Verse showcase

V is for Verse victories – just V here, in full.

All five poems here won competitions. Another style of verse can be found as blog posts under the category Diversions.

Beads Tanka
Family Men
The Sludge Seaman Who Drowned
Suspended Moment

The Beads Tanka

Zulu beadwork.

The theme of the competition was South Africa. I was taken by the beadwork of the Zulu people, the way it can convey coded messages using symbolism. I constructed the frame for the poem from a Zulu necklet, closing it into a complete circle and embellishing some of the larger beads with a map of Earth. These centred on Africa.

The first tanka is in Zulu and incorporates some Zulu sayings. A loose translation is below the circle of beads. My thanks go to Rose Cam, who checked and corrected my translations

Rose, under her pen name, Mona Xula, won the article section of the first Fenner Brockway Peace Prize with her piece uGoGo. The Prize was run by Story Cellar (see Top-10) on behalf of Slough Borough Council.

The Beads Tanka

Zulu translation: Every human / lights the fire in the wind. / One day we must conquer this. / As the sun always sets, / so the honey will end.

Family Men

There is a vogue to trace one’s family history. This poem is a collection of family lore, the anecdotes that lace between the members. The grist was my name as an infant and youth – Junior. Because my father was a William.

The poem contrasts males over three generations of my family: the variations on their given name “William” and their characters.

Competition judge and poet Tony Turner commented “The poem has well-drawn pen pictures, strong images and conciseness of language.”

The images alongside the poem are of the family men in the verses.

Family Men

His pals and all the family called him Our Will.
To his face, then reverentially to his memory.
Written in faded ink on the sepia photos
I found in Mam’s bureau. Its bottom drawer
A rim-high cache of house-clearer’s tat.
Our Will was an accountant for Swan Hunter,
Summing a ledger quick as a moving finger.
They say he was with the Jarrow two-hundred.

I’m told my numeracy comes down from Grandad.
Thus I calculate he was too old for the ’36 march,
And I recognise summing ledgers is bookkeeping.
Six days a week he joined the river of dawn boiler suits,
Nursing a vacuum flask and sarnies in grease-proof.
The talk over Newcastle Amber in the sawdust public
Was of unvisited faraway places, like Scarborough.
Only his dreams travelled south of the Tyne.

Race week. Uncle Billy’s at Gosforth with ol’ man Slaven.
His three sisters still giggle about the one day he took them.
Sunday he’s at his Men’s Club, drinking with Tom Farrer.
Back at two sharp, carving the joint, head of the family.
He owned the only Vauxhall Cresta in our lane,
Polished his brogues daily on the breakfast table,
Set his waistcoat fob to the Home Service pips.
Never left the England he scoured for contracts.

Uncle Billy went bankrupt twice. He bounced back.
Both times he pulled down his family guarantors,
Forcing three generations to live under Gran’s roof.
His boyish horseplay was the family tie-beam.
He called me Jessie and Pansy when I kept falling off
The bike Dad couldn’t afford. The bike uncle bought
With the rent and keep he never gave to his sisters.
My maiden Aunts, who affectionately called him Billy.

Bill got his ticket working in the bowels of coasters,
Engineering a passage from the Howden back-to-backs.
The figurehead moved wife and son south in career lurches
While he propellered tankers to Aden and Durban.
He brought the sailor’s charisma to our suburbia –
Give us a turn Bill – for friends, for neighbours.
His letters were ribbon-bundled in Mother’s drawer;
Of their early love and later what was lost at sea.

The hand-me-down myths of Our Will,
And the neat handwritten pages from Bill,
Were Mam’s guiding stars in Dad’s months of absence.
Bill the paragon, yet awkward with son and wife,
Relying on ritual for a compass round the home.
Then morphine dripped corrosion on his bulkheads,
Revealing a hold of softer cargo. This taciturn stranger
With William, not Bill, on his hospital wristband.

William is on my certificate of existence.
I was Willie in the playground of infants,
Billy doing holiday jobs for Cockneys,
And always Junior to my parents and family.
My surname, in classrooms and lecture halls.
Willum in the quiet intimacy of first love,
And known by initials in this age of acronyms.
William means Guardian. Of Will, Billy and Bill.

