Poetry Project

Of symptoms and symbols

I ran a writing course for second year medical students in the Art and Medicine course at UCT recently. In one exercise, the students wrote about a symptom as though it was a work of art resident in their bodies; in another they chose a body part that was bothering them and wrote about it. These exercises helped me access some of my own embodied art works, and I offer the following as an example of what transpired:

My Left Ear

At rest it hears the world turn.
At first I thought the slow pulsed growl
came from early morning engines as fisher folk
at the harbour started up their boats.

But the earth still spoke its low drone
when I lay on a different bed upcountry.
The hummed baritone - like slow Morse code –
keeps tapping the language of dreams and poems.

Like an infant on her mother’s chest, I lie and listen.
The earth’s intestines rumble, digesting her dead.
The base-note sounds, resounds in my auricle;
the tone stills my mind: an ohm chant, a miracle.

© Dawn Garisch, July 2013

Notice what prompts exist in your body, and explore the symptoms as poetry. Send your submissions to pieter@slipnet.co.za with the title “August Poetry Project” before 25 August. I will publish and respond to the best poems here.

Submitted Poems

Them bones… Plesianthropus
Julian de Wette

What does it prove when bones are found –
that someone had once lived?
Metatarsals, the odd rib, clavicle, sacrum
shattered tibia and fibula, assorted fragments…
why clothe and link these relics
to tyrant, saint or suitor?

Ground-down molars gnaw at memories
too distant to grasp
a time when nature urged prehensile ways
live tendrils grasping at dark caves
fused fossil bits together
without nerve endings, artery, or flesh
in those early Eden days.

Remote echoes made conception likely
as blood and semen found a donor match
and in the stark beginnings of a love nest
longing brought together
a likeness of woman and of man.
(An agent of colonial intrigue
with co-conspiring dynamite
blasted the cave floor, flayed the layers
and disturbed their well-earned rest.)

A skull leaves little to go on
no hint, or clue, no smoking gun.
No wonder Mr. & Mrs. Ples
chose to remain anonymous
birthdates and habits undisclosed
unlike us, who make no secret of our woes.

-          Sterkfontein Caves

My nostrils
Jolyn Phillips

My nostrils are two
memory  caves
remembering the smell of
Robert Sobukwe Road and the turds
of the horses
and the man  reeking
of his lunch:
A bottle of purple spirits
and someone else’s waste bin

My nostrils smell fear  from
every hoody and pants
with the no-face

my nose shaped like that of
a bear’s with no bridge to
stop tears
sometimes burns
at the smell of
the accident
it recalls
when every one
pulled their noses up at the
road kill
bleeding a perfect line from her skull
her motor cycle
a million pieces
of glass shining like diamonds
on that summer’s day
I sat in the taxi
with the aroma of dirty oil


Jolyn Phillips

In my mouth is a serpent
laying low in its lair of
made of Freudian slips
the lingua franca
the Judas
the serpent constructing
terrible tong-tied slithers
that licks your wounds
with venom


Ross Fleming

I come back to this always;
The book resting on my chest,
The communion with another mind,
Deep, intimate, honest,
And the slowing of pulse and breath,
My diaphragm rhythmically
Relaxing, remembering, rebuilding.

Jennie Wallace McKeown

Since the wound
a slow regrowth
over my bones
inside my skull
has occurred

A new self
within and through
the physical me

It has the tensile strength
of steel
or of blood
red running iron

Rebecca Tilders

It’s not a pretty subject my bowel
But so important I would put it proudly
Alongside any other part of my body

My bowel rules my life
By not working

Looking at it humorously, I suppose
One could say, I am
Environmentally friendly
Almost waste-less so to speak

But it’s not fun
And sometimes with knives in my pelvis and
My gut twisting like a serpent digesting
A large rodent
I’m doubled over and pant heavily
Like a woman giving birth

But there is no issue
This time

Drink water! Eat fibre! Go for a colonic!

HELLO? Don’t you think I’ve tried all of that?

There’s only one thing that works.
Don’t laugh, but do if you really want to...
Exclusive Books and Pick and Pay
But mostly Pick and Pay
I browse and shop and something magical happens

I leave my half-filled trolley, still unpaid for
Standing in an aisle
I rush out looking for the little green lady
What strange element is at work here?


Linda Zinzi Sealy

In the heat of high summer
Those breathless days
When sun strips everything
You can hear the cicadas call.

Why then in winter
In the midst of a rainstorm
Tropical downpour
Do I hear the cicadas call?

In the pauses of singing
Massed voices in chorus
When there should be silence
I hear the cicadas call.

Healers know different
It’s the call for healing
The initiate’s call.
It is not tinnitus
It’s the voice of the ancestors
Who speak through the cicada’s call.

