The Moth Poetry Prize has become one of the most sought after prizes in the world for a single unpublished poem, with a fund of €13,000 (€10,000 of which goes to the overall winner). More than three quarters of the entries come from overseas, and that is reflected in this year’s shortlist, chosen by the poet Jacob Polley, author of four acclaimed poetry collections, the latest of which won the TS Eliot Prize.
“All this manifested talent,” said Polley, “made it agonising. How could I whittle down, as I had to, what was in front of me? It was just me, rejecting what I rejected because I admired what I admired. I haven’t commended any poems, because – and this is the agonising bit – there were so many to commend that any list of, say, six commendations would have felt unjust on loads more that I loved.”
The four shortlisted poems are: Sestina by Margaret Park Haas (US); Christmas Work Detail, Samos by Steven Heighton (Canada); Dead Drift by Jude Nutter (US); and Octonaut by David Stavanger (Australia). They all feature in the current issue of The Moth.
Haas grew up reading and exploring the creek that snaked along the edge of her small town. In high school she discovered her passion for poetry after reading The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. She went on to study poetry under April Bernard at Skidmore and graduated magna cum laude from the English program. She was also the recipient of the Academy of American Poets College Prize. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her cat Walt Whitman, and works at the Millbrook School in New York.
“It’s when material and form become one that a poem really takes off,” says Polley, “when the poem’s content becomes both bound up in and released by the poem’s shape. I felt this forcefully when I read Sestina, where the repetitions of the form come to enact the narrator’s compulsive circling around his or her defining hurt.”
Heighton’s most recent books are a novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, and a poetry collection, The Waking Comes Late, which received the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. His novel Afterlands (Penguin UK) was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice and was cited on year-end lists in publications in the US, the UK, and Canada, where he lives. He is working on new poetry, and on a nonfiction book concerning the Syrian refugee landings on Lesbos in 2015. He also translates poetry, and he reviews fiction for the New York Times Book Review.
“There was a lot of sadness, a lot of grief, that I was moved by in the poems I read – grief for fathers, mothers, for youth and innocence, and, in poems of un-self-pitying power, for the self. Christmas Work Detail, Samos is a poem that, with composed ferocity, extends sympathy, empathy, respect and responsibility for the unnamed dead.”
Nutter was born in north Yorkshire, and grew up near Hannover in Germany. She has been working in Minneapolis since 2000 and divides her time between there and Dingle, where she has a family home. Her first book-length collection was published by Salmon in 2002 after she won the Listowel Prize. Her second collection won the Ernest Sandeen Prize and was awarded the 2007 Minnesota Book Award in poetry. A third collection was awarded the 2010 Minnesota Book Award in poetry and voted Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Review. In 2004-2005 she spent two months in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation’s Writers and Artists Program. Her fourth collection, Dead Reckoning, will be published by Salmon Poetry next year. She was shortlisted for The Moth Poetry Prize in 2015.
“Dead Drift does so many things, it seems to me, only a poem can do. Like a time machine, this poem becomes the river it describes, which ‘opens everywhere / and always and only into itself’ and in whose surface is apparent the present, the recent past and the deep past – is apparent the mystery of self and a relationship with a father, and the shelving off into deep time of human history.”
Stavanger is a poet, performer, cultural producer and lapsed psychologist. In 2013 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the release of The Special, his first full-length collection of poetry which was awarded the 2015 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize. His prose-poem The Electric Journal was a 2016 Newcastle Poetry Prize finalist and forms the spine of his next collection Case Notes. David was selected as a 2018 Melbourne Visiting Poets Program’s resident by RMIT & Australian Poetry and was Co-Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival (2015-17). He is also sometimes known as Green Room-nominated spoken weird artist Ghostboy, having featured at festivals internationally in various iterations. These days he lives between the stage and the page.
