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POETRY

In 2019 I was thrilled to win the Yeovil Literary Prize for Poetry with my poem Origins. Here it is.

Origins

I was hatched in an angry nest. Spiky it was,
with loss and bruised knuckles, the coarse cloth
of a nun’s habit. It smelled of sulphur tonic
that could rot a girl’s teeth. Yet it was softened
by a river of hair running below a waist,
the hands of a man who’d been lifted by love.
The feathers were gleaned from a plum tree
in Hertfordshire whose roots crawled beneath
the Great North Road. I came out sickly
and damp by the sea, by a tamarisk tree.
Kindness raised me, and fairness and people
who knew when to keep their mouths shut.

But the anger had got into me, had scoured me
into something shiny and cross. I wrote letters
to the newspaper, received kinky replies. I hung out
with dope-smoking darlings, and stewed up bile against
the National Front, whose head office was in our town.
My parents shook their heads in private, let me fly,
jesses trailing. And now I talk to them in the gentle tent
of night, and they nod and breathe life into me, as I
breathe into them, so we are reborn, reborn, day on day.

The judge, Philip Gross, commented, ‘This poem is so many things – colloquial and imagistic, private and public, snappy and sad and tough and ultimately – most startling – tender. All of this could fly apart in discord, but fine judgement in the language, in the shifts of rhythm and the pauses over line breaks, holds it – holds it not just together but makes it a gift to be shared.’ Read the poem on the Poetry page of this website. More about the judge and the other prize winners can be found at: www.yeovilprize.co.uk/P2019_Results

I was also fortunate enough to win second prize in the Suffolk Poetry Society George Crabbe competition with my poem Advice from the Afterlife – a rather different poem, in which an unnamed speaker offers advice to a much younger version of me. Here it is.

Advice from the Afterlife

And this is what he said, in a voice
like a hive full of bees: make love
in Alexandria at least once in your life.
Afterwards eat plenty of figs and pastries –
the triangular ones with a pinch of salt
from the dusty shop close to the harbour.
Drink a jug of wine strong as a donkey’s
hee-haw. Don’t give too much time to mourning:
we’re all compost once the temple comes crashing down.
Answer back. Yell so loud the cat runs out of the flap.
Finally (and forgive me if this makes you blush)
don’t let your vagina be inhabited only by
tampons: it’s beautiful and deserves better.

This second poem is one of a series I’m writing about women’s lives. As part of this work, I’m developing a collection of poems in collaboration with the photographer Andrew Scott, documenting my life in the turbulent 1970s. Here’s one of his photographs, and my poem written in response.  

Photo by Andrew Scott
Photograph by Andrew Scott

Stoneyard Lane Prefabs

Two ticks and the fixer of the Squatters Union
has done the break-in, courtesy of a jemmy.
The door creaks in the fish-mud breeze blowing up
from Shadwell docks. Here you are girls.
Faces poke, glint through curtain cracks.

A man comes back for his hobnailed boots. Stands lit up
by orange street lights, his meek face
breathing beer. We got behind with the rent, he says,
muddy laces spilling over knuckles.
Thought we’d leave before the council chucked us out.

The next morning two hoods from the council break the lock,
bawl through the drunken door, Clear out or we’ll
board you in.
Bump-clang of an Audi brings bailiffs.
The fixer flies in, fists up to his chin.
Has words. We hunch on the kerb with our carrier bags. 

Caroline Gilfillan