The Moth’s Ballymaloe poetry prize shortlist announced

Read the poems by Katie Hale, Greg Geis, Lee Sharkey and C Mikal Oness in the running for €10,000 award

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Three US poets and one from England have been shortlisted for this year’s Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, which is run by the Moth magazine, one of the world’s most sought after prizes for a single unpublished poem, with €10,000 for the winner and three runner-up prizes of €1,000.

The shortlisted poems are: You’re in My Blood Like Holy Wine by Katie Hale (UK); Marriage by Greg Geis (US); On the Sprocket Side of the Hay Rake by C Mikal Oness (US) and Letter to Al by Lee Sharkey (US).

Cumbrian Hale, a recent Barbican Young Poet, is the youngest on the shortlist and is working towards a full collection. Texan Geis published his first full collection this year. Oness, who lives on a farm in Minnesota and is founding editor of a fine literary press, has published two award-winning collections. Maine poet Sharkey has published 11 collections and won numerous prizes. She serves as senior editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal.

“An extraordinarily vibrant array of poems landed in my inbox this winter,” said this year’s judge Deborah Landau, poet and director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University. “It was a pleasure to judge the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, and to have an opportunity to sample the incredible verve and variety of contemporary poetry being written today in English. Four poems made it to the final pile, but many others continue to resonate and haunt. Poetry feels more vital than ever these days. I was glad for the chance to encounter so many diverse and necessary voices.”

“It’s wonderful to be able to encourage the writing of poetry, and to draw international attention to Ireland with this prize,” said sponsor Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School.

All four poems appear in the spring issue of The Moth, on sale in Easons and select bookshops and newsagents, as well as through themothmagazine.com. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony at Poetry Ireland on April 27th, as part of the Poetry Day Ireland celebrations. All four poets will be in attendance. The event, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 6.30pm. Tickets can be obtained via poetryireland.ie.

On the Sprocket Side of the Hay Rake
By C Mikal Oness

There in the middle of working, I thought of your clavicle.
You must think I’ve been trying to draw it out
Through your skin after 23 years of nightly kissing
As if the way to your heart is through that knuckle
Of chest bone – there, I’ve said it. It’s a key
Just as the anatomists thought. It came to me
After I puzzled over the barrel pin in the axle cap,
Caked and filled with grease like honey in the comb,
Old-fashioned and unseen, pointed out finally
By a hoary mechanic stinking of his boney dog.
Barrell pin, and a single special tool to pound it out;
They think of everything, the old fathers.
And then past the hub and under the sprocket lay
The slim part I’m now singing for, a half circle
Of solid steel slipping into a confederate notch
–a half moon axle key – not what Marianne Moore
Might have called it – but the machinist? The sour
Mechanic? Named, perhaps, for the side of the moon we see,
Ignoring the dark, where aliens are staging themselves
Waiting to see what will come of D-Day, the A-Bomb, 9/11
And Greece, waiting to intervene to save us, their spawn,
Or their planet. Or perhaps it is named for the dark side,
what terror it holds at the heart of matter. Something is out there,
An unseen shim holding us in place, keeping the power moving
From ground to chain to the tines flipping dry grass to the air,
Holding it all steady, and – here maybe the cliché will work –
keeping the wheels from coming off. Grease or no grease,
Somebody must love us.

Marriage
By Greg Geis

Montaigne compared it
to a birdcage.

Socrates claimed a bad one
made you a philosopher.

Luther prayed the conjugal rose
would open nightly

and believed the marriage bed
a ‘school for character’.

Luther’s paradise
proved too heavenly

for postdiluvians
still clinging to their mattresses

as the waters ebbed.
And did Adam,

the first husband,
know that as he hardened

his resolve and Eve,
the first wife,

spread her legs,
creation also moaned?

Or the wolves that howled
when they received their names

would become the dogs
to wag

the tail end of domesticity;
dogs whose days span further

than most marriages
and whose ignorance

knows nothing
of such bliss,

yet still answer
to their names.

That two humans
thrown together by chance

are called spouses.
Or a flock of ravens,

an unkindness.

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.

You’re in My Blood
like Holy Wine

By Katie Hale

The night we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked

about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin

for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations

before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes

and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls

of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug -

and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.

I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,

drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.
I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.

You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you
and I would still be on my feet
– but before the end

you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know
how you feel about me, and I believed you.

*

Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942

into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle

in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room

till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell

about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood

beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish
it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?

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