First Prize: Damen O'Brien, 'The Handshake'

First Prize: Damen O’Brien,

‘The Handshake’

Damen O’Brien’s poem ‘The Handshake’ has won First Prize in the 2020 Newcastle Poetry Competition.


The Handshake


When he reached out his hand to you,

the father of the boy your government had

murdered for a policy, or so the papers said,

you did not take it. Why was that?

Perhaps you felt he offered something heavy

as a neutron star, slick in-falling burden

of despair, too hard to grasp, or gift

of unwanted knowledge, poison chalice of

truth, the wither and the charring of that

inconvenient light, which torches out self-

deception. Perhaps you know that you can

stopper up your ears, can hold your heart

in the cold ocean between each beat, can

place a lock upon your tongue, if you must,

but a handshake is part of the oldest language

and will disclose what you hold back, what

the politburo, apparatchik wish you not to say,

rehearse it though you might: limp fish, sweaty

or dry palm, masterful and firm, crush

and domineering, pull-in and shoulder squeeze,

tool of politicians and of stars, but

more is taken in a handshake, than is given,

comfort if it is offered, or disdain, the

reaching out of two creatures separated by

a frangible and uncertain strait, the cellular

barriers of policy and position, and grief,

which is the yawning chasm over all. Perhaps

none of this: you’d turned away, the cameras

flash and fruitless dissections fill tomorrow’s news.

So few opportunities to reach out, so few to take,

to show amity and kindness, in our separate

galaxies of skin. Perhaps it was a media

stunt, an impossible trap, an ambush of

ideologies, but you cannot hide from

a handshake, and to shake a hand both men

must come close enough to touch and wear

each other’s fingerprints burning on their palms.


Damen O’Brien is an Australian poet.  In 2019, he won the Welsh International Poetry Prize, the Val Vallis Prize for an Unpublished Poem and has previously won the Peter Porter Poetry Prize, the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize and the New Guard Knightville Poetry Prize amongst many others.  (