Read the four poems on the €6,000 Moth Poetry Prize shortlist

Judge Nick Laird praises ‘verve’ and ‘up-to-date-ness’ of shortlisted poems

The Moth Poetry Prize shortlist, chosen by Nick Laird, current chair of creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre, is announced today. It includes a previous winner and a poet, who is also commended for another poem.

The publishers of The Moth magazine, which sponsors the international prize, extended the cash fund this year to offer a further eight prizes of €250 to commended poets, as well as €6,000 for the overall winner and €1,000 for each of the shortlisted poets.

Laird, who judged the prize blind, chose a shortlist that includes two poets from Britain and two from the US, while the commended poems span Ireland, Italy, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The shortlisted poems are: A Week in March by Rowland Bagnall, For the Poet Who Writes to Me While Standing in Line at CVS, Waiting for his Mother’s Prescription by Suzanne Cleary, Chaos Soliloquy by Michael Lavers and In the dream of the cold restaurant by Abigail Parry, a previous winner of the prize.

Laird praised Bagnall’s “poem of spring”, A Week in March, for “earning its revelations (‘Sometimes it feels as though the great effort of my life / has been to get myself to here’) through its observances (‘The buds seem acupunctural’), and its sheer verve”.

Bagnall is based in Oxford. His debut collection, A Few Interiors, was published by Carcanet Press in 2019. His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including Poetry London, The Moth and The Manchester Review. He is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Birmingham, where he specialises in North American poetry and poetics.

Suzanne Cleary’s For the Poet Who Writes to Me While Standing in Line at CVS, Waiting for his Mother’s Prescription impressed Laird with its “up-to-date-ness” – “how it struggles ‘to carry one thought to the next’ at this moment, ‘six months in to pandemic’, and how its associative nature mimics a restless modern sensibility, being chockfull with the detritus of the internet, (‘25 Cutest Photos / of four-year-old Princess Charlotte’) and real things in the real world, ‘toothpastes, decongestants … orange Velcro knee braces’”.

New Yorker Cleary’s Crude Angel was published in 2018 by BkMk Press (University of Missouri). Her third book, Beauty Mark, won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Other awards include a Pushcart Prize, the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America and the 2017 Troubadour International Poetry Prize (2nd Place). Her poems appear in anthologies including Best American Poetry and Being Alive, and in journals including Poetry, New Ohio Review, Agenda and Poetry London. She is working on her fifth book.

Chaos Soliloquy by Michael Lavers is, according to Laird, “both a rant and a paean” to disorder, “and the poet has a fine sense of sonic play and structure. In the end the poem becomes a testimonial to the art of reading as a way of representing and processing the vast strangeness of life, a tribute to the books that act as ‘fuses’.”

Lavers is the author of After Earth, published by the University of Tampa Press. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, AGNI, The Hudson Review, Best New Poets 2015, TriQuarterly, The Georgia Review and elsewhere. He has been awarded the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize and the Bridport Poetry Prize. Together with his wife, the writer and artist Claire Åkebrand, and their two children, he lives in Provo, Utah, and teaches at Brigham Young University.

Abigail Parry’s In the dream of the cold restaurant captures, says Laird, “both the ‘gaunt extravagance’ and ‘glib economy’ of dreams, in which, according to Yeats, our responsibilities begin ... I liked its chancy rhymes and stable stanzas, its confident way with a line, and finally its own ‘folding and refolding’, as the poet offers us his or her latest creation, this poem, as a response to the ‘idiot riddle’ of time.”

Parry’s first collection, Jinx, is published by Bloodaxe and was selected as a book of the year in the New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Morning Star, and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney and Forward Prizes for best first collection. Abigail lives and works in Cardiff, and is working on a book about intimacy, provisionally titled I Think We’re Alone Now. She won The Moth Poetry Prize in 2016, judged by Billy Collins.

The following poems were commended:

The Swerve by Arno Daniel (Ireland)

Fishing at Caera’Muirehen by Shastra Deo (Australia)

The Anteater by Alexander Fayne (Italy)

A Minor Scribe Defends his Diction by Michael Lavers (USA)

Mapping the Past by Anthony Lawrence (Australia)

I invite you, Abu Sayeed, McDonald’s worker in [EXPLETIVE] Denmark, into my American dream by Matt Mauch (USA)

We write what we know when we run out of things that we don’t by Elizabeth Morton (New Zealand)

Bird on Ground by Genevieve Stevens (UK)

The overall winner of €6,000 will be announced at a special award ceremony at Poetry Ireland online on April 29th (Poetry Day Ireland), to which everyone is welcome. Details can be found at poetryireland.ie.

