2023 Ros Spencer Contest Winners

SoulReserve———– ———- Amber Gold

Beth Clapton                                 Queenslander

Damen O’Brien                             The Procedure
Jan Napier                                      Cobweb 

Carolyn Masel                               Rather, Off the Face of the Earth
David Atkinson                             Route 66 



This year the Ros Spencer Anthology contains a wealth of poetry. Among the 82 poems selected from the 401 entered in the contest are themes both familiar and unfamiliar, and a clutch of stories and images to delight the reader.

There are poems about family, memorable events, road trips, experiencing nature, love, illness, death, and even scientific concepts. The range of forms is astonishing: everything from free verse to sestinas and villanelles. There are a few ingenious shape poems, as well as a few prose poems that are a pleasure to read. Some poems have gaps within each line, while in others the lines meander across the page to match the content.

The tone of the poems varies from colloquial, conversational, and humorous to formal, meditative and serious. Some poets have invented made-up sounds, as in the poem Sonication; others have stretched the limits of metaphor with a comparison between two seemingly disparate ideas, as in the poem Cobweb.

Some poets get their message across by using indirect methods and unusual imagery. The poem all too many unreads depends on playing with the letters in the word ‘mother’, while Wandering Star makes an analogy between a spaceship and the spotlight coming from a police plane hovering over the neighbourhood at night.

Several poems deal with important issues such as displacement of First Nations peoples in Australia (Native Title), Child Abuse (Child Victim Services), dislocation due to migration (At the Waco Migrant Hostel, My Dear Sister), the loss of a baby in childbirth (That Doughnut Smell), ecological loss of habitat and animals (Circling Around Extinction), war (Lest We Remember, and Dawn), and difficulties in a relationship (Drive).

Among the many cheerful poems are descriptions of nature, such as The Last Time We Walked from Arbroath to Auchmithie, Pelicans and Watching the Storm. Some poems draw us into the realm of mystery and ecstasy, such as Early Winter / June Storm, Ecstasies, and Pontil Marks. Others are humorous and playful, such as Freedom!! and The Poet’s Mother.

Current events have influenced several poems: the Covid pandemic, the Brisbane floods, Trump’s election, and the war in Ukraine gave rise respectively to Road Song—A Lockdown Sestina, Aftermath, Freedom!! and Rather, Off the Face of the Earth.

Finally, there are poems that deal with travel and other countries, and transport us to other states of mind. These include Wisconsin, Night Arrival at One Mile, Jack Pine, and The Great Disappointment.

What makes a really wonderful poem? It’s more than just a brilliant idea—the poet surprises us with some strikingly original images and metaphors. And when the poem is read out, it will hit the listener immediately. So in the poem Amber Gold, the description of collecting wild honey is both physical and psychological. Could the honey and sleeping bees be symbols for a lost memory?

In Queenslander: the house itself becomes the symbol of the relationship, including its highs and disappointments. The storm imagery is vivid, leading to the yearning in the final lines.

This is why these poems won first and second prizes: they work on multiple levels with several different meanings, despite appearing simple on the surface. They also use concrete imagery and description to convey profound emotions at play: showing rather than telling.

It was so difficult to choose the winning poems, as all the poems have admirable qualities and show each poet’s unique voice.

What a collection! These poems will hopefully entrance, move, terrify, mystify, amuse, and leave readers wondering at the huge range of experience and wisdom encapsulated in their condensed images and succinct phrases.

Colin Young

2023 Contest Judge

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Amber Gold  

The boy enters the forest at the break
of dawn        as the sky begins to spill ocherous light
and untameable shadows        retreat, find
their pace and pulse in every direction.        He moves quickly
through familiar territory—rich foliage and abundant undergrowth.  

He knows where to search        under
—— rocks, within        the forest’s twisted innards,
inside the woody bark of trees. From limb to crevice to hollow to trunk.
To the next.        He knows when to withdraw,
where to wait in secret        and listen to the tell-tale sounds,
how to read the ecdysis like simple thought.

