Jackson, Split and shaped
Siobhan Hodge, Shark Nursery
Davide Angelo, Nine-spotted Moth
David Stanley, The Man from Lightning Ridge – in Byron
Tim Collins, Just South of Echo
Ann Gilchrist, Twilight of the Gaels
This year’s Ros Spencer Poetry Prize drew more than 190 entries, so there is no shortage of interest in poetry, at least in terms of wanting to write it. If only there was a reciprocal interest in buying it and we’d have publishers clamouring to publish and sell poetry, but we’re caught in a loop whereby non-poets don’t purchase poetry books, leaving poets with incomes too small for them to be able to purchase poetry books, and so publishers find small markets and leave the publishing to dedicated niche publishers who share the view of the writers. That view is that poetry is the most sensorily, intellectually and emotionally powerful form of expression that any human being can achieve, the most profound and most meaningful of all the arts. This capacity of poetry makes it fitting material for a much loved person, and at the beginning of this prize presentation I want to pay tribute to Geoff and Natalie and the Spencer family for endowing this prize in memory of Ros Spencer. It’s a very fine thing to do, and the family has a continuing commitment to it.
Given the number of entries – which as the judge I confess I never expected! – it’s no surprise that the poems encompassed a great variety of subjects, themes, tones and forms. They included rhymes and stanzas as well as free verse, short lyrics and poems that ran almost to the maximum of 60 lines, tragedies and comic poems. Needless to say, this doesn’t make a judge’s job any easier! Of course, the greatest difficulty occurred when I got down to the end, when I had to choose only 6 poems for awards; I had 9 which I mulled over as if they were different glasses of glühwein at a German Christmas market; I read them without knowing the author’s names but I did look those up afterwards. I’m always pretty confident about the shortlist but I do think that when you get down to the sharp end of the competition with a group of very diverse poems, all of them interesting and at least fairly well written, you can feel that you are in the philosopher’s conundrum of choosing between bananas and Wednesday. In the world at large the great thing about the arts is that you don’t have to choose: you can like Gaetano Donizetti and Bob Dylan, Ben Jonson and Jill Jones. With the most careful judgement in the world, a degree of subjectivity must come into play, and I freely admit that another judge might have mixed these nine into a different order. Still, I can promise you that I weighed technical skill with emotional power and decided on the basis of memorability after repeated readings. When I sent my first book manuscript to a publisher it was to Angus & Robertson, and Les Murray was the editor. He got me to work on it for another year; when I’d done so he got me to sit down while he read it in front of me – a somewhat unnerving experience for a first time poet! Then he told me that his practice was to read a manuscript then turn it over face down and ask himself what stayed in his head. I’ve never forgotten sitting there while he wondered what that was, but it seems to me as good a test as any critical or literary theoretical one I’ve ever found. So, what stayed in my head?
What I first think of now is the three poems I excluded from the list in the end; I want to mention them because they all have distinctive qualities and are all eminently worthy of publication. Those poems are, in no special order, “Agnostic at the Airport” by Ross Jackson, “Demeter’s Lizards” by Jenifer Hetherington, and “The Fisherman” by Peter Burges. In the Commended category we have “Just South of Echo” by Tim Collins, and “Twilight of the Gaels” by Ann Gilchrist. As a sign of the aforementioned diversity, “Just South of Echo” is a longish, quietly moving meditation on the relationship between sleep and conscious awareness, and between the human and the natural world – both close by and astronomically. “Twilight of the Gaels” is a historically informed poem in quatrains rhymed a-a-b-b, about the treachery of the English and the repression of Gaelic language and Scottish culture. I admit that I could make a pretty good guess about the author without looking up the name!
Moving forward to the Highly Commended category we have “Nine-spotted Moth” by Davide Angelo. “Nine-spotted” is the name of the moth, not the number of times it’s been seen, and we might deduce from the poet’s name that he is Italian. Actually, the poem is partly about the extent to which he isItalian, and in particular to what extent he is his father’s son. Davide’s father is Sicilian and the poem explores Sicilian Christianity and superstitions that Davide does not feel a part of. The poem begins “The caterpillars rearrange themselves / in cocoons of glass, fall asleep to rhythms / of acquiescent trees.” The pointedness and the poignancy of opening with soon-to-be Sicilian moths becomes apparent as the poem continues. His father “says a moth in the house is a sign of good luck” and Davide traps “nine-spotted moths in a glass jar, in secret”; of course, this means they will die. The capturing of the moths is juxtaposed with “A crucifix on the wall hangs / like an exclamation”. The poem is full of intricate imagery. Near the climax of the poem the poet declares, “When I wash my face, my face / leaks into the sinkhole”. Much more could be said in the analysis of this sophisticated, intelligent poem which would be a worthy winner of any competition.
