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Judith Barrington

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.






The Conversation

Martha, 1630





1st Prize in the Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Competition


The Conversation



                                   ... 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


Martha, 1630


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




Author Links


Judith Barrington homepage

Interview with Barrington in Triplopia

Poems & recordings by Barrington at Oregon Poetic Voices







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