In everything, the unseen moves.
- Ben Okri
To Be Alive
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but…
If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
- Gregory Orr
What Every Lover Learns
Water is heavy silver over stone.
Water is heavy silver over stone’s
Refusal. It does not fall. It fills. It flows.
Every crevice, every fault of the stone,
Every hollow. River does not run.
River presses its heavy silver self
Down into stone and stone refuses.
Swirling and leaping into sun, is stone’s
Refusal of the river, not the river.
- Archibald MacLeish
Movement is one of the essential ingredients that gives life and emotion to an art piece in any medium. Movement can be complete stillness, or an altered feeling in the reader; it can be character development, or a gestural mark on canvas.
Write a poem paying attention to the flamboyance or subtleties of the movements found at the core of your subject matter.
Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP January poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager email@example.com by no later than Sunday 27 December 2013. 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.
Not quite pentameter
Another day passes, but before
fading light cools off the pitched housetops
of Stornaway, and the last pine door
is locked; before bedroom curtains stop
the prurient eye (this one going
grey); a moment before my right heel
takes the weight off my left toe – a ring
of smoke and a dusty song reveal,
on the corner of Weir, a ‘houseboy’
with some Biblical name like Thomas
or Philemon. We exchange a coy
greeting: ‘Salibonani Oubaas.’
‘Yebo Umfaan.’ Scent of tobacco
mingles with dry grass, floor polish, beans
I hear the warm glow
of his pipe being knocked to smithereens;
the scent accompanies me along
Weir Avenue, fades into beer and
braaied mealies by Flint Road; but the song,
a nocturne for Matabeleland,
stays with me, is with me still, as I
greet my family, take my wife’s hand
and say: ‘This is where I want to die.’
Variations on a theme
flamingos at Noordhoek
at the point of afternoon
where there is no horizon
when clouds are marsh
and marsh is cloud
the air is brackish
the sea is clotted ether
and grass is grain
sucked bloated against
our legs by the wind
reality emerges from the canvas
funnelling and curving immutable space
into the only moving thing
as harpstrings vibrating
distantly and moulding immotion
a mass-graph whose restless points
flood the illiquid plane
with what first appears as a veil of dots
then swarms as it curves
into a wind-pregnant sheet
and now and now
into molten plastic in a vacuum
then a leaf unfurling in time-lapse
a mermaid-purse, albumin,
chalaza from which depends
the yolk of minutes
drawing from the well of pigment
hidden behind the colourless cyclorama
grey pulls the rare flex of pink,
the drama of black, then the mass
is again indistinct
and squat terns shuffle
in monochrome on their pins
an outlier reveals the identity of the collective
dragging two carmine sticks behind it
before the puppetmaster pulls it back
into the pullulating throng
but gradually more are singled out
by proximity and the underside of one wing
signals a hover and a landing path
the regiment of flamingos is then rooted erect
on the lagoon
innocent of their outrage to the order of things
walking time back into meaning
splitting firmament from ground
as if they never were in air at all.
Crossword for Stoics
If you say that again
in that tone of voice
I think I shall sc
If that man doesn't learn
I suspect I may knock hi
21st Century rage is a terrible
fact of modern existence
and next time I will
slam this pe
My movements seem to be
strangely slow I need to up my
game by trying out the
neighbour's Play St
I hear it helps to sharpen
one's motor re
There's a remedy for every
problem once you have
the right at
Jeannie Wallace McKeown
A grasshopper is inside,
If it were outside it would
be mistaken for a leaf
or a blade of grass after
I cannot catch it; it's
too quick to jump.
The tomcat has accepted
this challenge. He is velvet
black, so black that he believes,
he would be
for a sleek, lethal panther,
a thing of aching beauty
stalking his leaping prey.
Your way through life
Is scattered, restless,
You gadfly girl.
Never sticking with something, always moving,
Your armour for life
The armour of the dojo.
Kick boxing, you work your aggression,
Starving, you come to some place
Sitting in meditation.
Shaman I was there
At the cave mouth
At the change of day.
Shadows tall on the cave wall.
Your dancing figure
Whirling to the beat of the hand held drum.
Shaman I was there
When you danced.
Dance back to here,
Use your shaman's gifts
To bring you wholeness again.
the infantile horizon
the old monk prays at dawn
he is silent though his lips move
as if rehearsing a wisdom
his eyes close
to greet enlightenment
rolling over the infantile horizon
To Sylvia Plath
Your Selves went round like the chairs on a Big Wheel.
