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Magma Open Poetry Pamphlet Competition – judge’s comments, and sample poems

We are delighted to feature, below, one previously unpublished poem from each of the ten entries shortlisted by our judge Mary Jean Chan. She had this to say:

“It was a joy and privilege to read through the longlisted pamphlets for the Magma Open Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2020. Those that ended up on my shortlist were ones which contained individual poems that merited multiple readings, poems that lingered in my mind after I had put them to one side. I was also looking for a sense of purpose and vision in these pamphlets, and many poets delivered just that. I’m sorry that there can only be one “winner”, but many of these pamphlets truly deserve to be published, read, and shared.”


From Elizabeth Barrett’s entry ‘Spectrum’


Nostell Priory.
A swan, one wing injured, drags
itself up a bank.

Watching from the bridge,
a child with her mum and dad,
baby on his back.

Last night, fifty-nine
cruise missiles were fired. I try
to imagine that.

I smile, pause to chat.
We discuss the grounded swan,
the word Syria

hanging between us
in the almond air. We call
our children, move on.

My son is holding
his ears. Babies and flying
things make him anxious.

I scan the sky, search
for the source of a thrumming
noise, coming closer.

Over the lake, neck
outstretched, the undercarriage
of an airborne swan.

Landing is clumsy –
a stumble of wings and feet
to its wounded mate.

From above the clouds,
the unmistakeable sound
of a troop chinook.


From Alison Binney’s entry ‘Other Women’s Kitchens’


Dear Parent/Carer

If you have not yet chosen the moment
to expose your child to the information

of our existence, please indicate this by ticking
the appropriate box at the bottom of this poem.

We will then take the necessary steps to ensure
no further contact with your child.

Should accidental exposure occur, such as
the formation of friendships with our offspring,

being in close proximity to public hand-holding
(or similar) your child may exhibit the following

symptoms: curiosity, empathy, loss of prejudice.
These effects are usually temporary, if normal

conditions are quickly restored. Report the incident
to the relevant authorities, who will activate

further protective measures for your child
until the run-up to his/her sixteenth birthday,

at which point we will resume teaching, guarding,
entertaining, serving and nursing him/her.


From Maia Elsner’s entry ‘Corona’


Ripples find more ripples. Sometimes I find God
in fried plantain, sizzling. The sun licks wet our thick

entangled limbs. My head in your lap, you tear my lip,
gently, there is blood, opening as rose petals open

scent & orange, you – I do not know fullness until
fullness carouselling pink & there is only this night

organizing of revolutions, intimacy of you imprinted,
for instance, dandelions crushed beneath your hips,

my mimicking of your arguments with my fingertips
as we discuss abolitionism, how starlight reaches us

from so many years ago. Can we be whole again?
Time spilling out like light through leaves. We watch

geese rise to the brow of the hill, wings drum beat as
cold wind on my cheek. Will it dismantle violence?


From Simon Middleton’s entry ‘Yolk’


In this poem,
              he is still being born…

There are voices in the corridor,
A prolonged second stage. A monitor draws lines
                         on a length of graph paper.

A resuscitaire crouches in the corner.
It wasn’t there before.

Others are here now,
flooding the birthing room, scrubbing in,
                          fastening gloves and masks,

running trollies to the bedside
as the pale trace of his heart dips,
                           the digits peeling to white panic,

bodies blurring in the coruscating rush
to free him into living.

In this poem, as in dreams, I see it all again:
his towelled features bloodstained
                            to the pores of starved grey skin,

thirsting for breath to break
past the clogged rungs of his throat

and when I look again,
             the resuscitaire moves closer.


From Vicky Morris’ entry ‘The Cord’

Before Diagnosis
After Anne Sexton

The rooms of my adult life were mostly filled
with too much furniture, no easy route
to countless unopened doors, external hard drives
stacked like tombstones on hardwood floors.
The odd rug not big enough to sprawl out on,
kindling in grates left unlit, folders of folders,
lists of lists, a library of blank notepads,
towers of unread books, dried up pens,
everything typed in CAPS, and more screens
than windows – their curtains routinely shut.
But mercifully, the one TV buried
underneath a desk. There were lots of desks,
one with a pillow for a keyboard, and a bed
with a keyboard for a pillow. And everywhere
the glare of blue-white light. I would go on,
but the detail’s gone. I’d have to jog
my memory more by opening up cupboards
and doors for which the keys have disappeared
down the backs of lonely sofas
that were taken away in hospital green
removal vans. Some have been plastered up.
If I look carefully, I can see where they were
in the daylight that breathes through each room
like air into lungs. Now, there are new doors.
Doors I’ve yet to open, or walk through with a pen.
The one that takes me out into my garden –
that’s my favourite.


