Poetry Project

Worms, wormholes and wandering

This month I'm inviting poems on time travel, aimlessness and ageing.  I do most of my aimless wandering on the web, often launching off from Arts and Letters Daily.  What I'm doing only seems random and aimless,  since I'm always alert to ideas that will form the basis of exercises like these, or that will set me off writing a poem myself. I think you have to train yourself to be permanently open to the possibility of a poem.  Poems do not make appointments.

Time, travel and approaching mortality are the perfect thematic and structural engines for poetry.  As far as the derived exercise is concerned, I've always loved Bob Dylan lyrics that take us walking through streets, observing and experiencing without any sense of the poet bustling about looking for a destination or carrying out an errand.  Those sorts of meanders seem to me to be perfect metaphors for life.

I've been an admirer of Donald Hall's poetry and prose for a long time.  His reflections on what it feels like to be really old speak to a particular fascination of mine, namely that by 2050, one in five people will be over sixty.  Yet poetry has been pretty youth obsessed so far.  We need more poems that help us understand and endure our inevitable longevity.

That longevity has also meant that we are increasingly linked to previous centuries through old people who act as 'wormholes' because while we are sitting next to them right now, they once sat next to Salvador Dali or Rasputin or Queen Victoria.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP February poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Sunday 4 March 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.

I look forward to your poems in response to any or all of the following prompts.

  1. A poem responding to or corroborating Robert Krulwich’s idea that ‘there are people who live long enough to create a link — a one-generation link — to figures from what feels like a distant past, and their presence among us shrinks history. When "Long Ago" suddenly becomes "So I said to him ...," long ago jumps closer. … [Jason Kottke] calls them "human wormholes," because these people help us leap across space/time.’
  2. Baudelaire said of Edgar Allan Poe ‘he did not drink like an ordinary toper, but like a savage, with an altogether American energy and fear of wasting a minute, as though he were accomplishing an act of murder, as though there was something inside him that he had to kill, ‘a worm that would not die.’”  Write a poem about drinking, a drinker, or any form of self-destructive behaviour that appeals to the artist in you.
  3. A poem responding to, incorporating or resulting from the practice of Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’.  You might like to see what happened when a housebound photographer reinterpreted the dérive.
  4. Read Donald Hall’s reflections on ageing and then write your own honest response – either how you see very old people, or how you feel about ageing.
  5. A poem on the theme of leap years.
  6. A poem beginning with ‘When’, ‘Where’, ‘While’ or ‘How’.
  7. A poem about a word or phrase you love to hate, like ‘literally’ or ‘whilst’.
  8. Any poem on any subject.

Submitted Poems

How Life Is
Dawn Garisch

In the savoury air of the curry joint we sit
and eat - two women divorced from husbands
and lost lives. It might be the vindaloo,
or the wine, but I am snot-nose crying,
in full view of those who wish to enjoy
their food. I’m trying to explain to you –
to myself: how life is unmoved by who is right
or wrong, and who did what to whom; we are
mere players in a great pantomime,
performing parts which must stay true
to narrative alone; right now, this might mean
weeping salt into a chilli stew at a plastic table near the sea –

that other consistent, unfathomed story
repeating, repeating, in the dark, endlessly.

Monkey Puzzle
Pam Newham
While your fellows press
heir small faces with
all-too-human eyes
against the glass
you hang back,
like a teenager in a dress
her mother bought.
Then unable to resist
you swing onto the deck
and that's when I see
you are pink.
Your fur is bright pink!
And I understand why
you are shy.

Some simean skin disease?
A pot of unwatched paint?
A spray to chase you away?

I find, these days,
there seem to be few things
that astound and amaze.
But you did it
high in a bushveld tree
(the absurdity)
one small pink monkey.

accompanied by a bum
Ross Fleming

Dearest Diary,
I was accompanied by a bum today.
There I said the word: forgive me.
Sweet;  innocent;  yet somehow knowing,
It wobbled firmly, delightfully, poetically into view
speaking of the immortal feminine
as I walked towards the bus stop.
It's owner intent on her cellphone,
unaware of my fond interest,

Just busy being twentysomething,
occupied with more important things
than an ageing bachelor with Spring on his heart.

