The Isis Poetry Competition HT21 Winner

by | April 14, 2021


On a summer evening, I stood outside on the pavement

lifting my arms & pouring my own-most entire being 

out downwards, watching it flow in a slow, steady stream

& become a shapeless little pool on the pavement — 

translucent, tacky, awkward, glittering; catching & holding 

the dusky sunlight, its thousand reflections, respirations; 

warm on the summer evening, & meaningless.

As I looked down I thought: how I would have liked

something to gather & hold this thing, this content of me;

a glass pitcher perhaps, or a vase, a basin; to give shape.

To hold & give shape. For — how long could a little pool

on the pavement last — tacky, glittering, without shape?



by accident — 

                    it’s august. 

AUGUST! a month that 

            occurs suddenly, arrives 

                    & stands atop the staircase, saying:

        weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’;

as if, from a dim & wooden drawing room

                  a door is opened, into a glass conservatory



       birds of paradise, flowers of dawn, & the sunlight rushing in;

   & you see the air whirling, pulsing; see it 

enfolding you in its fluidity;

  this current of life, life itself, gathering you up,

                 like a wind gathers its petals (which is meant to be);

    the vase of existence (for it is certainly a vase now,

         for existence is full of flowers…) brimming; or 

    perhaps no vase at all, for life itself & you 

         are one, the same movement, exaltation, crying — 

             (no matter what this is! —) more, YES, more;

in this foliage & light, medley of scents, heap of metaphors, 

                        beauty is forgotten, for beauty is too cold;

             but here, now, this is truth —

truth made of elemental fires, 

    clasped & burning in the palm;

    tasted & burning on the tongue;

      a rainstorm of little flames

                 fallen from the core of universal mystery

                              over the entire own-most being, as if

     it’s a golden meadow, tingling & yielding — 

     how it’s meant to be.



‘I think she’s just very impressed with the flowers he planted’,

he said, talking of parents, & I thought how poetic; then

how one can squeeze meaning out of a banal statement,

a chance happening; how the mind would have no accident,

but seeks signs, patterns, fate… But I must come back — 

have I missed what he meant? (have I said horrible things?) 

about how parents are always unhappy together, 

& the fundamental fallacy of families (but is it a container, 

perhaps a basin?); I guess we seek perfect understanding, 

each at our own peril. (how intimacy digs its abyss; 

our asking too much.) how much honesty? 

how much cruelty, does one dare — could one bear 

confess? (I wonder, why do they write in third person, 

of themselves? why tweak the little details, change a name 

& place, call it fiction?) I am terrified of plot, I can only 

make poetry. (perhaps it is: wanting to confess, but 

afraid of cruelty.) Poetry — it gives no answer, admits 

nothing; but simply exists, preliminary notes always… 



(but is poetry a pitcher, could it hold existence?)

I walk up a broken escalator

to the studio, thinking of the purple in my hedges;

up in the room,

the students talk & laugh;

whisk their paintbrushes in

buckets of dirty water;

they must pass their exams…  

for which they must work faster;

but they take their time, dabbing at 

the greyness of a piece of fruit.

I stare at the purple in my hedges,

not knowing how to work it out precisely,

or what is meant to be worked out;

pretending that

this is art, this is originality;

— all the while knowing how

all this, these canvasses around the room,

the charcoal in their hands, the cheap 

heads, Greek portraits, 

— all this will come to mediocrity & nothing.

(is poetry a pitcher, could it hold existence?)



august —

(the nights grow cooler; they grow thinner…)

in the garden, the last mosquitos

drink, & fade soundlessly.

in the garden, with its wetness after rain,

shadows shifting, smokiness;

conversations rise, fall, bob, wobble;

explain with half-seriousness, 

how one’s being

is the dust of many collisions;

(the exercise of influence is a terrible thing…)

finally tire themselves out, & gone to sleep.

at midnight, 

the corner store aisles

smell intensely of laundry powder. 

… the white electric lights pierce my eyes. 

(is there milk in the fridge?)

the shopkeeper tells me how

it was expensive to cut her hair.

I thought, 

perhaps, as one grows older, 

one starts to prefer 

lucidity — a crisp moon, 

a liquor less sweet, 

a language clean, comfortable 

(like laundry powder),

an influence gentle, 

straightforward —

wishing always, still, to dent,

but dent only 

the surface

of someone else’s being;

& ask no more. ∎


Words by Niuniu Zhao. Art by Nat Cheung.


Comments from competition judge Theophilus Kwek:
“So often, we are taught to value the bold and confessional voice in poetry, but Niuniu Zhao’s unassuming poem successfully creates a space for the uncertain, self-questioning narrator: the voice residing in all of our heads that wonders if what we do, say, or write can ever be enough. Each line in this formally adventurous piece is astutely paced, with shades of Prufrock: ‘how much honesty? / how much cruelty, does one dare – could one bear / confess?’ Slowly, tentatively, the poem grows on the reader; doubt that speaks itself into courage.”