office girls have shiny heads
and tidy legs
office girls have stationery
and remind me of birds
office girls live in office-world
they have lunch regularly
they like shops
they might not.
tears for queers
we cry for those who died of aids
try not to underpay our maids
lust after closeted movie stars
are seen in trendy friendly bars
but if it might harm our careers
we’ll gaily deny that we are queers
we’d like to see the streets drug-free
we’d like to buy better quality e
we think tolerance is what the world lacks
we skinner about everyone behind their backs
we join pride marches once a year
and daily deny that we are queer
I have a small black and white photograph of you.
Thus I know the face I chose to avoid.
I saw your naked back pressed with clean white sand.
I studied you, so I remember how careless were your clothes, your things cast around.
That’s how I stole your picture.
I saw all of you. I even saw your heart.
Your eyes were closed, perhaps, you were unaware, unknowing of my shameless gaze.
That’s the only time we met.
So you don’t know me, I never bothered you since.
But I am important.
I killed you, you see. I really saw your heart.
I could have looked at more. I could have touched you.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do care. But I only came to kill you, not to know you.
Then I carried on: the wind.
You stayed behind: a stone.
I wonder who it is who makes you smile.
It isn’t me.
Still, you are familiar to me, I know your face, whoever you are.
Don’t say, “don’t say”
Tweak a lash, twist a chin
Fidget as you will,
But if you say, ‘don’t say’
Mine will say
Don’t say, “don’t say!”
With sun and wind behind us giving lift,
We stand upon the hill and fly our kites,
Against the rising ramparts of the Berg.
Just cheap and plastic things. Mine wears an eagle
And his a sign unknown, and this I call the spirit.
They’re metaphors for the soul, I say,
Attached to the body by a shining thread.
This does not interest him. He wants to give
His kite more line. He’ll take it from my eagle
And climb to higher places in the sky.
A tricky thing to do with flying kites.
You have to hold the strings and tie the knots
Against the constant tug of void on soul.
Alright, Captain, I say. Go for it.
We steal the Eagle’s extra line and tie
Her handle on again. He adds the line
To his. There’s one knot left to tie when he lets
Slip. So much for Captain, he says.
We watch the kite soar up towards the cliffs.
It looks as if it wants to clear the Berg
And find its freedom in a higher land
Than ours, where kites are pulled at last to earth,
And travel back to Joburg in the boot.
Perhaps, like some of those detained, it feels
That death is to imprisonment preferred,
Or exile in a country far from home.
But in my hand the eagle tugs and calls,
And then we’re jumping down the grassy slope,
My focus split between two leaping feet,
And the tension in the line. The kite will fall
In any gap in my, or wind’s, attention.
What if the steep hill hides a mortal cliff?
But we both know what it is we want,
And so we’re moving fast and in control,
Down to the left where spirit’s tail
Points possible location of its thread.
We ease on down until the angle’s good,
And then turn right and up the valley, hunting.
Now line is firm and steady in my hand,
A steady pull from bird that sees its prey,
And leads me up the hillside to its fall.
Because then I see the eagle swoop and hang,
Lifeless, in a bright and cloudy sky.
I’m raving, winding, shouting up the hill,
It’s hooked, I shout, and wind the precious thread.
I pull them in. But then the eagle falls.
It lies, just plastic litter in the veld.
So I deduce from that that I’m a fool,
Imagining I flew and caught a soul.
The thread is slack and flaccid in my hand,
And tangled in the grasses of the hill.
I must untie the knots, and trudge back up.
Between us there’ll be only one to fly.
So, shrugging, turn to shout that I have failed.
And there it is. A vision, curving down
From edge of cloud it shines against blue sky.
It curves down, shining, till it meets the grass.
I shout. It's moving past him as the kite gains height.
I shout. It’s there. The thread. It shines. It shines.
He does not understand. He cannot see.
It’s moving past behind him up the hill.
A change of light, and then it’s gone.
And faith with it. A beam. And there it is.
I shout. Behind you. It shines. It shines.
And then he sees, and runs to catch the thread.
