SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY POETRY COMPETITION (FEBRUARY 2019)
ADJUDICATOR’S REPORT By MANDY PANNETT
As always, this has been a hard task – very enjoyable but difficult to select from among so many outstanding poems. It was with reluctance that I had to limit my choices to twelve. Themes were plentiful and varied. Several poets, as the list of my winners will show, wrote about dementia and the care of the sick or elderly. There was rich array of poems about the seasons, weather, flora and fauna, eco concerns and climate change. Relationship poems were written with skill and there was an appreciable number of entries about art and artists, historical figures, books and the writing of poetry.
I enjoyed reading a number of prose poems and I was especially pleased to see several original pieces that experimented with typography, lineation and white space. An extra pleasure came from finding poems based on sound patterning.
Thank you to all entrants for letting me share your poems. It has been a moving experience.
1st Prize. Duty of Care
The theme of this outstanding poem, as the title suggests, is the sense of obligation underpinning the care needed for a partner suffering from advanced dementia. This is a case of love not altering when it alteration finds. Needs and duties become reciprocal. ‘I could get carers,’ says the husband, ‘but the woman cared for me.’ A sad, chilling line.
The tone of writing is laconic, understated and casual, the theme seemingly straightforward narrative But this is a poem based on incongruence. Snatches of conversation, as two old friends share their mutual hobby of swapping cigarette cards, are juxtaposed with details that highlight the dilemma and heartache of on-going care. And yet these details are handled with a light touch. The ‘unresponsive’ and ‘expressionless’ wife has to stay in the car because ‘Incontinence pads,/ apparently, are not infallible. He smilingly declines to put/our three-piece suite at risks.’ It’s the use of that word ‘smilingly’ that is so poignant. The outward show, the facade that shows the cracks beneath. Fragments of phrases, incomplete thoughts. The ‘bafflement’ of it all. The tenderness under the pain.
There is more to this winning poem, though, than a brilliantly handled narrative. Every word or phrase seems chosen for its nuances and undertones. The host’s wife is ‘dead-heading’ flowers, the cards are ‘weeded’, the wife is ‘unmoving’, the husband drives away with ‘the residue’ not only of left-over cards but, by implication, the scraps that remain of two lives.
2nd prize. Winter Morning visit to the sun king’s palace
The title caught my attention immediately followed by its sharpness of language and imagery. Everything here on this freezing, early morning is white, silent, icy and shimmering – painful too as winter light shatters, splinters, flashes. Hoarfrost has tossed ‘its crystal needles in the night.’
And then there is the gold. And the fire that the gold inspires in the couple whose relationship is secret, dangerous, burning.
This poem is brilliant in the way it conveys a sense of place. I love the movement in it , the way it begins outside the gate, then the couple step inside stamping their boots, wander through ‘the silent frozen halls’. Next they move into the freezing gardens, see ‘fountains,/statues, paths and sculptured trees’ shining ‘in a white and lunar light’. Here, for a moment, though cold and short of money, they are like monarchs with ‘courtiers of ice’ being spied on ‘by squinting frost’.
A stunning poem of place with a doomed relationship at the heart of it. This may be the sun-king’s palace but no sun reduces the ice while words that might mend are too frozen to melt.
3rd Prize You asked me
This is an enigmatic poem and it is the quality of strangeness that makes the writing special for me. That and the superb use of language.
There is an extraordinary tension in the writing. I don’t pretend to ‘understand’ the back story but I am totally gripped by the atmosphere of the piece, the sense of striving for perfection, for exactness and things that are ‘true’, for that moment when the axe splits the grain in wood and it is ‘white and honey/and scented, when each split piece sings,/that simple bright note.’
There is so much to admire in the poem – the effective use of anaphora, the three line stanza shape, the line endings, the simplicity and precision of language. If I had to choose just one thing I find memorable it would be the image of the dark hawk seen on a man’s wrist, outside the off-license ‘on a day of wet snow’. That image, the mood and feeling of something allegorical that it conveys, will haunt me for a very long time.
Highly Commended. Scrabble with Mother
This is a marvellous poem with its unique slant on the theme of dementia. There is compassion, tenderness and honesty in every line.
The opening is blunt. ‘Mother is lonely and daft. Her friends all died.’ But then begins the extended metaphor of the game of scrabble juxtaposed with memory’s loss. The tiles, like the mother’s mind, ‘are worn, almost blank.’
The poem, like memory, unravels slowly, beginning with the child in a high-chair and continuing for forty years. What doesn’t change is the bond between them, the love that endures even though ‘each day she/is less, but never removed.’
There are so many memorable lines. I won’t spoil the reader’s pleasure by quoting more. This is a rare poem.
Highly Commended. Between us
How cleverly the poet sets the scene and touches on the theme of leaving: ‘I will wash up for you before I leave/but, right now, the morning/can’t bear too much activity.’ After-the-party chaos is further detailed in the mashed-up remains of the birthday cake, the crisp packet that ‘blossoms’ out of a wine glass. Holding a cup of tea seems to be the only warmth between the couple, the only kind of physical contact. There is ‘space’ between them. We are given echoes of days when they talked, shared domestic issues to do with the flat such as how to protect woollen clothes from moths.
Here, with the reference to moths, we have the wonderful turn in the poem which I admire tremendously and which is the main reason I selected ‘Between Us’ for the winners’ list. The image of the brown moth is so immediate and striking – a quick ‘clap’, speedy as a sudden decision, and it’s ‘dead in my palm’ says the narrator. The moth’s body goes down the sink, is washed away. What remains, for the narrator, is the image of flight.