A new spring in my step, I proceeded to
catch the bus, observed and appreciated
and worshipped and dreamed and sorrowed
and ended up getting off at a later stop,
for the trudge back to the Woollies on the corner.

How sad that it should have come to this.
What would Mother have said?


hey jakz ctch ths sstr,  i wuz
acmpnd by a BUM a 2nd ago!!!
im hryng 2 ctch da bus 2
edz plce nd i figr ths assholz
flwng me. ctch ths he hs MARUN
scks on nd a wlkng kn nd he's
SMILING L  i flt so kripi
n e ways so i prtnd nt 2 c him
nd wen i get 2 edz he FREEEKS
nd wnts to fnd hm 2 even da scor.
42nitli managd 2 carm him down.
its mad out thre ch@ l8r jayd

Opus for Job Creation
(Manfred, Opus 58, which has the loudest climax Tchaikovsky ever wrote)
Lise Day

Seventy musicians required to portray
Manfred lost in the Alps:
two harpists to warble a quick melody;
a triangle tinger and cymbal basher;
a fit timpanist to run down the corridor
and chime three distant bells;
a flurry of bow sweepers and pluckers;
a blast of trumpeters and other blowers;
all the wide legged cellists;
oh – and the famous organist who understands
the growling temple of pipes.

The birds trapped high
in the city hall
beat at the clerestory windows
the outside cleaners
stop their wiping and scraping
transfixed by the onslaught of sound.

Jane McArthur

I woke up today with a poem in my head
I Defrosted The Fridge.

It scanned and rhymed
And was pithy and witty.

I planned to develop it
Drawing attention to the accumulations of ice falling
In slow chunks
Like the disappearing accretions of memory.

It slipped away.

In The Loo
Jane McArthur

I’m so aware as I tear each square
Of loo paper, or worse, put in a new roll,
That I won’t have time to:
Read the books
Eat the food
Explore the minds
Make the rugs
Adore the dear one
Eat up the baby
Read Andrew Lang to the boys
Float on the swells
Learn to be nice
Before I tear the final square.

Once upon a snowy day
Jane McArthur

My Grandmama, clad in a muff,
Was put into an awful huff
When, hurrying down a Mayfair Street,
To fast escape the snow and sleet,
A speeding carriage, rushing past
Sent her tumbling, quite aghast,
Into the icy dirty mess.
It spoiled her pretty coat and dress.

She peered inside the steamy glass
As the vision hurried past
And who do you think she recognised?
Queen Victoria snug inside.
I am very much amused
That she who did so badly use
My Grandmama that wintry day
Was only one degree away
From me, who can be rather rude
And don’t find piano legs too rude.

Ross Fleming

i think one of the most like how can i describe it now
amazing words in the like cannon of eng lit is
that word awesome doesnt’ it just sum up the
absalut kind of primal basic springboard for
er i mean EVERYTHING i mean we were
there by the pool just the manne standing round
free castle on tap inhaling satisfaction
when ed the newboy looks down starts slowly
at first coughing and then he’s like GREEN with
nausea and merv says bru like in a nasty
slow way [he’s been edging him]
he says come now bru who
who who you think you’re fooling hey
you never inhaled before you’re a faker and
DON’T WE HATE FAKE get me bru
we hate fakirs
sinister like like
like evilly like you could see how much
he hated him and ed says relax man its
a blerry babelaas i smoked weed
before man i swear tik too and merv is
toying with his nose slapping
his zinc-white cheeks and provoking a reaction
whose mommies little boy then
suction cripple-nipple boff-bollie
and merv’s twisted his arm up behind got
him groveling for mercy and the manne
laughing loud nervous bursts and then
it was awesome awesome being the only
verb to describe it ed drops on one knee and throws
him judo and merv goes flying over him crashing
headfirst into the castle dispenser and their’s
blood spilt on the concrete and merv can’t move
yah awesome describes it well
english is an amazingly awesome language
when applied well.

