Costa Book Award 2017: Overall Winner


Announced  Tuesday  30th January, 2018:    Costa Book Award Winner 2017

Its a pleasure to see such a fine collection as overall winner of this year’s Costa Award.

The ‘Acknowledgements’ say some poems have been published in collections, or online and a few broadcast by Radio 3 between 2014 and 2016.    The last poem (not included in first printing) was Helen Dunmore’s final poem.

Here is a  collection of 49 poems in  which many veer between dream and reality where the author herself may wonder which at times.  The Underworld, stories from the classic myths slip into her poems as naturally as her descriptions of hospital visits, views from a window and dreams of childhood and memories.  Interlaced through all (most) is the awareness of dying.  Surprisingly the poems leave this reader with a degree of comfort and calmness from the upfront, conversational language and clarity of style which helps with the adrenalin rush on reading such accomplished work.

From the first poem, ‘Counting Backwards’  to others where her (or of her children) memories recur in different settings; poems personal, twilight dreams, or people; or just the rain  to the last poem( in the first printing): ‘September Rain’.  there is a beautiful control of language and temperament above the full knowledge that the book (author) is cataloging her thoughts towards death. Individually some lines might seem obscure but their balance is always found in other poems.  Water, as sea, pool or rain seems ever-present.

The last two verses of September Rain:    I lie and listen/ And the life in me stirs like a tide/ that knows when it must be gone.  …………….                                                            I am on the deep deep water/ Lightly held by one ankle/ Out of my depth, waiting.

It seems Helen Dunmore has produced an outstanding series of poems which illustrate  humanity and an understanding of mortality to find a preparedness for Death.  Her final poem:‘Hold Out Your Arms’.   returns to one major theme of a mothers endless love. Here, line after line pick up on elements from previous poems and imagery adds more:    ‘Death stoops over me/ Her long skirts slide,/She knows I am shy.’  : from the start of the fifth verse.

A superb collection!

link to Guardian for fuller report


to Poets: ‘Things ‘ to remember


Rhythm and rhyme and verbal trickery
Are the building blocks of all good poetry.
Alliteration and metaphor and assononce too–
Here’s a message from you know who.                                      Philip Ivory

No adverbs or adjectives                                      JJS

When you write a verse they say beware the adverb, it slows the movement.  If you use a noun, decry adjectives as to describe just clutters the mind.

Just think,  “You save so much ink.”


Poets Cornered


Sitting in a stereotypical circle

each position duly claimed, duly noted,

we six practiced our secret art

of Poetry that we wroted!


It may seem harsh to chronicle something so abominable

but we only hope to be quoted when this Earth we all depart.

The problem, some see, or not,

is that like novelists,  of poets there are a lot,

but only few are published, and even then forgot!


Costa Poetry Award 2017 winner: Helen Dunmore

Announced on 2nd January on Radio 4 ‘Front Row’   and Costa Prize website:

   Inside the Wave       by Helen Dunmore

       published by ‘Bloodaxe’

I havent read this collection yet as I chose to look at a debut collection shortlisted, by Kayo Chingonyi:  Kumukanda, Graph Review, a few dates ago..

The judges reviews for Helen Dunmores collection suggest this is a ‘must read’ volume  of her most recent poetry.  She completed and put together this new work after being diagnosed with cancer.  At the same time completing her final novel, ‘The Birdcage’

I would only be repeating the announcement to say more but should highlight that the second printing of this title contains her final poem written days before her death in March 2017 and included in the second reprint of the book.  Therefore if, like me, you are about to buy a copy then make sure it has the poem    ‘Hold Out Your Arms’.

The outright winner from all the section winners will be announced on Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday 30th January.       By which time I hope to read and review this title.

duende, poems by tracy k smith, A Graph Review

duende      poems

tracy k. smith (2017 Poet Laureate of America)

Graywolf Press         2007

Paperback                  £13.99

I read, in late 2017, that Tracy K Smith was current American Poet Laureate, looked out her books and saw ‘ duende’.

This linked me back to books on Spain and Flamenco, (Duende’); Laurie Lee’s A Rose For Winter’ . and an autobiographical book by ‘Duende’  by Jason Webster of a broken heart in search of learning flamenco guitar at its source in Spain.    Touching also on my own early love of flamenco music, dance, song, tone and passion despite my not understanding it or why.

These little coincidences led me to pick on reviewing  this collection by Tracy K Smith, realizing the fact I was reaching out to yet another spectrum miles away from my norm.