I reeled my kite in from the earth, and he
I don’t know what from miles up in the sky.
It's five and twenty years since it was done
And between us, only one to fly.
No one in my family has ever
Liked the brown colour after
The last incident of these
My great grandfather on his wedding day
Slipped, fell and broke his ankle
Wearing a brown shoe
My grandfather on his first appointment as an oculist
Had an accident and became blinded
Driving his brown car
My father on his first visit to his in-laws
Was chased into a latrine
By a brown dog
I, in my brown suit on my first date
With my brown-skin girlfriend
Got choked and became dumb
Why should I cook a novel
When I have all the ingredients
For a tastier meal?
A novel takes time to plan;
Too tiring to cook;
Too boring to eat;
And needs much to be satisfied.
But a small bowl of poem:
Mixed with metaphor;
Steamed with simile;
Salted with symbolism;
Imbued with imagery;
Sauced with roasted rhymes;
And served on a reader’s mind
Wow! Wow!! Yum-yum!!!
A yummy dish.
One on One
Don’t say what you wanted that morning,
the sun spilling like semen across the yoga studio floor.
It would change everything, and not for the better.
This afternoon, waking from a dream of being caught
in a crevice, waving a red flag at an ogling man,
I remembered how you asked: ‘Are you married?’
as you bent forward onto your beautiful arms
lifting into ‘dog with the face up’.
And me stammering ‘No’, and half-wishing you would
look at my breasts again, in your sweet direct way.
You showed me Krishna pose
fingers curled into the Chin mudra,
knee and head coyly tilting to the corner.
We slid into Nataraja, the dancer,
symbol of infinite energy
and I felt sinuous as the sitar music,
playing softly in the background.
But after Shavasan (the corpse),
we bowed to each other in Namaste,
and I walked into the centre garden alone.
I straightened a yellow orchid in a fallen terracotta pot.
knowing that we had said too much,
and that I would not come back.
To read life
Sara P. Dias
I would have liked to know
how to read the world in the
precise language of white-eyes
flitting into existence
in a sprinkler’s shower,
or how to translate
the sea into a mother.
The sea is endless and cold,
unlike the snug respite of a womb.
On this shore sailboats cant empty
on the beach, their holds quiet,
while crossings by ferry
swell to overwhelm
the individual voice.
Would I have recited life more truly
if I ousted the gods of poetry
and their ecstasies, built shacks
from the broken towers of their song,
or declared barren their mistress moon –
I would have liked to know
how to write the world.
you know what's best.
My father never cleverly showed
that he could make phrases float,
and single syllables out to sail softly,
like little boats where the two blues meet.
My mother never strung socks and shorts
out on the washing line to talk in morse,
or red-blue, red-blue undies clashing,
to signal stocking-laddered discontent.
My father said say it quick we've no time
for your pretty knots. You'll soon find
that they're no good for fishing.
My mother said you'd think clean clothes
grow on trees cause he's ignoring both
the washing and hanging he's s'posed to do.
And I said yes ma'am, no sir, sorry
I'll do the chores and learn the trade
and trade in the games so don't you worry.
You'll have done your job and I'll be made.
This is the truth
I don’t write on Sundays.
It’s not a religious thing – just a thing about wine.
I normally drink too much of it while others are praying.
In the end, (to use an obvious cliché)
it matters not one whiff of a dogs fart.
Good poetry is excess,
which simply put, is more of what happens
when everything falls into place
behind the face of God.
I don’t wish to labour the point, but the truth is this –
I’m not easily given to understanding.
I grapple with half-truths and unfinished work
because I have no faith,
no help, no desire, no hope,
no muse, no deal, no show, no time,
no talent and no conviction.
I am forever in awe of my own question.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know enough.
It’s Sunday and I really don’t know anything at all.
lamb on Sundays
julle gaan breek
as we climbed the pepper tree
greened by a leaking tap
laughing at her broken sentence
towel around a worn shift
toenails furrowed and grey
when I left to marry
she brought me a wrapped teapot
took snuff from a small blue tub
remembering my long brown hair
the house with many windows
madam’s narrow waist
christiaan’s cot made up with lace
soup before a meal
peacocks and roses
lamb on Sundays
long before she died indomitably
in a yard swept clean of dust
The boys who cried ‘metaphor!’
