Poetry Project

Striking Women

South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. When neither Strijdom nor his representatives would meet with them, they left bundles of petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at the Prime Minister`s door.

Outside the Government building, they stood silently for 30 minutes, their hands raised in the Congress salute.

The women concluded their demonstration by singing freedom songs, including a new one composed especially for the occasion:

Wathint` abafazi, Strijdom!
Wathint` imbokodo uzo kufa!
Now you have touched the women, Strijdom!
You have struck a rock
(You have dislodged a boulder!)
You will be crushed!

Write a poem honouring a woman you know or admire, or women in general. Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed 'SLiP August poetry workshop' to slip.stellenbosch@gmail.com by no later than Sunday 17 August 2014. Please give your poem a title.


My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world's ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you'd make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn't matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
"You can't do that," one of the women protests,
turning to me, "Tell her she can't do that."
"We wash our feet five times a day,"
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
"My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!"
My grandmother nudges me, "Go on, tell them."

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

Mohja Kahf

For a Five-Year-Old

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

Fleur Adcock

Time Running Across the Night

To watch Sitti Hoca set
her mouth and write her name
in a new script, to see
her comb wool sheared
from a sheep in Kurdistan, washed
five times, on metal teeth, then take
a wooden stick capped
with a metal hook, fit
one piece of the soft mass
to the hook and pull
with the fingers a thinning strand, rub
the long stick upwards
along her thigh and release
it to twirl the thinning mass
into thread, is to see
time made by hand.

With the fingers she counts
the steps back
to the beginnings of things,
the sheep on dry hills
while war wages over names
and borders. And despite that,
the shearing and spinning and weaving -
in nomadic lives, all the names
for time and permanence.

On the mats beneath her feet weave
patterns named
stalk of grain,
throat of the wolf,
the evil eye,
love’s hook.

I meet her in the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm.
Europe made its certainties through leaving
and bringing back its coffers full of evidence.
Sitti Hoca is a refugee.
Europe has brought its losses home.

The patterns from the north of Sweden look
like those from the Kurdish hills, evidence
not of one consciousness flowing
through us all but, in a mat
that takes a month to weave, time running
across the night while the wolves come
over the horizon. In the plane of thread, catching
love’s brief solace
in the permanence of the fingers.

Gabeba Baderoon

Reading Dickinson / Summer '68

In the hermetic almost dark
under the fluorescent dizz

I found her broken nerves,
smoke coming off the dashes,
the caps like jolts to the neck,

the pried-open spaces between vowels
where the teeth bit off twine
and the tongue was raw then cool with ice.

The air of the stockroom after lunch
was the marbleized silence of the
small blank pages she stitched into privacy.

Air of paper and faint glue
bond, carbon, graph, yellow pads,

in the stockroom I could read alone—
the confetti of money dissolved on the blank wall.

After work, I slid the numbered poems
on blue mimeo into my playbook,
and felt the open field

the zig-zagging past cornerbacks,
the white lines skewed to heaven.

Excuse my mood—unbridled, chemical,
her scrawled messages smooth to the mind,

excuse my absence, again and yes, then, too—

the cold stone of the Palisades was there
after we split—

alone naked in the Hudson,
the water greasing me in the tepid, chemical mix,

before I returned
to the cement of 9W in my father’s Skylark

the night black and soundless within.

Peter Balakian

Fast Speaking Woman [Excerpt]

woman never under your thumb, says
skull that was a head, says
bloodshot eyes, says
I'm the Kali woman the killer woman
women with salt on her tongue
fire that cleans
fire that catches
fire burns hotter as I go
woman traded her secrets never, says
woman reversed the poles, says
woman never left America to know this
but she did, says, she did leave
woman combs snakes out of her hair
woman combs demons out of her hair
woman lies down with the cobra
then meditates under cobra canopy
woman had a bone in her throat, says
was it yours? says
she admits she has a taste for you, says
she's cannibal woman, Kali woman
woman's tongue once split in ten directions
one: I'm a savage woman
two: I'm the rutting woman
three: I'm the fire dancer with coal-black feet
four: Im the old-time thinker
five: poseur woman
six: I'm the redacteur
seven: auteur
eight: I haunt you with my songs
nine: I was the nun
now I am bound by desire again
ten: I'm the cittipatti woman
the dancing-skull woman
mouth is moving, says
skull-mouth moving, says
says these things
says terrible things as I go
mouth is gaping
tongue is bleeding
everywhere suffering, as I go
I'm the celebrity woman
I'm the luminary woman
I'm the standout woman
I'm the braggart woman
I'm the shrew at the window woman
I'm the stigma woman
the beaten woman
the disgraced woman
hag woman
where will I go?
who will have me?
water clean me
water clean me, as I go
I'm the camouflaged woman
I'm the assuaged woman
I'm the ravenous woman
I'm the Kali Yuga woman
high-pitched woman
not a trifling woman
hissing woman
I'm the woman with the fangs
I'm the woman with the guns
I'm the woman with tomes
I'm the hook woman
I'm the stolen book woman
fire that burns as I go
woman was in the world was walking
woman was singing sounding the day away
sounds like a cranky old machine, someone said
(that someone was a mean man, mean child-man)
but she just ignored the cranky old machine part
& went on her way
woman took her haughty self out of the sky
she had a nose that tall
how tall?
& stuck up it was
mincy mincy mincy mincy she cried
mincy mincy mincy
she was burning all right
her house (the one she carried on her head) was afire

Anne Waldman


Submitted Poems

Ross Fleming
Ross writes an ode

excited and
challenged and
provoked to
a reaction I thought


a poem about women this is
glorious a collage of cliches
surged across
my synapses


adrenalin lovers
subtle rod collectors
dream finders
water diviners
humour mystics
sarchasmic facilitators
network specialists
washing machine?

