Poetry Project

Before you grow old and grey

Last night I met two people who told me that they would start writing -- they'd join my workshops in fact -- as soon as they had retired.

But that's not the way writing works.  It  doesn't wait for retirement.  It doesn't wait for the pen-holder to have 'enough time'.  A writer is never not writing.  A writer is never not in high-level negotiations with Time.

When I’m about to start writing a novel (like right now) I know that half the problem will be solved if I can at least make a decision about time.  How much time will the book cover?  How will I give the impression of years passing when all I have to work with is scenes built up in minutes and seconds?  How will I fool the reader into believing that a scene that takes a minute or two to read actually encompassed an hour or more of my characters’ time?

The writing process itself is diurnal, cyclic, deadline-driven and prone to all of time’s metaphoric woes: the way it runs out, drags, flies, takes sides.

As a theme, too, time ranks up there with love and mortality, strangely intertwined with them, and always adding its unique dimensions of urgency and regret.  Love me now, before you grow old and grey.  Oh why did I say ‘Love me now, before you grow old and grey’?.

This month I’m inviting poems on the theme of time. Respond to any or all of the prompts below. Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP August poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Monday August 6 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.

  1.  The countdown to the 2012 London Olympics has begun, we hear.  We see the new year in with a countdown.  Write a poem on the theme of count downs, or using the count down as your structuring principle.  For example, see Robin Morgan's poem 'Count Down' .
  2. We form our first impression of a new person within thirty seconds, my daughter tells me.  Many first impression poems and song lyrics take the theme of love-at-first sight.  Somehow, the woman is always 'standing there' in these rather lookist creations.  More honest, perhaps, is the lust-at-first-sight poem. Read Yeats' short poem 'Politics' and then write your own response, serious or satirical, to the theme of first impressions.
  3. 'Hours' is a beautiful word, which lends itself to rhyme and the poetic line so gracefully.  Read Robert Frost's ‘Good Hours’ and Walt Whitman's ‘Hours continuing long’ before responding to the topic of the hour.
  4. Have you ever been the beneficiary of 'good timing'?  Read Dorianne Laux's ‘Timing’ and then write a poem on the general theme of synchronicity, serendipity and 'the right time'.
  5. The more time you take on as a writer, the harder it gets.  First read Emily Dickinson, Ted Kooser and Amy Lowell on the subject of decades and centuries, then take on a big stretch of time yourself.
  6. Type your surname or streetname into the South African Archives database search engine and review the documents that come up.  Write a poem that stems from your glimpse into the past.
  7. Write a modern or satirical response to the carpe diem poems of Marvell and Herrick.
  8. Write a poem beginning with one of the following phrases: 'Later, soon'; 'Before tomorrow'; 'After yesterday'; 'Since last year'; 'Then we used to'.

Submitted Poems

Contents of an attic
Julian de Wette

Spider gossamer weighed down by dust
egg casings long dried, owl balls old and new
bat droppings – and the errant wyddha
that could not escape, although it tried.

How did that happen
tiny midden of feather and bone?
Why have I found it only now
little bird spirit long gone?

Rain in winter
John Eppel

I watch you watching the winter rain
of gold-tipped jacaranda leaves.
You wonder: will they clog the drain,
block the conduit pipe again?
Picking leaf-drops from my sleeves.

Your face is turned aslant from mine,
I cannot read your moving lips
but trace the enigmatic line
that demarcates your features fine
with my mind’s fingertips.

You will not, now, return my stare
(too late, too late, the hornbill cries),
flicking leaflets from my hair,
each flick a gesture of despair -
rain of winter in your eyes.

My Father: Last days
Keith Edwards

He was in the provincial hospital, lying
hooked up to catheter and drip;
arms strapped down, bruised blue and red
where medicine’s needles had pricked.
The skin on one white, exposed leg was wrinkled as a pachyderm’s.

His only sound a kind of choking gargle, he seemed, not dying,
but like the unwilling subject of a medical experiment.
Life has used him up. His life -
here, now - comes slowly to an end,
the body shutting down and shutting down and shutting down.

Before tomorrow
Gillian Rennie

Before tomorrow, nothing will happen:
petals won't fall
(sap waits to rise again)
jerseys won't unravel
(they've not yet been cast off)
trains won't leave
(too few tracks have been laid)
babies won't walk
(their bones are still broken)
arms won't spread
(until hearts crack open)
hair won't clog the plug
(chemo bags are sealed shut)

Before tomorrow, nothing can happen:
(for nothing else can be)


1 and 0 and
like elevens
and not in twos
but towards
one hundred and one
and one thousand one
hundred and eleven
and shine
until that world crashes
and then
something else.