Metaphor is not a screen behind which to commit acts of hate speech. Just because it incorporates images of burning tyres and loaded guns does not mean that it condones necklacing or lynching. It may be whimsical, but is never stupid. Like states, metaphors can fail, usually because of intellectual paucity and an inability to pursue one’s own imaginative logic as clear-headedly as a philosopher. I would urge any South African poet made miserable by the boys who cried ‘metaphor!’ to read Max Black’s seminal essay http://www.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/Black1954.pdf. Metaphor is still an art.
You will not find any failed metaphors in this month’s selection of poems. Instead, you will be delighted by kites that speak of souls, washing lines pegged with morse code, poems constructed like a gourmet meal and yoga lessons that turn out to be seduction rituals.
Ulla Kelly’s ‘office girls’ and ‘tears for queers’ are punchy, acerbic poems softened with a little playfulness and a lot of wry humour. I particularly liked the quirkiness of ‘office girls’. Maybe Ulla is the daughter of an odd marriage between Frank O’Hara and Gertrude Stein?
I loved the quick retort, the energy and compactness of Shamim Omar’s ‘Don’t say’.
James Whyle’s ‘Parting’ is an astonishing technical feat: written in utterly natural-sounding iambic pentameter, it stretches out like the kite lines it uses as images for our connection to our souls. It manages to be at once an utterly down-to-earth telling, a dramatically rendered scene and a sublime meditation. I wish thousands of beginner poets can see just what can be achieved by building with diction that mostly consists of single-syllable words.
Philip Addo’s ‘Roasted rhymes’ is a delightful and spirited response to novel-writing from a poet. His poem ‘Brown’ is an absurd, tragic-comic chronicle of the dangers of this accident-prone colour.
Sarah Frost’s wittily titled ‘One on one’ tells the story of a yoga lesson. It is a sheer delight: sensual, funny, compulsive.
Sara P.Dias’ poem ‘To read life’ is a complex but rewarding poem. Her strong images (‘white-eyes/ flitting into existence/ in a sprinkler’s shower’) and patterned references to different types of speaking (‘cant’, ‘ecstasies’, ‘precise language’, ‘recited’, ‘declared’) speak to the idea of a writing and reading life. How does one ‘write the world’, after all, unless one has read it? For me, Sara’s poem beautifully corrals the longing and elusiveness that not only inspire us while we write, but haunt us after we’ve written.
Evan Davies’ clever, provocative untitled poem seems to be written in the voice of the wind, or that of a beachcomber who finds a stray photograph.
J.D.Warner’s ‘you know what’s best’ is a similar exploration of what language does and doesn't do. There’s a father who couldn’t ‘make phrases float …sail softly/ like little boats where the two blues meet’, and a mother who 'never strung socks and shorts/ out on the washing line to talk in morse,/ or red-blue, red-blue undies clashing,/ to signal stocking-laddered discontent’. I thought these images were marvellous, and that it was a pity that the last two lines of the poem couldn’t quite match their brilliance.
Graham Dukas’ poem ‘This is the truth’ engages us immediately with its bold title, and then sustains our interest with its conversational tone, its light treatment of heavy matters and its marvellous catalogue of negatives (‘because I have no faith,/no help, no desire, no hope,/no muse, no deal, no show, no time,/no talent and no conviction).
Dominique Botha’s ‘lamb on Sundays’ is a remarkably economical poem that recalls a family retainer without ever lapsing into sentimentality. The poem uses only concrete images ‘madam’s narrow waist/christiaan’s cot made up with lace/soup before a meal/peacocks and roses/lamb on Sundays’ to capture the past and deftly establish the continuum of generations.
Thank you for participating in this month’s workshop. You’ve restored my faith in metaphor and strengthened my belief that poetry is still the only way to think.