The Sludge Seaman Who Drowned

The poem was written during a poetry workshop weekend at Cold Ash with Carol Ann Duffy and Matthew Sweeney.

It was read and extemporised on several evenings of improvised dance around the Thames Valley. The events were called Dance By Chance, facilitated by Feet First Dance Theatre, inviting the audience to enter the performance space and improvise.

The Sludge Seaman Who Drowned
My father in his Merchant Navy uniform.

The seabed silt oozes through my unyielding bones;
I want back the resilience of my flesh
to savour textures
and breathe the smells which are odourless
under this dumped human excrement.

Better to have lived with the processed flux on board
when a whiplash breeze carried salt from the North Sea
and fish and chips from Southend,
or could buffet a man into the foul hold.
That lost freedom to walk the deck.

Yet I was tied to the tides, day cycles in weekly rota.
The routine of packing laundered braids and starched shirts;
another life in a holdall.

I remember weekends at home
with the lazy infusion of bacon and eggs;
the slither of mud where a son’s football used to be,
and a safe anchorage in our bed.

Mostly my brain was clamped to the mortgage,
to not slipping on an invisible companion-way,
fearing manilla windows, school outfitters,
and the worrying mustiness of rotting eaves;
like eroded stanchions under the pier far out from Southend.

Where the lapping waters once lulled a boy thoughtless,
until the line jerked taught,
or a whipping breeze slapped glowing cheeks
or a distant sludge boat
noisily dumped its cargo.

Suspended Moment

The Observatory from the cover of A Town Like Slough.

Another example of a physical world experience that melds into writing (see Top-10 Fiction Recall). I wonder now, years later, if I remember correctly who the woman was. I’m sure the one depicted in the poem was not the one encountered under the clock of the Observatory Mall in Slough.

What about my emotions at the time? Did I feel used by the woman, or was I proud to be noble. More likely those are both irrelevant, lost under the deafening chimes of lust.

The competition judge rated it “Very good” and commended the subtle imagery throughout the poem.

Suspended Moment

We suddenly came upon one another,
in front of the tall blue columns of the Observatory shopping mall.
You, rushing between duty visits,
me, drifting ahead of myself.
It was the afternoon following one of our rare evenings,
yet we stood distanced as the tower blocks at Langley.
Not touching, bouncing banalities like a slow windscreen wiper.
Our intimacy was yesterday.

We jiggled on the russet bricks the council calls The Piazza,
that kerb-free roadway for motors and quicker bicycles.
You fretted over the cost of a birthday card for your daughter.
Last night you fretted.
Could she hear us on your old settee?
The one from the car boot sale; the only shop you can afford these days.
You were uneasy, until she did not come down when the TV film ended.
I noted you had memorised its finish time.
Your starting time.

Your emotions were still brittle after I had soaked up your worries:
about the slowness of solicitors acting for your husband;
maybe losing your part-time job which you hate, which you need;
the Building Society messing up the re-mortgage;
the cost of a school trip, burglary, dark streets.

A car cruised a slow U-turn round us.
The driver asked for a somewhere road.
A what-did-you-say road, I asked.
On our fifth attempt I directed him to the White Rose,
and we laughed seeing the plate on the back of the taxi.
You let me make you laugh in blanking delight
on the rare times you have for me.
You let me make you groan under blanking pleasure
when I kiss your shrouded sun dial,
exposed, glistening, pink and TV blue.

Above the elongated entrance,
its keystone is a proud stopped clock.
A suspension of time, at the entrance to the mall.

Our brief suspension is on your escapement,
when you can push aside the burdens
of being an abandoned mother.


In the language of flowers, Zinnia means: Thoughts of absent friends.

Aunt Edith, deaf from birth.

One of our number has lost her head.
We grieve for her and lament our loss.
She was strong, supporting us through windy times,
absorbing our babbles into her deaf ears,
hearing our troubles through knowing eyes.

From birth she endured her soundless prison,
while we reflected on her quiet resignation,
somehow giving us strength
though we were unaware.

Now is our time for support unspoken.
We bow our heads and prepare weak shoulders.
She is headless; age has eroded her reason,
her prison tarnished with mould from the years.

Remember her as a stoic pillar, wise;
not wind strewn petals, this wandered mind.
Our thoughts are with you, absent friend,
while inside your cephalic tomb
you are unaware.