Read the winner of €10,000 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize

‘I fell hard and fast for this poem,’ says judge Deborah Landau of Lee Sharkey’s Letter to Al, which deals with the effect of dementia on her marriage

The winner of the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, run in association with The Moth, was announced at a special award ceremony at Poetry Ireland this evening, as part of the Ireland Poetry Day celebrations. Lee Sharkey’s poem Letter to Al was chosen from among thousands of entries to clinch the €10,000 prize.

“I fell hard and fast for this poem,” said judge Deborah Landau, an award-winning poet and director of creative writing at New York University, “its headlong music, its restlessness of heart, its heat. The form allows for obsessive circling of the poem’s subjects – the intersection of history and personal history, passion, loss, the passage of time – and the result is prismatic and spellbinding. Here is something true and hot of life.”

Sharkey is no stranger to acclaim back in her native Maine, having received numerous awards for her work over the years (she has published 11 full-length poetry books and chapbooks, the latest of which, Walking Backwards, just appeared from Tupelo Press). Sharkey leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and serves as senior editor of the esteemed Beloit Poetry Journal, which was the first or early publisher of Philip Larkin, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski.

Sharkey, who was there with her husband to pick up the award, said: “I’m deeply grateful to have been awarded the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize and for the opportunity it has given me and my family to visit Ireland. Because my poem concerns the effects of dementia on my marriage, the award has a strong personal significance for me. I hope Letter to Al invites others into a world too little explored in contemporary literature.”


All four shortlisted poets were in attendance at the award ceremony at Poetry Ireland. The Cumbrian poet, Katie Hale (You’re in My Blood Like Holy Wine), a recent Barbican Young Poet was the youngest among the shortlist and is working towards a full collection. The Texan poet Greg Geis (Marriage) published his first full collection this year, and C Mikal Oness (On the Sprocket Side of the Hay Rake), who has published two collections of award-winning poems, lives on a farm in Minnesota and is founding editor of Sutton Hoo Press.

“It was a pleasure to judge the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize,” said Landau, “and to have an opportunity to sample the incredible verve and variety of contemporary poetry being written today in English. Poetry feels more vital than ever these days.”

Letter To Al
By Lee Sharkey

It was all sound. The loons. My lunatic heart. The warblers' variations.
It was the loon night leading me to damage, a reluctant knowledge
that to do for you is to do to you. Wild, erratic, the loon
sings out its night devotions, Monk of the bird kingdom,
trilling the high note past its measure till the heart's thrilled open.
Is it fog you wander when you stare out of the house of yourself,
is a you small and distant gathering itself for your return - a penny
for your thoughts, but you do not speak them. Only when you draw your bow
across the cello strings do I hear the one who made my fierce heart
tremble. It was pure sound answering pure sound rising and subsiding
on a flood of memory and it had the power to unlock my grief.
Were there a hiding place in poems I would slip you into it; you could cling
to my back or a fiddler's trousers, as Chagall wrote of his father, who worked
loading barrels of herring and died crushed by a car. Barrels of grief.
Do not forsake me. Who can know what is written on his back.

I return to the nights in Russia when we stripped off sweaters and shirts,
long johns and underthings, and dived for the narrow bed. A deep cold
had crystalized the city, trees of crystal, palaces of crystal sparkling
where families paraded on winter evenings in high fur hats
and long fur coats and boots made of caribou on sidewalks
layered with snow. Beneath thin covers we shivered as we stole
the fire of sex. This was the kingdom you carried me off to,
where everyone recited Pushkin and bested each other's tales
of the gulag, the breath of the great bear of hunger on their lips.
I lay on the floor teaching my throat the sounds of a new language;
I called out for chalk and they gave me honey; you struggled to teach
in a language you learned in high school, the Cold War piquing
your interest, you with the gift of tongues. Do you have potatoes?
our colleagues repeated, concerned for the strangers recently arrived
in the closed zone, knowing nothing, but eager and alert.

To live a routine of catastrophe. Each day radically undetermined.
Will tomorrow be Sunday or Tuesday? Will the heart hold for one more hour?
Each day undermined. Darkly mirrored in the monitor.
Will I drop to the floor in the cereal aisle? Will you forget your pin?
The dish lies broken. This wasn't what we anticipated.
The thing without a name goes with us. Labouring and uncertain.
Death's imbecile cousin. Volatile. Childlike and self-absorbed.
Delights in your confusion. Will not be ignored. Sprawls in the bed
with its seductions. Swipes your keys and identification.|
What's the game plan? Take each day as it metastasizes,
Lord, your humble servant, Shekhinah of the midnight hour.
In whose hands we place ourselves in medicated dreaming,
the voices calling each other's names: Wake! Emergency!
I fumbling to you. You fumbling to me. What can I do?Just stay
with me.
Till the end of shadows. Till the end of end.

It's the if under every utterance. It's the utterance over every if.
It's the memory arriving of my mother in a slatted lawn chair,
eyes closed (I have closed them), smelling the salted sea grass,
a black and white memory I am painting red. Tonight she will leave
her diaphragm in the drawer. Don't tell my father. I want to be.
To be out in it, making memories of my mother, head thrown back,
letting the breeze touch her. She and I painting the lawn chair red.
To be about it. Desire, the little engine that keeps on pulling,
in every box car a generation re-membering its lost stories
over the clatter of the rails. To make, to shape it. To see every word
flown from the mouth as a catbird's feather loosed in wind,
tipping the scales of a future. As in: my father has throttled his words
once too often and lost the power to speak. He has brought
the house down around him and sits staring from the rubble.
I write this feather to touch him not to impeach.

It is enough some hours simply to be together, within our walls
among our familiar objects - refrigerator, toaster, pencil, stepladder,
jacket, glove
- or walking hand in hand. We rest when we're tired.
We eat when we're hungry. The locusts, the frogs, the death of the firstborn -
we have escaped them. Against us, not a dog shall move his tongue.
Some hours it seems perfected, the cycle of passion and caring,
striving and settling, everything come down to love. The marvel
of devotion, the osmotic comfort of skin on skin. We quiet
old lovers who have no need to speak. Outside, the plagues continue:
the pestilence, the grievous hail, the stinking fish, extinctions.
Pharaoh doubles down on his intransigence. But our ambitions
have grown modest. I stop for a flower's deliquescence, recite
the sequence: crocus, daffodil, tulip, peony, rose.
You fill your pillbox, watch Space X rockets land on water.
A hand held, a kiss soft on the lips - there is no future to speak of.