There are moments in life where one meets a stranger or animal unexpectedly, and something sparks - of discomfort or of recognition. Here are two poems where chance meetings were opportunities for the poet to examine something about themselves and about life.
Write a poem about a chance encounter, or, as always, you can write about anything you like.
URGENT NOTICE: Due to technical difficulties, we have been unable to access the July 'Encounters' Poetry Project submissions. Please could everyone who submitted poems resubmit their poems to firstname.lastname@example.org by 7 August 2014. We apologise for the inconvenience.
Trespasser by Tatamkhulu Afrika
I wheel my bike under
the cathedral’s dark overhang.
Seized by a rictus of the wind,
the trees shed rain.
Rain slides down
Wale Street’s sleek, steep fall:
air is an ocean booming round
high bare walls.
My hands freeze on
the bike’s crossbar,
seek the sodden saddle, toy
with the ice-cold bell:
I am suddenly fugitive,
homeless and cornered in
a of pressure and cloud. caprice
Then they cough and I know
I am not alone:
far back, against the great, nailed doors,
they huddle: troglodytes
of night’s alcoves,
parking lots, sparse green lawns,
municipal benches where
lunchtime’s city workers, stripping down
their food-packs, sit
in sober rows.
I fear to turn around,
stiffen in expectation
of the inevitable tugging at my sleeve,
wonder of I have any coins
wonder why they do not bicker,
as they always do,
cursing their mother’s wombs
in tired robots’ tones,
why only this
curious, chuckling, liquid sound
drawing me around.
She has the usual wrappings on
stick-thin, brittle shins,
patchy-purple, quietly rotting
methylated spirits skin:
doekie of incongruous elegance crowns
the scabrous, half-bald skull
Her man, grotesque
as a gargoyle roused from stone,
cradles an infant on his lap,
feeds it from a bottle with a teat,
makes the chuckling, crooning sounds
that turned me round,
that hold me now spellbound.
‘Good morning, sir,’ he says,
and his voice is grave
as a paterfamilias in his lounge.
Only the odd man out,
leaning against the harsh green walls,
looks at me with carefully indifferent eyes,
finding me , alien on his home ground
wishing the clouds would break and I be gone,
ringing my bike’s absurd, small bell.
Epiphany by Ted Hughes
London. The grimy lilac softness
Of an April evening. Me
Walking over Chalk Farm Bridge
On my way to the tube station.
A new father – slightly light-headed
With the lack of sleep and the novelty.
Next, this young fellow coming towards me.
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. Eyes reaching out
Trying to catch my eyes – so familiar!
The huge ears, the pinched, urchin expression –
The wild confronting stare, pushed through fear,
Between the jacket lapels.
'It's a fox-cub!'
I heard my own surprise as I stopped.
He stopped. 'Where did you get it? What
Are you going to do with it?'
On the hump of Chalk Farm Bridge!
'You can have him for a pound.' 'But
Where did you find it? What will you do with it?'
'Oh, somebody'll buy him. Cheap enough
At a pound.' And a grin.
What I was thinking
Was – what would you think? How would we fit it
Into our crate of space? With the baby?
What would you make of its old smell
And its mannerless energy?
And as it grew up and began to enjoy itself
What would we do with an unpredictable,
Powerful, bounding fox?
The long-mouthed, flashing temperament?
That necessary nightly twenty miles
And that vast hunger for everything beyond us?
How would we cope with its cosmic derangements
Whenever we moved?
The little fox peered past me at other folks,
At this one and at that one, then at me.
Good luck was all it needed.
Already past the kittenish
But the eyes still small,
Round, orphaned-looking, woebegone
As if with weeping. Bereft
Of the blue milk, the toys of feather and fur,
The den life's happy dark. And the huge whisper
Of the constellations
Out of which Mother had always returned.
My thoughts felt like big, ignorant hounds
Circling and sniffing around him.
Then I walked on
As if out of my own life.
I let that fox-cub go. I tossed it back
Into the future
Of a fox-cub in London and I hurried
Straight on and dived as if escaping
Into the Underground. If I had paid,
If I had paid that pound and turned back
To you, with that armful of fox –
If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox
Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –
I would not have failed the test. Would you have failed it?
But I failed. Our marriage had failed.
where charity begins
looking for the poem
I bought a bergie a pie and coke
but couldn't home him
so I abandoned
searching for the poem
I spoke to god
but noises off interrupted
so I forgot
hunting for the poem
I wrote some lines
but I read better than I write
so I blanked
desperate for the poem
I mailed my friend
but he too needed
so I cleared
my son flushed half a toilet roll
my bombing dizzy made him sob
my old angry ghosts frightened him
he forgave when I sorried
it were graceful
sometimes the poem has to find you
not you it
(with apologies to D. H. Lawrence)
I really don't know what to do.