“Unless you’re the parent of a young person obsessed with them, you might not know the Octonauts, the band of animal ocean explorers from children’s TV and books,” says Polley. “Octonaut finds metaphorical richness in this world, which is a richness born out of wanting to share this world, not entirely unambiguously, with a son. The poem is ingenious and moving, and I felt it also implicated in its exploratory gesture the exploring done in poems by ‘All these specialists//measuring depth’.”
The overall winner of €10,000 will be announced at a special award ceremony at Poetry Ireland in Dublin on May 2nd, as part of the Poetry Day Ireland celebrations. Details can be found at poetryireland.ie.
By Margaret Park Haas
In the backyard, my father curses at his chainsaw.
It is broken and he cannot fix it. 'Impossible!'
he shouts and tosses it on the grass. Inside, I spread honey
on my toast and sit down at the kitchen
table. 'Tear off the crust and dip it in honey,' my mother
would say and then demonstrate and smile at me
with honey-glazed lips. She used to sit with me
while I ate my breakfast. I was so young and saw
how careful she was with her hands. 'Mother,
show me how to make bread.' It seemed impossible,
the way she existed within the sunlit kitchen.
She taught me how to bake bread and how to dip it in honey.
On top of the old hutch, next to the jars of honey,
my mother kept a bread pan that she gave to me
when she left. She disappeared from the kitchen
while I was sleeping. My angry father saw
her note and tore it into fragments that were impossible
to put together again. I found a piece that said your mother
and knew the note was meant for me. Your mother,
an end to a note that might have begun with Honey.
Love, your mother, I'm sure. It is impossible
that she left out the love when she left me.
The bread pan was small and metallic. I saw
the way my father hated the warm, sunny kitchen,
the honey and scattered bread crumbs. The kitchen
is mine now, an inheritance, along with my mother's
bread pan. Outside in the backyard, the chainsaw
roars and sputters and so does my father. The honey
is sweet and sticky in my mouth and reminds me
of love, the mother kind, the kind that feels impossible.
My mother told me, 'Nothing is impossible,'
when I asked her if my bread would burn. In the kitchen,
standing beside her, everything seemed possible to me.
Eating alone, I often think of her note, of your mother,
and wonder if she remembers me when she tastes honey.
Thin, burned hands and honey-glazed lips were all that I saw.
Love me is the note that I write to the ghost of my mother,
an impossible dream, at her place at the kitchen table.
The honey burns my lips. I start to forget what I saw.
By David Stavanger
Every time scientists go into the midnight zone
they find a new species. My son is telling me this
as he picks at his hands as if they are locks to release.
Every time I'm with my son, I am in that pitch
dark, so familiar and unknown, looking for the
luminescent when the lamp goes out. Walking across
a footbridge he tells me water is harder than concrete.
Someone jumped from this very bridge last week. My
son wants to know if he knew that fact before he leapt. I'm
not sure what he knew. My son tells me even if he survived
the fall, he wouldn't have been able to swim with broken limbs.
Sometimes in the midnight zone there are fish who pass by like
sparklers, segmented worms, the snorkel masks of parents trying to
understand that which breathes below the surface. All these specialists
measuring depth. I don't know what my son sees when he swims alone.
I know my son does not live in a world of perpetual darkness. I know he has
colossal dreams, he's too tall for his strange thoughts. I don't need a doctor
to use the word complex more than once. Every time scientists go into the
midnight zone they see someone's child floating like a lantern, reading
alone in the corner of the sea's bed, waiting for experts to name their light.
Christmas Work Detail, Samos
By Steven Heighton
Eid milad majid*
In the olive grove on the high ground, facing west
into rain, we dig graves for three men drowned
in the straits - Syrians, maybe, dispossessed
of everything by the sea, so there's no knowing
for sure. This much you can say for any grave,
it's landlocked. And these men will lie a decent
distance uphill, out of sight of the beach
where on Sunday their bodies washed ashore
in plausible orange life-vests (ten euros each)
packed with sawdust, bubble wrap, rags. These rains
haven't softened the soil, yet digging up here
feels only right; the waves that buried them
terrified them first, and we guess, again,
that they - like the ones the crossing didn't kill –
were from desert towns, this sea inconceivable
as the Arctic. And each cardboard casket,
awaiting its patient passenger, looks
almost seaworthy after the cut-rate raft
they fled in, and which, deflated, washed in
after them, silent, as if shyly contrite.
