Books: NATIONAL POETRY COMPETITION WINNERS: You can lead a horse to shark-infested water

Ruth Padel, poetry critic of the `Independent on Sunday', analyses this year's winners of Britain's most prestigious poetry competition
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THIRD PRIZE: All these poems mix humour, intelligence and a fresh view of the world with a lovely forward movement. Maurice Riordan develops a metaphysical conceit: what if sight became hearing and you could "see" through walls? The first half starts with ear and brain and follows through from skin, to next-door (neighbours), out to galaxies. Halfway through, it begins again with its effects on "us" (as went about our weekday lives), starting with clothes and leading up to the removal of them (undressing) where the poet panders the effect of this conceit on himself . You realise (what skin and hand abrading hand made you suspect) that this sci-fi reverie is really a love poem with a resolved quarrel in it; a quarrel carried, by the move from splintering skin to these sore truths, into amnesty. The poem begins by hesitating into itself halfway through its own structural unit, the couplet. It begins again on the personal tack (as we), halfway through another couplet, the central one. This sense of tentative reversal (which suits the conceit of switched senses) is given words in the line love itself would be a coming back. The relationship, and the conceit, are ringed by the first and last noun, light. The title means "a floating vessel used as a floodgate in docks". The poem intellectualises, scientises the flood of passion: love floats back up to surface after turbulance, to a gentle conclusion of light and hope.

SECOND PRIZE: Greg Delanty also moves from impersonal to personal, but his poem works not so much through intellect as rich rhythms, a meeting between exoticism and more mundane personal experience, and a wonderfully wide range of tone. At one end, Indian-sounding formality (is not improper), and deliberately poetic archaisms (stilly water, as mighty as, tincture) supported by behold in the title. At the other end, informal direct speech like the verb spotted, or imagine me the grub, whose monosyllabic Anglo- Saxon plays off against the many tumultuously longer words. In between are interestingly semi-technical words (rufous, cadavers, susserus), vivid images (salt and pepper minarets, dolled-up box) teasing double meanings (makes light of the wind, make nothing of me) and sparky jokes (elegy eye). It is a gorgeous mix soundwise too, with internal rhymes across lines (riffs, cliffs), starting out with a six-beat line, a long hexameter which stretches easily, from time to time, into eight beats. The keyword Brahminy in dactylic. (A "dactyl", from daktulos, "finger", is - uu: one long beat like the long lowest joint of a finger, then two shorts like the upper joints.) This rhythm runs the show, flowing like brilliant water through the poem. You feel the texture of the poem is dictated by this bird's name, just as the idea of the poem is sparked off by what that bird does. In the shimmering epic-sounding setting, the word gives a macabre rhythmic reality to a bird which eats corpses and represents the divinity of death.

FIRST PRIZE: Caroline Carver's astonishing tour de force of Caribbean voice - a man using his horse as bait to kill a shark - is inspired ventriloquism, sweeping you dramatically into unexpected sadness. It does rhythmical things with the dialect you'd think only Derek Walcott could do (not just in poems but his plays). The title is "horse under water" but "horse" is represented by the one dialect word: the bait word, which pulls the shark to the shallows also pulls you into the poem. When you realize what it means, you feel part of the speaker's world.

You start off warm an friendly, but the speaker's image for how good the world smells (snails oozing on hot charcoal) suggests his idea of goodness is pretty self-centric (good mean money). Snail, horse, shark, baby sharks: whatever he says (i say trus me jigharzi), don't trust him. The dialogue (he say why you wan kill him anyway) is a moral dialogue between sympathy and selfishness which at the end of the poem the horse - although he has long gone - wins. His departure leads to the spaced- out repetition of clouds (in water that started off clear electric blue an glitter of de rainbow), suggesting not just clouds of white between words, but a stormcloud (in the otherwise clear sky of success) of sympathetic guilt for the killing - cos it a lady. Everything up till now - the jigharzi, the "man" talk - has been male. Now the thing that seemed most male (shark he thick between de ears if he had them), with teeth iiiiiiching to kill me in a battle that was supposedly sport, turns out to be female. The climax i slash him in de stomach begins the revulsion. Self interest should see the repeated stabbing (that demented repeated de same place) as triumph. But this is the moment when the speaker sees what he has done. Sees, perhaps, in a moral as well as physical sense. In a wonderful Aristotelian peripeteia ("turnaround") of feeling, the next word womb brings you round to the point of view of snails, horses, female sharks and babies: to sympathy with the living - and dying - natural world.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

