It was a great pleasure and (as our final decision makes clear) quite daunting to be judging the entrants in this year’s poetry prize. It is no small thing to assess the relative merits of works of such diversity and quality.
Obviously our considerations as judges were informed by the perennial concerns of poetry criticism, we were looking for: thematic coherence, distillation and expressiveness of language, congruence between form and content, breadth of signification. As my opening remarks indicate, we were not disappointed—as anyone reading the poems reproduced on these pages will appreciate. However we feel that it is important to acknowledge that alongside the brilliant and exemplary prize winners and poems singled out for commendation, nearly every piece had wonderful moments. Numerous poems that did not make it to the prize list were especially notable for a signature distinctiveness of subject; for instance, one author wondered what a fellow passenger on a bus had written on her hand, neither the poet nor we will ever know, another imagined a young Chinese girl transfigured from flute playing beggar to ancient spirit, another meditated on the relation between a mirror and the breath and body of a person “caught” on its surface, another enacted the conflictedness of a fraught relationship in a series of fragmentary but vividly intrusive sense impressions, another celebrated the processes of growth that transform a disparate group of singers into a choir, yet another describes an image of Chiron the mythical healer subjected to the digital “healing” of Photoshop.
But a poet can never afford to be caught nodding. Some pieces did not really hit their straps until their mid point or later and others would have been improved if words, phrases or lines had been dropped or changed, or if they had ended sooner. We all need to recognize when we are straying, or when an idea has found its proper conclusion; most of us could do with a good editor. And never underestimate the effect of an arresting first line! Nevertheless, there were wonderful moments, for instance, the insight that, “flesh is flesh all else/ is ornament scale/feathers/fur”, or that, “Each visitor/is to himself a visitor at last.” We will not readily forget the description of Earth as, “a hangless ball”, of “snakes like a stream of oil”, birds with “paperclip feet folded”, “threaded moonlight”, “the night slid[ing] between Sydney’s lights”, “dark wounds curdl[ing]”, the “air terror and fire fear” of creatures in a bushfire or the” slow tracerfire of her gaze”.
I began by remarking on the diversity of subject matter in this year’s entrants, however not surprisingly certain themes were dominant and speak of the concerns of the modern world: the resilience of nature (The Green Mountain Fiji, Louise Oxley, Highly Commended); the creatures who share our planet (The Young Great White, John Strano, Highly Commended); destructiveness of technology, the degradation of the land, evocation of the historical or prehistoric past. (Dicksonia antarctica in suburbia, Jenny Blackford, equal second prize) combines the first and the last of these themes. Some poems, notably Ex tenebrae (Jeremiah O'Donovan, equal second prize), imagined their subject in terms of another media, music or painting.
A large group of poems reflected upon writing poetry and how language mediates reality. Little Gods (Alison Thompson, equal second prize) expresses a view of poetry as a natural and self-evident response to the activities and events of our everyday lives; Brett and Arthur by John Carey arrives at a somewhat similar view, albeit via a very different route (see below). Like all fine comedy, Shiny Red (Melinda Kallasmae, equal second prize) is about a serious subject. The poem wittily begins with a reflection on how the grammar we use reveals the person we are and ends with the wince making, imbecile repetition of an instruction that is utterly superfluous since the mother and child have long since got into the “goddamn fucking car”. Six Shells of Summer (Helen Thurloe, Highly Commended) explores the connotations and various denotations of the word “shell” as both a noun and a verb. How Is It Called (Rob Wallis, Commended) poignantly delineates the cold evasiveness of medical language and its disjunction from the human experience of pain and sickness. I Buried My Poem (Sophie Finlay, Highly Commended) imagines a haunting kind of reverse alchemy by which her poem, her words, may transmute into soil and become a source of nourishment for plants. The speaker finds a deep satisfaction in yielding her poem up to the universal life processes and celebrates this manifestation as more desirable than its prior existence as the expression of an individual consciousness.
Both First-Prize winning poems are also concerned with the nature of art and creativity and both of these highly accomplished poems are marked by an intense engagement with literary and artistic tradition. The Man With Only One Eye by Gregory Piko has the spare and resonant quality of fable or gnomic utterance. This poem draws on, and in my view, refutes the long proverbial and literary association between physical blindness and internalized wisdom (e.g. Odin, Oedipus, Tiresias, T.S Eliot’s “one- eyed merchant”). The Man, with his precise mind emerges as a figure of civilization and human endeavour, of the arts, science, government, architecture, law. His partial blindness does not become metaphor for a deeper kind of in-sight but rather it exemplifies human limitation and contingency. His continuous and effortful carefulness speaks of his essential vulnerability. The Man is at the mercy of the unknown, of a fate whose workings he cannot control or predict, of the wolf spectre of death. Like each of us, and despite the impressive apparatus of culture at his disposal, The Man has “only one life”.
By contrast John Carey’s Brett and Arthur uses Australian painter Brett Whiteley’s admiration for the decadent French Romantic and proto symbolist Arthur Rimbaud to explore the possibilities and value of art. It sets Rimbaud’s aspiration to achieve transcendence, to become a god (“be the big picture”) through regressive excess (“shit-on-God graffito”, “transgression, absinthe and hashish”) against an evocation of a characteristically sexualized Whiteley landscape. The understated irony that vivifies this poem is that in his homage, Whiteley conveys his difference from Rimbaud, “a South-Seas sunniness that undoes Arthur’s ferocity”, a sinuous vitality that is a long way from the paralysis of Rimbaud’s febrile nightmares. In this poem, and perhaps despite himself, Whiteley opts to be a maker and a doer, to work with what he has in the world as he finds it.
Heather Sebo and Penelope Buckley March, 2014.
 Richard J Allen. Christmas Epistemology on the Bus with the Girl with half Purple and half Blue Hair.
 Faie D. Watson. Girl With Flute.
 Tim Collins. A Tinge of Blue in the Glass.
 Jennifer Chrystie. Blue and Green
 Wendy Poussard. Brahms Requiem.
 Anna Gullan. Photoshop Healing.
 Shane Mc Cauley. Shape Shifter
 Rory Hudson. The Museum of Broken relationships in Zegreb
 Jan Hemphill. Open spaces
 John Strano. Rain
 Nola Firth. Birds at Work
 Maurice Strangard. Song
 Ross Donlon. On Blues Point Tower
 Sophie Finlay. The Convalescence
 Connie Barber. Fire Birds After Rain.
 Tim Collins. Tear-drops on a Feather