Soon it will be Valentine’s Day, the international day of bad poetry, the day when all people who genuinely love poetry ought to wear black armbands and weep. It’s a day when people who never think about, read, buy or listen to poetry run out to Cardies and Clicks to buy a mug or a wall plaque or a greeting’s card embellished with one-size-fits-all sentimental, rhyming drivel. Three of this month’s exercises resist the cliché.
Another year brings another chance, like Michael Finnegan, to ‘begin ag’in’. Two exercises prompt you to reveal your plans and reflect on the possibility of beginnings.
Christmas is a time of parties and gatherings. You probably drank too much, said too much, damaged your reputation and generally departed from accepted etiquette. It’s time to confess. Christmas is also a time when we have to hide presents and (perhaps) our money. That’s why I’ve suggested a poem on the subject of hiding-places.
As always, you may ignore these topics and submit whatever you like.
Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP January 2012 poetry workshop to the SLiP editor firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than Sunday 29 January 2012. Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.
# A poem beginning ‘This year’ or ‘The plan is..’.
# A poem answering the question: ‘Where will you be on February 14th?’
# A poem written after reading Anna Akhmatova’s ‘He loved…’
# A poem written after reading Stanley Kunitz’s ‘Touch Me’.
# A poem written after reading Brendan Kennelly’s ‘Begin’.
# A poem about the regrets/inner debriefings that occur after parties or family gatherings, especially during the festive season. (Read Fleur Adcock’s ‘Things’).
# A poem about hiding-places.
# Any poem on any subject.
Dear Heathrow immigration official
‘The purpose of my visit’
is these days, when the world is set to vivid:
nudge of yellow, wash of green
the most expectant fields I’ve ever seen
‘My itinerary is’
to unthread the knots of wheat
pegging down this helium sky
and watch it float away, away
‘My address in the UK’
is somewhere between the city
in its bowl of bumblebee hum
and the river’s thick silence
I’ve come here to be
too small and quick
for the Google mapcatchers,
to pass through the scenery again, again
The plan is to wait till sunset
then draw our plans
on paper squares cut
from Mama Tendo’s flyers.
For Devan’s school shoes,
a new brass lamp
and a December trip to Durban.
One list for the fridge,
the other for the prayer room.
Devan falls asleep,
misty with memory on the bed
we shared before him.
In the prayer room
we light diyas and incense.
Smoke warms our faces,
window holding the near-night.
In the kitchen – small, cool,
the stove loses light
like a sunset.
Hair is alive and dead.
It has a good smell,
like wax crayons.
Hair is a paradox:
it’s dead and alive;
poets love hair.
Hair can be dissolute.
Woman of my dreams,
let down your hair.
please let down your hair
that I may climb
into your cosy bed,
that I may linger
Woman of the attic,
your hair is on fire;
Come down to me, grunting
Bertha, that I may
sojourn in hell.
Hair is a conversion
beloved of poets;
hair is redolent
of wax crayons.
On our way to the King Shaka Airport,
past the road’s touristing ribcage of tusks,
through the toll rising priced and plonked on the corner
like hard plastic pushed in playdough, my Mom tells me about
her first time seeing the happyclappies.
When her Daddy remarried, her new stepmother (or Zia,
as she still calls her) shook the Pope from him like a rock
out a slop. They began to attend, instead, one of those
Evangelicals, a place hemmed with the hum of immigrants,
cheeseclothing people pulsing, privately, in a tent.
On this night, they took my Mom, who’d lost her own
one year before. The space where her family had been,
sleeved as if an arm, and pushing. She was fifteen
when she watched those congregants clutch and convulse
like the Camry my Pop would later teach her to drive: viscous
under their tops, something in them rubberizing bone, leaking
and reaching towards her as they moaned, “Il Diavolo! Il Diavolo!”
She raised us Catholic.
As they lowered your coffin
into the dry Highveld ground,
a frog jumped up from the dark hole
plumping itself between your daughter’s feet.
Simultaneously, a dove sang from the wild olive tree.
So, we did not leave you all alone, alone,
there in the newly broken field of Westpark Cemetery,
the red sand of the rand your long lament.
When you were already stick-insect thin
we came to see you in Plettenberg Bay.
Your hair cancer-shorn, you walked with your son to the door
the day we left, your grief cloaked in the comfort
of a pink Woolworths dressing gown,
and a goodbye note scrawled on the back of a bookmark.
Yours was not the only funeral that day –
walking down the hill, I overheard another rabbi
list a deceased’s virtues: ‘he was a good friend,’
‘kept confidences’, I saw another woman double
up, keening, like a child who does not understand.
The blue sky, impassive, saw everything,
no place to hide when death comes calling.
The summer sun shone a spotlight on your loss
you who will never now feel its warmth.
Back at the hall we washed our hands,
a ritual to cleanse us of sadness
brushed the sorrow off our feet with feather dusters,
and watched pall-bearers pushing an empty trolley
into a darkened room.