The current issue of The Moth, featuring all four poems, can be purchased at www.themothmagazine.com.

In the dream of the cold restaurant
By Abigail Parry

the man with the buttonhole and broad lapels

is folding and refolding a white napkin.

Look, say his hands, at intervals. A swan.

A dancing girl. An intricate scale model

of the Maugham Library on Chancery Lane.

The man adjusts his buttonhole and coughs

as each one fails, precisely, to entertain.

A waitress intervenes, bringing two plates –

fluted, plain, translucent. And quite empty.

Such is the gaunt extravagance of dreams.

That waitress, though. All elbows, wrists

and hips. A strip of exposed skin reveals a scar

on the nub of bone that finishes the spine.

No – not a scar. A burn. A full-blown wet rosette,

just like the one you earned at seventeen

from a fuck on a nylon carpet – a carpet

not unlike this carpet here, lalling its beige

hoops and braids around the table’s feet.

Meanwhile, on the mezzanine,

someone lifts a book and reads the line

he left his knee exposed, and dreamed

of travelling on a mail coach by night.

Well quite. When you offer up your plate

it turns, beneath your hands, to a crumpled swan.

The man, of course, has gone.

Such is the glib economy of dreams.

So find a way to bear it, if you can –

the man who folds and folds and cannot please,

the cheap carpet, telling its idiot riddle,

the girl who has not learned to move between

compassion and contempt. But then,

other people’s dreams are very dull,

as the waitress knows with all the brutal

certainty of being seventeen. And she’s gone too.

She’ll pull this city to the ground before

she’ll take your plate, let alone your pity

*

For the Poet Who Writes to Me While Standing in Line at CVS, Waiting for His Mother's Prescription
By Suzanne Cleary

for Russell Jackson

It’s nothing that you flat out say, Russell, but your email

reminds me that six months into pandemic, five months

into quarantine, CVS remains open 24 hours, its harsh

blue-white light steady, as nothing in nature is steady,

those long fluorescent bulbs still dive-bombing lumens

so that midnight is bright as 8 a.m., or 4 a.m., or 2 p.m.,

or 7:30 p.m. You can see that I struggle to carry

one thought to the next, these long days. I spend hours

on the Internet, becoming expert on the height of actors

from Hollywood’s Golden Age, on the 25 Cutest Photos

of four-year-old Princess Charlotte. I now know

that Elizabeth Bishop was a bit taller than I am,

a bit heavier. Her clothes would be too big for me,

as no doubt her shoes. Russell, what is it that supposedly

concentrates the mind wonderfully? Samuel Johnson said it,

in Boswell’s biography,which I have never read and never

will. I know my limits. Lately, I think that I know little else

worth knowing. My only advice for your poems, Russell:

wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.

Did you know that’s no longer copyrighted? Five years ago,

US District Court Judge George H. King ruled

‘Happy Birthday’ is Public Domain, the 1935 patent applied

only to the melody and specific arrangements of the tune,

but not to the actual song itself. When Judge King writes

actual song, he means lyrics, but I hear him saying

song is something beyond the reach of law, beyond reach

of language. Song is like a kernel of light, inside of things,

steady. Russell, be like CVS. I don’t know what this means,

be like CVS. Russell, dare to say what doesn't make sense,

then wait patiently to see the sense inside of it. Be like CVS.

Be like the bewildering variety of toothpastes, decongestants,

hair conditioners. Be like orange Velcro knee braces,

like spools of pastel ribbon that hums, pulled across a scissors.

Be like the aisle of bare shelves where the cleaning products stood,

where the white metal shelves now display only how each shelf,

with a simple ingenious hook, fits into the frame.

I’m telling you nothing that you don’t already know, Russell.

Be like whatever accepts the horrid light, and shines in it.

Be like the 8-ounce can of lightly salted cashews, for which

you are newly willing to pay $12.99, as you stand in line

waiting for the blue-gloved hands to hold out to you

the small white bag, which is not for you,

except in that you are the one

who will carry it where it must go.

*

Chaos Soliloquy
By Michael Lavers

Not what they think I am, these creatures

on the bus: not just the shoeless man

slumped in the back, or tents under

the overpass on Seaview Road: a mere

gazillionth of the whole of me, bolus

of ocelots and astral gasses and bent light.