Keith Edwards

Together three-score and more years now,
you and me.
I never discovered what provoked you, forty
years ago: was it the friend's fridge I helped
lift in London or, travelling home, the luggage
toted through Heathrow or Jan Smuts?

You went to work subtly the first time,
a slow osmosis-rise of pain
till I cried for relief.
'The usual,' doctors said, 'L-S 5, nudging a nerve.'
Chemical counterattack blunted your edge.

Physios advised: 'A muscle corset your best defence.
Go build it, or else suffer!'
Thousands of repetitions later I thought
I had you licked: you left me alone,
more or less,
for a decade or two.
I grew careless.

One clear spring morning, as I pushed with one hand
an empty shopping trolley, you struck,
cruel coup de main.
'Paroxysmal event,' First Expert Opinion explained,
'spinal fusion the only answer.' Second Opinion, wiser,
looked long at your backlit spectral image.
'Do nothing. You will recover.'
He was right.

Since then, me and you, we've rubbed along.
Perhaps you think I've suffered enough.
Still, moving carefully,
I keep you in mind.

what they say
Marike Beyers

the fingers with no memory of their hurt.
the shoulder turned sideways.
the knuckles leaning towards walls.
the nails that love new scars,
fretting crusted red at the tips.
the wrists pushing away.
the elbows that want.
the palms in their closing.
the hands in their unexpected gentleness.


I am pleased to report that Pieter Odendaal who organises the Poetry Project (thank you, Pieter) has agreed to give participating poets more time between the posting of the poems and the date they need to be submitted for comment. It is good to sleep on a poem, revise, sleep again, show trusted friends...

In what they say Marike Beyers has crafted an intriguing drama that moves from hurt to gentleness. It is mysterious in that we do not know where the hurt resides, whether there is another person involved, or whether this is an inner conflict. I like the way the story lives in the parts of the body, giving the reader glimpses, but not revealing too much.

In Rebecca Tilders’ hilarious poem Untitled (why untitled? I think there has to be a good reason not to title a poem), I like the way the form and content work together – after the long strain, there is the sudden rush! I would drop the last line, and market Pick ‘n Pay as a laxative.

The lovely rhythm and repeated refrain of the line ‘the cicada’s call’ in Linda Zinzi Sealy’s poem Cicada evokes both the sound of the insects and the nature of the call to the initiates, which repeats and insists until the initiate obeys. The refrain also evokes the rituals of song and dance - part of the ritual of healing.

In Intervertebral, the poem by Keith Edwards, I need to feel the backache more, and the conflict the poet has with his back. He achieves this in the line ‘Since then, me and you, we've rubbed along’, but the rest of the poem is too much a recounting of a complaint without transferring lived experience, or distilling the experience of living with backache into something that intrigues or delights the reader.

The initial metaphor in Self-Recovery by Jennie Wallace McKeown does not work for me. It is certainly possible to produce an image that depicts something you would not find in ‘real’ life and for it to feel just right, but there are no bones beneath the skull, so the image jars and interrupts my involvement with the poem. However, the last stanza contains a wonderful image: ‘red running iron’. But blood has no tensile strength, so I would rewrite the preceding line. I would also drop ‘has occurred’ and the middle stanza which is not necessary – the last stanza says it so much better.

Ross Fleming’s poems are a great reminder to slow down and rest. The poem Diaphragm starts with ‘I come back to this always’ – the good company of books, and the meditative rise and fall of the breath and the pulse. I wonder whether the poet could incorporate this rhythm into the poem, and allow us to feel the slow moment better. I find the rhythm of the last line jars with the image the poet has given us, and I’m not sure about the word ‘rebuilding’. Yes, resting and reading does regenerate us, but the word ‘rebuilding’ is too architectural or socio-political to my mind.

Jolyn Phillips’s poem My Nostrils is a mixture of visual descriptions and discomforting olfactory vignettes. This works well. I would look again at the sentence construction: ‘and pants / with the no-face’, and I cannot imagine a bear who has no bridge of the nose to stop tears. I like the shock of the road kill turning out to be human, and the final scene of the narrator sitting helplessly in the taxi smelling the oil of the crashed bike.

Jolyn’s other poem Lingua contains a lovely paradox: ‘licks your wounds / with venom’. Check for typos.

In the poem Them bones… Plesianthropus by Julian de Wette, there is some lovely use of assonance, but I am not certain what the poem is about, perhaps because I have never been to the Sterkfontein Caves. Ostensibly it is that anonymous fossil bones remain anonymous, particularly when they are blown up with dynamite; this is contrasted with modern humans’ desire to leave evidence of who they were behind. A suggestion is to cut the confusing second stanza (for starters, would there be fossils in early Eden?), and build the end a bit more - how we invent ways for ‘our woes’ to be remembered.

Write on scribes! What else can we do?

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