And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different: the other Highly Commended poem you might understand something of from its title, “The Man from Lightning Ridge – in Byron”! David Stanley beautifully maps Banjo Paterson’s original as: “’Twas the man from Lightning Ridge, who came to Byron Bay. / He’d never seen the ocean, he’d never felt the spray.” The poem comes replete with a glossary of surfing terms – “ankle busters”, “junkyard dog”, “Paddlepuss” and so on; I presume they’re genuine. You don’t have to know the lingo to understand “’Twas the man from Lightning Ridge, who in board shorts strode on in. / He really should have told the dude, he’d never learned to swim.” It’s long after his surfing adventure that back at the mine where he works we’re told:
And now about the mine head, he scoffs at his ordeal.
He tells about the day a shark mistook him for a meal.
“Those surfer dudes and hippies, they think they are so lush.
But don’t go near the ocean boys, it’s safer in the bush.”
I think Banjo would have approved.
To show further what I mean about comparing bananas and Wednesday, Second Prize goes to a perfectly written lyric – twenty-one lines in which there is not a punctuation mark to be changed. It’s also about the water and about sharks, but baby ones this time. Siobhan Hodge’s “Shark Nursery” becomes a beautifully evocative poem through its superb imagery and contrasting rhythms: “Silver slips of shark pups, golden pebbles / on lean bodies, slither to the cold.” Sharply described, the shark pups are fragile – “Trembling ghosts, they flit about in the cavern / rooves” – but the contrasting truth is stark: “One body, / small and shattered, is picked clean / by his sisters”. Unlike many poems submitted to the competition, the poet offers no didactic lessons but lets the images speak for themselves. It’s a poem about shark pups yes, but it is also a poem about human vulnerability and about us as animals in an inherently attractive and dangerous world. And considering it’s one of Siobhan’s poems I suppose it’s notable that there’s not a horse in sight!
You might deduce from all this that the winning poem is pretty special. And I suppose that it’s nice to note that both the First and Second Prize poems have been written by locals – although I didn’t know that at first. The First Prize goes to a quiet, extremely mature and thoughtful poem written in unrhymed quatrains; it’s blank verse with a balanced meter that underpins the flowing rhythms – rhythms which sometimes measure the feeling of comfort and belonging and sometimes contrast with a kind of jagged feeling of separation from family roots. Not just family roots either – the poem arises from a visit to the poet’s family in or near the Lake District, with its centrality for the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth who is specifically mentioned. Other mentions include the poet’s own Viking heritage, the Stephensons and Brunel who pioneered the development of the railways that she has travelled on, “clutching my BritRail pass”. She also notes that British Rail is now gone, privatised into sections; political awareness sits alongside her feeling for English history and a pondering of her own place in it, as much a part of it as separated from it. Her uncle points out “Your grandfather built that garden wall” and she recalls that her own father tried “dry stone walling / … with orange Australian rocks / but all he got were cairns.” The poem never strains; it gradually builds up from stanza to stanza with poise and curiosity, so that the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. So, I’m very pleased to announce that the winning poem of the 2019 Ros Spencer Poetry Prize is “Split and shaped” by Jackson.
Split and shaped
It’s as if they said, three hundred years ago, this
is a house, a flat-sided box with a door
and small plain windows, two storeys
of fired or quarried country,
my country, grey upon brown upon grey,
gathered in patches and swathes
amid the irrepressible green —
the fields, trees, hedges, lawns —
gathered in blocks and rows among the poles,
wires, rails, signs, business buildings in
concrete or ridged metal, the Industrial
Revolution in its birthplace and I in mine,
clutching my BritRail pass (its sleek train
amid the green, its precious printed month)
in long Viking fingers as Viking Saxon
Norman Celtic English, my English,
articulates the air at my Hamlet ears
I hang them with earrings of dark Honister slate,
the rock my grandfather and uncle rived until
the pit closed, the Industrial Revolution
offshoring itself and I its child, clutching—
but British Rail is gone, the network sectioned
like it was in its youth, George and Robert
Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Those names! their everywhere flourish, grey
upon brown upon grey amid the indefensible
green, chimneys cleaving the low sky
the signature of old work
The Aga burns coal in the seventeenth-century
guesthouse, my father born in its front bedroom,
its face of ancient lava plastered
with ivy, its third Mrs Jackson my aunt
My uncle points out his extensions: porch,
kitchen, teashop, looking craggy and venerable
Your grandfather built that garden wall, he says
In the bookshop I read about dry stone walling
My father tried it with orange Australian rocks
but all he got were cairns
I take my Wordsworth ears
by bus from Stonethwaite to Keswick
for two modest pieces of country, her strata
split and shaped into delicate abstract leaves,
as cool as autumn rain, buffed smooth
in the back room, divided by a silver line
In the cooling deep, there is a grove
lined with mermaid purses. Irish waters
long silent, reef broken, leaves rubble caves
for open mouths.