——He finds the nest        dangling
high on a tree that scrapes his limbs as he climbs.        Awkward,
his legs wrap around the girth        his hands stretch wide as he brings
smoking leaves closer to the busy hive. Bees are
—— lulled into sleep, confused and falling fallen.
————He rips open
the hive without pause, honey spewing.        And carries
the broken pieces back.

—— Later, he will squeeze amber gold from
the hive’s soft bones        like memories
—— recalled        suspended inside
liquid time        flush with bodies, their faint cries
that will never be heard again.        Like the cries of siblings
unnamed        he lost to death—no reason
        just poverty and misfortune.  

Honey sits at the tip of his tongue now        oozing
a molten language        as he sings the chasing dreams. Bee stings
ripen sour wounds.        Eyes turn, pluck
flowers from sepia to amber.        Memories crystalise
into jagged things        that prick incessantly.  

He knows of places in the forest that give,
—— and places that take        where grief may be buried
in exchange for easier days.

—— He runs to the forest to forage for wild honey
and brings back solace.
—— Prayers escape his lips        brushing against
old walls of trees; stir ghosts into wakefulness        that buzz like bees
—— uprooted from their homes and abandoned.
From forest to hill to soft ground
—— to the crumbling village at the edge.

My father lost four of his siblings
before he turned fifteen. They weren’t named.
There aren’t any graves or epitaphs.
There aren’t any mentions.  

I imagine that he said his prayers
at the forest while foraging for wild honey.  


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The late September air cracks
wind bores through brittle boards, sucking
at the void between my feet and solidity.  

Years ago we drove along a straight scar highway
where pale scabbed houses dwindled amongst the spinifex
A Queenslander – he said  

as we arrived beside this spindly house, perched
like a daddy long legs, trembling in the heat.
Through the drought years no children came  

his stubble pressed rough against my neck
disappointment thrust deep between my legs.
My stubborn body bled. 

I move now with ever lighter steps
across hollow boards stooping to gather
his discarded clothes.  

The screen door clacks and groans
and in the after-silence I cradle my soft bundle
down splintered stairs, skirting the absence of childish shapes  

a kookaburra mocks as I whisper names no child will bear
into the febrile air.
In the lengthening shadow of the house  

I slip a foot from my shoe, burrow my toes
into the red dirt.
Lightning discharges to earth.  

Overhead the boards crack under his heavy tread
he dares the house to answer back, the sky is split
by sudden light. The storm is coming.  

He paces from room to room
calls my name
I fight the sun for breath as the wind shifts  

uneasily. His sweat-smell floats above the petrichor.
I watch the first fat drops thud on lettuce shoots
frail leaves too broad, roots too shallow  

they yield to the sudden weight.
Water floods in sullen runnels
lacunae form on the parched earth  

engulf the seedlings in the deluge.
It is too much, much too late, I know
the depth of thirst which water cannot slake.  

Beth Clapton 

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The Procedure

For a second time she rose out of the ocean, still wet
from the waters of its unmaking, empty as though
a piece of her had remained, foggy, disconnected,
dissolved into the aspirin fizz of forgetting,
the busy confusion of hospital spinning around her.
You have to wake up now, Jane, you have to come back.

When she was little, her father took her out
on his trawler for the day, she’d watched them crank
the catch on to the deck, the dark line piercing the
green wave, the winch coiling endlessly, rising from
some other world, for so long that she’d thought there
was no end to it, the net would never come, but then
it sucked out of the water, wriggling and horrible,
a slippery snag of salt, scale, blood and gaping death.

The first time, she’d gone snorkelling off Port Douglas
with a group of Malaysian tourists, the water clear,
ancient and vast and she’d studied the solemn head
of a Grouper for disorienting minutes. On her return
to the surface, the boat had gone, so she’d floated
on her back under the unnatural blue sky, while the
horizon rushed away from her into the lonely distance.
Fathomless canyons beneath her, magnetic depths.