Naming the time
Sara P. Dias

Among ferns made denser by winter rain,
I find a toy train, maybe mislaid in busy play:
its unknown destination perhaps serving
in the first naming of love and loss.

Empty wrappers, their once loud branding faded,
the foil made soft, whisper of secret meetings
out of sight of mothers and grandmothers –
not yet knowing that absence.

The young geese overhead know
their journey, but not yet the experience.
It must be spring again.

Sihle Ntuli

I lie in too deep and rest on implied forevers
Drowning on the end of my dreams
I will not swim,
I will stay below and be the wave
Under the sun that is stuck to day

To lie in subtle silent sounds is loud
To time
I mute the tock
That ticks and never stops, then
I blink
Before Time
Seconds before
4 seconds has elapsed
The 3 runs down
2 fall
Chronophobia you are here at

Sihle Ntuli

Seconds still tick as the world spins
The world spins and head turns, they all spin and turn back,
Or fall flat,
to broken bones on backs (those that turned on the back bone),
while the world still spins,
Reaching for the sky
Revolutions shall interject like spinning fans
fingers chopped and screwed
while the body falls back
Reaching for the stars you'll be right back
hesitation pays with slight incisions of the spinal cord,
cord's are only fractured yet you’ll be considered spineless

Revolutions cut like lost time almost like half past life & no achievements before the midlife Crisis of the hour,
Life could clock me upside the head but why would it
Seconds still tick as the world spins,
These revolutions,
Evolutions secrecy chopped me out the silk cocoon too close to soon,
I looked up to stare at a dying moon,
With a lazy eye starring as that lost guy with too many questions of why
As revolutions will still spin
Full circle Over and Over.

Sihle Ntuli

Before Tomorrow
I will Fall from your eyes
You’ll Throw smiles whilst I fall
Unspoken words will ride on my mind
Spokes and the axis will poke like the words you spoke
Provoking the steering wheels that drive me wild
Painful agony
Cut by collective moves and motifs

First puncture by your eyes enough to split the soul
I will be on mere seconds, face will turn to my favourite colour
As I Fall from your eyes
While you watch
The dying minute before it reaches the after hour
Glass slipping sands
Representing the only enemy or so i thought
You still look floorless to me
Whilst I’m air born
Free of you tomorrow

...Till New Year’s Day

African freedom
Natasha Parkins-Maliko

When the African drum rattles my blood
When the African ululation comes with a flood
I want to wake up and show my thought, thought, thought
Before tomorrow my ideas get caught, caught, caught
I will fly like the African eagle
Unless my thoughts are deemed illegal
Before tomorrow I want to wake up to freedom
Without a condom

An old man’s lament
Julian de Wette

The winter cold clamps my joints and knuckles.
My ancestors moved here, drawn by wealth
and still I have no home.
I came at night that time, third class on the train
and from a flash of coal
a cinder caught my eye and left its mark.
You’ve seen my face a million times
though never recognise me on the street.
We raised your children
and learned a love for roses.
Please understand my grief.
Perhaps you can explain me why
I am the only one who mourns?

We’ve built lives and fortunes
invaded homes by stealth
served dinner in your cast-off clothes.
Now grandchildren play on lawns
where once I worked my fingers to the bone.

With phlegm thick as cream I greet the day
a hacking cough that lasts the night.
Hurt and disappointment marrow deep
this body craves its quiet sleep.

The sticks my children carve become live snakes.
I cannot read the laws they make, my eyes are blind
and where would I find such words?
They are ashamed of me and drive big cars.
I brought the dread disease and hold them back.

Who will miss me when I die? Death is common now
and when in panic we sacrifice young goats
no matter how loud the shout, vuke!
the ancestors turn in deepest sleep
unhappy with their lot, as with ours.

I am a man of yesterday, my joints and knuckles swell
but my chest thumps with a warrior’s song
my stout fighting stick helps me walk along
once forbidden streets.

I watch my children, the men uncircumcised
their wives without an ounce of fat…
How will they keep each other warm at night?

And when their bones begin to ache
how will they remember an old man
whose hands trembled
whose cowhide drum fell silent and
whose dancing feet no longer raised a cloud of dust?

