Lisa Bickmore wins €10,000 Ballymaloe Poetry Prize with ode to love and loss
Read the winning poem, Eidolon, and the others shortlisted – Fantasia on a Theme by Elvis, the exceptional Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011 and Saratoga Passage, August 2014
Darina Allen, sponsor of the €10,000 prize; Matt Hohner; Jude Nutter; the winner Lisa Bickmore; and Kathryn Simmonds
Poet John Montague, Elizabeth Wassell, Denis and Christine Dwyer Hickey and, in the background, Rebecca O’Connor, editor of The Moth
The winner of the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize – one of the most valuable prizes in the world for a single unpublished poem – was announced at a special event at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin last night.
“I was impressed by many aspects of the poems submitted for the Ballymaloe Prize this year,” said the judge, Michael Symmons Roberts, a former winner of the Forward Prize, the Costa Poetry Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award. “As I’d expect in a major competition, there were many accomplished, surprising and beautiful poems. What I didn’t expect was to find such impressive writing in long forms – sequences and extended narratives. This was a real delight, and some of the best of those forced their way into the final few.”
The winning poem, Lisa Bickmore’s Eidolon, is an extended meditation on separation and love and grief. “Reading this poem,” Symmons Roberts commented, “feels like eavesdropping on someone trying to come to terms with distance and loneliness. It’s a finely made formal poem, but the voice remains limber and feels capable of taking you anywhere.”
Bickmore is an English professor at Salt Lake Community College in Utah. Her second collection of poems is forthcoming from Elixir Press, where it won the 2014 Antivenom Prize. The three other shortlisted poems were Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011 by Jude Nutter; Fantasia on a Theme by Elvis by Kathryn Simmonds; and Saratoga Passage, August 2014 by Matt Hohner. They each received €1,000 and their poems appear in the spring issue of The Moth.
Symmons Roberts also highly commended poems by Rosie Shepperd, Maya Catherine Popa and Isabel Bermudez. The prize is sponsored by Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, in association with the arts & literature magazine The Moth, edited by Rebecca O’Connor.
The pop of the disconnect I feel as a point in space:
what were the words he said, my son,
in the language he’s learning? The ghost of his silence,
even that will not be there when the dial tone finishes,
after he’s asked the question I could not bring myself
to answer: are you willing? words that echo here
in the American dark: I take my stick,
write in the dirt in a language only I speak,
which I refuse to explain. If he were here, I would show him:
I collect photographs of altars though I kneel at none.
The church on the corner hides an empty nave where
the icon should go. If I could unpaint it,
scrape the plaster down to the bare frame, just the idea
of an altar, I would worship there. But I cannot say no,
either, willing and unwilling, neither here nor there,
this nor that. At a mass for a friend’s son, the priest said,
a bereavement like this, we never get over. I wonder,
how will she ever again hold a book, thread a needle?
Walk, or even sleep. Unlearn her need for his presence,
his voice occasionally on the phone, his seat at the table.
But he is not there. To put off grief, I leave, a weightlessness
in the empty house fails to stay me:
to the crook of the finger on the Cape, where under
a brilliant sky the sea and wind spelled uproar into my ear.
To Dublin, where we stopped at every painted door –
a church’s, red, its iron hinges with curled flourishes
like an ancient script, binding of a holy book.
We could have entered but didn’t, though later,
at the Henry’s Fork, we walked on a new old road, narrow,
through a gate, nothing more than two posts. The hills
held in their laps a shadow cast by cloud.
We found a bridge where swallows kept their nests,
though they were in constant flight: they traced
glyphs over the glyphs of midge-flight-we watched,
rapt, still, a vigil on which nothing depended.
Is this the hajj I’m on, underwritten by nothing
but what I rebuff? How strenuous my effort not
to follow the letter, how powerfully yet the form persists.
I wake early or fail to sleep at all, watching for a return,
but of the ordinary son, somewhere riding his bicycle
on roads that skirt a jungle, memorizing new words
from cards he’s made. He eats chicken and rice.
It is ordinary, his absence, to the life I take up each day –
I arise at seven in an atmosphere composed
by the small fact of him gone, the uncrippling real
to which I accommodate. How years of presence
collapse into one shining then darkening star, failing
as they all inevitably do. Willing for what?
I should have asked him. The faculty of the will is that
principle of mind by which it is capable of choosing
is what Jonathan Edwards said, and in the dailiness,
I prove it again and again, rise to mourn in the day
with no shortage of occasion: just before he left,
the vet let us sit with the dog who was about to die.
A few weeks after that, my grandmother was gone.
Then the cat disappeared for a week. I stood at the back door,
calling her name into the field where mice play.
