Poetry Project

Endings and beginnings

I flail and shout,
"I can't bear it! I have to see how it comes out!"
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive …

- from ‘Firefall’, by Mona Van Duyn, 1992 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.

- From ‘Beginning’ by James Wright, Above the River: 1990 Wesleyan University Press.

It’s that time of the year again. Write a poem about endings, beginnings, or both, taking care with how you begin and end the poem. (Also take care with the middle …)

Send your submissions with the title “December Poetry Project” to pieter@slipnet.co.za before the 23rd of December.

May the New Year bring you exactly what you need to fire up your poetic cauldrons …..
Thank you for the great time I have had with your poems this year.

Dawn Garisch

Submitted Poems

Louella Sullivan

They sang outside the gates of your suburban prison
They made speeches (stale from years in a drawer)
They waited flowers in hand
They wept today in the mourning rain

And in days to come there shall be services and prayers and songs and airspace tightly controlled

I wonder, old friend,
Whether you might have preferred
No pomp
No ceremonies
No cultural protections to speed you on

That you might have wanted to be thrown to the wind
Whose touch you were without for so long
Your dust on the soles of our feet as we journey onward

Louella Sullivan

I say goodbye slowly
without supervision
I whisper to my books,
broken and bent in the efforts to release their contents,

this room has been my confessional
and these things I have left for you - my replacement:
a chair - one wheel broken
a half filled desk drawer
a bag of soil
dust on the cupboards from my time and before

But there are things I cannot leave you.

the tap leaks - a song to send me home -
I won't turn it off
In the new year it will beat your song of welcome
in measured drips

Louella Sullivan

As the metaphor of packing boxes
heavy footed along these green corridors
I relax into your world
I stop rushing
stop ticking boxes
ticking off the time

My girls,
For that's what you will always be to me,
Sitting forever in those desks feigning attentiveness
You make me something I am not
Sorrow sits softly in my mouth
as I use my words to pull you to me
one last time.

Louella Sullivan

In a swirling summer squall
a blackout licked our toes,
curled itself around my contracting belly,
my waters breaking with the storm.

In those twelve hours,
that both sprinted and stood at rest,
I paced out each step of her life
on the chill hospital floor.

Stepping into the form of a father,
a prophesy of nights that lay ahead,
he held us both
while I, rocking, let go the guttural.

As she forged her way out of me, in blood and fire,
I passed onto her stormborn self my everlastingness
and became at once a god flung down to earth
achingly mortal.

Zinzi Sealy

When men were warriors and heroes
Were they good fathers too?

What should a father be?
With the mother, twin tower of strength
A support for the family
A wage earner, a role model a loving carer.

Two sisters came to visit
Their children with them
Two toddlers and a pre-teen girl
Budding femininity.
Such happiness and lightness
As they played.
One mother was sad.
I asked her,
"How is your husband,
Is he working, what is he doing?"
She answered;
"He is in prison, was arrested on Tuesday
He raped his daughter
It is terrible."

All trust ended.
With one act
One thoughtless act
His daughter damaged
Lives changed forever.

Many women share the mother's pain.
I am witness to this act
That damages and harms our daughters.
Where are the good fathers?

The tower is fallen,
Where are the good fathers?

*Written during the media awareness campaign concerning violence to women and children.

Ballad of the desires
a marrying man begins and ends
Geoffrey Haresnape

King Henry Henry Henry
desired a living son:
he fancied that his Spanish Queen
would furnish him with one.

When she produced a daughter
and baby boys still-born
the prospects for His Majesty
looked exceedingly forlorn.

At last the dismal day arrived
for Katharine’s menopause.
The husband had to then admit
that his was a lost cause.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired Ann Boleyn
who explained she was determined
not to live in sin.

“Unless you marry me, my Lord,”
the spunky woman said.
“there is no possibility
I’ll have you in my bed.”

She took the testy Tudor on
and wound him up and down
until he looked as tufted as
the ermine on his gown.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired of the Pope
a dispensation that would grant
him matrimonial hope.

His life with Katharine had been wrong,
in fact, a wicked blight.
He wanted virtuous wedlock with
a lady who was right.

The pontiff might have done his best
to let the plaintiff win-
except for a Catch 22
the Emperor placed him in.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired to found a church
where he could be the Number One
and leave Rome in the lurch.

He trawled the Holy Scriptures
to justify his claims
and anyone demurring
could be consigned to flames.

He gave himself his marriage
and all was well and good –
until a lady at the court
began to heat his blood.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired to sleep with Jane.
He saw much more in Seymour,
and Ann seemed rather plain.

