Red Shed Poetry Competition 2020
Winning and Commended Poems
From the little bedroom in Grandma’s house
I see a red brick wall at the top of the street.
Sun bleeds through shifty trees
making it strange, like a dream-like place.
But I know the street, the long familiar view
From the factory gates up to Dr Holmes’ big house
on Dunstead Hill, the bus stop.
Lying back in the lumpy comfort of flock mattress
I listen to pavement-echo footsteps,
the tap of high heels, heavier tread of leather brogues,
different again after rain,
smell the rain and mossy tarmac of the path
under my window,
a coal dust, coal-fire edge to air
more bracing than the south
where I’d been ill for weeks.
I will be well in Thompson Street.
Nine Pairs of Shoes – and a jacket
Leggy children fold down in the hall
Velcro ripped open grating like chalk on a blackboard,
flashy striped trainers slung haphazard in a heap.
Their parents hold the banister
shuck off shoes with their toes bent and place in pairs.
My shoes are there too,
office wear clean, country walk dirty and
a set behind that needs heeling.
There is another polished pair,
toes against the wall,
placed neat and together,
laces coiled on top sleeping.
There is a gardening jacket
alone on its own very particular hook,
I stuff it over my face and suck in the fading smells of mud, dog, bonfire,
I have told you, my love
where I want my ashes scattered
where three lanes meet
and your signpost points
no twenty first century to be seen
I hope it is a windy day
so I can fly free and you will laugh
and taste me in your mouth.
a trick of the trade
Me and Percy Watson, the time we found out
how to de-coke a Renault 4.
The time we could not solve the puzzle
of its cylinder head, that last bolt.
The way we tried every combination
every single spanner, mole-wrench, socket
how there was no purchase.
And how we drove to Newcastle,
the Renault Dealer. Spares department,
paid good money for a manual,
shrink-wrapped in cellophane.
No way of knowing if it held the answer
that we needed. It didn’t.
Remove cylinder head bolts
by slackening in sequence (see diagram)
NB failure to follow this sequence
may result in malformation of the cylinder head.
Percy cracked it sometime after ten that night.
Look, he says. Compress the rocker spring,
pull the rocker to one side, let it drop down,
pull the pushrod, out, pull the rocker back
the other way, and, see, there’s the space to drop
a socket on the bolt. That’s it.
One 13mm socket and a ratchet spanner.
Freezing cold and filthy in our overalls
we went into his warm kitchen,
drank his nutty homebrew till we made no sense.
I don’t know much in this life.
But I know this: I can show you
how to get a cylinder head
off a Renault 4. They don’t make them
any more. But if they did, I could.
Mature women do not shout
They look beyond
and only weep
Mature women wear loose clothes
and lycra when they regularly
Mature women drive cars they love
read good novels
Mature women have seen the sun rise
over the Mimalayas
and watched the house martins
build their nest
Mature women give comfort
with their eyes
and listen with their minds
The door opened.
“Welcome to my home!”
Her smile was light
like silk carried
mountains and miles.
of words lost
in the Asian air.
I was suspicious that it didn’t flower,
I’d heard that sun-bathed liquorice
bloomed silky blue purses that could
slip on the tips of your fingers like thimbles
but the roots run deep, so deep they needle
cellar floors and the ruins of buried walls.
My Pa’s treat was always to shush us like pups
by giving us a stick of it to gnaw, but I better liked
the sweeter Pomfret cakes, rattling in the jar
like new pennies being saved for a seaside day;
I like the inside of my mouth turned black
like a cavern and the echoes it sets off
down my throat, how it settles in the stomach
like a warmed blanket and fingers creep
to unscrew the lid for another.
I like to run my tongue over the rise and fall
of the stamped letters; a small miracle to read
with a sense beside your eyes.
Pa says this manufactured stuff will rot
the teeth right out of my head. He says
I’ll be able to keep them in that jar I’ve emptied again.
I’ve looked up some strong words for my Pa,
not curses nor coarse stuff but book words
that sweet-savour almost as strong in my mouth;
I say Pa, it doesn’t matter if its pressed and shaped,
I say, it’s still medicine, Glycyrrhiza glabra, magic
words that sound like I’ve made them up, he has half
a mind, I can tell, to say so, instead he sticks his stump
of sweet wood, his Pontefract cane, back in his mouth
and chews. We savour quietly, each to their own.
Queen Elizabeth Grammar School
My school was very old, its cold stones
and wooden floors a tomb of Latin and dust.
When there were no small boys around
to laugh at her white face or pull her hair,
the first Queen Elizabeth bustled along the corridors,
trailing her skirts, stopping to run her tongue over rotten teeth,
shrieking with pain, muttering of Catholic foes and plots,
seeking Raleigh to berate or Drake to pet
for singeing the beard of the King of Spain.
Mostly she sought a lover to fill her aching void,
that regal emptiness bred of splendour.
Routinely, we sat in the august hall,
sang Jerusalem and Floreas, Wakefieldia,
our volume a substitute for harmony,
we too starved of affection, held in thrall.
Arrows of desire came blunt and barbed.
There were no doting girls to smooth our fletchings,
there was no romance: only antique broken desks
where the ghosts of 'others many' had been,
rituals, stinking urinals and, always, Russ Field,
captain of England rugby, the school bully,
his vicious acolytes playing court, keen to act his whims,
turning Elizabethan in their carelessness and cruelty
and that was part of our learning.
Turpe Nescire, we were taught – it is shameful to be ignorant –
as we kept our heads lowered against such spite,
whilst the Queen sighed all around, a cold wind in the daytime
but wandering like a bitter, tuneless troubadour at night,
concerned for herself, of course, and never for our plight.
Despite her jewels, despite her gown,
rare taffeta and silk, rich velvet and lace, purple and soft,
she never found affection: there was no comfort for her,
I am sure. Not there. None to be found.
And we did not offer a moment’s thought for her history.
Alone, distraught, she dwelt on stirring battles
fought long ago on raging seas with foreign powers,
whilst her best hopes of dashing consorts, her desire
for a fond heart to warm her in a deep feather nest:
those were merely recurring fantasies, like ours.
As we struggled with Shakespeare’s verse, weighing each tryst,
his wheel of fire, the loving that we missed,
conjuoring girls, their eyes and legs and breasts our distraction, our desire,
the nearest she came to passion, trailing clouds of musk and rose,
was to step a galliard with his ghost, commanded to attend,
the Bard struggling to keep pace, creaking with arthritic knees,
over-conscious of his flaking pate and country paunch,
seeking a way to escape to his second-best bed and his wife
without offending Her Majesty, to emerge alive,
slip away to the calm of Stratford without losing his head,
contrive to purge himself of the school of the Virgin Queen and its tragedies.