This time, the procedure was benign and the
general anaesthetic a timeless erasure, removing
an hour of her life with surgical accuracy, ablating her
memory of the ocean she’d been swimming in, but
her skin retains something, a waterlogged sense of
emptiness underneath her feet—dark, timeless, her
life a long, creeling, stubborn line and no bottom

Damen O’Brien

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an atropos    I sever threads
for a third time.  

this godlet tends and mends its endless
skeins invisibly  

a haunting 
going unnoticed till rainlight gives filaments
the glint of silver.  

exactitude    sticky guy wires linking
strings to brick.  

rectangles tatted
of silk and air reminders of calais lace coverlets
made by grey aunts.  

wind flattens
web to glass so it’s a fisher’s net
all wishing and deceit.  

snared as insect
by fist and blue inked vows.
and resistant  

or indifferent
to what’s sworn  I rely
like spider  

blind persistence for

Jan Napier  

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Rather, Off the Face of the Earth
“Putin is trying to wipe them off the map.”
– Sean Rubinzstein-Dunlop, ABC journalist, 22 April, 2022  

Speaking of erasure,
all our ancestors fled
the Pale of Settlement.  

I scrutinise the map again
armed with footage
to match the names  

of the towns and cities
outside which we were
allowed to dwell,  

but I don’t even know
the names of our villages.
I say we although  

I’ve no feeling for the land
farms, houses, apartment blocks.
This is not my homeland.  

Our ties were cut too long ago
and too well.
I say we because  

it’s that time of year
when we insist once more
that what was then is now.  

Then is now.
The cities and towns are crumbling
under bombardment.  

Bodies of women and children
mass graves of men
tumbled together or left.  

Each life is unrepeatable,
we remind ourselves
steeled to witness horror  

because someone should.
So we recall too fleetingly
an old woman cursing a Russian soldier  

with sunflower seeds;
a newly fledged man
in Ukrainian soldier’s uniform  

smiling as he speaks of his fear;
a dog wagging its white flag
as it’s left behind;  

a child who can’t stop screaming;
a wounded woman in labour
being stretchered out  

beside the cameras,
her hand extended
to cover her nakedness.  

We seek the personal because
things resolve too quickly into
abstract patterns –  

smashed rectangles
outlines of housing blocks
from a drone’s eye view –  

patterns that feel like chaos
in the living of them
and the surprise and  

in the dying. History
at the moment of becoming.  

Carolyn Masel  

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Route 66  

We coast out of the ‘burbs before the outstretched trek
from Chicago to the western sun, our rental Corvette
readied for the retro road tour.  

I escape from myself into the reverb echo,
the blitz of guitar riffs, insistent yawl
of Chuck Berry; the sprawled expanses of desert.  

The self-possessed lope of a coyote as we aim
across the mid-western prairies,
sweep past gleaming Greyhounds,  

crawling racers trundling the slow lane,
overhaul burly flannelette shirts
subduing flat back trucks.  

The rev, the reek of rusty farm pickups.
We attune to the syncopation of the spaces,
brindle cattle languorous beyond fictional fences.  

No routine but the drum of hunger,
pause at a roadhouse, stools to laminated consoles;
the snap of burger fat prancing on the dancing flame.  

Dissonance of the next door gun shop,
spangled banner hoisted
by a hobbling veteran of Nam.  

Indefinite hours or days; like draft evaders
we skirt St Louis and Tulsa, watch the lustre
fade from the plains.  Attaining dusk,  

descent into darkness at another Motel 6,
the outskirts of yet another gritty city,
indistinct in the interplay of street lights.  

Under a dissenting fan, woman with shoulders
liquid from the heat; carpet tattered
as must mounts the apathy of the air.  

Bag leaden on the bed, immersed in a walk
beyond the windswept parking lot;
this is the core, the axis of America.  

David Atkinson

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