At last the King decided
the Queen had lost his trust
for which she must go headless
and bite the bitter dust.

Upon the Tower scaffold
Ann saw her big mistake
to try and ride a bully boy
while she was on the make.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired three wives more-
ugly Ann, and sexy Kate,
then Katharine up to par.

This senior, solemn lady
would study at his knee:
unmindful of his loathsome bulk,
she’d learn divinity.

and think of bearded Seymour
who really turned her on.
She married Thomas right away
when the old King was gone.

King Henry Henry Henry
desired heaven’s bliss,
but no one here can yet decide
if he prevailed in this.

Would Peter at the portal
be induced to turn the key
for one whose faith was DIY
and held expediently?

We know the royal coffin
oozed juices rank and thick
upon its way to burial
which dogs desired to lick.
Keith Edwards

A baby is not like a tourist in a foreign country;
it does not have even a first language.
- Wittgenstein

Are you like a stranger in a strange land,
or is this the first time, the world at first hand?

Goo-goo baby, watch out!
In the wings words are twitching,
their bewitching will trouble you like
the first Fall.


Keith Edwards

Some evolutionists call it 'punctuated equilibrium';
fancy term for the fits and starts of life's slow climb to complexity.

Maturing seems to happen like that.
Young faces grow older overnight, the voices more cautious,
their tone a little bit flat.

A first date
Keith Edwards

I walk over
arrive on time.
You are waiting
nervous nineteen
at the bottom of the flight
one foot back on the last step, as though
you'd had the get set and just needed go.
(the building's shabby, needs painting)

I remark your denim jacket, frayed and worn.
Your lip curls, the fashion you say,
you can't conceal your scorn.
(you never could
you never could
conceal your scorn)

We set out walking,
at once you drop to your knees,
commune with dusk-prowling neighbour's cat.
O Cat Whisperer, now I feel a million miles from you.

We go on, you link arms, pull me close,
whisper: I love you in black.
A feeling rises
swells in me.
Meeting again: a male's point of view
Keith Edwards

Meeting again, I make physical inventory:

Bare upper arms mimic leg-of-mutton sleeves;

Your breasts (plunge-line fashion rules), little torpedoes
aiming at my feet;

In the mall's dead-air breeze your dress bloats,
moulds to new curves;

Only your eyebrows are unchanged,
their scimitar sweep
and magnificent!
Poem, caught: Saturday, 3 a.m.
Keith Edwards

Epicene scream cuts the air.
The street, no home, does not answer.
A shiver chills, an almost-nausea grips.

Should I shake myself awake,
quit this bed-blanket warm and
involve the rational world?

I lie and wait and
do nothing.

Poems happen

Catch them on the wing
or lose them forever.
Moon, observed
Keith Edwards

Gauzy nimbus surrounds you.
You smoke quietly up there
in ludic looming,
hiding your moon-face,
your feeling.

Sight of you in full for some
starts emotion unreeling.
But why should you care?
The universe's sublime indifference
is your part-share.

Guess you'll be hanging around awhile
after we've given up,

Your performance haunts me
Anique Kruger

A mangled vehicle
burnt out on the highway
you are deserting it

But still
it snags the road
that drags behind you like a train
frames you like a bridal gown

On stage
you unpick your veil
with dotted crotchets
the seam semiquavers
and we bear witness to this unravelling catharsis

But still
in the distance
smoke pouring out of the old car’s door
and its indestructible cassette player

The wind carries snatches
of Dylan and Joni Mitchell
in harmony with your voice

There is no sense of an ending

Endings and Beginnings
Ralph Goodman

The new era of writerly agnosticism has emancipated us:
A first page need no longer constitute a beginning,
And the last page of a text is not always any kind of conclusion.
Narrators now leave such matters to their putative readers.

Normally, beginnings carry the responsibility for continuation,
Though unconscionable brevity may count as an abortion -
An allowable example of the fashionably terse novel.
And postmodernity has a patrician disdain for endings.

Beginnings may be prolonged, dragging along their after-births,
Prone to aberations such as Siamese twins – or cot death.
Beginnings sometimes have eternal time fuses, to ward off finality,
Like the Book of the Apocalypse, whose ending is always impending.

Endings can collapse like demolished buildings, smoking and breathing fire,
Downed dragons, they drag on forever, trailing irrelevant periphrastes.
Endings may be so subtle as to make the reader question their existence,
Like Satan, they unravel forever, trailing clouds of cunning ventriloquism.