My chosen noose
J.D. Warner

I used your loose-hanging body as an excuse for
the gloomy cigarettes drooping from the corner
of my downturned mouth. Like you and that limp wrist
you carried in your back pocket for special occasions,
such as when you saw that cute twink across the bar,
I pulled a soft pack out softly to show how invested
I was, in your death.
Like a dodgy banker
in the housing bubble
I never thought it’d end
in rubble.

Your afro – black and lush
excused the exhaled rush
of white smoke drifting
upwards to what was
once heaven.
You cannot rise on
new-age crap like
peace and

You were a smoker too
and I chose to remember you
by killing myself purposefully
as you had done. Though not
as brave, I spread it out;
slow collapse
stick by stick

My memoirs
Mark L. Lilleleht

Left alone entirely
I wonder where the years went

And then I remember

Pissing them
down the rabbit hole
of nostalgia

The gap
Mark L. Lilleleht

It really is too soon
to try to wrestle with my own mortality

I mean…
that was for those college years, right?
and that existentialism class

Well, that and I did jumpstart things as a teen
with that brutal, childish unhappiness
though that’s hardly peculiar to a certain sort

I didn’t, after all, know what happiness was
or rather, had left behind the pure joy of childhood
and not yet taken up the pleasures of the world

But it seems too soon to take up
my mortality

Though it’s probably not too early
to steel myself
against the mortality of others

In this long interregnum.

Old age                                              
Graham Dukas

Suppose that there is a place in the mind
where a small door takes shape as one grows older,
as the days shorten and memory fades,

as mornings become more surprising than ever
and everyone else seems so much younger,
and suppose that on this door hangs a sign that reads,

‘Keep out’ and in smaller letters below,
in beautiful cursive writing not often seen these days,
‘until you no longer feel the need to know’

Suppose that when one finally opens this tiny door,
all that’s there are one’s friends, those still living that is,
they who have stepped through their own small doors

and now, older than they ever believed possible,
have found a bench to rest on while waiting
for you to join them, waiting for the coming stillness.

Leap years                        
Graham Dukas

The years tumble on without pause
until a leap year comes around
and, like a river crossed
by way of an old stone bridge,
we are given the chance
to take a leisurely view
of its winding course
from the opposite bank,
until at day’s end
we cross back
to continue the journey
to wherever it’s bound to take us.

Thoughts at an important family occasion          
Graham Dukas 

Last Sunday, leaning back into the hardness of a wooden pew
in an old church, I looked up at its dark, silent rafters
and listened to the whispering sound of the arriving congregation.

And as they hurried to take their seats ahead of the procession,
their voices slipping like mice between the rows of benches,
I saw your great grandson, an infant of nine months, head back,
peering up at those same rafters but with less on his mind, I’d guess.

Then the organ, as if proud of its service to this venerable church,
opened its heavy voice to the world, and I thought of how,
in years to come, this young boy, by then a grown man,
might again look up into that dark roof space and remember
that he’d been here before, at his great grandmother’s wedding.

“4 Geslagte op ’n ry”
Annel Pieterse

My mother is very good
at keeping records,
she understands the need
for order and accrual
in the processes of memory-making

[Growing up, she meticulously
organized our life’s mementoes

My hospital bracelet: “Baba Pieterse, 12 April 1980, 02:03am”
Telegrams and cards from well-wishers
inoculation dates

first tooth (7 months 10 days)

first words (8 months):
“Papa, Mama, Baba, Nana, Tata (en waai!), Oupa.”

first Christmas

First crawled (9 months, 7 days)
first steps (10 months 10 days)

first drawings
first letters,
first prize for colouring-in

first day at kleuterskool
first day at grootskool (I remember walking through the heavy fog
that first morning, new Bata Toughees, new white socks, new satchel, new uniform
a bit too big, everything strange)]

In my first photo album, a picture:
a new baby (me)
a new mother
(a little bit tired, a little bit puffy, a little bit younger than I am now)
a proud ouma
an ouma grootjie
and the caption: “4 Geslagte op ’n ry!”
– 4 Generations in a row.