A Graph Review;    68 to highpoints 75     highpoints 75

History’, the first poem, ‘knocked my socks off’ as someone might say!    Should I start a review by just reading one poem?  Yes, if it covers everything involved in casting a poem as the key to explaining this collection.  Ostensibly the first poem is a concise history of the world but you catch images, or rather emotions, of so much more.    Explaining?  Or catching, or touching in a brevity of words the longevity and divergence of being, not just us as humans, or as animals but everything on the cusp of being alive.

However,  midway, with some poems, I felt I was walking knee deep along the a river-bed.  The view around me was interesting, stimulating, but the current round my legs was at times pushing me off balance because I lacked the basic knowledge of where my feet should be.  That I knew I could not see the whole picture and didn’t know what I was missing.    These gaps were  impressioned-over in most cases and I came to my own conclusions.  Not wholly bad but at times disconcerting for this UK orientated reader.

In the main I was held by the variation of subject and the honed, concise and immaculate  language of each line.   Poems here are often longer than the average collection, covering several pages rather than confined to one, which is a real advantage.  All free verse, each line studied, each poem a credit.  There is a habit of finishing sentences mid-line and carrying over to the next verse which becomes noticeable with its frequency.  As free verse throughout I suppose I see this in place of spotting rhythm and rhyme scheme.  The momentum of each poem depends on subject, language and line length.  Passion, yearning and questions run through the collection, options  might be left hanging through the moral and political issues but truth is obvious.  Passion rules this collection.  The subjects often trying to help define with critical beauty while describing darker episodes and corners across humanity.

from ‘One Man at a Time:   Clarity settled in the room like dust./ Or a layer of soot.        a quick pick of the multitude of memorable lines

My favourite poem has to be the first: ‘History’, ranging wider than you might expect.  With ‘duende’ an almost first, maybe next reading!      Not forgetting. ‘Nocturne: Andalusian Dog’ or ‘The Nobodies’ and the glorious ‘When Zappa Crashes my Family Reunion’.

A stirring collection by tracy k smith and long may she continue.

Christmas mix (re-release)

Christmas mix   

In the tradition of  Christmas, or should I now call it the ‘FESTIVE SEASON’  I have re-cobbled previous years pages into a single and let it escape.


Tastes of Christmas Present




light flute, slow.

Bass between the beat,

counterpoint to lead, repeat.

Fade flute for bass to counterpoint

and softly run, realigned flute and bass.

Soft key piano, counterpoint chords that chase

each other gently, now piano high with beating

fine-fingered bass and rested flute.  Run piano,

gently through the keys to allow the space

between to be filled with fluted air again.

Fade piano, rest bass,

last hanging note.




Have you ever thought

About the world in terms of




Certainly the best and worst verse

have stuck since rhyme began, and always will

remain in the mind of the beholder,

insisting that their niggling lines,

surreptitiously laying down a course

to run with or from,

might just

amass a certain




Carol ran out across the square,

her heels tapping tunefully on the echo-frozen slabs.

She left the sparkling holly-wreathed door

and the mellow sounds within while

PC Rapper and his melting crew stood by the step

their noses dripping and white suits shiny wet.


Across the way, across the square, by the door, the alcove niche,

sat a shadow, dour, poor, ignored by the nouveau-riche

but Carol in her Christmas guise ran out in dress of scarlet cotton

thrust into his hand a glass of wine, turned, skidded, slipped.

and glass forgotten, the man jumped up and saved that Carol,

helped her, broken-heeled, across square of squares,

passed the crying, melting crew and through the sparkling holly-door.

Inside, greeted with a raucous cheer, Carol with fixed smile and reddened face

bent and straightened her strap and lace.

Looked up and round at the laughing crowd, suddenly ashamed of them,

while at the door the unkempt waited, gently bowed as she wavered thanks

and turned and left and walked away, across the square, towards his niche.

And now she tells this story every year as bells ring out on Christmas Day.


A Poor Poet’s Christmas        (with apologies to Clare and Bloomfield)


We sat around the fireside and called out merry oaths

Until there came the players in, plucking music from their throats.

With fiddles, horns and pipes they joined in olden song

Of maids and lords and stable-lads, of all their rights and wrongs

Which to this day warn youth and child that behind each golden door

May lie a heart as black or red as beats inside the poor’.


The sack and beer were passed around and tatties and pudding too

Until our voices burst the door and raucous was the night.

‘Til cows and chuks bemoaned the light that broke their stalls

And e’en the moon forestalled the dawn to keep the sight

Of merry players and happy fools

Take rest from blistering tools

On this our Christmas night.


Taste of Christmas Future                                        


I look out and swallow back the nostalgia

that rises as the shadow of the moon casts

it’s bleakness over the scene.

Clouds swirl like ancient whirlpools with the last glimpse of the sun

reflecting into the depths of the earth below the slow-mo drifts

and I too reflect as the shadows deepen before my eyes.