Writers, like pilots, know that taking off and landing are the riskiest,
Narrative is the safe ground between dangerous beginnings and endings.
Wise writers always carry a parachute of words, to float to safety,
With magic formulae to avert disaster, and turn it into rescue.

For many writers beginnings and endings are mere literary fictions,
Which ease the burden of emptiness and comfort us with pretence.
Life is, after all, a continuous flow, and who can say when anything began?
Praise to Saint Jacques Derrida, our liberator from the prison of the text!

the end
Ross Fleming

it came beautifully
asleep next to beloved husband
no unfinished business
a life of counterpoint, anguish and joy
the world a stranger place
without her
yet the dream persists
(redeeming my materialism)
of her embarking for
a faraway dimension
i read that the greatest
story ever told
began with a rumour

Rim life
Sara P. Dias
Small needs traverse furrowed hands –
quilted labels cover hollow fibre
in rhythmic burns of fold and stitch,
fold and stitch; a patchwork repair
for the living. Small needs find
comfort in reward, advance around
the rim – the next dream to harrow.

Fire Fighters Save Historic Home
Emily Buchanan

If the house had burned down
With it would have gone
A library of paperbacks;
Boxes of greeting cards and gift wrap;
Ceilings of bat droppings;
Eight ancient mattresses and the sheets on them;
And a kitchen of pots and pans.

Instead we lost
The silvery-sided barn and the ferns growing from its gutters;
The barn owl;
A grove of pom pom trees; a bed of moss;
Seven ancient oaks and the orioles in them;
And almost every blade of grass.
Similarities and Differences
Emily Buchanan

The word – “going”
Is jaunty and intrepid,
An explorer off to encounter minor difficulties –
Jet travel,
The exhilaration of the journey,
Leaving the nest.

“Gone” is vacated rooms,
Unswept floors,
A shirt or a sock left behind.

Yet both recall all the goings and gones;
Slice the heart; and
Remind us of that silly thing, the waving arm.

Mbizo Chirasha

I see America dancing in oil sodden nights, nostrils stinking the scent of death
Your ghost exorcising demons of colonialist clout, walking along banks of the lost river
River that lost its freedom
Your shadow suffocating under the smell of exile and scent of slums
Gaddafi, propaganda is fart, fart deodorizing the winds of the villages
I have a burning passion to bring back the dimples and wrinkles of this country.

Mbizo Chirasha

Your past is a mint of blood and tears
Daughters tearing their way to decay
Sons castrated by poverty and superguns,
Kongo, a dream battered and bruised
Your conscience poliorised by oppressive dance
Highways clogged with hatred and vendetta
Gutters donating stench and typhoid
Kongo, let my poetry feed your withering dreams for guns, insult the tired memories
Of voters.

Children of Xenophobia
Mbizo Chirasha

Children eating bullets and firecrackers
Beggars of smile and laughter
Silent corpses sleeping away fertile dreams
Povo chanting new nude wretched slogans
Overstayed exiles eating beetroot and African potato
Abortions and condoms batteries charging the lives of nannies and maids
Children of barefoot afternoons and uncondomized nights
Sweat chiselling the rock of your endurance
The heart of Soweto, Harare, Darfur, Bamako still beating like drums
Violence fumigating peace from this earth.

Mbizo Chirasha

Good morning Panama
You bear scars of sugar and millet slavery
The ghosts of Fujimori dance in the warmth of your shadows
Panama, my beloved

Kalinga- linga
Mbizo Chirasha

A daughter of revolution fed on rich political nutrition
With a smile bandaging scars of the streets and falsehood by political demons
Fingers burnt in pseudo democratic pans of the West, what a political humor
I see you smelling love through the thick dew of corruption and robots
True heroes and heroines swallowed up in the deep silence of chingwere and uzambwera
[Cemeteries of the poor]
Leopold hill shadows faking dances to the throbbing rhythms of vumbuza drums
Kalinga- linga- your rising sun will soon spread the beauty of its fingers in the skies of Afrika



I set the topic for the December poetry project before Madiba died, and I hoped there would be some submissions that addressed the end of his life. In Exodus, Louella Sullivan pays quiet tribute. I suggest changing ‘as we journey onward’, which is a cliché, to ‘as we walk’, which evokes Long Walk to Freedom and the reminder that that journey has not ended. I am undecided about the title. Exodus with a capital is associated with the Israelites’ departure from oppression in Egypt; if exodus is retained, I suggest changing it to a small ‘e’. Yet the poet expresses a desire for Madiba to remain with us, as dust on our feet, so I would consider another title.

