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The Two Americans Who Trumped British National Poetry Competition

12/04/2016 17:30

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"We're the most important nation on the earth right now, because, one: we have thermonuclear weapons, and two: because we have more talented poets than have ever existed on the face of the earth." - Norman Dubie, Poets and Writers, November/December 2004

The American cultural zeitgeist, as it is presented in the media to us Brits, is currently embodied by an angry blonde-wigged chap named Drumpf whose Presidential Campaign seems to consist of insisting to his fellow patriots that he will get his country winning again. Donald must have been more than a little pleased then, when he learned that this year's National Poetry Competition had its gold and bronze positions dominated by two of his fellow Americans.

The two poems in question are 'Night Errand' by Eric Berlin and 'Biracial' by Carolyn Oxley. Both are seemingly emblematic of what English readers often assume American poetry to be. In Berlin's case, this is an America evoked within the pop-culture ephemera of Jurassic Park and shopping malls; in Oxley's case, this is the America evoked from fraught race relations and a biracial girl's cultural identity within that context. Yet these poems are hardly out of place in a British-hosted poetry competition - both Berlin's and Oxley's resonate poignantly to an English ear.

Oxley's poem, a meditation on her daughter's mixed heritage, hinges on two sentiments iterated in the second and fourth stanzas; 'You were not born to be / nation or diaspora', and then 'Your homeland is wherever / you stand.' Amidst this personal address from mother to daughter, is the cultural backdrop of 'an African river', 'the fence lines / at Gettysburg' and 'the sounds at breakfast'. The complication of the poem's cultural symbolism becomes a negation of any clear-cut claim that an ancestry may have on the addressee; it is a poem which speaks to post-colonial themes, but is just as much a poem about parenthood, about feminism and about the right of any individual to define their own narrative.

Parenthood is also at the centre of the competition's winning poem by Eric Berlin, though this is not revealed until the devastating final line. The poem begins, deceptively, in a voice which echoes the urban exuberance of Frank O'Hara:

"O, Great Northern Mall, you dwindling oracle / of upstate New York,"

It is, perhaps, one of my favourite of poetic tropes to voice the unsayable with an 'O', and to spend the rest of a poem finding the closest verbal approximation to what that upper-case vowel was attempting to convey. It's a convention that served Shakespeare, Blake and Hardy at their best and it provides an excellent jumping-off point for Berlin to trace a line of association from a "defunct" upstate shopping mall, peopled by dead flies and 'a muted wall of TVs', through to the despair of a remorseful father who 'screamed at the woman I love, and in front / of our one-year-old, who covered his ear'.

The most haunting phrase of the poem however, comes just before the confession - 'I did it again' - which sets up this threadbare mall as the speaker's routine place of absolution. The defunct shopping mall is an image which online-shopping has made all too familiar to us all -the gutted remains of a once-busy mall are a visual motif which certainly lands on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Berlin's hands however, this location becomes the church of the speaker's shortcomings - the wall of television screens are his stained glass windows, the 'pimpled kid manning the register' becomes his altar boy, napkins 'packed too tight to be dispensed' form a tabernacle and the act of 'seeking assistance' becomes a pilgrimage. 'Night Errands' is a brilliant poem about a decrepit, broken location which has been sought out by a person to reflect their feelings of broken decrepitude.

Speaking to the Poetry Society about his poem, Berlin cites a childhood memory as an illustration of his creative technique:

"Once as a kid, I guessed the right number of jellybeans in a giant jar at the fair - and that soft click of my intuition aligning with the actual gave me faith in what I didn't know I knew."

It is as good a description of channelling the muse in modern terms as I can recall, and it is an anecdote which perfectly embodies that rare hunch that a writer may get which tells them that a wheelbarrow, or an advert for baby shoes or the ebbing remains of a mall, may just have a greater significance than we realise.

The judges of this year's National Poetry Competition have made some excellent choices and shown us that America already has the winning streak it needs.

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