-Fiction and she to sees the possibility of imagination and love. A poem for the times.

Runner-up: RedRhian Healy, is a raw observation of farming, the reality of life, death and the love and empathy a farmer has for his livestock Stanzas alternate between images of the situation, a calf that will not survive and a cow in a state of grief followed by an alternative view which enable us speak of the no-win situation.

———— I want to give him my lungs, my legs
———— Because I know what’s coming.

Then the italicized

———— When we speak of calves
———— we speak of eyelashes and gangly legs

An insight into an industry many of us never see.

Highly Commended: Afterlife of a HousecoatShey Marque, in couplet form, explores the problem of disposing of a white cotton housecoat printed with blue cornflowersafter the wearer enters the transitional or liminal state of existence between death and rebirth. The housecoat hangs on a hook after it was worn for the last time. Faced with the problem of how to dispose of the housecoat which holds the presence of the owner the poet thinks maybe

———— to air on the clothes line in the sun
———— a breeze to help you out of it &
———— into transitioning the three bardos

I loved the resolution of this poem, it was uplifting and made me smile but I am not going to expose it here I will leave it up to you to enjoy.

Highly Commended: Stopping at the Acropolis—David Terelinck, shook out my own memories of an Acropolis, a Paragon or an Olympia in my own home town, revived the joy of buying a bag of mixed lollies at the local milk-bar before the Saturday afternoon matinee. Such establishments were situated at the centre of town which made them a prominent part of the community and made a valuable contribution to country life.

———— Main street is frontier wide; so wide
———— It takes the elderly forever to cross

Imagery of the crusty blokes, mud spattered utes, the Catholic Special of fish on Friday ‘shipped in from an ocean many will never see’, the cracked faux leather menu holders, in a place where time stopped to introduce us to new culinary pleasures. Love it!

Commended: Your Body is a ShipwreckScott Patrick Mitchell, the use of language and metaphor shine in this poem of three stanzas. What was there not to love in this poem? ‘Broken raft in hospital bed’, ‘rigging of instruments, all mast and boom’, ‘The eyes of your hull’, Mesopotamian and Greek gods, ‘the shore of a vast origami sea’, ‘Between hospital and our house, a dreamscape’ and—

———— Chamomile, lavender, rosemary:
———— I lay sprigs beneath your pillow.
———— In the absence of your certainty,
———— superstition fills the room.
———— Great poem. Deep and absorbing.

Commended: 1064°Lakshmi R Kanchi (SoulReserve) 1064° is the temperature at which gold melts. The temperature to cremate a body is between 800° and 1000° Celsius. The poet examines the memory of her maushi a name which means aunt in Hindi.  She recalls her maushi’s touch, her scent and the gold neck chain, part of her huṇḍā (dowry) which she received as a child bride and wore until in her old age until it was taken to the crucible and smelted at 1064°. The years of family history transformed into food to save a life and both lost forever. A nostalgic memory.

Coral Carter

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for Arnold Zable

I want to take those aphorisms that say you’re never given 
more than you can manage and stick them up the arse of the universe.
Poor Ava Gardner calling this an appropriate place to film the end
of the world (except she never actually said it), bringing her 
apocalyptic beauty and sex and smoking and drinking with the men 
into Melbourne in the fifties while the housewives in their houses 
looked at Ava with envy and desire. PM Keating and his arse end 
of the universe came a long time after Ava but still, surely 
he had a point? Life here is full of stuff no one wants to talk about. 
There’s a gag on teachers in TAFE talking to the media. 
A man I speak to says don’t quote me, I could lose my job. I think 
twice about writing an article for The Age. Yet Behrouz Boochani 
wins the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature and Non-Fiction
from our detention centre on Manus. A whole book tapped out 
through text. Social workers, security, all of them, none of them, 
allowed to talk about what they see. And I thought we had 
a democracy. Free speech. Gags everywhere. Our current 
Prime Minister focuses on important things like dress codes 
for citizenship ceremonies and a re-creation of Captain Cook’s 
journey costing millions of dollars. I don’t know what to do with 
all this stuff. I thought I lived in a different country until I learnt 
some history. I have the benefit of education, reading, art. 
In front of our faces, this terrible ignorance that continues to harm. 
And kill. People are dying and suicides are highest amongst 
the three per cent of our population that actually owns this country. 
Sovereignty has never been ceded. No matter how much you say it, 
people are being shut up. But oh, imagine, the life, the love, 
that went into that one book awarded to that man behind bars, 
and all the terrible fictions that kept him there. 

Gayelene Carbis

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I want him to stand.
I can feel his hollow stomach
and his barely breath
and I hold him upright and try to get his legs to hold.
But they can’t and he lies down again, confused.
I want to give him my lungs, my legs,
because I know what’s coming.
We leave him curled up like a cat
and go to feed the cows.