We went home, drank tea –
stowed our fear where no-one could find it –
the taste of sesame seed bagels and boiled eggs
thick in our mouths, like earth.
This Year’s Resolution in Polite Conversation
This year I’ll fashion myself a new house
From the remnants of the garden cottage
My parents commissioned for my Birthday.
It was comfortable and well-worn
Like the boots I was bought on the occasion
Of my eighteenth when I took up hiking.
Though I trek on still the boots are gone,
Outgrown, summers’ dusty trails ago.
This year, brick by dismantled brick,
I’ll build a home, discarding those
that have chipped and cracked as the
dad-planted sapling just nearby quaked the earth
with sullen roots as it became a Natal Mahogany.
I’ll replace them with timbers hewn with
my own arms from that mighty tree and carried to
the Cape onto the plot I bought myself on my twentythird.
This year my twentysixth I’ll lay my own
foundations. Strong against that devilish Doctor,
whose oath it’s never been to protect anybody,
will those transported boards stand still and
stubborn. And even should that misnamed ‘healer’
blow his fiery breath in my direction, I’ll patch
my house with a regte geelhout that came to
nestle on my planks when we both were weary.
This veil of black,
these morbid thoughts
will not be pierced
by beauty’s shaft
Your blaze of life,
your flaming dart
will not ignite
a spark of green in me.
(* Coined by Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire.)
Not another love song
Sing a song of romance,
of love that never dies.
Then put it back into the box
with all the other lies.
If you believe the song you sing,
you’ll be the one who cries.
Sara P. Dias
Pinpoints of light prickle the belly
of the night: fireworks blaze to actualize
a new year. The horizon arches
its back in an ecstasy of excess.
Flares follow the curve of a distended
abdomen to its end in a slow gaze:
a body smaller than Pluto is caught
in the after- flash of an old day, staring.
His whole life flowed like a river
from that one clear remembered pool.
The valley waterfall filled it
as fast as years passing.
He loved that farm; the land, the people.
He built cairns for it, and them –
layered a lifetime of achievements
like stones from a heartland, or fingers –
pointing to the same sky
that smiled down on him like a beautiful mother
when he was a boy, and the world was his right.
I was the daughter he would not see,
a girl hurling herself at a man half-turned away,
facing his bright future.
We visit that pool as adults, plunge bravely into
the estranged lilt of the water.
It takes my body heat
and not even the fiery sun
will give it back to me, witness, woman –
splayed out on a rock, begging, denied.
You Don’t Just Marry Your Lover
Roses are reddish,
Violets are blueish.
Mom says we can wed if
You convert to being Jewish.
Romantic love still eludes us, I’m afraid. The best poems this month were about other things: answering immigration questions at Heathrow; composing two different kinds of lists – one for the fridge and one for the prayer room; building a South-Easter proof house; hair; a depression so deep that not even flowers can penetrate it; the devil in evangelism; a Jewish burial; the swimming pool of a rejecting father; New Year’s Eve.
But of course good poems are always about more than their immediate concerns. What’s interesting about a successful poem is how, in stripping itself right down — to a short line, a few stanzas, the barest image — it offers up a host of rewards: visions, suggestions, possibilities, scope.
It’s not just my short attention span that makes me dislike long poems, especially long poems driven by no idea other than the desire to locate and slap down another rhyme. It’s easy enough (if you don’t mind how you come across) to scatter your unedited thoughts across the screen, but much harder to fine and file them down to two stanzas or one single pattern of imagery.
Smugness and prejudice have a way of creeping into poems, particularly poems that think they’re funny. ‘Psychological blind spots—for instance, lack of insight into other people—show up as blind spots in poetry’ says Charles Harper Webb. I thoroughly recommend that you read his article on how the poet’s personality plays into the poetic voice.
Enough of what I didn’t like.
The poem that appealed to me most was Shari Daya’s ‘Dear Heathrow Immigration Official’, closely followed by Dashen Naicker’s ‘Two Lists’. Both are compact, tightly structured, inviting. They contain complexities without excluding the reader or being willfully obscure. Both end exquisitely.
John Eppel’s ‘Hair’ actually manages to look like a long braid hanging out of a turret window in a picture book story of Rapunzel. It is a controlled, yet surprising poem.
Genna Gardini’s ‘Il Diavolo’ and Sarah Frost’s ‘The Source’ and ‘Westpark Cemetery’ are strong poems because they are driven by passionate feelings backed up with careful observation of the realia of life.
Sara P.Dias in ‘Pluto’s Children’ and J.D Warner in ‘This Year’s Resolution in Polite Conversation’ offer an original take on the old theme of time.
I must thank Annel Pieterse for introducing me to the concept of floraennui.
And yes, there are two poems on a valentine theme: Michael Rolfe (‘You don’t just marry your lover’) and Crystal Warren (‘Not another love song’) were deft enough and, most importantly, sufficiently twisted to make the cut.