I mean the lady
(broad term, dude)
immediately walks toward me
and drapes the tame reptile
around my neck
and I hold the grin and stroke
in a deeply adult manner
and pose for the shots
and the nippers slowly
and we are all now compatriots
moms and tots and
mole snake and puffadder and
gentle chameleon here at
canal walk seven miles
of concrete between us
and utter savagery
and as I said we are all smiles
everything is absolutely
blase is a good word
to inveigle into the conversation
about now yes we are confident
we are polite
and we are looking good
but I'm imagining some little
bastard upending the cobra
tank and immaculate
and management becoming involved
with lawsuits and slangpuk
and deep shit
but then I always was
(looks away vacuously)
a sucker for conspiracy theories
the kids of course are
dislodged from their inhibitions
and running amok
and I'm constrained to ask
how now am I to teach
them caution but nothing
could be further from
I really don't know what to do.
you say, almost under your breath, as the car stops outside my home
Safe, you say again
and it is indeed the state in which I am dispatched at Chelsea street
I get out of your friend’s car, filled with music (and far too awake this close to dawn),
thank you and touch your shoulder,
but your dark eyes are fixed on the road ahead
I don’t know what you’re thinking. Where have you gone?
when I rolled the soft G’s of your name towards you,
you returned my own name so gently, it felt like a caress
Then, shortly before we left,
you walked closer and put your hand on my back
I really liked the weight of it, but for some reason I stiffened
and you retreated (an unwinding coil rewound)
friends and strangers mill around us, on their way to pool tables, chequered dance floors,
graffiti-walled bathrooms or dark corners of their own
And for a long short while – in the way that time focuses yet bends at that hour of the night –
we sit on top of a table in the dark
side by side, but not touching
while I smoke your cigarettes and you listen to my 3 am thoughts
and you make me laugh and I try to pry your stories loose
my legs dangling to the husky song
of your voice at my ear
Like a Rorschach test
A summoning – from the corner of my eye –
so I look up
Rorschach test on the bathroom ceiling whispering conspiratorially –
Do you see me for what I really am?
The flurry of the Saturday night slows down –
I am outside the haze of banter, laughter with friends
old and new, the clinking of another round of drinks –
and I am spellbound by this blotch of beauty
this watercolour painting passed down from the floor above
But the ceiling’s slowly expanding birthmark does not reveal
its secret images, not tonight
Instead its hypnotic swirl works to suspend the moment
transfixing me for long enough to hear the declaration of a watermark –
I am because you see me
And then later we become a Rorschach test too –
entwined on a couch, our own shifting shape
I try to look at you
but your eyes stay closed
In my mind’s eye I fall asleep in the crook of your arm
and become a picture
of someone carefully held
Dialogue In Real Time
-Sir, Mister, sir!
-Sir, Mister, please!
-Please what? I’m in a hurry.
-Please help me, sir!
-Help you with what?
-I’m hungry, sir.
-I’m homeless, sir.
-Are you really.
-Yes sir, help me!
-I never carry any cash.
-Please help me, sir.
-So how can I help then?
-Write me a poem.
-Yes, something real.
-Sorry, can’t do, ask someone else. I’m in a hurry. Plenty of other people on the street you could ask.
-Write me a poem!
-Is that a threat? Why would I?
-You’re a poet.
-That’s not true. Anyway how do you know?
-The way you pronounce the word ‘never’, sir.
-Write you a poem…
-The way you’re thinking of an excuse to walk away.
-A real poem?
-Now, how would that help you?
-Write me a poem with the word House in it.
-You mean a house to live in?
-Write me a poem with the word Food in it.
-Any food. I eat anything… chicken, veg, carbohydrates.
-Don’t know if I can do that.
-But you’re powerful, you’re a poet.
-I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong.
-Don’t be afraid – write me a poem with the word Handshake in it.
-You can’t be real.
-I stink. I’m real.
-Well, I can’t smell you.
-Write me a poem with the word Rain in it.
-But what will a poem do, for fuck’s sake?
-It will rescue me.
-I wouldn’t be so sure about that.
-How could it not rescue me? How could it not?
-Long story – and if I refuse…
-I’ll probably kill you, yes, I’ll kill you.
-In the middle of all these people shopping? You’ve got guts.
-Not that kind of murder.
-I don’t have a pen with me.
-You can use mine.
-Don’t have anything to write on.
-Here, write on the back of my hand.
-That will be a small poem then.
-It’ll do just fine.
-It’ll fade away in time.
-I’ll learn it by heart.
-Surely it must have a title.
-‘About us’ – some title, you want that to be the title?
-Yes, now hurry before it’s too late.
-Okay, then, give me your hand.
-You’re still looking around. Why are you still looking around?
-I’m trying to think of something that can rescue us both.
-But you know what you want to write.
-Yes, I just don’t know how to start.