Meaningful work
Ross Fleming

Every month I am committed to four days in the governments employ,
then I spend three days a month working for my daughter's high school,
and a major supermarket chain take four more days of my time,
oh yes and another consumer of my health and vitality
is the local municipality - maybe two days in a bad cycle?
Perhaps you see where I am going with this:
that there is precious little money I earn
that goes to great art or noble causes,
however I do confess
I spent half a precious day last week
working for a small poetry press,
and oh
but the book they gave me in reward
gave meaning to the word 'meaning'!

Ross Fleming

I am eternally grateful to the nebulous soul,
that vague, unremembered helper
unknown, unhailed, unrecognised,
who opened my heart to the sky so generously.
A warm room, sundrenched,
open, unspoiled, hospitable:
I wandered in one person,
unschooled, gauche, ready,
and left another,
changed, a new centre, shaped.
And  today,
while I held my son
for a moment,
stilled in the winter warmth,
just off the jungle gym,
I asked Providence for someone
to guide for an instant in the wind:
a teacher to recognise his unique heart,
develop his truth,
and transform his forevers.

Were I to be given a week to live
Ross Fleming

Poetry leads us.
Far ahead of our slow stumbling selves,
it seeds ideas, initiating,
forming possibilities,
dreaming a subtext,
defining spaces,
a virtual architecture
fluidly blending random factors with the art
of skin, tongue, light, music.
As we lie stretched out across  the sky
the years freewheel down the millennia
and images,  signs and empties
contribute to a Big Picture
no human mind could possibly appropriate fully;
but were I to be given a week to live
I would end as I began,
take a step back
and find a quiet place out of wifi range,
savouring the comic and tragic romance
of the centuries-old human affair with words,
and, my mind wholly intimate with a great heart,
I would read the complete works of Shakespeare.

A ripe old age
Julian de Wette

I can’t remember
can’t regale
my mind half gone
why does it fail?

Please remind me
help me look
lost for words
can’t find the hook.

Names, dates, places
the hidden passport –
memory, like a mule
puts the brake on thought.

My mind is not the only thing
gone awol, quite amnesiac –
was that the telephone
ring, ring, ring
behind my back?

The mouth has also lost
its contact with good form –
it babbles, spatters, dribbles
and conjures up a verbal storm.

Nobody at home
how could anyone be
fighting for adjective, adverb, noun –
the door is shut, imprisons me.

A lifetime’s labour
accretions of stone
and I can’t remember
my right mind is gone.

What’s caused this short in circuitry?
Love’s rejections, possibly
everyone loved, but me
surely not self-pity?

Night has taken root
the dark is sure to come
or maybe it’s already here
everything is closing down.
Last call!
echoes down the hall
I cannot help but frown.

Julian de Wette

Gone are the days we pinned our hopes
on a ha’penny-worth of sherbet
and the penny bioscope –
and newsreels of wars long gone.
It hardly seems that times have changed
though pound seats are in fashion
and our defects have been rearranged.
Whether a major job or small
a discrete nip, a hidden tuck
or a full body overhaul –
the lure of riches and purchasing power
make all things possible.

And the gym floor, our new temple
purring without effort on stationary bikes
personal trainers to guide us along
marathon paths and meandering hikes.

The rich shake off old age
its dull aches and its pains –
they take the longevity pill
and thrive on market gains.

Keith Edwards

Your beauty – it’s something almost
disabling; that celebrity simper,
a light you can’t switch off.


Sad and wintry poems were among the best this month, along with some on what I can only describe as the theme of youthful irresponsibility.  As usual, a desire to express the ineffable and the eternal using words like ‘ineffable’ and ‘eternal’ brought out the worst in poets.

It was my fault, I suppose, for setting a topic like ‘Time’.   Someone needs to bring out a book of poetic diction.  In this ideal book of my imagining,  if you look up an abstract word like ‘Time’, you get a series of concrete phrases and images to set you off: a starter’s gun; a train leaving station; the cracked paint of an old door; a dance card; last year’s calendar; the handwriting of the dead.

Julian de Wette’s ‘Contents of an attic’ was the most satisfying poem of the month: the attic scene beautifully realised, the design economical, the emotions recollected with restraint and precision.  A poem any editor would be proud to publish. I also liked De Wette’s long elegiac poem ‘An Old Man’s Lament’, admiring the consistency of its voice and tone.

