Judith Barrington grew up in Brighton, England, lived in Spain for three years, and moved thirty five years ago to Oregon, USA. She has published three collections of poetry, most recently Horses and the Human Soul (Story Line Press, 2004). Previous titles include History and Geography (finalist for the Lambda Book Award and the Oregon Book Award) and Trying to be an Honest Woman. Recent work also includes two chapbooks: Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea and Lost Lands (winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Award). Her Lifesaving: A Memoir won the 2000 Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. Her best-selling text, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, is used by colleges and writing groups in the U.S., Germany, and Australia. She has been a faculty member of the University of Alaska’s MFA Program and leads workshops at many conferences in the U.S. as well as at the Almassera Vella in Spain.
1st Prize in the Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Competition
... And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Robert Frost: "Out, Out—"
It’s not that I blame them: how often have I too turned
back to my living life, leaving the dead to hover
around in dreams or pop into sight as a familiar
back view walking with a familiar gait in the park?
Just because I’m dead now, I can hardly ask them
to hang out nearby, lost for language,
lost for gesture, lingering to show willing.
It’s not even as if I have somewhere to go:
I’ve told them often enough: the end is the end,
so off you go to affairs of state or of the heart,
to money worries, doctors’ offices, children
who threaten to turn out all wrong—or so you say.
Anyway, what would we do if you stuck around here?
It’s too late now for that conversation we never had—
though it’s interesting to discover that I still wish
I’d found a way to get it going. The end may be
the end, though some piece of me, not quite finished,
has kept the words that belong in that talk
stuffed inside my mouth which is firmly closed
like my eyes, though my lids are no longer
weighted with coins—bus fare into the next world
which, of course, doesn’t exist. But what if a bus
should come along or a rowboat to cross the river
or even a cruising yellow cab? Would I get on board—
curious to find out where they’re headed, take a tour
like on that cold, cold bus in Granada that stops
at Lorca’s family home where on August 18 they came
to arrest the poet. A day later he was dead, going
nowhere except into history, no transport required.
Judge's Statement by Thomas McCarthy
My winning poem ‘The Conversation’ carries this anxiety into its most extreme exposition. Here, the narrator is beyond life but yearning to complete unfinished business in a world abandoned. Human life is presented in all its ordinariness within the parentheses of Frost and Lorca, cleverly invited as Father-witnesses. This is a poem that has made a wide clearing for itself, slow-burning and attaching itself more compellingly to us at each rereading. Here, the dead, the ones ‘lost for language’, may never return to familiar and familial attachments. Upon rereading, one sees that it is the world and its capacity for attachment and disappointment that ‘has kept the words that belong in that talk/ stuffed inside my mouth which is firmly closed/ like my eyes.’ The entire poem with its four robust stanzas and one orphaned line coheres as a single thought. This is a brilliant technical achievement; it reminds us all that great poetry is both fine thinking and achieved style. The narrator describes and teaches, telling us that death – and death in life – is ‘too late now for that conversation we never had’ – We can’t leave ‘The Conversation’ without becoming implicated in its anxieties. Technically, this is a mindful, thoughtful, calculated and superbly pre-meditated work. I have no hesitation – dare I say it, no anxiety? – in advocating it as my winning poem for the Gregory O’Donoghue Prize.
Highly Commended in the Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Competition
Branks: A device consisting of a metal frame for the head and
a bit to restrain the tongue, formerly used to punish scolds.
It was nothing but the truth, what I said:
He was lazy. He smelled like a pig.
He hit me for no cause but that I spoke.
Anyway, ‘twas for his own good—
I said what I said, hoping he’d go to work
or wash himself at the pump before he ate.
So what if I said it more than once?
He didn’t hear the first time, nor the third
as far as I could tell. He never looked up.
So then I spoke louder, like you do
to one who is deaf or a little simple.
Yes, I cursed him—just once I cursed his name.
“Raise your voice, do you?” he said
so I turned my back and busied myself
at the stove, stirring the porridge oats.
I made it just the way he likes
but he was gone when I served it up
with a knob of butter I’d begged at the farm.
Before I could eat even a spoonful myself,
they came in, three of them, smiling, casual-like.
One of them held the thing. I knew what it was.
A boy once told me my cheek were pink like a fruit
but now ’tis raw where the bridle grips
and pus is crusted under the metal rods.
Was pride another sin? My hair once blonde
hasn’t been washed: I’ve let it go to grease.
The headpiece rests on that join atop my skull
where bone meets bone. It must’ve been soft
when my newborn skull rested in mother’s palm.
She warned me, my mam, told me to watch my tongue
and now my tongue’s held down by the bit—
she was right, I always did speak my mind too much.
The sores on my lips make me think on that boy …
So many years since I learned to kiss.
So many years since I wanted to kiss.
Now when I make his porridge I hawk and spit.
Judge's Statement by Thomas McCarthy
This is a chilling account of misogyny in its early seventeenth century form. Here is a headpiece with a bit to hold a woman’s tongue, metaphor for so much of organised religion and our male dominated politics. Except that the metal bit in this poem, a ‘brank,’ is very real. The narrator is the victim and this poem builds a relentless but understated scenario. The sense of regret here is more powerful than any exclamation of pain. The story is organised to make cruelty reasonable and this astonishing understatement is what makes this powerful poetry.
©2013 Judith Barrington
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Interview with Barrington in Triplopia
Poems & recordings by Barrington at Oregon Poetic Voices