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2016 Poetry Prize Winners

Winner of the Mirehouse Poetry Prize 2016


Perhaps we should have treated it with reverence,
like the frowsy elder who taught us drill, seen
ourselves as custodians of some tribal language
to pass down to the next generation as a gift,
but even then we knew its days were numbered
like the rotary dial phone or the slide rule,
and futures seemed only vaguely mapped
as ambition drifted off into each blowsy loop.

Our cheap pens leaking, we repeated outlines:
birdlike chevrons, a few bold smiles, bubbles blown
in the party spirit, and as we tied off each sentence
we savoured the fact that kisses were pressing.
Soon, we found the shape of ‘civilisation’
to be no more than a pig’s tail tied to a deaf ear.
And, with the contraction of ‘mind’ we learned
how things can halve yet still keep their meaning.

In a year we were dispatched, if lucky,
to assist in boardrooms, serve pink gins at lunch,
and practise a little guesswork inbetween,
carrying with us a phrase that taught us placement,
a shape on the line which looked like a shark’s fin:
that described ‘love’, and the same shape rising:
that was ‘life’. On, above, on, above, the old walls
echoed, thin stroke, thick stroke, ‘Love life’, ‘Love life’.

By Alison Carter


Long as my father’s forearm,
a solid block of weathered oak
with brass fittings, pitted with age;
one skylight window, one porthole,
holding neon tubes, each floating
a precise bubble like cod-liver-oil
capsules. The impossible trick
was always to balance both
between narrow grey lines-
stability in two dimensions.

Saturday morning; I am in his garage
sorting tools for my mother.
She is upstairs on the wrong side
of the bed, packing pyjamas, jackets
into Oxfam bags. Forty years ago
I spent weekends planning timber,
or under the bonnet while he passed
spanners, read aloud from Haynes,
translating diagrams of
head gaskets, distributor caps.

Now I choose from his shelves;
what to keep and what to put
in a car boot sale; the battered
biscuit tin of nuts and bolts,
a brand new set of washers,
four shillings and sixpence,
this weighty spirit level
with its yellow unsettled eyes.
Leaning on the cold concrete wall
I can feel his hand steadying my elbow.

By Jo Stoney



    Tell me, do bats squeak?
Well, not quite. Bats are not doors (…swinging in darkness
    moved by draughts?) they fly with their eyes shut
like sleepers; think Odysseus walking swiftly on fog –
    air is bronze for them, the dawn not yet begun:

    So bats have their history?
Say each is its own ink Icarus: moonlight is fire,
    hence their own low tipped flight, taste for moth hearts,
their entire mythical stance to earth;
    beneath them, our dwellings are framed and strange.

    Then bats do not belong to this world?
I would say, partly: inverted, limbed and furred,
    they muse inside dark propositions; from there, they attend
forms of the world – as if, dreaming and lost,
    you could not wake when someone called.

    Say then, do they belong to the living or the dead?
On this, two minds: fruit of dust, night’s paragons,
    they hang alive on a stave, be and cease,
of existence wink in and out; silver eared, they are note
    and silence – but in the main, silence.

    So bats will not speak?
Ah, but they will. Take the long line between moon
    and sun, a thing and its furious shadow:
unsung, hung between, they call to abandoned gods;
    we must trace and heed, read them as parchment and rune.

    And then, then what must we do?
Just a little. For ourselves, creatures of light, days’
    broad settlements, we should say bat prayers at night,
huddle in the alphabet of our shadows,
    sub-vocalise a black amen… wait the echo.

By Terry Jones



Up to their ankles in tides of red;
red dust, red clay, red bloom of effort.
My granddad and his father before him
Worked at Whitehaven Brickworks.

Only Sundays could break the wall,
with a promise of fresh Solway air,
infinite blue skies and a small silver fish
caught down by the harbour on a thin line.

On Monday mornings they dragged
themselves to the temple of tall chimneys.
Grey steam belched and gathered
above a town rendered into servitude.

Rumbling wagons tipped out rocks
to be shovelled into crusher jaws.
Millhouse wheels clattered,
Screeched, ground, pressed.

