Takahe 53 (December 2004)
Takahe 2004 Poetry Competition Report
There were 377 entries in this year’s competition. From these, I selected 22 which stood out for various reasons. I winnowed this group down to a shortlist of eight, all (I felt) excellent of their kind. Then the really difficult decisions began.
I have finally decided to award the first prize to “The Pathologist’s Report” by Sue Heggie of Christchurch, and the second prize to “Ars aquatica” by Tim Upperton of Palmerston North. I took a long time deciding which order these two should go in. “Ars aquatica” is a beautifully written poem, a singing poem, in the form of a loose sonnet, which artfully contrasts the trout’s way of living in its own watery environment with (I presume) our own ways of living above water:
How it never takes the straight way.
How it makes wavering look like sureness.
“The Pathologist’s Report”, on the other hand, deploys an almost clumsy force to achieve its end: forcing us to acknowledge the speaker’s grief, forcing us to comprehend it, almost re-live it:
Lying here on the slab, stitched from the navel to the chaps,
they’ve done your hair all wrong.
It’s a shocking and horrifically gloomy subject: a young wife and mother having to identify her dead husband / lover’s body, but it’s carried off with a kind of deadpan grace. I was struck at first reading by how little it strives for effect: how true it all seems. Not effortlessly true, not at all with the fluid grace of “Ars aquatica” – one can see the author continually groping for new ways of coming at her feelings, at the intensity of her pain:
I’m going home now
betraying you by leaving. Now you know how it feels.
It’s cold here and you won’t speak to me.
It sounds more as if it’s been chiselled out of the writer’s flesh than written down on paper. This, to me, is the real thing. “Ars aquatica” (disappointing title, by the way – surely something more in keeping with the elegant swiftness of the poem could have been found?) is fluent and skilful: in its own way it rings equally true, but in the end I had to give my preference to the sheer originality, force and daring of “The Pathologist’s Report”. It takes guts to lay yourself as bare as that. I don’t think I (or any other reader) will forget it in a hurry.
It was almost equally tough to select two runners-up from the six remaining poems. These six were: “The third granddaughter” by Jan Hutchison, a charming (and disturbing) family meditation; “Belsen / Beslan” by Alice Hooton; “Moon” by Helen Bascand, a dislocated yet precise picture of “lunacy”; “The Rehearsal” by Michael Harlow, a complex interwoven prose meditation; “ur-text: a creative writing exercise” by Simon Perris, almost the only successful “exam-format” poem I’ve ever read; and “Mount Eden Prison” by David Fraundorfer. I’d really like to quote long sections from each of them, but I suppose I’d better get on and say that the two runners up I settled on were “Belsen / Beslan” and “Mount Eden Prison”. Luckily I don’t have to choose between them and can enjoy (if that’s the right word – appreciate might be better) both. I particularly liked the way in which sexual obsession was woven into the latter poem, without a hint of fake prurience.
As far as the rest of the entries goes, I felt there was a lack of joy in far too many of them. If this is the barometer of the nation’s soul just now, then I think we’re right to tremble: so much bile, so much angst, so much railing against old age! New Zealand remains (it appears) a landscape with too few lovers.
Of course I like darkness too – or, rather, I see it as only too appropriate too much of the time. I have, after all, chosen two prison poems and a dead body poem among my top four. What I don’t like is what I would describe as an unhelpful, almost forced harping on about how miserable things are. Maybe they are, but it’s defeatist and pointless to give in to such thoughts.
The four poems I have chosen are, I believe, all victory poems: they’re about facing the worst but trying your best. I think of those two little children in the dark wood, or the woman beside that slab in the morgue, or our strange tortured friend in Mt Eden, and I salute their courage. They help me to keep believing in the possibilities of human beings.