This year, my poem “Still” was highly commended in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition.
Counting the sounds of the train
in the beat of her blood, she is leaving,
leaving again. His fat fists beating back
and the crash of the falling still.
Flat blank fields by the tracks,
with no words, just like her, on the steps
when they called, when they heard, when they stared
at the red pockmarked bricks of the barn.
Skin which had once been so smooth,
a landscape of ridges and cracks.
Mouthing the sounds of a bird:
no it’s fine, I’m all right, we’re all right.
Crossing the dark widowed plains,
she won’t stop till she reaches a mountain,
granite, she tries to dream, but she sees him,
she sees him again, with his red puffy face in the half-dark,
brewing his broth, fermenting the slop,
malting the grain and stilling the clear cold burn of brandy.
He climbed on the beams, fixing the tiles on the roof,
poked out the nests of the swallows,
smashing their eggs, he never fell down, quick as a cat.
Leaning her head on the glass,
in the white of the sky she unwinds them:
silences coiled up and folded away.
Her lips never move, the scars on her throat keep her quiet,
but she murmurs it deep in her chest,
the speech which will come from the distance,
the croak of the swallows, somewhere still alive.
Wrong is a difficult word –
not for him, he would savour its taste.
He could brand her with each slow sentence,
stuff her full of rotten fruit and leave her to ferment,
he told her, brandy would blind her, let her be left there, left in the still.
Counting the sounds of the train,
she prepares, she prepares to pronounce it,
painfully shaking her head:
he was wrong, he was wrong, he was wrong.
This competition was a lot of fun to enter, and I really recommend it to other writers.
I find that having a “prompt” helps me to channel my ideas; in fact, I often feel that it draws me down a path which I never would have found otherwise. The Neil Gunn Writing Competition asks writers to respond to quotations from the work of the Scottish writer Neil Gunn. The one I chose was “wrong is a difficult word”; throughout the poem, I played with the rhythm of this sentence, which reminded me of a well-known phrase from the Aeneid in dactylic hexameter, “quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” (“then struck the hoofs of the steeds on the ground with a four-footed trampling“). In the poem, the rhythm of the horses is replaced by the rhythm of the train.
At the award ceremony, it was unexpectedly inspiring to hear about the children’s section of the competition. One of the primary school stories included one of the best lines I’ve read all year: “Medusa went into a forest to let her hair slither on the trees.”
The judges’ comments can be read here. The lead judge for the adult sections was Michel Faber, who I thought would make a great character in a novel himself. He described immersing himself in music, but not in literature: he is used to reading just individual chapters or scenes from novels, rather than whole books. It was very surprising to me that the writer of the supremely immersive The Crimson Petal and the White would take an approach to reading which seemed to me to be distant and almost obtuse in a certain way, deliberately avoiding the pull of the text. But it was clear from his comments on the competition entries and from his descriptions of literary discussions with his late wife that his mode of reading wasn’t emotionless. Maybe it’s actually a way of reading texts against the grain, in order to get at the detail of what works.