I was getting into it
feeling actually quite brill when
I was asked to adjust the outflow ratchet
on the thingy under the you know
please I need it done now
and could you please

put DOWN
that blinking CELLPHONE

enough and no further do NOT
text your friends while I'm
speaking to you what's this now
let me s

Telan Hamer

Devil in my Palm
I wonder if I should have you, little devil in the palm of mine.
You look harmless just lying there, big head and brittle spine.
A touch and you’re dust, as first you were born
upon that divine twilight before the Sabbath dawned.
Upon that twilight, see, He crafted a way, for us to see
through His eyes how He sees the day.

Nestling you in His garden and nurturing you on the varden
– yet He should have been resting –
so that the next day would bring you into her light
to grant dear Man the gift of His sight.

So why are they cruel? They cast you aside, little friend
in which your creator hath bestowed so much pride.
Sinners, the lot! How can they not
want to see the very day flung open wide!?

The colours so bright and fantastic,
the whole world vividly heaving ecstatic,
revealing what is hidden and could not be seen
without the magic that is laced betwixt and tween
your brittle body.

So, yes, I will have you.
I will consume you and see what your creator intended for thee,
And, in turn, what He intend for me.
I’m not like the others who cry Devil! – scared – and shroud you in gloom.
You design of heaven, you little mushroom.


Christine Ueri
Madiba, Madiba

black boy, black boy
we shot you --
nothing left
in your small, shiny black shoes,
your tidy school uniform

white boy, white boy
we will not shoot you –
nothing right
in your big, broken black shoes,
your untidy school-form –

instead, we will not teach you

white boy, we will not teach you:
English is for black schools –

Madiba, Madiba:
the jacarandas of Pretoria are dying.
The mimosas in the bushveld
have taken the acacia tree's name
and beneath the soil,
the roots of South Africa are still
growing, exactly the same?

Zinzi Sealy
(To a black woman stone worker)

Sweet sister stone woman
you stand on the skyline a caryatid
bearing a rock on your head
your face a mask of clay against the sun.

This fynbos path these rocky steps
these safe steps your hands' work.
Will you walk this path too?

Strong women black women
not cold like stone
but immovable rocks of ages.
They are the backbone
the family's stay.
See the women strong women
they support us nourish us
appear strong before us.
But they can melt like stone does
as stone was molten then hardened.
Life does this and leaves them stronger
makes warm stone women.

Jeannie Mckeown
Space for New Mothers

Stand together
Join hands
Let’s remember the difficult start
to this journey
for you,
acknowledge that it’s different
for each woman who undertakes it
but leaves its indelible mark on all
who arrive here – holding a baby –
to this milksoft place made of steel,
this way station.

Join hands
Stand together
salute each other’s courage
we welcome you and your tiny child
to a commonage which stretches
to the beginning and the end.

We know
all of us
that you birthed a child to reach here
but more
you yourself were birthed
into a world tangential to the one
where you lived

Stand together
Join hands
See how many of us surround you?
Take your place.
Rest here with your child
at your breast
in this circle
before he stands on his feet,
runs off into the world
and you, his mother,

Bertrand Tufuor

idle wander on baked shores,
sunk cosy loose feeling
etching wells of prints
erased by the gush of refreshing waves

svelte and gliding,
a goddess of the sun,
waxed lyrical tales of falling coconuts
missing heads by inches at siesta's recline

Emily Buchanan
Precious Metals and Stones

What was dirty blonde is silver –
Glint of alchemy on my head.

Copper eyebrows shooting wild –
Live inheritance from my dead.

Platinum tracks across my breasts –
Glistening proof of those ahead.

Amethyst ferns pressed into thighs –
Knees decorated with bronze –

And under my feet, granite –
The last ridge between
This body and the earth.

Keith Edwards
Jane's Refusers [revised]

Fanny, Elizabeth, Anne –
you were fiction's outriders,
with quiet or spirited

Cuckoos in Regency nests,
trapped and stranded in small-town dull families,
you anticipated 'Hell is other people'
by a century and a half.

But you never gave up.
Fending your families and
neighbourhood 'nests of spies',
you married for love
You were the foot that had to put down.

Crystal Warren
Survivor Not Victim

When the police came
at 2am
she worried about the neighbours,
not wanting to disturb their sleep.

She was surprised
when her children rushed to her side,
'it's not necessary' she insisted
as though they could choose to stay away.

In court, at last
she pitied the other women,
a mother and sister
weeping for the accused.