My great ouma was the first to go
sliding off the edge of the couch, the edge of the photo, the edge of life
at the age of 93,
I was 5.

Now my ouma is nearly 92
(like Mandela, she likes to remind us, who is also sliding slowly away)

She’s moved from her little flat
in the aftree-oord
to the siekeboeg

She spends her days lying on the bed
staring at the ceiling,

We all know
it’s the final stop before the edge.

We’re packing her stuff
the stuff of a lifetime

(her new room is small
she shares it with another tannie
and says it’s like being in the koshuis again,
she only has space for three photos
and they’re all of my oupa when he was still young, still healthy, still here
although he’s been dead
for nearly 20 years)

and suddenly my own mother is old
struggling with her knees and feet and hips
at 62

and the planes of my dad’s face
have somehow flattened
his cheeks seem sunken

and I see the colour fading from my parents

and my aunt looks like an oom.

And as I hurry from the siekeboeg
back to the flat
to pack up the last of the Noritake tea-set
(only ever used on special occasions
but ouma will not be hosting a party for eight again)
the tannie on the path in front of me
moving slowly to avoid a fall
turns to me with a smile, her face creased and folded
like a precious photo of a lover
kept in a breast-pocket
and says:

ek het gewonder wie loop so lekker vinnig
agter my.

I smile and say something meaningless
hurrying on past her
up the path,
across the road,
around the bend,
hurry hurry ever onward
towards the edge
of memory.

Annel Pieterse

I recently bought
a new lighter:

large, heavy, silver
with an image of Ché

beneath the slogan

on the red side-panels.

It hasn’t really worked
since I bought it
I click and click
but no spark.

This morning
I was trying it again
in the kitchen.

Using a screwdriver
I turned the gas key
as high as it would go,

Click, click, click and finally, a flame.

So I’m lying on my bed, reading
the lighter on my bedside table, when I hear a click-click
clicking quite close-by

and for just a fleeting moment

it is as if I
were lying in my bed
listening to myself
half an hour ago
clicking away
in the kitchen.

Growing old
Philip Addo

Since my crawling days,
I have seen the sun travel through
the deserts, tropics, and snows,
but has never grown old.

Today, as I sat by my aged bed,
in anticipation for my creator
to grant permission for my mourning
after the morning,
I saw her rising with unfading dimples
still showering seamless smiles on her face.
She waved pass me to rest yet again
after reminding me of the wrinkles on my face
which kept calling me to my grave.

Dowsie T

Metaphors fall from cheek to paper.
Feelings, Beating (Breaking. Pounding. Aching)
between pages, fragments and cold finger tips.
Palms touching.
She has never known words to be so futile,
Never tried to move a mountain
by blowing as she would the flame on a candle.
By breathing.
Weaving Perfect simple words.
That hang loosely around him,
never able to wrap him, get close to
feel him.
Never feeling
How she feels.
How she wants to feel.
Never has a page so full of words seemed so

A Love Story
Llewellyn Kriel

Life must sting and shiver else what’s a gullet for?
Life must thirst and snort else what’s a tear-duct for?
Life must wink at itself in private self-defiance.
Life must channel-hop in exiled self-reliance.

Come to my trembling hands, my dearest sweet.
Come to my reaching lips, the time is young and neat.
Kiss me, take me, rape me with the beast in you;
fold me, hold me, mould me to your burning bosom,
Oh my darling Matryoshka!

I read: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!” but fuck-it, Jesus mate, it didn’t worry me.
Plump and round and warm and wet,
On a rumpled greasy hotel bed just giving head
Wild and marish and sweaty and garish,
On sun-secluded open sky she’d suck me dry.
The mariner’s whore in every port
A ready slap-&-tickle or just a matron’s bosomly resort.
Comfort, solace, balm from harm or an Olympic sport

Come to my trembling hands, my dearest sweet.
Come to my reaching lips, the time is young and neat
Kiss me, take me, rape me with the beast in you;
fold me, hold me, mould me to your burning bosom,
Oh my darling Matryoshka!