I think of each loss in the same breath, I take it in,
and in the instant it is taken from me: this is my calling,
my pilgrimage, and after my vow of withholding
I can say: a bird loose has power and liberty
to fly, but the bird’s power of flying does not
itself have the power and liberty to fly: to stand
at that door is the faith I have in my volition,
it is my will to wait, awake and dreaming, arise each day
as he does, going-forward wheeled creature speaking
another language at the edge of the South China Sea.
I plight myself to the green life beyond:
the sparrow seeking what seed has fallen in the grass,
a homely scent of turnsole, all day following the sun,
at night turning to be ready for light.
Fantasia on a Theme by Elvis
You can’t remember what there is to do
but lie in your socks and shorts, the ashtray
filling steadily with filter tips,
the Gideon collecting dust.
Next door he sings
and you replay that day you met her
on the library steps.
He’s ever so. You’re ever so.
She tic-tacs in her heels across the ceiling cracks.
Night shifts into light then night then light again.
When you pass he nods, quiff sheened like vinyl,
bottom lip a little swollen.
Neither of you speaks:
no one comes here for conversation.
Your room has a desk,
as if someone might arrive
wanting to compose a love letter, a will.
And Oh, you’ve written letters,
soft as broken butterflies, they sicken you.
Baby, each begins.
She loved that -– Baby – a word for closing distances,
a word for opening doors.
The patterns of the day repeat themselves.
Your pillow, marked with night sweats
like the yellow rings of Saturn.
Her family home was north;
white china plates, a big sky cracked with sun.
After lunch, there was a wood,
alone with her, doglike,
you dived and brought her down,
rolling her in leaves –
but she was furious, flared red as one of them.
Whenever you think of her she’s above you
high in an October sky,
your own goddess, a crown of stars in her hair.
The bell boy died.
Man landed on the moon.
No news of her.
You invent her lives –
she’s in Venice dressed in velvet.
She’s found a way to finish her libretti.
You empty the ashtray again.
There’ve been dozens in that room since him,
but none of them can sing.
The melody still washes over you, dissolving with her face,
leaves only the summer hum of the fan,
or the smash of snow against glass in winter.
The curtains bloom green roses all year round.
She met your family too, of course;
your father mute and pleased in his chair,
your mother hesitant;
before you left she said, Be careful, son.
You hated her for it.
As if you were going off to war.
Ever so, baby. You’ll be so.
The bathroom at the corridor’s end,
and half-asleep, you pick a hair from the sink,
raise it to a naked bulb – red-gold, identical –
then rush to your room, heart struggling.
What makes you believe you’ll find her there,
ready to unwrap herself
from a roughly laundered towel?
Swan neck. White shoulder blades.
You turn over and over,
and in your dream
she’s seated on a high stool, crossing and uncrossing her legs,
static crackling her pantyhose.
The guy at the desk keeps his eye on a portable TV,
quiz shows usually, someone spinning a wheel,
but not tonight.
Tonight you take a breath and stare.
It’s him – on screen –
a little heavier with years, but unmistakably
it’s him, the swollen lip, the song,
poised on one knee in homage to himself,
arm swinging like the mad arm of a clock.
Women scream. He wipes his sideburns, flings
the cloth into his audience,
The camera swoops,
it’s a moment in a moment but you see her
there! She’s snatched and won.
Older, made up differently, but her –
your own Venetian queen, screaming, screaming
with a sweat-stained scarf balled in her fist,
arms raised as if for rescue,
as if she’s crying to be pulled from a ravine.
The camera’s back to him.
In your room, you glance beyond your shaving cup,
beyond the suit unworn for so long it’s forgotten the feel of a body.
The moon remakes itself.
A headlight sweeps the wall.
After a while you take down your suitcase
and fill it with everything you own.
Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011
Although a man, I no longer want.
I disown and forgetall desires of the flesh.
Preacher on late-night television
How convenient, I say, out loud, to the darkened
room, to the tetras beneath their flickering tube light
weaving their Möbius strip through the wet fire
of the only world they know. Because when I can’t sleep
this is what I do: I sit in darkness
flicking through the god channels, sneering
and answering back, lobbing the dog’s soft toys
at the screen; while across the hall a man
who makes it dishonest for a woman
to disown her desires – whose body becomes,
during sex, one long wound – sleeps
in a king-size bed. Because every scar is a door
into something and I have never known a body
with scars like his: shrapnel, bullet, knife blade.
