Winning Poems & Comments from Judge Siobhán McLaughlin
I loved this poem on first reading and kept coming back to it. I love the clean, economic lines and sense of renewal and freshness that runs through the poem, embodied in the language and the imagery. I was particulary struck by the image of spring as ‘a scrap of colour fluttering in winter’s sharp breeze,’ (how vivid!) and echoing this, the final image of the speaker of the poem in the back yard, ‘arms outstretched, white sheets billowing, ready for spring’ (how exhilarating!) And of course, the image of the swans passing overhead, almost epiphany-like, representing the changing of a season, something that can hold such significance for us, which the speaker recognises with the baking of a cake. The poet has deftly and endearingly captured the feeling of renewal that comes with spring and in an ordinary setting too, which we can relate to all the more.
An Interruption of Swans, St Brigid’s Day Carefully scraping the thick foam of meringue into a bowl to be gently folded with the sweet batter of butter, eggs, sugar I am startled by the urgency of wings swans the sky blue behind their white. Lavender and rosemary cake for St Brigid's Day, Bríd of poets, babies, fugitives and travellers – all welcome to share seeds, herbs, this abundance. We are welcoming spring a scrap of colour fluttering in winter’s sharp breeze, embracing a new year with cake. The swans move from canal to river crossing the city fierce and graceful, nesting in rushes. They never look down – Dublin’s rust-red bricks below and me in my back garden arms outstretched, white sheets billowing, ready for spring.
I love how in this poem the simple act of making a Brigid’s cross is almost a sacred event, a silent one between mother and daughter that speaks volumes. ‘In a hum like muffled rosary/they bleat in focus’ – the language used hints at both the religious and spiritual associations of Brigid subtly but effectively.
I was struck by the unusual description of winter as the earth’s ‘brazen slumber’ and the idea of making the cross as ‘crossing the threshold from winter to spring.’
There is a sense of reverence in this poem to Brigid and her associations, to the cycle of life itself and the idea of the cross as not just a carrier of woes but also a means of transcending them, a sort of liminal talisman that brings us closer to this world and the next. The structure of the poem also, with its differing lengths of lines, almost resembles the meditative crossing and folding of rushes to make an actual cross.
This is a poem that has a quiet power and resonance that builds with every line.
The Crossing The sound of a secret settlement. A mother and daughter sit silently weaving rush crosses as the earth stirs from its brazen slumber. In a hum like muffled rosary they bleat in focus. The girl turns her cross clockwise by one quarter and introduces another rush, outside a crescent moon. Crossing the threshold from winter to spring, the air mourns their hush as they weave and cart the woes that bind them deep into this world and closer to the next. Helena McCanney
I was drawn to the language in this poem, so lyrical and beautiful and bright. I love how the story here flows along, one of love but also of potential loss and sadness. In the narrative, the poet captures imminent Spring, with all its new hope and light, but also the lingering feeling of winter too, with its sharp sorrows and sudden, deadly frosts. I greatly admire how the poem perfectly holds the tension between the imagery of snow, frost and ice against the warmth and flames of Brigid and spring; how it explores the fragile link that exists between sorrow and hope in life, something that is so evident at spring’s beginning, especially at Imbolc, when hopes are held ‘in the belly’ while winter still threatens. The rhythm lilts and carries us along from line to run-on-line like a stream flowing until the final, breathtaking image of the ‘bog bouquet’ that makes for quite an ambivalent ending. The prayer itself of the title is unspoken, but implied with every line. It is a poem about life and renewal, but also of death and endings; a powerful, poignant and haunting piece.
A Prayer to St. Brigid
Inishlacken February 1, 1879
Our first year on the island, we wake to February snow,
a white shroud of hoar frost, like Brigid’s cloak covers the island.
Snowflakes tap stucco, peck at the thatch. I hang a rush cross,
light a candle in the window. Warmth from the flame melts icy lace
on the windowpane. Under woolly clouds, a yellow sky, I draw a cradle
in the snow, tell you I am with child. When you embrace me, I notice
the way ice crystals land on the dark wool of your coat, the way their beauty
melts into water. It will be the same for me. Mother says life is quick,
the way waves take sand sculptures back to the sea. In the darkness, we light
a fire by the quay, watch flames to Brigid flare across the mainland, bow
our heads and pray for newborns, for an endless flow of sweetness, for full bellies.
When spring comes, I will hold a child, or I will turn to water, melt into the fibre
of this place. Snow turns to rain, puts out our fires. In the morning you bring
a spring gift from Brigid, a bog bouquet, blooms of pink heather, coated in glass.
Barbara Bruhin Kenney