Life must thirst and burst else what’s a climax for?
Life must bend and mend else what’s the wrenching for?
Life must outplay the greater foe in gutteral depravity
Life must shrink in shame from the mirrored cavity

Though my dear love’s still around,
I see her now and then - and she sees me.
She sees my yearning, knows I’m burning, sees the throbbing priapic churning
and hard, monastic, heavy turning|
and I think she’s kinda sore
'cause I don’t visit anymore.
But, hey, everybody needs a whore;
else, what’s a heaven for?


I usually choose only the poems I like best to post here, but this month I’ve decided to publish all the submissions so that readers can decide whether they agree with my choices.  I’ll try to be forthright about what I don’t like, without being destructive. But first, some comments on what I did like.

A successful poem goes somewhere.  When the poem ends, there has been a perceptible change somewhere: within the speaker, perhaps; ideally within us. It is often accompanied by a feeling of surprise or a satisfying sense of having achieved an insight.

This power of making a difference, of altering and metamorphosing, was present for me in poems by Annel Pieterse, Dawn Garisch, J.D.Warner,  Mark L.Lilleleht (‘My Memoirs’), Jane McArthur (‘In the Loo’) and Graham Dukas.

In the study of Renaissance poetry, this sudden change of thought I'm talking about is called the volta (signalled by ‘But’ or ‘Yet’), and it’s a turnaround that typically takes place in the sestet or closing couplet of a sonnet – which is exactly what happens, very beautifully, in the closing couplet of Dawn Garisch’s sonnet, ‘How Life Is’.

But even in free verse I long for an elegantly achieved switch or sleight of mind, rather than an ending that fizzles out or restates what has been said before.  I want to get off the train at a different station, as I do at the end of Annel Pieterse’s ‘Wormhole’: I find myself physically shifted in space and mentally shifted in time by a simple ‘click click’ sound.  Similarly, in Graham Dukas’s ‘Old Age’, I find a closed door opened for me, a secret revealed.

There were several poems that almost took me by surprise; that almost made me feel I’d reached a destination. Philip Addo’s ‘Growing Old’ is based on the premise that whereas we age, the sun remains ever-youthful (poetic licence, since the sun is actually middle-aged).  But in the fourth line of his poem, he pre-empts his beautifully crafted ending by stating baldly that the sun ‘has never grown old’.  There would be several ways around this problem.  He could play on the actual age of the sun (4.5 billion years) before going on to personify our hot star as a nonchalant young woman who waves at him, leaving him behind to contemplate his wrinkles.  He could simply omit line 4; or he could pretend that the sun is some kind of comfort before revealing her heartless insouciance.

Lise Day’s delightful ‘Opus for Job Creation’ cries out for a musical crescendo which its last line ‘transfixed by the onslaught of sound’ simply doesn’t deliver.  The solution here, I suspect, would be to supply a line that chimes in with the poem’s wonderful title, tying together the whole concept of ‘job creation’ in relation to a rousing piece of classical music.

Pam Newham’s ‘Monkey Puzzle’ also slightly pre-empts her ending by revealing early in the poem that the monkey is pink.  She could perhaps segue from ‘you swing onto the deck/and that’s when I see it’ (adding the ‘it’ to entice the reader with a revelation to come) to her speculative questions, ‘Some simian disease?  A pot of unwatched paint?’  In this way, the reader would be caught up in the puzzle of the title, and might or might not have solved it by the time the word ‘pink’ comes up in the last line.

I wasn’t quite sure what the surprise or the destination was in the last line of Lilleleht’s ‘The Gap’.  I think the answer lies in the deceptively open, chatty tone of the poem – the speaker leads us to believe that he’s being open and realistic about mortality, when in fact he isn’t: he’s fooling himself that there’s lots of time left before he needs to worry about mortality.

