by Caitriona O’Reilly, lecturer in Creative Writing and Cosmo Davenport-Hines poetry prize judge
The theme for this year’s Cosmo Davenport-Hines poetry prize was ‘Reconciliation’; a prompt which promised to be both relevant and timely. Nevertheless, among the 96 entries there were – perhaps surprisingly – few on the subject of politics. Or perhaps it is not so surprising that lyric writing should focus on the preoccupations of the self?
Most entries interpreted reconciliation in the light of personal relationships, whether with significant others, siblings, or parents. Other interpretations were more abstract: politics (yes, occasionally), but also the attempt to reconcile different parts of the personality; different cultures with their conflicting claims on the self; or present realities with the imperatives of memory.
My fellow judges and I had our own small work of reconciliation to carry out, of course: deciding which among these competing and widely differing voices would eventually emerge victorious. Thankfully – and I know judges of literary prizes almost always say this, but this time it happens to be true— a harmonious consensus was achieved with minimum discussion. Many of the poems on our personal shortlists overlapped, and the standout contenders declared themselves at an early stage in the judging. As in past years, we had the luxury of awarding not just a First Prize, but also a Second, Third, and three further Commendations, which kept all of us happy.
If the successful poems have anything in common, it is the qualities shared by all good poetry: an eye at an unexpected angle to reality; a strong sense of line; a way with metaphor; a convincing and consistent tone carrying through the poem from beginning to end; and most importantly, that quickening in language that is unmistakeable.
Highly commended: ‘Upon a Tightrope We Walk’ by Deekshu Umasankar (Medicine); ‘Boxes’ by William Edwards (English); ‘Reconciliation’ by Rebecca Harri (English).
The top three prize winners are reproduced below, and each poet has produced a post script on their work for the King’s English blog.
‘Ismene Stands in Silence’, by Lars Malmqvist (MA Medieval Studies)
Her tragedy had been to be born the only one
without a tragic fate.
She always lacked her family’s intense capacity for suffering; powerless against the normal run of violence
except for her acceptance of the thing.
Things prophesied never seem inevitable
in the light of day,
regardless they inexorably follow their inner logic.
Jocasta by her hand
Antigone by her hand
Polynices and Eteocles by each other’s
Oedipus not by his hand, but by his wit.
After they’d buried Antigone, she had brought the wreath
that had hid the red neck to the sacred grove at Colonus,
where the pierced eyes of Oedipus no longer saw into themselves.
She laid it in the olive’s shadow and prayed:
“Gods, who by your words shape the fate of mortals, I beg you stop.
Don’t whisper stories in the wind,
tell no one the mysteries of the forest,
drop no prophecies in the water of sacred pools.
Let all be silence, reveal no more truth.”
She stood there a while
and, forgetting herself, sighed,
then as a statue moving turned by the power of steam,
she retraced her steps to the unrepentant city.
“When I started thinking about the word ‘reconciliation’, Ismene was an early association. Daughter to Oedipus, sister to Antigone, Eteocles, and Polynices, she still – at least in some versions of the myth – went on to live a perfectly ordinary life. If you can be born into one of the most cursed, self-destructive families of Greek mythology, live through the mayhem, and still somehow find a way to sustain an ordinary life, doesn’t that in a sense make you a mythical figure of reconciliation? I thought it might, hence the poem.” – Lars Malmqvist.
‘A Guide To Reconciliation’, by Larissa Rosendale (MA Medieval Studies)
Step One: Find a mirror.
Now this is the hardest part—
find your reflection
and search out your own eyes.
Realise you’ve only ever seen
your own irises
in reflection and blurry photos,
taken when you were moving just a bit
too quickly to be seen properly.
Step Two: Find your mouth.
Touch your lips.
Watch—does the reflection
touch its lips?
Good, you are on the right path.
Now, make low vowel sounds
and watch how your lips and
cheeks stretch and wrinkle.
Step Three: Raise your hand
from your side—
if doing this correctly
your hand should have dropped
heavily to the side of your thigh
—and gently press the pads of two or three
fingers to the glass.
Look at your hand.
Now the reflection.
Notice the space between the two.
Press harder so the joints closest to the nail
turn a little pale.
Eye the gap between imitation and actuality warily.
remove your fingertips
and inspect the glass.
Notice the smudge of
“This poem began with a refrain running through my mind: “realise // real eyes”. The double beat of the words was akin to a heartbeat, a constant thrum whispering “figure it out!”. It finally came to me one day as I looked around my room and down at myself, taking stock of what existed when I first awoke: “I’ve never seen my own eyes before”. I stood and looked in my full-length mirror and marvelled at the disconnect between my reflection—the ghostly shadow mimicking me—and my soul, voice and perception” – Larissa Rosendale.
‘First Love, First Rites’, by Teresa Francis Cherukara (MA Comparative Literature)
I try to treat the past like a dead grandfather: that is, with
Yet every now and then I am reminded of a body buried deep beneath damp Indian soil,
of earthworms, wood-rot, and a gravestone I could not read alone, even if I wanted to.
In the end, all relationships become exercises in embalming.
I like to judge men by the length of their fingers. Every time I try be pliable, I find a new edge:
I am always ready for a fight. I have tried soaking in Epsom salt, lime juice, fabric softener.
Memories that sound like muffled tears double as indelible lessons in starching.
Legacy requires pride in cyclicality, even of error. So love cautiously, grieve recklessly.
Grieve like a man on the street hollering about repentance.
Like a hysterical four-year old, bleary-eyed and unintimidated by snow.
Like an insidious suit with an agenda, no care for collateral damage.
I think of you and try recall veal cooked too rare, pink pools of blood afloat pale cream sauce
too heavy for either one of us. Dreams reject heresy: there remains the sunset soaked city,
promises as holy and collapsible as communion wafers, pious devotion to being vouched for.
I stay patient, replay familiar arms raised in surrender mid-plummet.
This is part elegy, part apology never required or requested, so in some sense I am sorry to be sorry.
I was tired of waiting, and your shadow cast the perfect shape. Transfixed by our silhouettes,
placed together in the corner of that dark bar with the neon lights, your candescent halo.
Thrilled when they joked we were too in love, to stop now, enough now.
Stop, I never could do things in halves. Hand me a matchstick, I will show you a forest fire.
Enough, stand on cool ash, speak of the phoenix and restorative time while fumbling with cigarettes.
I am not fooled. No appropriate reverence to a god wrought in gold.
“We often speak of reconciliation as being synonymous with resolution, but as I was reflecting on this years’ theme, I was struck by how much it shares with the process of grief, since both necessitate a kind of loss. The poets that move me the most are the ones that speak honestly about grief – its frustrating cyclicality, its paradoxical tenderness – Edna Millay and Meghan O’Rourke are amongst my favourites. I was trying to emulate those voices in ‘First Love, First Rites’, and I’m so glad it resonated with the judges, especially amongst such wonderful entries!” – Teresa Francis Cherukara.
Featured image: ‘Paris’, by Michael Handrick
You may also enjoy:
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.