Guest judge Katherine Stansfield said:
“Judges of writing competitions can be relied upon to say, in their summing up, that the standard of entries was very high. I’m afraid I have to reiterate this staple of judging comments for the PENfro poetry competition, finding that it’s a truism for a reason; writers tend to submit their very best work for a competition, which makes judging them a challenge, as it should be. These poems gave me a great deal to consider and agonise over as I read them and lived with them, put them in various orders then re-ordered them again. Some subjects recurred many times, including the carnage of the two World Wars alongside the grief of losing individuals; the cycle of life through birth, aging and funerals; and the natural world’s corresponding cycle of the seasons. All life is in these poems, and in the odd way that like finds like, there were a number of poems that used braille in their imagery, and which featured hares. It’s been a pleasure to read the poems, and I’d like to thank everyone who entered for giving me the chance to enjoy their work.”
Stone Dress, by Shirley McClure
“This poem brings myth to a world of fruitcake and book clubs. On my first reading it was this wonderfully unexpected clash of subject matter that caught my attention. On my second reading I felt the pace of the poem, the way the idea shifts with the arrival of the book club and pulled me on, flashing the image of the naked readers along the way. On my third reading it was the warmth of the ending that struck me, and stayed with me. This is a poem about difference as well as kinship, exploring the ways we reveal ourselves to others, and this theme is echoed in the subtle half rhymes chiming softly through the poem.”
Councillor Jenkins, by Catherine Edmunds
“Who is, or was, Councillor Jenkins? A larger than life figure, a tyrant, a poet worthy of a poem that seeks to dispose of its subject even as it memorialises it. I admire the way the poet moves between different modes, jumping between elegy, confession, invective and the surreal interlude of Jenkins flying down Everest. The ending catches me off-guard every time I read it, with its shades of Under Milk Wood in the speaker’s night-time trysts with Mrs Jenkins, and I love the specificity of ‘the sound of a Welsh harmonium / played off key in Tesco Gwent’s car park’.
The Return, by Mick Prince
“The Return reminded me of poems by Seamus Heaney and Edward Thomas in its mood and setting. What I particularly like about this poem, and what made it stand out from the other war poems submitted, is its focus on the same spot, the railway line, and the way in which the loss of the boy is explored through his relationship to this place. The deftly managed hinge moment of ‘And so they brought him back’ shrinks the war into a single line, and ultimately the train carries on, as does life, and conflict.”
Scroll down to read the winning poems
Go for a 15-minute walk – Adrian Buckner, Derby.
Infinity – Bill Lythgoe, Wigan.
Unspoken – Kittie Belltree, St Dogmaels
Alien – Catherine Edmunds, Bishop Auckland
Cracks – Corrinna Toop, Aylesbury.
It’s Still Life – Maria Isakova-Bennett, Liverpool
Sprouts – Joan Michelson, London
Trickster Crypsis – Bethany W Pope, Swindon
Vandalism – Tania Hershman, Bristol.
Stone Dress by Shirley McClure
Her whole body was covered with a skin hard as rock. She was sometimes called Stone-dress. The Spear-Finger, Cherokee myth
When she lay by the pool,
her children would hopscotch along her,
chalking her body from one to home,
giggle as they landed
on the pebbles of her kneecaps,
the limestone of her abs.
When she baked fruitcake,
standing in her apron by the oven,
her thighs and her belly would heat
to a hundred degrees;
so when the book club arrived,
they would peel off their scarves
and their cashmere cardigans,
their knee-high boots and their skirts.
By the time they had analysed the plot,
knocked back the wine and cake,
they were all sitting naked
in the peppery room.
This was where she felt safest,
in the landscape of their folds and scars;
no jokes about her hard neck, thick skin,
here in the stone circle of her friends.
Councillor Jenkins by Catherine Edmunds
We’ve knocked Jenkins down, must reassemble him
brick by brick, he was the only man not to be bombed
out of existence during the blitz, so they say; the last man
not to have died in the aftershock of the council meeting.
This is why I have decided not to be a poet, because poetry
is ugly, terrifying, it is Councillor Jenkins caught on camera
hurtling down Everest in an avalanche of empty spam tins,
frozen sacs of urine, to the sound of a Welsh harmonium
played off key in Tesco Gwent’s car park. It is not pretty.
Ernest Jenkins, composer of lyric verses, we learn
nothing from your death. There is something rotten
in how you chose how to live, breathing deep
with mosquito single-mindedness, sucking the lifeblood
from Mrs Jenkins, and that is why we are gathered together
to reassemble you, brick you up behind your fireplace that you
may burn, twitch and moan for eternity, and Mrs Jenkins –
Beth – will come to my bed tonight, wearing blue, and smiling.
The Return by Mick Prince
‘Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train loads?’ – ‘The Send Off’, by Wilfred Owen.
Home was hours from the nearest station;
far, even as the distance went
in those dark rolling grasslands.
As a boy he watched the train go by, waving
dwindling to a point,
then nothing in the shimmering air.
Not sad exactly, nor ambitious for great fulfilment.
Still, emptiness came sometimes as emptiness will,
staring from the ditches by the track.
And so they brought him back;
the train pulled up as his hand fell slack.
The flag-draped coffin rose and dipped,
its measured progress like a plough’s
out of season, The bearers stared ahead,
to the garden where his mother wept,
a clenched fist jammed against her mouth,
sinews knotted tight with dread.
Twisters snaked across the fields,
It seemed to her the earth convulsed:
thunder hammered, the sky lit up.
Instead it was the brakes that squealed,
the idling diesel’s vibrating pulse;
the lark-filled clamour of an unscheduled stop.