I was troubled by the voice in Llewellyn Kriel’s ‘Matryoshka’.  It’s very tricky to write a poem in the voice of a hateful, amoral lowlife, but the rewards for success can be immense – see, for example, the triumph of Harold Pinter’s ‘American Football’.  But I wasn’t sure who was being satirised in ‘Matryoshka’, or what they were being satirised for.  The speaker has almost too many vices: bad rhymes, crudity, generalisations, convoluted, polysyllabic clauses, and howlers like ‘Kiss me, take me, rape me with the beast in you’.  Perhaps it is a protest poem against Putin, or Russian brides.  It might even be an homage to Dowson’s ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’, but I freely admit that I’m in the dark.

I think I do understand ‘Empty’ by Dowsie T – it's about the futility and inevitable failure of trying to express one’s feelings at a time of great loss, alienation and distress.  This is quite a high jump of a theme for a poet because the reader might be quite justified in saying, ‘Why write a poem at all if you can’t express what you need to express?’  There are moments in the poem where the metaphors come close to offering an objective correlative for the inadequacy of words: ‘words/that hang loosely around him’ and ‘blowing as she would the flame on a candle’, but the rest of the poem simply states the problem rather than bringing it to life through image.

Another example of a ‘this is a poem about a poem I didn’t manage to write’ is Jane McArthur’s ‘Melted’.  Although I enjoyed the melting/defrosting metaphor, I found the ending a little simplistic – but that may be because I dislike ellipses.  They make me think of schoolgirls who put lots of dot dot dots in their writing to signal A Very Big Surprise.

Comic poems are among the most difficult to write.  Of Ross Fleming’s two comic submissions, I like ‘awesome’ best because it parodies the worst inarticulacies and educational failures of the ‘like’ generation while at the same time unfolding an amusing narrative.  I hope the grammatically incorrect ‘it’s’ in Fleming’s other poem, ‘accompanied by a bum’, was also parodic.  This poem had a nicely conceived structure: in the first part, a stalker tells his diary about the joys of pursuing a sexy derriere; in the second part the owner of the sexy derriere tells a friend via sms of her stalking experience.  Ironic, yes, but I didn’t laugh very much, perhaps because I didn’t like either bum, but certainly because the irony felt flat and obvious.  I prefer the cutting, backhanded irony of J.D.Warner’s ‘My chosen noose’.  Apart from the slightly heavy-handed ‘rubble/bubble’ rhyme, Warner’s use of sound patterning (half rhymes and alliteration) is super-subtle, cleverly restraining its power until the final ‘snap’.

Jane McArthur’s rhymes in ‘Once upon a snowy day’ are as in-your-face as Hilaire Belloc's, and the poem rollicks along at the same enjoyable pace as one of his cautionary tales. I wondered whether the last ‘rude’ was meant to be ‘crude’?

I like the two shortest submissions very much: the single sentence ‘Leap Years' by Graham Dukas; and Lilleleht’s ‘My memoirs’, where the word ‘pissing’ brilliantly undercuts the magisterial tone of the title and opening.  I also surprised myself by really taking to Annel Pieterse’s unusually long ‘4 Geslagte op ‘n ry’.  (I’d advise Annel to type small numbers like 4 as a word -- ‘four’ – it’s easier on the eye.)  The poem uses a gathering momentum, the image of the poet overtaking an old, infirm lady frame, and the repetition of ‘hurry’ to enact its own message about time and memory.  Annel lives completely inside her own poem: I could feel her trusting her own material to bring her the denouement she needed.  Though the poem began awkwardly, with heavily prose-like clauses, the theme gradually took over and guided the poet to more fluid, rhythmic patterning (the catalogue of ‘firsts’; the number play, the incantatory addition of ‘and’).  It’s a poem worth working on and tightening perhaps.  It’s also a poem that reminds us that poetry works best when the initial feeling or idea is strong.  Like a fisherman, pay out your line and allow the idea to show you how it would like to be landed.

As always with criticism, please only take from my comments things that you find useful and discard the rest.

Comments are closed.