Ahead of this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry, The Telegraph is publishing the five nominees for the 2019 Best Single Poem prize. Today's poem comes from Liz Berry.
Berry finds beauty in details other writers shy away from. The Black Country poet won this prize last year for The Republic of Motherhood, the title poem of a pamphlet that celebrated the visceral intensity of pregnancy and childbirth.
In Highbury Park, Berry describes a walk in an overgrown Birmingham park with her newborn son. Where another poet might ignore the park's litter and focus on the flowers, Berry's eye lingers on a used condom left on the ground – which becomes, in her poem, as much a part of the natural scene as "the tarry earth/ opaline with the desire paths of snails". The sight of it inspires a surprising, lyrical meditation on intimacy, nature and different kinds of desire.
"After my first baby was born, my body felt so vulnerable and raw, so completely given over," she says. "I used to walk in Highbury nearly every day with my son, still do, and as the Spring came I felt my body being brought slowly back to life by it."
In its delicate openness about sexuality, Berry writing has much in common with the poetry of Playtime author Andrew McMillan, one of the judges for this year's panel. Like her award-winning 2018 poem, Highbury Park contains "strong language" from the outset – but if poetry isn't he place for strong language, what is?
Highbury Park by Liz Berry
In the woods at night men are fucking
amongst the gorgeous piñatas of the rhododendrons,
the avenue of cool limes.
By day I walk my son down the secret pathways,
smell the salt rime of sex on the wind,
a condom glowing with blossomy cum,
knotted and flung; I bury it gently
under the moss with my boots.
I envy them, these lovers, dark pines
beneath their knees, the tarry earth
opaline with the desire paths of snails,
fallen feathers in the dirt like warnings.
I know those days of aching to be touched
by no-one who knows you.
After he was born I wanted nothing but the wind
to hold me, the soft-mouthed breeze
coaxing my skin like the grass
from a trampled field.
How heavenly it seemed then, light shafting
emerald through wounded leaves,
the woods a church, we its worshippers,
and all that sex – freed from love and duty –
like being taken by the wind, swept
from the cloistered rooms of your life,
stripped and blown,
then jilted dazzling in the arms of the trees.
Highbury Park was originally published in Wild Court. will read at the Forward Prizes ceremony in London on October 20; southbankcentre.co.uk