"Betrayal" Poetry Contest Winners / March 2013 (Issue 20)

"Betrayal" Poetry Contest Winners: Why We Chose These Poems

by Andrew Barker

First Prize: Shriani Rajapakse’s "Questions Left Unanswered"

 I must twice preface my comments on this poem. Firstly, Ms Shirani Rajapakse's poem is better appreciated if you have not read her introduction to the piece beforehand. That'll spoil it. (Though it's OK to read this.) Secondly, on the background politics to the poem, I have little to add to Harshana Rambukwella's wonderfully argued Cha review of Ms Rajapakse's collection of short stories Breaking News.

To the poem. I have a friend who claims that should someone know her preferences and prejudices in poetry they could construct a poem likely to place in any poetry competition she was judging. Possibly true, possibly not, but I am aware that "Questions Left Unanswered" appeals to a poetic preference of mine. This preference is for poetry that generates the delight I get from the "Oh, that's what's happening!!" realisation we have upon rereading a poem not fully understood the first time. (And what poem is fully understood on one reading?) Remember that second reading of Seamus Heaney's "Mid-term Break" when you realised who had died? That one! I suppose the trick or difficulty for the writer is to make the poem interesting enough so that after that reading where we have not understood what is happening we want to go back and reread to find out what we have not understood. We have to trust that there is something there to be understood. Then comes the "Oh, that's what's happening!!" moment. If we get further delight from rereading the poem after this, it is probable that something else is going on. Probably we are in the presence of a very good piece of work.

That's why we gave first prize to this one.

Second Prize: Theophilus Kewk’s "Uriah"

 "I've got the best story in the Bible," says David in Joseph Heller's God Knows before going on to admit that he has treated Bathsheba's first husband somewhat shabbily. Given the title of our competition, this story was there to be used, and speaking as someone whose religious sympathies are slightly less theistic than those of Richard Dawkins, what impressed me so much about what Mr Kewk does here is the way he gets the contemporary angle on Uriah the man, while at the same time not needing to stray from the original text. There is little articulated bitterness from Uriah at what has happened to him. What can he do but recognise what has passed, hope for a better life for her? Events are beyond him. And isn't, "There is little to fight for, less to lose, only an end that we must feign," just one of those lines you wish you'd written yourself?

Third Prize: Sumana Roy’s "The Third is a Betrayal"

 In "The Third is Betrayal," Sumana Roy uses "The Waste Land" as her baseline and interrogates the "heap of broken images" of an adulterous marriage. It's the mood she creates that does it for this one. That mood of "I can connect nothing with nothing," of regret, loss, waste, betrayal. Betrayal of, as much as anything else, promise. Save us all from becoming this.

Highly Recommended:
Ian Chung’s "The Virgin From Gibeah"

 Another Biblical story well worth the reimagining. The one Mr Chung selects here is lesser known than Mr Kewk's and an even more horrific story. As an indication of the poem's power and worth, I was unaware of the Biblical text it was taken from when we first short listed it, meaning it survives, for me at least, without knowledge of the ur-text. Quite an achievement that, considering how much knowledge of the original story adds to the poem. Notice how Mr Chung steps outside of the original story at the end and what a lot of work he's getting out of that final stanza. Apparently, "The Virgin from Gibeah" is part of a longer project, and I can say I'm eagerly looking forward to more of the same.

Highly Recommended: Amy Uyematsu’s "The Dare"

 "Many women have experienced a drunk and angry man," says Ms Uyematsu, and she starts her poem "We've seen it before." And yes, we have. It seems churlish to complain about the quality of a poem if its theme is sufficiently relevant, alerting. The poem on domestic violence has almost become a cliché. But that the poem on the domestic violence has almost become a cliché does not mean that the domestic violence has ceased to happen. Quite the opposite. I can't help thinking how difficult these are to write. If you have not experienced it, should you write about it? If you have experienced it, do you have the talent to write about it? If you have not experienced it, are you attempting to piggyback on someone else's suffering? Such questions can knock the writer back and no poems addressing the issue get written at all. All the more important then to point out the good ones.

Why I liked this one? It's the vulgar self-pity of the man in it. It's that acknowledgement that the lies still hurt too. It's the fact the woman cares enough about the man to keep him home for his own protection. (Why?) It's the word "tonight" in the third to last line.

Highly Recommended: Heather Bell’s "Survivor's Guilt"

 "The poetry is in the pity," said Wilfred Owen once, dying before he got a chance to recant the phrase. He was of course responding to accusations that his wartime writing wasn't the stuff of poetry and was too well-bred to say "Look mate, anything is the stuff of poetry. Anything." Had he said so, the twentieth century would have been on his side. The poetry is not in the pity. The pity is in the poetry. It's not a poem just because you are showing pity to the people in it. It is a poem that happens to show pity to the people in it.

Now having got that rant out of the way, doesn't pity go a long way in a poem? It does. I can't deny it. Just read what Ms Bell does with it in this. The lack of judgement by the narrator on those known. Only pity. Beautifully done. And never mawkish, which is the really difficult bit to pull off. For what it's worth, I imagined the narrator of this as a rather listless and suicidal girlfriend of the two boys, guilty at her own existence as she sets off to kill herself.

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