Out of the 327 poems in this year’s competition, eight poems seemed, after numerous readings, to choose themselves. These were Spirited Away, My mother at the edge of town, Caves, The Huntaway, With lime wash, Aide Mémoire, Grandfather and The Call. I feel reasonably confident that other judges would have short-listed most of the same poems, although they may have put them in a different order. The competition as a whole renewed my belief in the diversity of possibilities that poetry offers, and reminded me how poetry expresses the nature of things, it doesn’t explain them. The minor triumphs of coming up with an original image or a particularly lively line, can keep us going, and plenty of the poems submitted did that. These days, it seems to me, poems often risk humiliation by talking about what we used to call ‘the soul’ and the mysteries involved in visitations from our higher emotions, but my two winning poems dare that territory with accomplishment. Spirited Away (James Ackhurst) starts with a sort of placeless, instantaneous visitation and then takes us on a mysterious journey where the intimate and the archetypal are experienced as one. Perhaps it’s a heavily disguised love poem? “Drink the coffee she grinds for you / in the priceless porcelain pencil-sharpener, / let yourself be guided to / the balcony with the towels like Tibetan prayers”. Who could resist such an invitation? It’s a quest poem tingling with mystery and a taste of the eternal. It dares unfashionable areas of inner experience that echo Mallarmé and Rilke. The same applies to My mother at the edge of town (Jillian Sullivan), another love poem about a journey, amalgamating the reading of a book by Robert Dessaix with a train journey to visit the poet’s mother. There’s the stalled emotion of the coming meeting (youth and age), views through the train window, memories of the poet’s grandmother, and of a lover, children, passing time, all held in balance by the touching ambiguities of the occasion. “I want to put my faith in lemon juice and silver,” the poet almost hopelessly cries out. This poem touched me deeply, as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does. I found it almost impossible to decide which of these two fine poems should be first and second, but I finally gave first place to My mother at the edge of town because, I suppose, it feels a little more earthed in the heartache of the everyday. Jillian Sullivan also wrote With lime wash, which made my last eight.
My two runner-up awards were for Caves (Riemke Ensing) and The Huntaway (Janet Newman). The former is a lovely letter to friends, remembering “the cave at Muriwai, full of light and serenity,” and contrasting this with another cave down south, one dark with suffering where light never entered and “prisoners were kept / and I think of Te Whiti and children arrested in song.” It’s a fine contemplative poem echoing human as well as landscape extremes. The Huntaway (Janet Newman) is something more than just another owner-and-her-dog poem. It celebrates the nature of both wildness and companionship in a gently modulated evocation of a sort of shared loneliness. “I have taken him from his wild nest / but his wildness gives in. / He bows down, / receives my deviant touch.” It’s that ‘deviant touch’ that binds us to the poem as much as it binds the dog to its owner.
There were two other poems I found difficult to lose: Aide Mémoire (Mary Cresswell), which was excellent in its revitalising of everyday phrases, and Grandfather (Kerry Craig), a family ghost poem rich in Kiwi recollection.
– Peter Bland
First Place: Jillian Sullivan – My mother at the edge of town
Second Place: James Ackhurst – Spirited Away
Runner-Up Riemke Ensing – Caves
Runner-Up Janet Newman – The Huntaway
Judge’s Special Mention: Kerry Craig – Grandfather
Judge’s Special Mention: Mary Cresswell – Aide Mémoire
The winning poems are published in this issue of takahe, and can be found by following the links above.
The two Runners-Up will appear in takahē 89 (April 2017).