Silver slips of shark pups, golden pebbles
on lean bodies, slither to the cold.
No adult prowls the nursery, they are left
to crab and shrimp.
For now, there are no nets or spears
to stutter their furious hearts.
Trembling ghosts, they flit about in the cavern
rooves, soft skins grow spines.
They nip mollusc, turn fish
and nose, probing through the wreckage
of dead reef. No light is needed
for now. The pups rest in litter. Black mouths
over the scattered shards of eggs. One body,
small and shattered, is picked clean
by his sisters. Lean fins
shuttle impossible eyes, wide as night
moving from cave to an abyss of open ocean.
The caterpillars rearrange themselves
in cocoons of glass, fall fast asleep to rhythms
of acquiescent trees. Who needs a crucifix
when you have a panorama of monuments,
small red domes against Mount Pellegrino.
Papa twists into an endless sinuous curve,
says a moth in the house is a sign of good luck.
I trap nine-spotted moths in a glass jar, in secret,
one by one. A crucifix on the wall hangs
like an exclamation.Christ isn’t nailed to this one.
Papa can’t explain why the porcelain Jesus’ horse-sized
heart is outside his chest, or why Rosalia, the Saint
of the mountain, holds her own skull in one hand,
a pickaxe in the other. I don’t have the vocabulary yet
to explain ideals and old chestnuts like:
‘You should be really proud of yourself
catching a moth that’s already caught’.
In Papa’s hometown, I leave religion, so to speak,
mid-Summer, in the enervating sirocco,
that part of the day in southwestern Sicily
when walls lean over you. A dog bounds past,
disappears under the wheels of the orange bus.
Papa shows me Visconti’s The Leopard, says,
‘Sometimes things need to change
So they can stay the same’.
When Winter falls. I mourn for Summer.
I pull a singular thread of sun.
My body purrs with gratitude
as I feel it snake around me.
When I wash my face, my face
leaks into the sinkhole.
I’m the one who watches films
like I’m watching my own memories.
I ascend Mount Pellegrino on my knees
– a caterpillar over granite stones
sharp as the shattered glass of jars
Back to top
The Man from Lightning Ridge – In Byron
With inspiration from the great A.B. (Banjo) Paterson, and ‘The Man from Ironbark’.
‘Twas the man from Lightning Ridge who came to Byron Bay.
He’d never seen the ocean, he’d never felt the spray.
He went up to the lighthouse, he gazed upon the shore.
He marvelled at the deep blue sea; he’d never seen before.
He wandered on the foreshore, he strode upon the sand.
He felt the sort of glory; coastal people understand.
He drank a warm chai-latte, he tried a cold ice-cream.
He marvelled at beach people, few of whom he’d ever seen.
A local sort of surfer dude came up to say “G’day.”
He said the surf was ‘epic’ and was ‘firing’ all the way.
He said, “are you a Benny? or some sort of surfer Bro?”
The man from Lightning Ridge said, “a Benny – I done’ know?”
The surfer asked, “You new here? Or are you a junkyard dog?”
“Don’t say you are a paddlepuss, or a stale ‘shit on a log.’”
“I’m not a shit on anything, I’m a bushman tried and true.
And I’ll have ago at surfn’, you just show me what to do.”
The surfer dude said, “chill out man, don’t Quimby out on me.
I’ve got a ‘stick’ that you can use, we’ll head on out to sea.”
He said, “I’m stoked that you will try, to give the surf a run.
Get ready for an awesome time, this surfing lark is fun.”
‘Twas the man from Lightning Ridge, who in board shorts strode on in.
He really should have told the dude, he’d never learned to swim.
His pride on show, his nerves were amped, he couldn’t turn back now.
They stood in ‘ankle busters’, as the surfer showed him how.
“Look here,” he said, “I catch on quick, I’ve worked hard down a mine.
I’m sure I’ll get the hang of this, I’m sure that I’ll do fine.