FIRST PRIZE

horse under water

by Caroline Carver

jigharzi an me stand in de water

warm an friendly

for de world smell like snails

ooozing on hot charcoal

an jigharzi step wary

as tiger fish skip between his legs

an he make like he hate de coral forever

an i slip from his back de knife in my hand

forget de electric blue an glitter of de rainbow

an wait for shark to come over de reef

as tide lifffff de water over

an soon de fin come

quiver when it see me but it come

shark he thick between de ears if he had them i

say

an jigharzi he snorting and heading for land

coz dis fellow mean business

an he say why you wan kill him anyway

an i say is sport man as well as supper

an impress de tourists good an good mean money

an i say trus me jigharzi

an de fin go out like a light as de brute turn over

an jigharzi say man dis fellow bes swimmer in de

sea

an de rush of water push me sideways

an de teeth glitter in sunshine that come through

de water

hundreds of teeth iiiiiichin to bite me dead

an i liff de knife but it move slow

for everything cep dis killer move slow in de water

but fear drive my hand

an i slash him in de stomach

an de monster done falter fffffffalter in de water

but he turn roun anyways

and come again kinda slow now

an i slash him in de stomach in de same place de

same place de same place de same place

till his womb come out an his gut

for it not a he but a lady

with babies in a bag all ready to do business

but jigharzi he long gone for shore

for de water full of blood clouds of blood

clouds of froth clouds of gore

but not clouds of joy cos it a lady

SECOND PRIZE

Behold the Brahminy Kite

by Greg Delanty

That the Brahminy Kite shares the name of a god is not improper

with its rufous body the tincture of Varkala's cliffs and white head matching the combers.

The kite riffs, banks and spirals; flapping black-tipped wings

that are mighty as the wings of the skate who might be the bird's shade in the stilly water.

The Brahminy makes light of the wind and circles the distant salt and pepper minarets of

Odaayam Mosque

rising above the palms and the silence-made-susserus of the Lakshadweep Sea.

Now the kite is a silhouette in the glare of the sun, reminding me of vultures

above the secret Towers of Silence that Patti and I spotted from the Hanging Gardens.

They dined off cadavers of the followers of Zarathustra himself.

And in my way, I too believe, in the kasti - the sacred thread - of the elements

stitching us all together and would rather the kite pluck the flesh from my bones

than be laid in the dolled-up box of the West. When the time comes, imagine me the grub of

the Brahminy.

Keep your elegy eye on the bird a day or so. Watch the kite make nothing of me.

Then, as I have now, give the Brahminy an almost imperceptible nod and turn and go.

THIRD PRIZE

Caisson

by Maurice Riordan

If light, then, could part the carbon lattices

or: our ears were like bats' - but so enhanced,

so threaded into the brain, we saw the world

as noise: the splintering of skin or keratin,

hand abrading hand, would reverberate

among `the hearing bones' and be resolved

as line, texture, colour. We could view

our neighbours eating lunch or in their pool,

while our furthest vista might be the ocean

or a vestigial wave-roar from the galaxies.

And as we went about our weekday lives,

in windowless rooms and vehicles, in almost

soundproof business suits (that reflected back

a low-toned humming), we'd have modes of dress

devised for the open air, for sport and beachwear.

And cunning fabrics to tease and startle with.

Then, at your undressing, I would be

plunged in a runic chemistry, in the

liquid densities and folding geometries.

While love itself would be a coming back

from the depths, from the labyrinthine mass

to the simple contour; and when our pitched

breaths

dodged/collided, as they amplified or

cancelled out

each other, we'd cry not for these sore truths,

but for surfaces and the amnesty of light.

For futher information about and an entry form for the 1999 National Poetry Competition (available from 20 April) send an SAE to: Competition (IoS), The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton St, London WC2H 9BU. For information about Poetry Society membership, publications, events and activities, telephone 0171 420 9880 or visit the Poetry Society Website on http://www.poetrysoc.com

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