-Here, let me help you.
i descend stair
by careful stair;
your stare, magnolia-opens;
disappears unplumbed in
aeonian tunnel, w/love
between the ever
to gybe, intermittent,
in your everlasting
your wandering voice
singing sonant liturgy,
prying open wishes in
and uxorious ferocity
on backseat cinema-dialect
your eyes are mined
in sar-i sang,
dug and dug again;
the soul exquisite behind
upended, yet unswayed,
they flutter incontestable,
tacit love concupiscent;
bloom in endless aureole,
dissilient halcyon veil to hide
your unremitting perfection.
savoured lips, spite
bring tepid tangos,
hovering in rogue-air
and gyrating tongue
as it insists, w/admirable
bathes shivering resplendent
in the sea delectation.
hope; still spirals;
in timeless motion eventual,
our architecture turns
immaculate; our love
our web insurmountable;
the journey eternal
struggle and distancia
hace crecer el cariño,
and w/out absence,
as the shangri-la
lifting to the sky, and
between haling sun
and sombre moon,
shakes quiet into
the temerarious burlesque
red black and white you
in crepuscule omnipotent.
in splendour, your
glimmer starving through
escaping rabble incessant;
farewell eludes us alike;
the pelagic night sky
revels in stars
like you and i,
fervently blazing on
for all eternity
in entirety suspended,
the rusty shore
our hearts in timeless
sustaining cosmic frivolity,
unwinding in ebullience
as your starlight
behind unflustered spaces,
ambuscading lom gypsy
w/teeth bared and fain,
hungry for a warm heart.
your swanlike aplomb
shade seductive; your
words engraved in soulless
world unturned, shrouded
in alluring benignity,
letting out to
in diastole dreams,
homing fevered bees.
your room of
where moon oft drifts
w/in and dwells
in frigorific polynya,
through your garden
we ache in noble wait
as wind sings, ululates;
our love in motion,
figure finally charmed,
fatal convolution of the
hearts that time fooled
into frigid morning,
where we as lovers
w/warm hearts, stir
in liquid one-soul;
we wade, caressing
night w/eyes aflame,
absorbing still tenuities
afloat, sweet nelumbos
on the starry
surface of boundless
waters below, in our
we bathe evermore.
light sweet crude*
ah, light sweet crude, light sweet crude
I love your shiver, your every move
how you love to make me wait
to see your shimmy-shaking scintillate
* title is found text
a nonsense piece (1983)
On the Ark when it was dark
Noah was in deep despair.
For both his asses would eat their molasses
with their noses in the air.
And switching their tails
they whistled like whales
and simply refused to pay the fare.
They move in under the overhang,
out of the late afternoon sun’s heat.
Ten metres of patched pavement, alongside
Romens Men’s Clothing down to the Main Road,
is their beat.
A parliament in session is how I figure them.
(the voices loud, continuous)
Party leader squabbles with Opposition heckler.
His fist, unhoused piston, connects:
she falls without a sound
to the shrill competing speeches.
(next day, passing, I mark dark-red bloodstain on the ground)
What mysterious force-field holds them
to this hard rectangle, hour after hour?
Oblivious of Main Road’s surging metal herds,
they sit on: six and eight and ten o’clock.
Committees form, re-form. Is any love there?
Eleven o’clock releases them.
Something invisible disappears bodies,
bundles, two trolleys,
round the corner.
She came to me in a dream.
She was purest white,
A "Saanen" goat with no horns.
She came as a sign,
a gift from the ancestors.
As a signal for a ritual,
and a sacrifice for me.
The mentor said,
"Go to the goat farm.
She will come to you.
She will know you.
That is the one for you."
Puzzled, I stood at the goat pen,
with a herd of goats below me.
She stood on her hind legs
and asked me to scratch her head.
She knew me!
My husband said,
"If you take her, and use her,
you will be killing a friend!"
Nevertheless I let them mark her.
They put my name on her,
to identify her.
They used blue spray-on paint
to mark her with my name.
I have her skin in my indhumba.
I kneel on her,
she softens my knees.
Did I sacrifice a friend?
("Indhumba" - the sangoma's consulting room.)
Walking past a stables one day,
and seeing the horses,
I thought I would practice some animal communication.
On DVD I had watched a programme with the latest star,
she is an animal communicator.
Why shouldn't I try her technique?
After all I am a hands-on healer!
Approaching the enclosure, I called to a large bay gelding.
He came towards me, hoping for a treat.
Instead I put my hands on him,
to start the communication.
Hoping for – I knew not what,
Something wonderful and new?
Instead, as I soothed his neck,
he contentedly closed his eyes
and fell asleep!
It was a pleasant interlude,
I standing there with my hands on him
and he placidly resting.
What did I expect?
Deep insight into the equine world?
What horses really want?
Their view of humans?