When we speak of calves,
we speak of eyelashes and gangly legs,
we speak of the bravado of walking from birth,
we speak of possibility.

The mother of the calf,
teats overfull and shanks skinny,
distressed by the unmoving calf
and trying to get into the paddock with the rest of the cows
throws herself into a barbed wire fence.
Sometimes the ties that bind us are stronger
than hope. Stronger than grief.

When we speak of cows,
we speak of the colour of hay in autumn sunlight,
we speak of the love that is contained in a cow’s girth,
we speak of gravity and the movement of heavenly bodies.

We cut her out of the barbed wire,
the weight of her sorrow too much for the two of us to lift,
droplets of red bright against the honey-coloured grass

or smearing our hands.
I rip my pants and my leg on the barbed wire
trying to pull her hooves out of the fence.
We slap her rounds and push her head towards open fields,
towards space for hooves and legs and wait for her to get up.
She rises and follows the emptiness we left to the rest of the herd.

When we speak of freedom,
we speak of open fields, open roads, open seas,
we speak of the choice of where to lay down,
we speak of a life lived.

The mother cow has rejoined the herd.
We feed them and go back to the calf,
and try again to get him to stand.
When he can’t, I pick him up
and lay him in the ute.
We drive to the edge of the woods
and I lift him out and put him on the ground.
I pat his haunches and feel the rough hair.
He looks at me and sighs and lays his head down.

When we speak of death,
we speak of how the sun fades for everyone,
we speak of quick and clean,
we speak of the bullet that has our own name on it.

The bullet enters his skull
and a rivulet of red squirts out—
a red as red as milk is white.
His head drops to the ground
and the sunlight becomes burnished bronze.

When we speak of grief,
we speak of a mother’s loss,
we speak of the choice between suffering or not,
we speak of inevitability.

Rhian Healy

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Afterlife of a Housecoat
for cornflowers to sing they must be fallen
—Susan Fealy

Show it to me, your cotton summer
housecoat, white, blue cornflowers,

once hanging on the hook fixed
to the back of the painted bedroom

door, & which I’ve laid flat at the foot
of the old double bed, unbuttoned,

open at the front, sleeves spread out
ready to slip on. The night nurse,

she said it was too sad seeing it limp
where you’d left it, too sad for him

to be facing the unfilled smock
as he opens his eyes in the morning.

She was wearing this only yesterday,
she said, when she ordered me to go!

A strong lady your mother!
I could tell the gesture she used

was a direct copy of yours. Show it
to me (not her) your morning peignoir

& tell me how it’s possible that you’re
able to take this with you, this look,

this lasting self-image. Was the wrap
simply handy, or does it feel homely?

All these rooms we are folding into
boxes, everything you’ve touched

except for the housecoat I’m thinking
to air on the clothes line, in the sun,

a breeze to help you out of it &
into transitioning the three bardos1

& a rebirth. Today is only the half—
way point between the previous you

& what comes next, & you’re still
quite yourself, leaning on a wall

as he sleeps away, then taking tea
on the patio, reading the newspaper

while you wait for him to join you,
one wet thumb held up to the wind.

What am I to do with the housecoat,
this singular supplement to your body,

this symbol of a life lived in the home?
Maybe I’ll pass it to a sister or a cousin,

in the manner of Emily Dickinson’s
white house dress, cotton with mother—

of-pearl buttons, that lived on in her
bedroom at the family homestead.

After the last lockdown, in your retreat
from the outside world, you, in your

terror that you also could tell no-one2,
abandoned the habit of changing

into day dress, as the cold virus raged
across the land. When was it that

you wore the housecoat for the final time,
if ever there will be a final time?

I’ve half a mind to tear it into fourteen
pieces & fling them over fields,

its printed flowers, like little blue gods,
ever resurrecting amid the growing corn3.

Shey Marque

1Bardo(Tibetan) is the transitional process in between lives
2From Emily Dickinson’s letters regarding her mental illness
3Resurrection of Osiris, Egyptian God of the Afterlife

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Stopping at the Acropolis 

There’s an Acropolis in every country
     town. Sometimes it’s called the Athenian,
          perhaps the Paragon. Once in a while,
the Olympia. You’ll find it sandwiched
     between the video store
          and newsagent on Main Street.
Main Street is frontier wide; so wide
     it takes the elderly forever to cross.
          Main Street usually has two cross
walks, a roundabout, but no traffic lights.
     The traffic is light on Main Street.
          Mud-splattered utes are angle
parked nose-to-kerb.
     The utes are driven by crusty
          blokes with a 3-day growth.
Blokes whose heads are never
     without an Akubra
          or a Burke & Wills.

