Poetry Project

No real knowing

For this SLiP poetry workshop, I’m inviting poems that reflect -- in particular, poems that reflect on the art(s) of poetry.  You can interpret this theme however you like, or you can respond to one of the following exercise prompts:

  1. A poem, possibly for people attending your funeral, beginning ‘I would have liked’.
  2. A poem beginning, ‘Don’t say’.
  3. A poem that answers (directly or indirectly) the question: Why do writers abandon novels?
  4. All poets, according to Wislawa Szymborska, are in a perpetual dialogue with the phrase I don't know. ‘Each poem,’ she writes in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, ‘marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate.’  Write a poem that responds in some way to Szymborska’s assertion.
  5. A character in Ivan Vladislavić’s novel Double Negative is obsessed with ‘the responsibilities of good people in bad situations … How could you go on writing poetry, was the gist of his argument, when you had the wherewithal to take down an affidavit?’  Write a poem in response (either direct or oblique) to this question.
  6. Consider Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘There is no real knowing apart from metaphor’.  Then write a poem that either (a) avoids all metaphors (including embedded ones such as “the comb’s teeth” or “he cupped her breast”), or (b) write a poem that helps us to know something through metaphor.
  7. A poem beginning, ‘No one in my family has ever’. (Wislawa Szymborska has a poem beginning, 'No one in this family has ever died of love.')
  8. Read Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Beheading’ and then write your own poem that uses the etymology of a word as the underlying principle.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP July poetry workshop to the SLiP editor poetryproject@slipnet.co.za by no later than Sunday 7 August 2011.  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.

Submitted Poems

office girls

Ulla Kelly

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

[in flocks]


they like shops

and conversation




they might not.


tears for queers

Ulla Kelly

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



Evan Davies

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

Shamim Omar

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!”



James Whyle

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.



Philip Addo

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

Eating chocolate


Roasted rhymes

Philip Addo

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

Sarah Frost


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.

J.D. Warner


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

Graham Dukas

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

Dominique Botha

julle gaan breek

stompie shouted

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.

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