In addition to more concrete words like De Wette’s ‘egg casings long dried, owl balls old and new’, this poetry editor hankers for diction chosen by soft, alert mouths and ears rather than by lazy eyes or pompous egos. Does your mouth love the word you’ve put on the page?  Does your ear love it?  If only your eyes and your ego have voted for it, scratch it out and put in something half or quarter of its length.

John Eppel’s ‘Rain in the winter’ shows the value of listening to one’s words, actually sounding out the poem. Words like ‘block’, ‘clog’, ‘flick’ or ‘drain’ are not falsely poetic, they don’t preen or show off like ‘eternity’, ‘truth’, or ‘elusiveness’, and in the end they say more.  Eppel allows the concrete image – rain, leaves, drains – to speak of familiarity and loss.

The great achievement of ‘Before tomorrow’ by Gillian Rennie was the patterning: statements, bare of articles, framed in the negative, followed by a terse explanation in parenthesis.  When the emotionally driven poet works with a tight pattern like this, the result is marvellously suggestive.

‘Naming the Time’ by Sara P. Dias was another poem that stood out for me.  Like those already mentioned, this poem uses real artefacts – faded sweet wrappers, a discarded toy – to hint subtly at indefinable aspects of the passing of time.

Keith Edwards too, quite rightly insists on working only with concrete images and stark diction in ‘My Father: Last days’.  The poem presents a dying father’s extremis unflinchingly and without self-pity.  The last line is an inspired achievement: the rhythm is of the heartbeat, the repetition suggestive of the dead-end of that beat. And I loved his short, sharp ‘Meeting’ – a thoroughly contemporary take on female beauty.

From age and death to youth and its helter-skelter rush at life.  In this department, I loved Klooster’s use of numbers and abbreviated lines to suggest the rushing speed of a dice with death in the exhilarating poem ‘ride’.

Sihle Ntuli’s ‘Chronophobia’ was a delightful riposte to the morning alarm clock. ‘Revolutions’ with its driving repetitions, internal rhymes and persistent use of the continuous tense, offers a frightening portrait of a spinning world.

Another successful poem using the given phrase ‘Before tomorrow’ was Natasha Parkins-Malika’s anthem ‘African freedom’.  The catchy beat and triumphant cry of the first five lines are wonderfully subverted in the last three.  There can’t be many poets who’d risk ending a poem on the line ‘without a condom’. The poem is as dramatic when we hear it in our heads as when we see the poet performing it in sign language.  Do look at the video, especially the rhymed signing of 'thought' and 'caught': it's absolutely beautiful to see!

Ross Fleming’s ‘Meaningful Work’ caught my eye.  I liked its shape and its conception – the poem is driven by a really strong idea.  I thought the repetition of ‘precious’ was a bit clunky, though.  His ‘Were I to be given a week to live’ strikes me as the first draft of one of those poems where the poet has to write a lot before finding his way in.  There are lots of words here that suggest he’s intellectualising a problem that really needs to be approached from the gut – ’initiating’; ‘possibilities’; ‘random factors’ – and the first sign of the poem itself only occurs with the echo of Eliot in ‘stretched out across the sky’.  But then we come across these lines which is where I feel the  poem should begin:

But were I to be given a week to live
I would end as I began,
Take a step back
And find a quiet place out of wifi range

Similarly, in his ‘Forevers’, the poem lights up when he leaves off the cerebral listing (after the first four lines) and takes us to this place:

A warm room, sundrenched

In Sihle Ntuli’s poem ’11:59’ there are some great lines – ‘face will turn to my favourite colour’; ‘the dying minute before it reaches the after hour’ and ‘You still look floorless to me’ – but ‘painful agony’ is too much of a tautology for me.  I also wanted to know whether the ‘you’ in the poem was the digital hour 11:59 itself, or a single companion, or the whole concept of New Year’s Eve.

Julian de Wette’s ‘A ripe old age’ was less successful than his other poems, I felt, because although often witty, it wasn’t able to find a satisfactory end point.  It risks coming across as a litany of old age symptoms, and the word ‘frown’ isn’t strong enough to hold down the flapping end of the tent in the last line. His ‘Progress’ would be worth revisiting in a second draft since it deals with a subject new to poetry: wealthy, face-lifted old age. Perhaps another parody along the lines of ‘You are old, Father William’?

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