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2019 Highly Commended entrants

In 2019 three entries have been highly commended by our judges: 'Letter to Signor Merisi' by Smith Randal, 'The Line Marker’s Testimony' by Damen O’Brien and 'Words My Parents Used' by Wayne Eaton.

Letter to Signor Merisi

by Smith Randal

Another boy from Lombardy, from afar
will look Lombardian, that’s to define
your nature as all piss and vinegar
your clothing rat-black rags-on-the-line
In ’93, while drunk on Roman wine
and striding in high temper down the street
you caught my eye, so Clotho made us meet,
and wove our Fates together undeterred
Son of Caravaggio’s soil, who must accrete
blood on the sword, is this your final word

A lizard tore my finger, but the scar
came from your painting Piero’s face, not mine
Your naked Cupid was as secular
as my (anonymous) verses that malign
your rivals and their work as asinine
Those early years, you were too poor to eat
but now the Cardinals ensure you’re replete
Your mood has darkened, something that you heard
made you regard now as your greatest feat
blood on the sword, is this your final word.

Hand on hip to hand on hilt, no bar
to patronage if your star should shine
From skinny ingénue to avatar
in seven years (that’s seven years too, of mine)
Sick Bacchus has got well and toes the line,
the lutes are gone, the gypsies can’t compete
with the drama of the Christian church elite
I’m bitter, yes, as I think you erred
in saying our love is just some indiscreet
blood on the sword, is this your final word

Now orthodoxy reigns, in particular
the martyrs slain, Fillide by design
holds up with her thick wrists the scimitar,
so was I too, through intrigues labyrinthine
to feature as the princess, to recline
in holiness at old St Matthew’s feet
as he is martyred, but while incomplete
you scraped the canvas clean, since you preferred
to centre the assassin, the same way as you treat
blood on the sword, is this your final word.

Scraped clean the canvas, oh love bittersweet
that hides a Michaelangelo beneath the sheet.
What’s in a name. You, who had conferred
on you transcendent power, archangel on the street
become avenger, who takes as a receipt
blood on the sword, is this your final word.

The Line Marker’s Testimony

by Damen O’Brien

I like to pick up hitchhikers, though there are less
each year who’ll dare to stick their thumb out
since Ivan worked up and down these roads and since
his avatar terrorised Wolf Creek for television,
but young tourists still have a go, pack-muling
their bright-eyed way across the country.
I didn’t make it all the way through high-school
but I still remember my teacher drew a line on the
board and said if I could sight along its edge
I’d never see it turn, its spearing point
the only thing that ever approaches eternity.
I’ve had kids who were stretching their gap-year over
a season picking fruit, thumb down my ute, speak
to me about the pools around the stars, the sleepy, heavy-
lidded stars, and the deepest dark where nothing
can escape, not even straight-lines diving into sleep,
so I know there’s more to geometry than that.
I curate the longest graveyard in the world,
set the catseyes, place the speed signs, clear the
weedy edges, but most of all, I paint the centre line,
help it seam the mountain’s coil and edge,
camber, drift and slipway, zip and unspool,
the thread that leads out of the ranges again.
Sure, I’ve seen those photos shared around the Net:
paint rolled right over carrion, random gaps,
zigs where the road zagged, as if the workmen
were asleep at the wheel, or oblivious and blind,
but that is not my way. I maintain the busy corridors
of the living through the black-spots of the dead,
and when I come upon the many crosses that make up
the turns, and dips and cutaways of my road,
I do my best for every cairn, clear away the weeds, set
the wreaths of plastic flowers back upright.
I’ve seen it all: the trucks looming out of darkness
the cloudy Milky Way dipping into eucalypts, slow
cyclists pumping pneumatically up the hills,
stubborn koalas sitting with their backs against the edge,
kangaroos staring down a driver’s headlights, and
I know the truth of white lines in the dark, how easy
it is to sink into gravities of doubt, how a vehicle might
drift from its purpose, how a driver might wander off
the road, slip yawning into gullies and be lost. So
I like to pick up hitchhikers now and then, pale
in the uncertain wash of the high-beams. Perhaps
I’m taking some of the dead further on, exorcising
this quiet mausoleum, straightening out the curvature
of space, helping ghosts make their disoriented way home.
I paint the road that takes the straight path out of time.

Words My Parents Used

by Wayne Eaton

When my father split the crank-case of our Bantam BSA
And I looked into its sharp and gleaming heart,
Each gear was a chunky star that dripped
With a thin oil wet as tears
Packed tight and compact – and each one slid apart
In its own sure logic – Look!
When you depressed the kick-start; this bit moved
And the piston gave one lazy thumping pump
When my father skun his knuckle rounding off a bolt
He said nothing, but merely hissed and grinned
And the look he gave my brother said ‘Well,
These things happen son’, and he changed the spanner:
Twisted it again, but I looked – I looked
At the blood that oozed and blackened
Round the jagged flap of skin, torn and jutted
Like a wrinkled canvas scrap
And offered him a rag: he threw it at the bin
Spat, and adjusted the timing gap
My father’s words were hard things
That could mean only one thing at a time:
‘Pity’ was a word only cowards used
And nothing could have hurt him
As much as pity

When my mother said the word ‘Pity’
It didn’t sound like fluffy clouds or little winged cherubs –
It was a word she breathed like the wind in a flute, that
Shaped its own sound on the un-welcome air.
Perhaps it was like a straining wire
That stretched taut and tense
To tighten flesh and muscle together
And even that shudder in her blood
That clenched and unclenched its iron jaw
Within her tender bones, was stilled by it –
More than her Vallium ever could –
Long enough for her white-boned hands
To flutter together to pray.
And it gave her voice steel enough, so that
She could grimly ask my father to give her all her pills
All at once – He knelt by the bed
And he hung his great Labrador head and squeezed out
Wheezing tears and shook his head ‘no’
And I couldn’t use the word ‘Pity’ then
Because I didn’t know if it took more courage
To ask than to refuse
Or who was the coward