In her poem Replaced, I initially thought the poet was a boarder vacating her room, but in the subsequent poem, it appears that she is a teacher who has resigned and is packing up her office. I particularly liked Replaced, with the enigma of what cannot be left behind and of the bag of soil; I also liked the song of the dripping tap providing the refrain of farewell and of welcome. Attention to this kind of detail makes for rich writing. The assonance and alliteration in the line ‘broken and bent in the efforts to release their contents,’ is very pleasing to my ear and heart.

The language, metaphor and movement captured in Louella Sullivan’s poem Stormborn works well. I like the tension in the images in the last stanza between the power and immortality of giving birth, and how finite and limited our lives ultimately are.

The metaphor of a fallen tower in Zinzi Sealy’s poem Ended is a strong one, but the evocation of the twin towers as the strength and support that parents can provide if they stand together is perhaps not followed through as fully as it could be. I don’t think one can use the phrase ‘twin towers’ without pointing to 9/11 where both actual towers were destroyed; a father’s fall can most certainly bring the mother down, but the association stops there. I also suggest cutting all commentary in the poem that is obvious, for example stanzas 5 and 6 don’t express anything we don’t already know. Also, avoid clichés like ‘burgeoning femininity’. To be good writers we need to pay attention to specific details to describe in our own idiosyncratic way what we perceive in the inner and outer landscapes.

Geoffrey Haresnape is a master of the satirical form; in Ballad of the desires, a marrying man begins and ends he gives us the low-down on King Henry Henry Henry (the repetition to my ear sounds like God shaking his head in despair). The ermine and the DIY jokes were hilarious, and the ending was suitably revolting.

The idea behind Baby by Keith Edwards is a good one, but not yet satisfying to me. I am interested in how form and content go together; if one is tackling newness and incomprehension and language, I would like to see the poet’s struggle to depict this on the page, beyond the one attempt (Goo-goo), perhaps out of his own imagined early encounter with the world of words. The analogy between the bewitching power of language and the first Fall needs to be expanded. In Growing, I was not clear of the argument the poet is making. There is a contradiction between ‘slow climb’ and ‘overnight’, and I am not sure whether complexity and a flat tone are the same end points to maturity.

In First Date, the poet’s attention to specific detail goes a long way to achieve a sense of character and location:

one foot back on the last step, as though
you'd had the get set and just needed go.
(the building's shabby, needs painting)

The second stanza too gives the reader insight into the dynamic between the couple, particularly in the repeated refrain; then comes the reversal, where the loved one whispers about loving the poet in black, as though the poet is cat-like, and we know (despite her scorn) she is prepared to drop down and get on the same level as cats. The last two lines are lovely, capturing the link between emotion, attention, the body, and sex.

In Meeting again, Keith Edwards captures the awkwardness and shock of seeing how the physical appearance of certain people we’ve loved have changed with age. It is an interesting topic that could be explored further, for example, if there was any self-consciousness in the poet about his own physical changes.

Poem, caught: Saturday, 3 a.m. feels like two discreet poems as it stands. I like the confusion as to whether the ‘epicene scream’ is from a dream or the actual street; and if it is the latter, it is a wonderfully shocking portrayal of poet as detached voyeur. This could be emphasised and the poem made to feel more integrated by changing:

I lie and wait and
do nothing.

Poems happen
Catch them on the wing
or lose them forever.

I lie and wait,
then write this poem.

Catch them on the wing
or lose them forever.

In Moon, Observed, Keith Edwards has captured the tension between the scientific indifference of the universe and the need for poetry and meaning. I suggest scrapping the last stanza, which to my mind does nothing for the poem.

In Anique Kruger’s enigmatic poem: Your performance haunts me, I like the way the reader is split between a vivid car wreck, which one slowly realises is probably metaphorical, and the actor’s performance on stage. The themes of music and of clothing are the threads that run through and contain the split, making the poem whole. I am interested by the images of marriage that emerge from the wreck, that are unpicked during the catharsis of the performance, and how the resolution of the poem contains lack of resolution. I would drop the word Mitchell in the 5th stanza – it feels superfluous and interferes with the scansion.

Ralph Goodman’s Endings and Beginnings is a wonderfully verbose satire on literary structure; one can imagine the kind of character that would deliver this from the front of the lecture theatre. I am torn about the following recommendation, as I like the current ending, but again, the issue of form and content raises its head. The poet might experiment with the way the poem begins and ends to amplify the points the narrator makes. I would take out one of the ‘forevers’ in stanza 4 – probably the first.