The Acropolis is open for breakfast
     lunch and dinner. It never closes
          until the final credits roll
at the Odeon around the block.
     Nick owns and runs the Acropolis.
          Or Con. Maybe his name is Theo.
But never have I known an Adonis
     behind the counter. His wife is Maria
          (always Maria)
with the sweetest disposition
     and homemade baklava to match.
          The Catholic Special is popular
Friday; basa — shipped in from an ocean
     many will never see — beer battered,
          served with salad and thick-cut chips.
Malteds (six flavours; no charge
     for an extra scoop) rainbow the counter 
          in anodised milkshake cups.

On the Acropolis walls are faded prints
     of the Acropolis,
          the Parthenon, Santorini;
the Aegean’s deep blue pastelled
     by the passage of time. 
          The menus changed once in ’66 
when shillings and pence
     became dollars and cents overnight.
          The faux leather holders are cracked,
their gilded letters mere memory.
     But still you can buy mixed lollies
          (redskins & caramels for me) 
with a handful of change.
     They’ll toss extra chips on your
          schnitzel, refill your coffee
for free. That’s just how it is
     when you drop by the Acropolis
          and all the clocks have stopped.   

David Terelinck

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Your Body is a Shipwreck

i. rip

After the ambulance, an empty house.
The emergency takes you away. Gasping,
your body is a shipwreck. Broken raft in hospital
bed. I cannot fathom your dreaming depths.
If you are Archimedes’ principle, I am the water,
displaced. A rigging of instruments, all mast and boom:
tracheal tube, ECG, catheter. Biotelemetry
is a keel. The nurses reach with lighthouse limbs.
A soft hand on my shoulder reminds me not to fall asleep.
I talk as if my voice is mooring, a hawser to hook you
home. The berthing never comes. The eyes of your hull
do not open.

ii. leviathan

I’ve begun bargaining with Old Gods.
Hypnos has bedsores, snores, waits
for Achlys to milk his eyes.
The Sons of Somnus are restless.
Morpheus cannot decide on which form to take.
Phantasos is phantasmagoria: a talking lion,
bear, dolphin, wolf. I use mullein to keep Phobetor
at bay. From Kellis, Tutu comes when summoned.
Via the leftovers of animalia, Baku swallows
nightmare. Selenite pushes back, fitful.
Chamomile, lavender, rosemary:
I lay sprigs beneath your pillow.
In the absence of your certainty,
superstition fills the room.

iii. sea mist

Between hospital and our house, a dreamscape.
Punctuation of night. If a comma is a half-breath,
your coma is a half-death: tide pulls back
before the surge. But in my dreams, you:
a stream of consciousness. We meet
on the shore of a vast origami sea.
Waves fold darkness into cartography of sleep.
You tell me about the expanse of a nebula behind
closed lids. How this ocean sounds like mechanics.
A drip of minutes. Water lungs. Ventilation
just beyond the edge. We are an ellipsis
in your orbital eclipse. You, my mind’s chimera,
drowned in salt-encrusted comforter.
When I wake up, I check my phone:
the hospital still has not rung.

Scott-Patrick Mitchell

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A sketch of a woman from my maternal village who looked after me while we visited every summer. I called her ‘maushi’.

The feel of the clean, soft
cotton sari—floral,
and the metallic coolness
of the chain that hangs
around her neck                as I embrace her.

The smells—of smoky embers
from her constant hearth
and sandalwood incense
from her prayers at the altar,
that cling to her                like I do.

She fidgets with the chain
a part of her huṇḍā all those years ago,
as she looks after me.
Her kohl-darkened eyes, rheumy
and intent. Her bindi a prick
of a needle on the broad forehead.

Biting her pallu between her teeth,
I imagine her—a giggling child bride.
The golden chain around her neck,
just married at the tender age of five
and widowed soon after.

Wrinkly and grey-haired now,
she feeds me bhākri and bhaji,
shows me how to stitch
clothes for my dolls with neat even stitches,
while she weaves baskets to sell.

I write her name on my slate
with clumsy letters,
but she can’t read. So, I spell it out
for her—maushi—and she smiles
her toothless grin.

As years fade
and her baskets don’t sell anymore,
in desperation, she sells
her only possession—the golden chain,
to the sōnār.

The crucible takes a hundred years
of family history and reduces it
to a small molten mass of gold.

Gold—that she exchanges
for money. Money—that buys her
food and quiet for a few days.

Two years later, when her body caves in
and falls apart, catches fire so quickly
at the pyre, she becomes ashes, embers, and
a string of smoke, the texture of
lost gold—molten hot in the crucible.


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