Highly Commended. The Wonder Years
This is a stunning stream of consciousness poem, both sensuous and sensual, that uses rapid associations, broken syntax and non-punctuation to achieve its effect. One can tease some sort of a narrative out of it – there is love, lust, sickness, heartache and death – but this is not writing that relies on a linear or logical approach.
Read it on the page, read it out loud. Both ways will reveal the richness of language. Let the repetitions of ‘limp-wristed boy’ and other phrases work on you, listen to the sound of lines such ‘how now/brown cow how now droopy-eyed droopy-/lipped limp-wristed boy my hand is on your/heartbeat feel me riding your waves’
A hypnotic, beautiful poem. One to read over and over again.
There is horror in this poem but it is skilfully underplayed so enhancing the impact. I like the subtle way this poem is developed beginning with the alteration to colour caused by ‘June rain’, elaborating this idea with the example of ‘scribbles of green’, then the introduction of an imaginary naughty child – ‘as if’ a child had felt-penned some illustrations of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Then, in the second stanza, we have the wonderful turn which considers the almost impossibility of finding any leaves in such a setting but still manages to find some possibilities among weeds, barbed-wire and broken branches and twigs. The poem ends with the comparison of an owl crashed into a windscreen – something natural becoming a victim of the man-made.
Commended. Tinted Glasses
This poem strikes me as close to perfection. Like several entries in this competition it is one I wish I had written myself. I love the opening line ‘Today I follow Baudelaire’s advice and go out drunk on poetry’. The narrator is determined to hold on to this mood all day, even if (or maybe because) it distances him from tragedy and distress. He has a strategy for dealing with such things: ‘I spray denial from my can of verse’. Later, he finds ‘apt similes’ for ‘bitter acid rain’.
Details of incidents are noted with precision and detachment. There is the implication that a child has been killed but we all we see is a small hand and a sleeve ‘patterned with pussycats, or possibly rabbits.’ This is a poem that will stay with me.
An apparently simple poem about someone wishing he/she could identify individual trees and birds. Musing on this dilemma leads to an analogy with a family tree – which, in the end, seems to be of little help.
There are many superb images. Figs are ‘a poet’s orchard/ripe for the thief’, details in the family tree are ‘written in blood where anxious/kings dictate by might.’ The poet’s father is afraid that learning to name things might ‘misplace’ the narrator’s ‘awe of him’.
But the main reason I selected this poem is because of its form, the pattern of lines, the use of white space, the perfect delineation.
Special Mention. Rhinoceros
The rhino of the title, taken from its natural habitat to be electronically fitted with a tracking device, is being returned, doped up and is ‘out cold’, upside down in its harness below a helicopter. A short poem but brilliant in its use of language. The creature is lowered gently, ‘infinitely gently’ into the wilderness that is supposed to be ‘its promised land’. Later it will wake ‘unknowingly unwilded.’ I love the sound patterning of ‘rhinoceros’ with ‘preposterousness’ – clever and full of feeling.
Special Mention. Garden
This poem begins with a superb image ‘From the thistle’s mouth white/noise lifts’. The poet’s choice of the exactly right word continues. A caterpillar ‘erases’ a leaf, lice ‘taxi’, a grub ‘fingers’ in an apple, a hoverfly is a bead ‘on an invisible abacus’. My favourite image is of nettles that are ‘seedy and voluptuous.’
This is an original and very fine piece of writing.
Special Mention. The Guy
There is deception in this title. Certainly, we are given a detailed account of the Guy on the bonfire, how he is designed, what he is wearing, the stages of the fire as it flames through a ‘cold tickle, a blush-red whoosh, the burning in a ‘lit mess’.
Yet all this takes place in ‘One slow moment’ and it is in this moment of pause that the poem turns, shifts into the space of ‘a haunted silence’, a moment that feels uplifting and spiritual. And then there is the final ambiguous line with its hint of a back story: a love story ended, perhaps a broken home.
A clever and atmospheric poem. It continues to haunt me.
Mark Totterdell – Rhinoceros
Sean Boustead – The Guy
Giles Goodland – Garden
Wendy Klein – Leaves
Angelena Demaria – Tinted Glasses
Paul Fleckney – Trees
Giles Goodland – Scrabble with Mother
Iona May – Between Us
Neil Flynn – The Wonder Years
John Foggin – You asked me
Gabriel Griffin – Winter Morning visit to the sun king’s palace
Peter Wyton – Duty of Care
Many thanks to Mandy Pannett for a thorough and well done job. No doubt she will be looking forward to the results; to find out whose poems she has specially mentioned, commended or awarded a prize. For me, this is the most fun part of organising these competitions – matching the winning poems with their writers. My joy is fuller when I see previous winners of our competitions return to participate and place again among the prizewinners; Mark Totterdell, Gabriel Griffin, Sean Boustead, Angelena Demaria, and John Foggin – first time Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition prizewinner, but winner of the Sentinel Poetry Book prize with Gap Year (co-authored with Andy Blackford.)
Thank you for your continued support of Sentinel Literary Quarterly. Our competitions are independent, funded by your entry fees, and our own little chip ins. Not supported by any public funds whatsoever, we have counted on the support of our staunch friends who have stood by us through the rough and the smooth times. The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition will be ten years old in July 2019, all I can say, on behalf of the entire Sentinel crew is thank you. Without you, we would never haver made it this far.
Mandy Pannett will return to judge our competition again in February 2020. Meanwhile, feel free to enter the May 2019 competition to be judged by Terry Jones.
Administrator, Sentinel Poetry Movement