So, step aside their sonny, I’m off to ‘make the drop’.
There may be huge waves breaking, but I’m sure to stay on top.”
‘Twas the man from Lightning Ridge, that sat astride his borrowed ‘stick’.
Floating in the depths, he thought, ‘I’ll get this over quick.’
He readied himself boldly, for a rad wave to begin.
When to his left, to his surprise, he saw a dorsal fin.
The shark, he thought, ‘had never tasted men like me before.’
“I’ll not go down without a fight, I’ll show this beast what for.”
The shark moved in and struck the board; our hero was thrown clear.
And although he couldn’t swim, he faced the monster without fear.
He thrashed out with his fists and tried to gouge the fish’s eyes.
He punched and thumped the shark, although the shark was twice his size.
He socked it squarely on the nose and knocked the blighter out.
The man from Lightning Ridge had won his first shark boxing bout.
He pulled the board back to him and paddled from the fray.
He caught a wave, snapped upright and rode the wave away.
He soon was in the shallows and he staggered to the shore.
And on the sand, he vowed, “I’ll not go surfin’ anymore.”
And now about the mine head, he scoffs at his ordeal.
He tells about the day a shark, mistook him for a meal.
“Those surfer dudes and hippies, they think they are so lush.
But don’t go near the ocean boys, its safer in the bush.”
And whether he’s believed or not, there’s one thing to remark.
He’ll swing his fists like fury, if you ever yell out “shark.”
Surfing terms used in the poem and what they mean:
*Ankle busters= waves that are too small to ride
*Benny= a person who is not a local
*Epic = awesome wave, top surf
*Firing = fun surf
*Going off= great surf as in, “It’s all going off today”
*Junkyard dog= a surfer with poor style
*Making the drop= catching a wave and sitting on the lower part of the wave’s shoulder
*Paddlepuss= a person who plays in the white water and is afraid to stray from the beach
*Quimby= a beginner surfer who is usually annoying
*Shit on a log, or S.O.L = an older surfer who paddles a long board
*Stick= a surfboard
Just South of Echo
Every lost landscape speaks its own story, like a strip of celluloid not often seen, as it is so devoid of human viewings, it self-discards itself like dust Ballantyne Fini.
Night-skinned music playing
tall grass waving instinctively
the smell of tractor oil as
Indie goes to sleep, tonight
on the veranda I try to
centre stars against satellites,
like dull haloed moving
glint-blobs of sulphured light,
there is medicine in the dark,
the trees charcoal-filled sticks
on a coral coloured paddock,
frost resting for a short while
before dribbling and the moon
throwing its wanton glow across
a pre-wintered landscape,
Indie is asleep with slow
night-shade flicks of light-lime over
her hair framed face, I scowl
with my eyes trying to dig
into slumber, then a nail file
breeze at the barn’s west gate
the sound a bit like a small bird
pencilling my thoughts, booking
the moon’s pearled glow ready for
an after show performance, chinked
stars canter the darkness and looking up
the sky fluttered with mothed cloud
those shaky stars resembling deep veins
of granite wailed into a rocked hillside
they notice the turpentine grass moving
strobingly to a shudder of dull lit night-wash,
unlike day’s radiant eye itching light,
tonight everything is Moses ready,
insects and birds hike in their dreams
over settled cottages, misted mornings,
trawling heat in mid-afternoon and
later in the text of the year slow rob
their existence with the dry rot coolness
of winter, yet tonight there is a rising
damp of calmness like things floating.
Twilight of the Gaels
the sheep are shorn, the wool is scoured
the pots of pish have all been poured
blaeberries and roots of dock,
crotal scraped from trunk and rock
heather, bracken, bark of alder
dulse and berry all are called for
boiling pots, a dyeing brew
the wool takes on the landscape’s hue
how many colours shall we weave?
three for rank, but five for chief
one for servant, two for kin
six for poets, seven – kings
how many songs to waulk the cloth
seven, nine or twelve at most
lucky numbers of the Gael
a cup of milk for the loireag
Culloden’s grazing ground rots red
two thousand men are maimed or dead
and Gaels are pushed beyond the isles
their culture crushed as England rides
compelled to weave a cursèd grey
the northern lights are poured away
the Gaelic tongue forbidden speech
livestock slain where men retreat
a generation lost its tongue
the waulking songs remained unsung
cloth stitched up in humble breeks
the cursèd grey of lowland breeds
the warriors have all withdrawn
who’ll fight to save the ancient tongue
a whisper still in highland dwells
drowned beneath Westminster’s bells