2020 JUDGE’S REPORT – Joy in the morning
The theme ‘Joy in the morning’ attracted numerous poems with either ‘joy’ or ‘morning’ or both in the title. Many of these were similar, celebrating the start of a new day as a time of hope or resurrection, and used familiar Easter tropes of dawn, the sun rising. A good number of poems celebrated early morning bird calls, especially as prompting joy in the hearer. Anzac Day, the dreadful Spring-Summer 2019-2020 bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic each entered the entries. There were memorable lines and music in many of the poems that did not reach the shortlist. In selecting a short list, what I looked for were approaches to the theme that brought some originality or insight beyond the well-loved trope of daybreak as a kind of daily taste of Easter morning, poems that used imagery in interesting ways and showed evidence of poetic craft even if not achieved perfectly.
I will make a few comments on each poem in the shortlist, before turning to the final four. ‘After the smoke’ brings together human vulnerability and need for solace with the fate of a baby kookaburra after the fires; subtly, the poet situates joy in the midst of tragedy in a shared instinct for survival. ‘A Simpler Time’ holds its central them of milk throughout the poem, as it points to a capacity for joy in the work of providing and receiving sustenance. ‘Clarion at Dawn’ is an eight-line poem, juxtaposing war and dawn; what attracted me to this short rhyming poem was the way it echoes Auden, for example, parts of ‘For the Time Being’. ‘Currawong’, another short poem, in its repetitions and reminders to me of Judith Wright and William Blake, is a skilfully wrought evocation of the joy of the bird itself. ‘Eagle’ strongly builds its picture of a majestic bird in flight; then, as the poet intervenes to interpret the eagle’s sharing in the place and purpose of things, the bird gradually disappears from ‘sight’. In its description, ‘Eagle’ suggests without spelling out the theme of joy. ‘Equivocal’ offers a unique and poignant perspective on grief, through the trope of dreaming of loved ones who are deceased, ending ‘I woke more or less with joy’. Another short poem ‘Gannet’ deftly poses a question about the way the poet’s relation to the bird they are watching calls forth joy.
‘Ghazal’, as its title suggests, takes the form of a ghazal, with its repetitions and shifts, and does this with a depth that invites reflection on miracles missed, even as the imagery the poet chooses acknowledges the way trauma and the everyday intersect. ‘Morning Cuppa’ appeals in the way it describes loss through the image of an old red sock found in a mug under the sink; the way an object associated with a beloved can call forth both grief and joy. The second line of ‘Morning rituals’, ‘she wakes in the space of herself’, signals the strength of the voice in this poem which builds its picture of the beginnings of a day in pleasing imagery, closing with a woman bringing day back into the house with the scent of crushed lavender on her fingers. ‘My Kintsugi’ is a narrative poem that folds together family heritage and loss, evoking joy in a mending that honours its scars. ‘Newells Paddock’ describes a morning scene with attractive imagery, flowing deftly toward its beautiful final image. A series of questions, in the poem ‘Not Joy’, provokes the reader to consider situations in which ‘joy in the morning’ stands together with its opposite; the rhythm and repetitions that mark this poem call forth a kind of joy in the act of witness and response to suffering and injustice.
Humorously, ‘Ode to Joy’ offers a pandemic lockdown perspective on a neighbour’s daily music practice and the anticipated (longed-for) excess of a return to both peace and choral singing. ‘Regime’, as I read it, is a bleak poem of domestic abuse, where joy can be fleeting, requiring moments of safety for joy to arrive. A narrative poem, ‘Spring Rapture’, ably tells of a moment of gifts given and re-given. With lines like ‘The day is fresh lemonade’, ‘Sunrise’ offers an attractive exposition of the common themes of morning freshness and birdsong. In ‘The International Space Station’, the poet imagines that astronauts dream of Earth, and juxtaposes the idea that, while people might seem to be closer to the divine on satellites beyond our planetary atmosphere, there is solace in our everyday embeddedness in Earth. ‘The theophany of trees’ is a beautifully realised poem of natural revelation as divine revelation. ‘Voices in Stone’, in two complementary stanzas, evokes the cathedral stone setting of Bach’s choral Mass in B Minor and in so doing suggests a crossing between religious architecture and religious music as sites of joy. ‘Winter Mornings’ has an engaging movement that suggest seasons, the change of seasons and our responses to them are a kind of ‘yes’; the language is simple, yet expressions like ‘autumning herself ready’ evoke for me Gerard Manley Hopkins.
It is always difficult to choose one poem among dozens of dozens, and I mention two before coming to the runner-up and winning poems. ‘How You Begin’ is a poem I read many times, with its simple morning scene told through images in one long stanza before a single line on its own and then the spare three line finale celebrating a moment of conception, where the final ‘you’ also echoes as an address of prayer. ‘Instructions Before Forgetting’ is another poem that repaid multiple readings: a poignant narrative and counter-narrative of love, grief, longing, and the joy embedded in the everyday living of these.
The runner-up ‘How Joy Arises’ is a prose poem. Again I read this poem many times, and what kept me coming back were not only the shifts of imagery but the way the poet brings in concepts like glory, the angelic and prayer, avoiding clichés by claiming the words, for example, ‘We could use a word like glory, and we shall’. There are subtle shifts on each claiming that keep the reader interested, and by the time I reach the closing line, although it is a kind of telling rather than showing, I am convinced. The flow of the poem, its stops and its intentional imperfect grammar all add to its work as an argument for joy and holiness, that is not far off but here.
The winner ‘My Grandfather’s Blessing’ is a sustained narrative poem which builds its story through a weaving of imagery appropriate to fishing labour like the weaving of the fishing nets themselves. The imagery is lush but not overdone. The poet’s love of their Nonno is clear in the careful attention to detail; in this detail is the joy of relation. The spare inclusion of Italian dialect assists in creating the deep sense of place and persons. The poem closes with an evocation not only of the grandfather’s legacy, when he calls the poet your Nonno’s blood, but also with a frisson of the hardiness and cost of a life of labour spent well.
Congratulations to all the poets, and thank you for the opportunity to read your work.
13 July 2020