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2020 Free Verse

2nd Prize

2nd Prize

Still the Rain Kept Falling
Denise O'Hagan

Northbridge, NSW

I’ll not forget
The sombre shuffle in
From the rain, the pain of it
Of nods and handshakes
Murmured condolences
Which cannot help but miss the mark
But it’s all we have:
Inadequacy on a pedestal.

Oh, get on with it! She’d chuckle
Cross her legs and light another cigarette.

And so we did,
With the inevitable mini rituals
Attendant on the outward one:
The squeak of shoes on stone
And clearing of throats, misting of eyes
At the wavering brush of candlelight
And spray of lilies over her.

The moment’s happened, then, she’d say
The one we shrink from, and push away until we can’t.

Yet there’s no end
To what we can’t admit
As later anecdote and wishful thinking shape our memory
And, chameleon-like, it changes in the telling.
But this much I know:
Her dark-haired grandson who sat apart
Inclined, black-shirted, at the piano,
His fingers dancing a song of his own making
Tenderly, as if he’d spent his short life
In preparation of this moment
Under the thirteenth Station of the Cross.

She adored her music
From Bach and Billie Joel to Casablanca’s theme…

She was a good listener.
But now it was our turn
To hang onto words, to incantations
Expressing the inexpressible.
I clutched my tissues, hot and damp
And still the rain kept falling.

In her letters, notes and diaries – a litany of ruminations
Words had stretched her past her troubles, far beyond…

And now she is the beyond.
The black bug of the waiting hearse was shiny
Doors open, mouthing glassily in the pale air
Reflection-laden, gleaming
As holy water splashed
Like slivered tears
On wood.

Contrary, contemplative, and one of a kind
Mistress of the mercurial: my mother.

The grave-studded hillside
Stretched, like a thousand-piece chess-set
With exhausted pawns, falling
And tilting Kings and Queens
Watching, as she disappeared
Under scoop after scoop of earth
The richer now for holding her.


Judge's Comment

Scene: a funeral. Deceased: the writer’s mother. It is a familiar setting to most of us when we farewell a loved one and the memories of a life, both happy and sad, dominate our emotions. The “sombre shuffle in” and “Murmured condolences/Which cannot help but miss the mark/But it’s all we have: Inadequacy on a pedestal.” And yet that is neatly set against the pragmatism of the mother, who is still a presence as she chuckles “Oh, get on with it!” and lights another cigarette. The poet skilfully weaves the present and the past through the memorial service and on to the “grave-studded hillside” where the brilliant imagery of “a thousand-piece chess set” is used as a backdrop to the burial.

Author's Comment

I am deeply honoured that my poem ‘Still the rain kept falling’ has achieved recognition in the Sutherland Shire Literary Competition 2020. As it is about my mother’s funeral, it cannot help but be an intensely personal poem, but it’s also about the limitations of language at moments of extreme grief, and the power of age-old rituals in which we take emotional shelter. I am gratified if my poem moves beyond being an expression of personal grief and touches a universal chord, and is able to affect those who never knew her. Heartfelt thanks to the judges and everyone else involved in the gathering and sifting of entries, which is a huge job, and I look forward to reading all the poetry!

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