Tongues&Grooves Prose Poem Competition 2018
First, Second and Third Prize-winning Poems with Commentaries from the judge, Michael Loveday
Patricia Millner – First Prize
Bird Count, November
Today we went to count the waders. Once a month the BTO records their numbers on every river and shore. So at first light we hefted our telescopes out into icy drizzle. The mudflats sucked and wobbled as the tide fell away. Frost-brittled sea purslane and glasswort cracked underfoot.
The birds had moved upriver out of the worst of the wind. Only a lone curlew stabbed the ooze for worms. Suddenly through murk the lapwings lifted, flapping like washing in the wind, then airborne, tuned to the spaces between them, wheeled in their synchronised skydance. Against the cloudwrack a whirling heaven of birds.
How many? How do you count enchantment?
Five hundred and eighty-five, our expert said.
But fewer than last month; than the month before.
This prose poem, a quiet lament for environmental changes, combines apt creativity of language with real emotional impact. As judge I was considering both the quality of the writing and the choice of subject matter – the what, as well as the how. No matter how brilliantly a poem is written, some subjects have less impact on the reader. But the narrative here resonates effortlessly with a gentle sorrow that deepens with each re-reading. Is the change described by the poem a simple seasonal shift, or is it the result of human activity? The poem itself offers no explanation, leaving us with a troubled, ambivalent anxiety. The entire emotional movement of the piece is very skilfully worked. After a matter-of-fact beginning, there is a down-to-earth relish in the physical vocabulary (‘sucked’, ‘wobbled’, ‘frost-brittled’, ‘stabbed’, ‘ooze’) that allows the poem to risk moving towards more sentimental phrasing at the mid-point: ‘skydance’, ‘cloudwrack’, ‘heaven of birds’. But then this new, seemingly ethereal mood is undercut wonderfully by the prosaic, unemotional response from the expert. Then there follows that further, final shift, where the poignant last line does its work so succinctly.
Anne Caldwell – Second Prize
After the Brexit vote, the crossing of borders became important.
Straddling, hurdling, hanging votives on fences, cutting through
wire or hammering concrete. Our mother had been at Greenham
and wove ribbons into the barrier surrounding the air base. Our
father had worked in Berlin when the wall was punched through and
the sky was brimming with freedom, firecrackers and laughter. I’d
once tried to find a check-point in the wall in Belfast. It snaked a
poison-route through back gardens, past murals of armed men and
curbstones painted red, white and blue. Any wall begins in the mind,
but my mind and heart can dissolve this hardening, just as salt
crystals or honey dissolve into water, soothing throats, making our
voices louder and more sonorous in tone.
This prose poem was one of the few entries submitted that dared to tackle a socio-political issue head on. I liked how, from its very first sentence, the poem seems to be looking back at our current era of divisiveness and difference, then gradually carrying readers towards a position of hope, reaching a rhetorical climax with the beautifully expressed thought: ‘Any wall begins in the mind, but my mind and heart can dissolve this hardening…’. Although the poem is rooted in the historical, linking our current ideas of ‘borders’ – whether physical or intangible – back to the barriers at Greenham common and the walls in Berlin and Belfast, its assured sentences explicitly and implicitly celebrate the use of language and the imagination.
Josh Ekroy – Third Prize
The Cave on the Moon
in order for us to take off successfully according to the will of all those who have clearly stated that they wish to fly to the moon it will be necessary for us to have complete control of the spacecraft because the voyage simply will not be possible if every passenger is at liberty to grab the controls and start flicking switches as and when it pleases them and therefore anyone who agrees to share in this great adventure must also agree to certain precepts namely that the pilot has complete authority to guide us to our destination but now there are some who say that they reserve the right to see how the pilot gets on with the job and if he does not perform to their satisfaction then they reserve the right to grab the controls after which heaven knows what chaos may ensue so it is imperative that we recall the great example of henry viii who if he found a person an encumbrance extirpated them and it is in that proud historical spirit the retention of which is exactly the kind of national tradition for which we have been fighting for so long and so ardently that I would wish any passenger to take their seat which incidentally will be fairly uncomfortable in order to test the sincerity of those who say they wish to participate in this unique enterprise and when we reach The Cave On The Moon it will be a simple matter to turn it into an exploration base because this chasm which is thirty miles long and 100 metres wide is structurally sound and its rocks contain ice and water deposits which can be turned into fuel beneath the Marius Hills on the near side a lava tube created by volcanic activity about 3.5 billion years ago it would protect all committed passengers and their equipment from extremes of heat and cold as well as radiation from the sun’s ultra-violet rays although no-one has been inside it or scanned it but committed persons are confident it could provide us with just the opportunity we are looking for to create a safe space and secure our future outside the planet although faint-hearted earthers say they are wondering if there really is water or ice in those rocks and demand to know how they could be turned into fuel which if it was possible how expensive it would be when we know it can be done economically because china russia india and the us have expressed an interest in the cave so we shall have to be quick and the japanese who discovered it have already claimed priority but we are certain there is room for all and this beautiful cave could offer many fruitful opportunities for international co-operation and above all trade
Unpunctuated prose poems are a risk – the hindrance to readability is not always justified by the narrative context. But here the choice is organic to both the material and the voice, creating a feeling of oppression and relentlessness. This moon-journey narrative is impressive for how it speaks obliquely to contemporary political, economic, and environmental issues – an unusual satire about the way we are compromised by power and technology in the name of progress, as well as simultaneously being an inventive riff on the now-stock phrase ‘fly me to the moon’ from the 1954 Bart Howard song, where it was used as a metaphor for falling in love. (What place for romance as we approach the apocalypse, the poet seems to ask?) This poem’s unconventional conceit is compellingly executed, drawing playfully, and with raw energy, upon the language of law, government, and business. I laughed and was afraid in equal measure.