Clay pudding churned in pugmills.
Hands threw clots into moulds
and packed sand-lined boxes.
Row after row, dark blood moist.

Men stacked brick upon brick
In long drying tunnels.
Air choked, powder penetrated.
Bricks smiled under pressure.

Fuel crackled and burned,
vast kilns throbbed heat.
Air drifted around chambers
like a high priest ghost.

The walls of their labour rose up
around them; homes, factories,
churches, viaducts, pit buildings.
Lavish Georgian houses.

Frog marks echo people and places;
Kirkhouse, Sandysike, Micklam,
Harrington, Whitehaven, Camerton,
Barrow, Romans at Brampton.

Four sided cradles and coffins
Bolstered the life in-between,
decreed extrusion of the soul.
The only relief, a blue sky Sunday

By Alison Barr



I kissed with closed eyes,
As the wise poet wrote,
and dreamt they would open
to find you wrinkled;

weathered, as we aged,
out of all slogans
to a caring that had learnt
to forgive:
              at last I looked,
saw you rise up, fresh
as at that first kiss,
              forever fixed
that time past,
              and still further away,
smiling, duplicitous,
without substance, a shadow cast,

fleeting as caught breath,
and woke to the same hunger,
the same rage,
              with nothing settled,
nothing assuaged.

By Alexander J H Martin



Beyond the range of the Tsar’s photographer
the Tanguska forest of the meteorite
and its flower of blasted pines;

beyond the islands of the Gulag
and the road of bones through endless forest
where winter is norm, lives pass unrecorded,

epics unfold their progress in silence,
towns work through unknown narratives —
all outside the great conversation;

beneath sky-scapes lashed with stars
and the unfolding green of borealis;
through Yakutsk to Sakha and ice crushed bridges,

between frozen mountains lies Omyakon.
And here they say in winter words freeze
as they leave your mouth to fall forgotten in the snow.

They make a tundra littered with gossip,
cries of love, argument and greeting,
speeches and shouts petrified in depths of ice

until one midday when larch are greening
and Golden-root makes brief smile at a low sun,
words fall into air as if from a door flung open

to fill the town like birdsong and running water.

By Christopher North



I heard earth clatter on the wicker coffin,
a buzzard keening overhead, a squall
that shook a rainbow from the shrouded sky.
I buried snowdrops in a cast of clay,

and left you there, and thought that everything
had closed over you with bleak finality –
but you are still sitting the kitchen table,
yesterday’s Guardian open at the crossword,

eleven across and thirteen down still blank;
the jar of quince jelly you opened for us
unfinished, and your voice informing me
you’re sorry you can’t get to the phone right now

but if I leave my name and number, you’ll
get back to me as soon as possible.

By A.E Rowe



These old walls, once mountains’ bones,
stacked with skill, are broken, bowed
under weight of water. Sheep wander the fell,
unfenced. The flood sweeps boundaries away,
turns road to river. Steel sheets of rain
hurl at us, till the mountain’s lifeblood
flows unstemmed, leached from the hills’
veins, gouges chasms, self-cutting to the heart.
All is displaced, rearranged.
So many stones lay hidden under bracken,
now flushed out, flung onto roads,
missiles, ankle-breaking in the dark.
With luck, the moon will rise;
there will be beauty in these great accidental
lakes which lie, wild children of the river,
overtopping fences. Underneath are ghosts
of walls, telling the tale of land.

By Angela Locke



Here be curiosities. Keep your wits
about you. Look – penny farthings, suspended;
owls, fossils, muskets, dead cat, the splendid
hornfels xylophone. A sharp-nosed fox sits
on a box; Flintoft’s vast, raised, glazed map fits
neatly on a wall, its bulk upended,
its named lakes and brown mountains defended
by a rail. Don’t lean! Stone-age axes, bits

and pieces of provincial history so
numerous they spill into this sestet,
which was reserved for the Exhibition:
white sea broken by an archipelago
of paintings, letters, diaries – the alphabet
of memory, the stuff of re-transmission.

By Gill Frances