Poems From the Ironbridge Festival Competition 2023

by Helen Kay

Every night Dad and I clicked the tiles slick
as casino chips. A whiskey soda
lit his petrol-coupon glass to a sparkling
chandelier. An ashtray snake-charmed
a Silk Cut while he positioned the tiles,
turned misspellings into jokes. Winning
did not matter; it was our way of talking.
We were both dictionary-dependent, lifting
its cover like the lid of a Milk Tray box.
We fished letters from a yellow wash bag,
sliced them into so many meanings.
Slotted in our chairs, we made order:
ashtray, coaster, fag packet. My pen knitted
lines of scores, filling the evening’s blank page
and always, upstairs, Mum, out cold, a burnt
stub, empty tumbler, blank tile, jumbled-up bag
of letters we could never put into words.

The Real Body
by Melissa Severn

They filled my mouth, which was in my face, with
Floribunda and gauze. They pumped my retina,
Which were in my eyes, with maelstroms from a
Quivering pipette. Next, they glazed my fingers,
Which were attached to my knuckles, with crinoline—
And glued mustard seeds onto my nails, which were
On the ends of my fingers. I think this transformation
Means I have failed. They stuffed my ears, which were
On my head, with stubby lipsticks, wriggled free from
Their cases, escape-artists with veins caked in whale-
Fat, startling-red Houdinis. They smeared my face,
Which was on my skull, with ganache. They braided
My hair, which was attached to my scalp, with crabgrass.
Inside my belly button, which was on my belly, they
Inserted a snail, depressed as a fossil, glossy as a glucose
Globule. I think this transformation means I have failed.
Stiff and hideous and fey-cast, I wonder how close
My bones came to being bones.

The Sound of Water
Dillon Jaxx

I’ll just have water / just baptise my tongue in its language
the lapping / and dripping / the quenching and flooding

of it / I’ll just make my throat a river / my windpipe a waterfall
into the spa of my stomach / look there are froglets blebbing

by the side of my pool / a great crested newt floats downstream
on an upturned leaf-boat soaking me up / I watch as the rock

of my bones spores moss / wait for tardigrades and pollywiggles
to move in / lie back in the stream of me / see a single butterfly

wings tight in prayer / there / in the burp of a brook /
a sole bead of water / carrying the history of the world

in the paunch of its tear shaped gut / falls /
puckers the mirror of my pond with an ever-increasing echo /

as my name rings out / every clean vowel and sound
of it / as if I too / had always just meant to be here

The Gerbilarium
by Juan Carlos Sanchez Fernandez

One afternoon, my boyfriend
brought home a gerbilarium
which he handed to me, saying: them mouses
will ease your evening with their little noises while
I ain’t around.
Since we are no longer together
their scratching pierces my sleep
and reminds me that
my boyfriend,
who said mouses and fishes,
concocted for our relationship
a fabricated plurality.

A Psalm for the Hotel Staff
by Louise Walker

in their flimsy company
polo shirts, the logo proud
on each chest, like a hard-won
campaign medal. A psalm
for the pony-tailed girls greeting
the check-in queue with eager
smiles, even though the IT
system’s been down since noon
and none of the key-cards work.

A psalm for the twenty-somethings
left in charge throughout Brexit,
Covid, rail strikes, heatwaves.
A psalm for the hospitality
workers on match days, doling out
sugar sachets to winning fans
and tea bags to the losers. A psalm
for the waitresses on shift from
12 till 9, who never need to go
to the gym; for the one leaving
in two weeks to teach Psychology.

A psalm for the breakfast chef sliding
vegan bacon and hash browns
onto his griddle, frying thirty
perfect eggs an hour. A psalm
for the cleaners on minimum wage –
ten minutes to fix each room,
their racing trolleys loaded
with mop, sprays and loo-roll –
who run out of plastic thimbles of milk
before the end of the corridor.

A psalm for the staff at hotels
who, unlike the corporate suits,
understand what the word
hospitality really means.

Year’s Turn
by Phil Jackson

Dusk waits for the harbour fair
to crest the wave of drunkenness.
Beered-up bravado scrabbles and fails,
cleans off the greasy pole,
before the watching old and wise
climb to claim the wooden whisky prize.

Dusk waits as racing whalers turn the buoy
in one last pull for the shore,
knotted oars fuelled by pride and envy,
hauling for blisters and glory,
while a silent, unseen hand
guides a favoured boat to land.

Dusk waits as soil-rooted ankles turn,
unused to netted, cobbled streets.
Crowds eddy towards the quay
and mood turns with the tide,
an undercurrent of expectation
pulls the faithful to the whaling station.

Dusk falls and there stands the child,
stripped to its scales, at the end of two
twelve footers laid out over the waves.
Harpoon hurled, the child dives,
racing the Tide-man to know
if tomorrow’s nets will overflow.