From Mantra Mukim’s entry ‘all that fun we are not having’


fun is made of stuff
landlords are scared of;
              i hold promises sacred

all known lights vacate the room;
lust flickers; a call for evening prayer
the moist air; supple noises of tea,
brewing, are heard and ignored;
hunched over a screen like a
              a premonition, i
watch a film, in which a man pleads
with strangers to help him bury himself
alive. i wait for all the fun not yet here;
the muscle of waiting covers me, casing
              my eyes,
i see the gods i have pleased in this room
              & gods i have awaited

twenty-seven, i ask
              what is the opposite of fun?
it is neither dullness nor death,
              it is my breath—its constancy


From Natalie Shaw’s entry ‘Keep still’

Gingerbread House

Everything in the icehouse
can be eaten
Girl: (licks bricks)
       –    – – – –
Girl: Ah my tongue

Girl: It’s cold

(there’s no answer
in the icehouse)

Girl: Mum I’m made
Of ice now mum
I think I’m
an ice girl

(no one is listening
in the icehouse)

( no one )

Girl: (through the ice)
Girl: (says nothing)

Through the pink bricks

Girl: (thinks) That witchy woman!

Hundreds of bricks
And a ladder down


It is terrible, terrible


From Yvette Siegert’s entry ‘Atmospheric Ghost Lights’

                                                                For Lucas Evangelista Chicas

I do not know how to sing
For you.
                  The poem I am trying
To write you cannot exist.

You do not speak this language.
You cannot read these words.

I think in the language
You gave me as I think you
The language that gives me song.

Where are the feet for this verse.
Where are its hands.

You, who know how poignant the body is—

Give me the sheen of turquoise
Feathers, give me all your colours,

Give me words to place here
And say to myself when I enlist
Your names at night,

Not closed captioning
Without sound. Not the azure
Applause of heaven.

Here is a basic song:

Usted me toma de la mano y me dice

                                                      —Mi vida.

Where is the story here.
How do these lines exist.

I am singing for you
Like the soul
When it learns a word
For itself.

Usted me toma de la mano.

They say the earth is simple.

You say
My love.

Note: The torogoz (Eumomota superciliosa) is the national bird of El Salvador


From Oliver Southall’s entry ‘Exaptations’

Butterfly Eggs

The Large White has given me
a decision to make. I saw it

flouncing about as I sat here idly
in the sun, the plants

nodding next to me. They – we all –
were of one rhythm, like a pulse

of floated heat. It sussed them out
and then its eggs were there –

a prickly ochre slick at the centre
of a leaf – pinpoints packed like atoms

and smaller than the soldered-on dots
of circuitry. I grew these

Nasturtiums from seed – have watched
each leaf, each buried fact

of last year’s light, unfurl – now
the eggs are a part of what I tend.

When the caterpillars hatch – hungry
for the future, for bodies which call

from the echoing depths of their past –
they will feed on these leaves – will

have no choice but to destroy the work
of time – to make it again. I touch them

with the tip of a finger. They hold
surprisingly firm – such care

in the architecture of this district,
each taut capsule supported

and sheltered by its neighbours. Still,
I could break them off. I pull

my hand away. The leaf leaps back.
The plants will be most themselves,

I think, being taken by a wilder life – even
this garden, a few pots in the tiled yard,

can be offered and found, can be a part
of the pattern. I see its borders cracked.

We can’t keep hold of what we have
and to care is to be broken open

by the possibility of loss. Love’s work
aches with a decision – whether it is best

to save it, or if love will have more
life being taken and remade.


From Alexa Winik’s entry ‘it tells the fish’

Attempts to befriend mice at the end of the world

                      The mice in my flat must be very small.
In the mornings I check cupboards for breadcrumbs,
droppings. Traces I call slight evidences of life.
Focused in the way I used to lie in bed & watch
the planes descend with purpose above the tenements –
           gentle wheels elsewhere on a distant tarmac.
The quiet fuselage of night coming on.

Few planes to count these days, maybe one or two,
                                        yet the sky is business as usual.
A feathered peachier glow as if the rooftops were wholly
radiant themselves. Meanwhile a feeling circles,
            lands. Whiff of imaginary claws in the wall
while reading the book you gave me about life
in the exclusion zone near Pripyat.

                     How after the disaster no one witnessed
three-tailed foxes or carnivorous mice as reported
in American papers but rather fluctuations
           in colour. Blush of rust in the pines.
                      A blue absence of sparrows.
Puddles left in the street that reflected
polymer shades like a van gogh harvest

           rain of yellow wheats & creamy greens winking
iridescent as the wing of a painted insect – oh
           how like a metaphor to make the corpse
exquisite! Even you who I’ve loved for so long
           knowing it to be truer every day:
we all succumb. So tell me who could blame
that scampering animal in the wall

           the self     the eyes     the heartsick
heart. Betrayed as they are so gladly by a crumb
           or glance at rainwater, shimmering there
                      at the crucial moment.


The winner will be announced soon.  A poem from the winning pamphlet, plus one each from three of the others, will be published in Magma 79 due out in early spring 2021.  

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