In the end, Ross Fleming’s tribute to a friend whose life has ended, he dreams that this is not the end, but that she has perhaps embarked ‘for a faraway dimension’. This capacity of humans to dream, and to extrapolate on rumour, redeems the poet’s ‘materialism’, giving rise ‘to the greatest story ever told’ and to this particular poem. I would put in a line break after ‘without her’, indicating a false ending, and also after ‘a faraway dimension’, which gives the reader pause to contemplate that infinity, before coming back to a third stanza in this reality. I suggest finding another word for ‘beautifully’ – it is one of those words so overused as to have lost its specificity.

Emily Buchanan’s poem Firefighters Save Historic Home sets the scene as a newspaper headline. As a poet paying attention to the underbelly of life, she lists the things that were not saved, which she values more, and which will never be reported on by the papers. My first response to the language employed by the poet was that the second stanza works better than the first, but perhaps that is integral to the poem, where the detached listing and the use of the passive tense in the first stanza mirrors the reportage of journalism, whereas the loss of those things that really matter to the poet in the second stanza are revealed in a more poetic language.

In her second poem Similarities and Differences, the second two stanzas work very well – revealing the sparseness of what is left behind when someone leaves; also that wonderful image of ‘that silly thing, the waving arm’ condenses humour and pathos, and refers back, perhaps to Stevie Smith’s poem, ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’ with the sense that the poet’s losses are more profound than the poem suggests. I feel that the first stanza, which sets up both the poem and the departures, tells us about the attitude of the traveler as ‘jaunty and intrepid’ but I can’t feel this quality in the writing. I think the poem would work better if the language and imagery in first stanza got us excited about the journey, which would make the next two stanzas more poignant as we find that we have been left behind with the narrator. I suggest changing the title, which doesn’t work at all for me.

Sometimes I come across published poetry that I do not understand; this is a combination of my very patchy literary education, post-modern trends, the need to take adequate care and time in reading a complex poem, and sometimes I am probably just being dof. However, I want to make a case for clarity as being an important aspect of communication. The trouble is that the writer / poet already knows what is going on; the skill is how to transmit that information to another.Sara P. Dias’s poem Rim life, has lovely rhythms, but although I have read it several times, and asked a couple of friends to comment (to check whether I am just being dof), I cannot work out who is living this rim life (great image).

I had the same difficulty with clarity in the poem Gaddafi by Mbizo Chirasha. I like the voice in this poem, the image of the lost river, and the emphasis on olfactory sensations, but I was unclear as to who was being addressed. The last line worked well, with the rhythm and alliteration of dimples and wrinkles conjuring a sense of a country that could be both new and wise.

I am interested in how, as we writers progress in our work, we spiral closer to the subject matter that obsesses us, growing our particular voice in the process. The poems submitted by Mbizo Chirasha demonstrate this. All of them are a kind of lament for places in Africa; they mix street description with political commentary through astute metaphor and word-play. In Kongo ‘a mint of blood and tears’, ‘conscience poliorised’ and ‘Gutters donating stench and typhoid’ describe a country in violent disarray. The last line, which I like: ‘Kongo, let my poetry feed your withering dreams for guns, insult the tired memories / Of voters’ contains an interesting paradox – I imagine that the poet intends to show how the power of poetic imagination can feed dreams other than those for violence, and can awaken change, but it can be read differently – as poetry feeding dreams for guns; also insults usually provoke more violence.

Chirasha’s use of litanies of related observations and unusual juxtapositions of words and ideas (‘the thick dew of corruption and robots’) is mostly effective. I usually prefer sensory immersion in the detail of real-time observed landscape and event, but, as a performance poet, his rich use of language and rhythm, which draws on a tradition of oral storytelling and praise singing, invites attention and curiosity.

Watch for dead phrases like ‘falsehood by political demons’. Better to give a real example than generic truisms. And whereas robots can twinkle like dew, and stand as a symbol for many aspects of city life, it would be more effective to find an image that gives us a more felt sense of corruption than the actual word provides.


A general tip: try reading your work aloud before deciding it is a finished piece. I know that music and rhythm is no longer seen as necessary in contemporary poetry, but if it is important to you, as it is to me, then you will begin to hear whether your poem works on that level. We know from neuroscience that the part of the brain that lights up when listening to poetry that contains metre and metaphor is different from the area that responds to prose. But even with prose, hearing a paragraph read out loud can help you hear whether it is working or not.

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