Gentle and soft,
always thinking of others
yet standing straight
an unexpected spine of steel.

Olive Schreiner

On an African farm
she wrote her story
the iron words
prizing open doors,
taking her
across the world
to share dreams
and thoughts on South Africa.

An international success
she campaigned for peace,
her pen an olive branch.
stronger than a sword
it tore through lies,
calling for justice,
for equal rights
for women and labour.

She changed worlds
in dream life and real life.


Ross writes an ode by Ross Fleming works as edgy satire as he takes offode-writing, poetry, poets, men, women, and domestic life. I love the made-up word ‘sarchasmic’ and the ending! Ha ha! I would cut ‘to / a reaction’.

The image of a caryatid in Zinzi Sealy's poem in praise of a labouring ‘Stone Woman’ is a powerful and successful one. The poem thereafter becomes generalised and borders on the sentimental. We can fall short as writers when we take a potentially distressing situation and ‘fix’ it by projecting vague stereotypes. The poem will be so much stronger if the poet either interviews the ‘stone’ woman to find out how and whether the idea of caryatid translates into their actual lived lives, or else to take her projection back, and explore the image of the caryatid in her own life.

Jeannie Mckeown’s poem Space For New Mothers successfully evokes a sense of protectiveness and empathy in a circle created by those who have been there before. Yet it infers a world outside the circle that does not understand, or is different. Even the world of becoming a new mother is presented as having a ‘difficult start’, and as:

‘this milksoft place made of steel,’ (lovely phrase)

I suggest writing further into the steel, and the difficulty, experimenting with the contrast between the protection of the holding space, and what it protects the new mother from.

Precious Metals and Stones by Emily Buchanan is a meditation on ageing and death. I like the honouring of what is usually feared and denigrated. The poet alchemically transforms the marks and signs of ageing into things of beauty (Amethyst ferns pressed into thighs is so lovely), and also of value and achievement. The poem starts with a strong rhyming scheme which ends suddenly and disconcertingly – I would make a decision to take it all the way through, or to abandon the rhyme altogether. I like the extra line in the last stanza – the form mirrors the patience, effort, distance and attention required to conquer the last ridge as in a mountain climber. Also there is a sense that the poet is already starting to merge with the earth – is the granite ridge part of the horny sole of her foot, or part of the earth?

Keith Edwards pays tribute to Jane Austen and her bucking of conventional roles for women through her female characters in his poem Jane’s refusers. Although I’m in favour of playing with sentence construction, particularly in poems whose content requires this, I was puzzled by the decision to use the word ‘refusers’ in the title and by following:

with quiet or spirited


‘You were the foot that had to put down.’

I suggest cutting

‘trapped and stranded in small-town dull families,’

as the previous line describes this more eloquently, and I would perhaps expand either on the cuckoo image or the Sartre quote, and how it is relevant to her writing, exploring this in a poetic rather than academic way.

Survivor, Not Victim by Crystal Warrenis full of surprises. At first I thought the police had come to arrest the central character, then it transpires that she is being assisted because of an attack. Then I assumed the children were children, living with her. I don’t know whether the poet was aware of setting the poem up like this, and it is largely successful. The poem avoids the trauma just as the central character does. The court scene contains another surprise. I would scrap the last stanza – we have got it by then.

Crystal Warren’s second poem Olive Schreiner honours the author. I feel it needs a good prune. I know artists who are horrified when their teacher puts a brush to their canvasses, so I hope my suggested edit is not intrusive. Fortunately electronic marks are easier to erase than paint:

‘On an African farm
she wrote her story
the iron words
prized open doors,
to share dreams
and thoughts on South Africa;

her pen an olive branch.
stronger than swords.’

As always, take what you like and leave the rest …

I liked the twist at the end of Bertrand Tufuor’s poem Barefeet. The idyllic scene evoked by sensual images hints that things might not remain perfect by the introduction of cliché (‘goddess of the sun’, and ‘waxed lyrical’) before the surprising ending. I would suggest changing ‘prints’ to ‘footprints’ for clarity, and I would scrap ‘at siesta's recline’.

In the poem Madiba, Madiba, Christine Ueri looks at the implications of political change in contemporary South Africa across race and education, using a recent change in botanical names as a metaphor. The title sets the poem up as a lament, or an appeal to Mandela. I was confused by the assertion that white children will not be taught, and that ‘English is for black schools’ – did I miss something in the press? The poem ends with the observation that the roots of a tree remain the same, no matter what one calls the tree, yet it is phrased as a question. I feel that the form of the poem works well, but the content in the middle of the poem needs more attention for clarity.

Telan Hamer’s poem Devil in my Palm takes another edgy subject and turns it on its head – that of the Creator, use of psychotropic agents and the Devil. I like the main thrust of the poem, which questions right and wrong, and the resonance with the story of the Garden of Eden, and the fateful consuming of the forbidden fruit. I suggest that the poet reads the poem aloud to identify and rectify those places where the rhythm trips on the tongue. For example:

without the magic that is laced betwixt and tween’

Sounds better to my ear as:

without magic that’s laced betwixt and between’

Also, I couldn’t find out what ‘varden’ means.

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