The English, I told him once, as I placed
the welter of my lips to his damages one by one, assume
that the French verb blesser – to wound – means
to bless; and he, without remembering he said it,
said: the way in and the way out - the doors
to heaven are always small. This is a man who beguiles
even the dirt up from its knees, whose hands
conjure a body for me out of the body I have; and yet
every bed is a death bed; and yet, the only
door out of the body is death. Outside, a great city
and its troubled history under rain. How is it
we can be loved so well and remain
so famished still? I rejoice, says the preacher, relaxing
into his tooled-leather chair, in the celibate life
and the thought of one day dying into heaven.
Behind him, deep in an alcove, washed by slow strobes
of alternating colour, Jesus, life-size and on the cross,
turns from blue to red to yellow and I, suddenly,
am back in adolescence, at those dreadful
Youth Club discos – all cheap lighting and tinny reverb
and hidden pints of liquor – where I
once let a boy called Martin nudge his hand,
centimetre by centimetre – as if I wouldn’t notice – up
under my blouse until it came to rest, fingers spread,
clamped over my left breast like a fleshy starfish.
I let him because he was tall, a bad boy,
every girl’s crush. And because my desire
was beginning to acquire a formal structure.
The Lord’s is not the voice of speculation, He
can offer proof, claims the preacher, crossing his legs,
as Jesus turns yellow turns orange turns green;
He can offer proof. So, I say, out loud, as a single
tetra breaks from the neon spackle of the crowd,
Disco Jesus, give me a sign. I watch the small fish,
little morsel of colour, drift upwards and place
the dark foyer of its tiny mouth against the roof
of its world. And what use, really, is this life, if it’s not
one long sheath of longing. In this life,
proclaims the preacher, we are all under siege, beset
with temptation. So let us pray, he says,
for the wavering virgins. The duty,
someone said, of the poet
is to serve. But I say the poet’s duty is to wait;
to wait in the dark at the world’s mercy; to wait -
while a lover sleeps naked in a king-size bed
and a dog the colour of butter
twitches on its rug in the kitchen – for moments
such as this. In the beginning is the word. And the word
is sex. In the beginning is the kiss that gives rise
to the myth of Eden – that bright landscape, unfettered
by history, that we make when we place
our open mouth to the open mouth of another
for the very first time. And yet there is
no garden in which the lion ever will
lie down with the lamb. And, like this, the whole
body becomes an eye turned to nothing
but its own pleasure. And every time we lie down
to assuage our loneliness, we find the flesh
already there, waiting. And all we ever want to do is undo
the violence of this world, and yet that’s how we lie down –
with need and avarice. In the beginning,
as I remember it, is a walled garden, the white
staples of croquet hoops punched into a lawn. Beyond,
in a field, a horse with a tail so long it brushes the grass.
I am eighteen. It is late summer. It’s farm work. It’s room
and board and pocket change for college. Summer’s end,
then; the cut fields at dusk and hawks
slicing low over the brittle blonde pipes of stubble.
So many lives already undone by the round scythes
of the combine. Every night in my single bed
I listen to the pauses and the breaks in the bicker
of the shower as the farmer’s eldest son
twists and turns beneath it in the small bathroom
along the hall. When I imagine his body – which I do,
and often – it’s as a series of broad, quiet rooms
inside the rattle of falling water. He becomes a man
made up of absence. When I can, I like to watch
him work as he bends, rapt, over the yawn
of an engine. The thrill of his fingers slipping
deep as the second knuckle, sometimes deeper,
into slick, tight gaps in the engine’s armour.
In the beginning, as I remember it, he puts on his boots
and a waxed jacket and walks with his dog
and a shotgun out into the fields. I do not remember
the gun’s report, but if I am not with him
why are there pigeons, all flash and clatter,
breaking for the open, out from the fenced
green explosion of a beech copse. Why do I feel,
still, the sudden change in their purchase on the air –
a few seconds of wild churn and scramble before the spin
down into the stubble. There’s the unlit weight
of each skull’s chamber, the beak’s loose tweezers,
the eyes’ eclipse. And a small rip that appears
in the clouds – a blue mouth carried from one horizon
to the other. And it’s inevitable, really: with the harvest
in and the summer over, with his parents at church again
every Sunday. It is inevitable. And afterwards we lie
like moist kindling under the covers and the world
is just as it was, only more so. Over the fields,
first mist of September unfurling its aprons the colour of iron.
Rooks like black static. And a breeze heckling metal
out of the grass until the lawn is a carpet
of knives. It is my job to cut and split and ransack
the nave of each bird, which his mother will bake
later, with orange juice and honey. Six birds
in a wheel on a willow pattern plate, a carousel
of pigeons, their bald, glazed wings like tiny flippers,
and what meat there is latticed by shot. I am eighteen.