The scene, as grey as used snow,

a dusty surface shrinking to the narrow horizon

as if foreshortened by my reality.

The egg-shell domes, corrugated, wrinkled with taunting marks,

sit bleakly waiting, inhabiting an almost empty space.


This home, my hearth, no longer valid as a place

and yet from here we wait on mystery; await a face

that somehow sets the spirit free

while the Earth draws us with its sapphire blues of

ever-changing shades.

Those muddled waves of land that crease with mountainside,

the despoiled desert hands that creep into the fertile greenery

of water-lines and estuary but also glint, reflecting the solar miles of viticulture.

And the black cities that burst out at night like shards of radiation,

their streams of light the synapse of a sentient world.


So I wait, we wait, for the promised gifts of life, long delayed.

I am watching for the last star to come our way,

a burning arc to split the clouds,

cleave the grey mass that storms over half our world.


I look down and swallow back the nostalgia

as the curling fingers soften my hand,

softly pull and seek a thumb to suckle on.

The new-baby eyes reassure me, protect me as we wait,

as all around me wait,

for the first colony ship to Mars.


jJohnson Smith

Kumunkanda by Kayo Chingonyi; A Graph Review

Kumukanda          by  Kayo Kumukanda

                                                                                                           A Graph Review.

graph 66 to 68

                                                                               Points:  a Good 60-68


Paperback     £10.

Chatto & Windus

Once again I find I am almost a timeslip away from a poet and his world.  This time I am taken, live into the hidden areas (to me) of music and culture in East London and Essex by super-constructions of garage mix music in words creating a reality I could never know.   The poetry changing styles as the author grows in age and family hierarchy, always observant and at times poignant but ever tracing reality and truth in developing subjects that progress to his maturity.

This is personal in recording the passage of time and events; registering it as a ‘rite of passage’ for a boy born in Zambia 1987 and living in the UK from the age of six.  Culture clashing within himself as well as in schools and on the streets.  Of Zambia, British surroundings and Black, we read of his touchstones and conflicts through a young life to maturity.

Many poems catch the reader by prodding at the difficulties of his and his contemporaries’ growing up.  Poems not always easy but subtley moving forward.  The simple observations on walking with friends, cricket and a stage performance to cite a few annoy me on his behalf but the telling of his poems shows the quality, strength and his belief in his work and himself.  But it is all from a world I can mostly only see as an outsider.  His pain, anger so visible too, as well as pride, growth and love all fill this collection.

My favourites:    Self Portrait as a Garage Emcee,  Alternate Take, Proud Blemish

but really this is a collection that should be read as a whole, in a sitting.

This collection is powerful storytelling with a satisfying range of poetry, some of which is unsettling but justified; and with a blistering mastery of language.

As a first collection there are some poems deserving classroom attention for GCSE students upwards, potentially more for higher ages…….  This is proof that our poetry has once again found new direction with new voices.

Will it win the Costa Prize for Poetry?  A deserving shortlist for sure but it is not me to judge!



Halloween, 2018, j Johnson Smith

Epicurean Epitaph                                                       jJohnson Smith

They said I’d die of fever, overheating.

I died of ‘Masterchef’,  overeating.




The Reaper came and with a grin

asked how much time I’d like to borrow.

I thought awhile then looked at him

and requested to die tomorrow.

He stepped back into shadow and

waved his sickled hand,

asked me politely to follow

to his pleasant Netherland.

When I declined he bowed and said

he could never come tomorrow

but would be my friend and dine with me

and contemplate our sorrows.


Together we sit, he and I,

amongst the dead and dying.

He no longer talks but only grins

and I wait for tomorrow.


Wrong words in the wrong place.

When I said, “I’d lost my mind”.

you took it so literally!    I didn’t mean to cause

that panic over such a little thing.

Because it really was just a passing phase.

A little phrase that covers many things

of dos or donts  or maybe-shouldn’t-haves

and never-do-agains.       From which I’ve  learned

(or hope I have) to re-think ways of saying; badly;

that I am madly in love with you.


………      Just loosen the buckles a little,

Let my arms relax, I feel like a skittle in this padded room;

though nice and plump it looks, ………

Reminding me of you; when we kissed beneath that moon.

When the black backed night had gone and I paraded myself

in the garden, calling your name in such memorable verse.

When I vowed, or something worse, to follow you to the end of the Earth.

………. Or maybe I didn’t.  It was someone else.  Not me….

This collar is tight…….

And when love blinds you to the world, does it have the right

to insist you wear this suit?  A jacket so tight that it binds your heart

and barely leaves your mind free to wander.  To wander in a storm

that chews the words and spits them out against your best intention?


tagged under: seasons