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To whom it may concern by Sue Burge

To whom it may concern by Sue Burge

Its fragmentary form mirrors the drafts of a letter written in the head, 'practice runs' that try to achieve the perfect riposte. Its unfolding narrative – of a mother’s suicide attempt and the ensuing family trauma – is restrained and delicate, peppered with unusual precise images and thoughts - Fiona Benson


To whom it may concern

I’ve been writing to you since I was 14     just practice runs in my
head  who wants their last words to be   as the French say   an esprit
d’escalier moment       when the minute the door closes behind you
foot poised on the first step of your descent      you think of the
perfect riposte

I was 9 when I overheard my aunts whispering found in the road
unconscious  in her nightie
      the latter the most shocking of all
                                             my new-born brother       a wailing hero
waking the household in time to thwart my mother’s quiet

my mother’s pills were blue as the Adriatic                 stripey as

one day     burning with adolescence I line up my own little pills
chalky white barbiturates on the blue Formica kitchen top   it is
too hard to be daughter I want to unfuture myself     pour a huge
glass of water                                  then weep every pill back into
their ugly brown bottle

& dad too     decades later   I woke up and heard blackbirds singing
he says   and knew I’d failed

neither of my parents were letter writers         I will never find a
cinematic secret stash that answers all my questions

hidden stigmata       damned if you do        damned if you don’t

don’t get me wrong    I’m not unhappy   I know how to laugh   am
frequently mesmerised by lichen     & the hallucinatory beauty of

but surely I’m not the only one with a spliced together trailer on
replay:     stones in pockets that slow wading out     a soft cheek
resting on an oven’s harsh shelf          mum counting and sipping 

todestrieb/deseo de muerte/thanatos 

sometimes I think about the delivery stage              I do not trust
letterboxes or doormats    and what’s the point of kitchen tables
if not for laying things out       for the formality of envelopes
sealed with purposeful DNA

Dear To Whom It May Concern          may you never receive this


How I did it

I started out writing short stories, but gravitated towards poetry while studying creative writing part-time
at UEA, and eventually stopped writing prose altogether. I find poetry such a creative and wideranging art form. Recently I’ve started working in prose again, but in nonfiction this time, for a book of lyric essays.

Mslexia published the first three poems I ever had accepted, in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The magazine felt like home very early in my writing career.

I earn a living as a freelance teacher of creative writing and film studies, and I belong to three writing groups. This poem arose from a prompt from one of those groups, led by Jeffery Sugarman.

The prompt was ‘notes slipped under the door’. I love letter poems, but had never tried writing one before. The prompt reminded me of the US poet Amy Newman’s Dear Editor, in which she writes to a nameless editor, seeking publication for a collection about chess, saints and childhood. I thought the format of a letter might be a way of writing about the attempted suicide, when I was quite young, of first my mother, then, more recently, my father. Those events made me wonder whether I had inherited suicidal thoughts from my parents, or if they were the result of my upbringing – or if they were normal, and everyone thought as I did.

I wanted to write something episodic, disorganised and fragmented, with lots of gaps – to convey the incompleteness of memory, and the sense that the text might have been cried on, or ripped up. This is the first time I’ve tackled this subject matter head-on – and itmfeels very raw and sad and personal.

It never takes me very long to write a first draft, but that’s because I’ll have been thinking about it and niggling at it in my head for ages beforehand. The first version of this poem was in 13 stanzas and had line breaks like a normal poem. It was chunkier and had fewer blank spaces, but the group encouraged me to increase the gapping and fragmentation. So I reworked it as a prose poem that held more spaces within its justified margins.

SUE BURGE lives in North Norfolk, where she is a freelance teacher of creative writing and film studies – sometimes both combined, as in her work for the Poetry School. She also mentors writers of all genres. She has published two poetry pamphlets, as well as two full collections with Live Canon. Her third full collection The Artificial Parisienne is out this year.

 The Other Finalists

‘Vocabulary of the Slow Eye’ by Jane Lovell (2nd place)

'The Poet Writes an Abecedarian for her Maiden Aunt' by Jane Simmons (3rd place)

 ‘No Gods, No Masters’ by Helen Mallett (Unpublished Poet Prize)

'Yesterday' by Sherri-Anne Forde

'Evans the Butcher' by Chris Raetschus

‘Rhododendrons’ by Rebecca Faulkner

‘Jade Cicadas were once placed on the tongues of the dead’ by Kizziah Burton

‘Blot’ by Sarah Stewart

‘March’ by Emily Freeman

‘la legerete’ by Camille Francois

‘Living with Bluebeard’ by Lesley Sharpe

‘At the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, Hiroshima’ by Tessa Biddington

‘Pieta’ by Emilie Jelinek

‘Batfall’ by Julie Sheridan

‘A Terrible Omen’ buy Dolly Stephan

‘2001’ by Julie Leoni

‘At the Hill of the Pass’ by Yvonne Reddick

‘Silence’ by Shahilla Shariff

‘My Mother’s Hand’ by Polly Clark 

You can read all the winning poems Mslexia Issue 101.

Meet the winners of all competitions