There was nothing but contentment,
a sense of deep relaxation,
I came away, wiser perhaps,
but anyway happier,
knowing that I had made someone else happier too!
Jim Pascual Agustin
Yellowbilled Kite in the Rain
Stretched out, those wings look like
a discarded comb. The kite swoops
low, two meters above the roof
of my car as I hit a speed bump.
Water heavy between each feather,
claws already pulled tight
against its chest, it barely misses
a powerline as it aims for
a dripping branch.
I check my mirror,
nothing. So I step on the brakes
and stare, searching for a majesty
I once glimpsed. None
of the heart-gripping threat
it unleashed when I once saw it
in pursuit of a pigeon outside
our kitchen window, ignoring
the barbed wire fence. Now
its eye is no more
than an old coin in the mud.
Ross Fleming’s snake works on so many levels – from what it looks like on the page, to the tension between different kinds of wildness, and various forms of control, to the contrast between adult knowledge and confusion and children’s curiosity and impetuousness. I also love it when writing makes me laugh out loud. I am debating with myself whether the repeated ‘I really don’t know what to do’ at the end is necessary. I think it can be dropped.
where charity begins is another poem where form and content work well together. I like the incomplete thoughts and unusual use of words. I feel the title doesn’t fit the poem, and I suggest changing the last two lines to the following:
sometimes the poem finds you
Carla Kreuser’s poem Safe, bends time in an interesting way, starting at the end of an evening, and possibly the end of a relationship, and working backwards to the moment of attraction. The title, and the colloquial use of the word ‘safe’ as a farewell, point to the desire for security in relationship, which can be fraught with the instability of not knowing how to read another person’s behaviour. Well observed. I would cut all unnecessary information which does not speak to the central concern of the poem, e.g.
I get out of your friend’s car, filled with music (and far too awake this close to dawn),
I get out of your car, filled with music,
I would cut the last line of the first stanza: I don’t know what you’re thinking. Where have you gone? as this is implicit. The images of hopeful intimacy in the last stanza work well.
Carla’s second poem Like A Rorschach test is a wonderful idea, and well executed, revolving around questions of perception, visibilty and projection. I also like the evolving and overlapping forms. I suggest going through the poem carefully and cutting all unnecessary words, e.g. conspiratorially, secret, hypnotic – these qualities are already evident, and the adjectives are clunky in an otherwise lovely poem.
Dialogue in Real Time by Alfred Schaffer also made me laugh out loud. The poem has some wonderful reversals and unexpected moments. In terms of form, it does throw up questions about the boundaries between prose poems and flash fiction. Not that it matters, as the piece works as it stands, but for me, a poem needs to pay detailed attention to rhythm.
Duke Negus is clearly someone who is intoxicated with words, and how one might play with them on the page. He has some wonderful images and juxtapositions in the poem Grace. For example:
on backseat cinema-dialect
in diastole dreams,
homing fevered bees.
hope; still spirals;
in timeless motion
However, there are three problems with this poem, to my mind. The poem is word-heavy – too often the words get in the way, and, instead of conveying emotion and information, they obscure meaning. Second, this appears to be a love poem, yet the form and language is strangely distancing. Of course this could be fascinating subject matter for a love poem, but it would only work if written with that intent. Third, the switch to other languages does not seem motivated. Everything in a poem has to work together.
Keith Edwards’ light, sweet, crude works well as a love/lust bonbon. The title as it stands doesn’t add to the poem. I would reconsider this. His second poem, Ark Nights is a delightful nonsense piece. I would read it aloud to hear where the metre falters. His third, Pavement Parliament, comments on power relations amongst the homeless. It is well-observed. I was in two minds about the ending, then decided it was a metaphysical / political / psychological question, which throws us back to problems of power, direction and love in the democratically elected Parliament.
Zinzi Sealy’s She-Goat asks a penetrating question about the nature of animal sacrifice. There is some use of repetition in the poem, which I feel could be made more of, to reflect the repetition embedded in ritual. Ritual can act as a container for those things that disturb us. I think this poem would yield more if the poet sits longer in the tension created by the sacrifice of a ‘friend’. Her second poem, Horse Sense, feels to me like a piece of flash fiction, rather than poetry. I suggest revisiting the scene, and getting closer to the sensory experience of being with the horse. I would cut much of the explanation, and stay with the experience.
I had to readYellowbilled Kite in the Rain, a poem by Jim Pascual Agustin, a couple of times to understand what happened. This is not always a bad thing. I initially thought that the Kite had escaped death, but the last two lines make clear that both the threat and the majesty have been reduced by death to ‘an old coin in the mud’. Some lovely assonance: misses, dripping, glimpsed, gripping, pigeon, kitchen, window. I would prefer the use of metaphor rather than simile in the first lines, and the distance of ‘two metres’ could be more effectively evoked using something other than units of measurement.