It seems we've failed them, despite the safe graves.
In a grove this untended the ground is brined
bitter with black fruit rotting, and on islands
nowhere is far enough from the waves.
*Arabic for Happy birth feast, or Merry Christmas
By Jude Nutter
Water shelving off into darkness and the mind,
which accepts the river's depth, is perplexed
by the eyes' denial. Flat as shadow
on grass you lie, watching the mouth
of the net held close to the bank, waiting
for a wide-open, astonished eye, for a wedge
of head to cohere out of silt and present
itself, as all beings born into time
do, with defiance and out of matter
both moving and held
motionless in suspension. Then the quick
veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm
of a body at the surface as it turns. After that,
the backwash, a sluggish roil, the vane of a tail
receding. Where was I, you think, before I
was suddenly here – cleaved cell, a gyre
of code unlocked? In the net's uneasy
alchemy each brown trout
rests, finning in place, nose to the current,
until your father, who caught each fish and slipped
each hook and holds the net, submerges
its rim and decants each life back
into the flow of the river – not a fish, not a trout, no
nameable shape – just a finned smear, a flare
of copper. Then nothing but your own reflection
restored to the water's surface as the water
restores its mirror. Early evening, a sudden
coolness filming the skin and, as if
some marvellous army has placed its shield wall
to rest, canted sunlight falling
in blazons on the water. Here, for a while, before
humping north to face the tribes
of Caledonia, a small and weary detachment
from the Ninth Legion of Rome did
place their shields and their weapons down,
right here, on the banks of the Wharfe,
and named their settlement Calcaria, meaning
lime. The pale blocks of empire quarried, right here,
by slaves, on territory stolen from the Celtic tribes,
on the great north road to Eboracum.
But before all this - before the Brigantes
and Romans and Vikings and French, before flints
and axes and spear blades; before the age
of long barrows and dolmens; before the first
brattle of war and occupation and every
advance and obliteration of history, there was stone
and the stone's own story of molluscs and forams
and corals. Evidence of oceans, of time's
crushing indifference. Out in that river,
in chest-high waders, your father is loading
his rod for the cast; the loop of the line unfurls
and the fly – a Pale Evening Dun – settles
on a seam where two currents meet and
dead drifts to where eddies mark a trout
sipping mayfly from the surface. Not once
have you asked your father why, when he crimps
the barbs flat against the shank of every hook and files
them smooth and then releases
every fish he fights and fatigues and plays
into the net, he even fishes at all. Perhaps
it has something to do with how the fly
presents itself perfectly on the water; or the line,
a filament of sky come lose, unfurling. No, not the fly,
or the line, but his arm casting. No, not that: not
the casting, but the arm lifting, suddenly,
to set the hook. No not even the arm,
but the whole body reacting. A river
is a closed door that opens everywhere
and always and only into itself and in the long,
continuous lick of its current is a man
standing motionless, braced
for the strike. And before there was pigment,
before the first flute, before fire; and until all the hands
silhouetted in ochre, until the aurochs and ibex
and spotted horses walked out of the mind as the mind
unhooked itself from darkness,
there was this: the whole body reacting - animal,
instinctive. And after, not the reaction,
but the seconds it took - not many, but one; no,
not even one, not the seconds at all,
but that fraction of unmeasurable time in which
whatever was about to be done
Note: Stanzas 12, 13 and 15 owe a formal debt to Stephanie Brown’s poem Constellation, inspired by a line from Dan Pagis’ poem The Art of Contraction