It is 1978. The year Sweden outlaws aerosols,
and Markov, Bulgarian defector, is assassinated
with a poisoned umbrella tip. The year America
ceases, or so we are told, production of the neutron bomb
and Egypt makes peace with Israel and war begins
in Afghanistan and a man more than twice my age teaches me
that the body is its own reward. I am haunted still
by the sacks of the gizzards, those little bags
of pebbles and grit; by the discovery that birds, who rise
above the earth, still carry its dirt inside them. And these days
I sleep right through the minor disturbance
of my lover’s shower, and when I wake, he’s at work,
in jeans, perhaps, but shaved, his feet on the table
and a folder of case notes before him and his gun,
unbreakable heart, in a holster against his ribs.
He will have left, as he always does, a knife
out on the cutting board, the juice of an orange
like shellac on the blade. The hungers of the body,
says the preacher, always lead us astray. So let us pray.
Outside, the red crumble of tail lights down Linienstrasse.
A great city and its troubled history under rain.
The whole of Europe under the same rain. A waver,
I once read, is a young tree left uncut
during the clearing of timber. Rain, somewhere, loosening
its clothes to play wanton in the fields; rain
drumming its fingers on the green tiers of the trees.
The loneliness of rain that has come so far
touching only one leaf. And where rain is falling
where there are no leaves, a greater loneliness. Every word
for what we are leads us back to this. Human,
from the Latin humus meaning earth. Flesh,
from the Greek, related to sarx, meaning earthly; meaning,
of man set adrift from the divine. Every word
for what we are brings us back to the dirt. So yes, I say,
let us pray. Let there be buttons abandoning
their buttonholes. Let tongues unbuckle, let watches,
let belts. May the small change fallen
from pockets be forgotten, abandoned, never found.
And shy flags of hair swing loose. Storms
inside strokes of wind. The world is full of alchemy,
so let there be questions and demands. Small talk,
dirty talk, language in all denominations. Let keys
drop and fingers find every latch and lock,
and let each leg peel free from the long, sheer throat
of its stocking. Let hearts be up to their necks
in longing. May jackets and shirts
turn inside out; may the body – in rooms
specially rented, in cars, on tables, in single beds on Sundays
with parents at church, their tongues extended
for the communion’s flat currency. Body, believed
to be related to Old Norse buthker, meaning box; as in,
coffin that goes into the earth. And when they go down
may they go down like the heavy crops go down
before the cutter – without choice and ripe
with rains and sugar. And let each accept,
with almost no regret, what this will mean:
that what they believed might have been possible
is now undone. And may such a life
be the thing that makes them generous
by its absence. Jesus, abandoned on the cross, alone
in his alcove, turns from green, back to blue,
back to red, while in its tank that single tetra
creates perfect circles on the water
simply by drifting to the surface and kissing
what imprisons it. Why, if desire
is so perilous, are we given, more often than not, a god
so obviously human, with an athlete’s body, long
and well-worked; whose loincloth is slipping, pulled
down by its own slight weight, over one hip;
who has, still, despite all that’s been done to him,
such beautiful hands. A god whose crown is askew,
whose hair needs washing, whose wounds will become
the most terrible of scars. A god who may well
have desired a woman who made desire pay.
Who may well have been her lover.
Who dies with his arms wide open.
Saratoga Passage, August 2014
Whidbey Island, Puget Sound
Up late, I watch the Perseids etch their brief furies through
high, cold, moonlit air. My wife of eleven years, partner of
twenty-one, sleeps in the room behind me. Three stories down,
the salt tide slides away from concrete bulwarks, slips quietly back
into itself: the air’s fragrance leavens with life and decay as twelve hours
of water give way to rocks maned with kelp, sand rivulets emptying
under carcasses of hundred-year-old driftwood, the distinct whiff
of an uneaten fish, speared by talons, dropped, bottom-sunk until now.
In two days I will be forty-three. I know nothing of my birth, hold no
narrative of my making, nothing of the weather that day, what you wore,
who drove you to the hospital. Above, particles ricochet in skips
and scratches through the dark emptiness between stars. I must have been
like these: a brief interrupter of cycles, growing for nine moons, released
out of you and away into space, gone but for an umbilical scar, fading into the sea
of darkness and memory, covered by the rhythm of tides, washed by time
into something smooth you carry, but cannot touch. A loon at the bend
trills across glassy currents; sound of wingtips in flight touching calm water.
The soft heartbeat of waves lapping the receding tideline grows fainter as
the frozen cosmos delivers hot specks into fleet fire. I listen as ocean
and moon sway their eternal slow dance, one drawing the other closer,
then releasing. I have known this pulling-to and letting go, the
profound momentary ripples, the desolate stillness that follows.
I have known the searing white heat of entry into this world alone.