This woman in the mauve dress doesn’t know

I haunt the organ score she holds as freely

as I fill her grandson’s headphones,

noise like Visigoths ransacking Rome.

That man in coat and tie? I am that coat

and tie, and I’m what spiked his email

with a typo that had students rummaging

for clues about the whiteness of the whale

in chapter 4, instead of 42. I led him

to his wife, and her into her migraine’s

third straight week. Those sirens? Rubble? Traffic?

Shattered glass? Me, me, me, me. But then

there’s broom me, stretcher me, bright floppy

body me, being revived. Just look around:

all this was sea once, then a mountain,

now there’s Jamba Juices everywhere!

And far past them, something called Mexico.

You’re welcome! Still, the organist

would banish me, and hopes her grandson

will exchange the clamour of smashed temples

for the hum of Luther’s harmonies.

But why? I midwife all she loves. I am

the dissonance that makes the mighty fortress

of her song so sweet, a bulwark from my barbarous

and silent shadows, endless cold, thick mist.

Nor will the teacher ever feel the sunlight

like his wife will when the migraine lifts:

not as a curse, but as a cure,

a consolation lavish and complete.

Isn’t it great? Me cells quadrupling.

Me sculptor of luminous noise. Me hullabaloo.

I wander lonely as a universe,

I’m everything, all matter and all time,

all lesser scrapes and major spills, rumour

and fact, structure and strife, the smallest

tributaries and their sum, the sea;

I’m all the joyous weeping of the world,

and from my everything, some sudden spark

might come, some unplanned sense, some happy turn:

Woman Holding a Balance by Vermeer.

Snow falling on moving water.

Heorogar, Hrothgar and Halga the good.

Today the teacher woke to find his dead lawn

purpled with the petals of his neighbour’s trees.

Kudos to me. Could be that chapter 4,

with Ishmael and Queequeg snuggled up,

the leg of one flopped tenderly over

the other in the cold New Bedford dawn,

contains the true key to the whale’s hue.

Maybe his students, sacks of mostly

water still, still might become what he

has always wanted them to be: little

grenades of joy books are the fuses to,

swooning and dazed, finding texts everywhere ₋

the most inspired readers in the world.

*

A Week in March
By Rowland Bagnall

I cannot bite the day to the core—Edward Thomas

How does the day remember itself?

A payload of activity

braiding together – catkins,

nettles, long gradients of shape and shade.

The winter seemed like it had more to say

this year, though it’ll have to wait.

The spring’s already slingshotting around,

moving the furniture from room to room.

It makes me think about a house

that could turn out to be the house

in an American novel: screen door, porch,

consumptive child.

In the next chapter, a neighbour

no one really knows decides to leave

and not come back.

*

Everything’s returning, Champ, but

where’s it all returning from?

The river hammers silver sheets.

The buds seem acupunctural.

I’m learning there are rules and then

exceptions to the rules.

Just so you know: in my head

it is Iceland and snowing hard.

*

I spend an hour thinking, the afternoons,

are they giving or taking more?

watching a shadow slide its way across

the floorboards to my wooden chair.

Then I read a story by Lydia Davis

which is like peering into someone’s garden

and feeling several types of jealousy at the same time.

After that I look up the meanings of the following words:

hearing, seeing, backcloth, prose.

Then I imagine a battle scene involving

chariots and naked men.

*

Tomorrow there’s a polar wind,

whatever that might mean for us.

The morning comes in widescreen – roll credits.

Even the air knows to inhale itself.

I sit for a long while at my computer screen.

Eventually I write, and the rain feels cool / and the rain is cool,

although there isn’t rain.

In the next chapter, I return after many years

to find that nobody remembers me,

not even my kids, who understand me

to be a violent stranger.

*

The wind flattens the plants outside.

I read the final acts of Titus Andronicus (c.1592)

and again am saddest for the pigeon-keeper,

who always dies feeling confused.

Night blooms like an olive tree –

I dream I’m trekking through a country

which is part-way through a civil war.

*

One evening soon, I’ll think about myself

this week, like having it all back again:

not the time, exactly, but the shape of it,

the way a piece of music or a sentence has a shape.

The wind retreats –

we behold the smooth wealth of the coming year,

all ornaments and bracelets.

Sometimes it feels as though the great effort of my life

has been to get myself to here.

Finally the rain comes, and the rain feels cool

and the rain is cool.

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