Mother, brother, friends, lovers, husband - untidy selves - were
allowed on for a ride or two.
What sights you showed them with each rise and dip!
Words armatured those revolving Selves;
then words buckled, words bent, contracted from the freighted rims.
All rides stopped.
Little girl jumping up and down.
on an invisible string.
the writing then redacted, righted,
or wrecked or ruined,
with meaning missed or
The tyranny of form - terror is it? -
the tail - tale? - that wags
the poetic dog,
Wind makes me maudlin
and nights on end
but flaps and flutters,
bends and sways.
Crows climb the wind,
then dive and falter.
Clouds rush and tumble
like a woollen waterfall
over the mountainside.
At night I hear the
on the roof.
When on the third morning
the fury blows unabated,
a remnant of my roots
threatens to come undone.
it is blown loose in me:
A godforsaken sadness.
Mark L Lilleleht
We lumber through
even if our own
are measured on
Mark L Lilleleht
at that postage stamp-sized
slice of sky above
yes yes and yes
anywhere but here.
There are no skollies here
I am not there to see
him stretch a blood trail
into the bushes. The blaze
on his forehead, the whip
of his tail. I only see
him a blurred dancer on the end
of a wire. I only see
the slender branches of a wild Olive
thrashing in a wind still forest
– and send the children for help.
Then turn, and take the whining dog
home in time to let Charlie in.
'There are no skollies here,
that's what I told you yesterday'
I say, while stirring Charlie's coffee.
Three teaspoons of sugar.
Round and round.
The spoon, caught in a
swirling current, eddies along
on its own. Only the roller
and his right arm moves,
a deft up and down. Up and
down. 'But I was wrong.'
He comes to me one night.
He comes long-limbed, clutching
a thread-bare beloved.
Only thirteen paces between
his bed and mine.
He comes to me one night
when the Southern Cross
has already slid from sight.
Sleep wrinkled and warm
he searches out the limpness
of my arms. Dishes washed,
floor swept, day's done
He comes to me one night
thick-skinned as a soap
And all I can do
is watch him
All I can do
is listen. Though he
doesn't say a
John Eppels’ poem ‘Not quite pentameter’ raises the question of titles – whether they should point to content or technique! I think this title detracts from a poem that has caught - with sensitivity - the sense of the slow end of a day, leading to a contemplation of the end of a life, where the small details of place and relationship matter. I am curious as to why the author decided not to write in strict pentameter, and then point that out to us...
In ‘Variations on a Theme’, Richard Higgs composes a vision of one of the extraordinary sights in nature – a vast flock of flamingos. Through line length, lack of punctuation and well-chosen words, he captures the restless mass of colour and shape. The poem is an example of how form and content can work together. I question the use of ‘immotion’ – a word that does not exist, according to my dictionary, ‘illiquid’ which is a term from economics, and ‘puppetmaster’, which inserts late in the poem the idea of an agency behind the flock that keeps its shape intact. Made-up words or words used so radically out of context can disrupt the flow of the poem, unnecessarily here, as they do not add to the poem to my mind.
In ‘Crosswords for Stoics’ by Richard Fleming, form and content again work very well, and are hilariously and originally handled.
There is a lovely contrast and sense of dislocation in Anthropomorphic by Jeannie Wallace McKeown when the natural world finds itself inside a house. I am ambivalent about ‘I cannot catch it; / it's too quick to jump’, which feels overwritten. Both phrases essentially convey the same information, and by definition a grasshopper is quick precisely by jumping. However, the phrase ‘quick to jump’ contains the feeling of the movement of a grasshopper. I think it is worth working on those two lines further to get them just right.
Characters must have some complexity and idiosyncrasy to be interesting; the Shaman in the poem of the same title is complex but also an enigma. At the beginning of the poem I did not associate ‘gadfly girl’ with the role of the shaman, so it was an interesting surprise to discover that they are the same person. This poem could work if we had more information given through specifics; we are told too much in broad sweeps. Getting down to the detail about an incident, and paying attention to sensory information would help the reader to get to know this character and understand her motivations. I would also encourage the poet, Zinzi Sealy, to work harder to find exact words to describe movement and location. The word ‘dance’ for example, used three times in the poem, is impoverished, and can make the reader blank out. There are so many ways to move in dance. The poet needs to become very specific about what she sees in order to transmit the image as faithfully as possible into the reader’s mind’s eye. Avoid well-worn phrases and find unique juxtapositions of words that excite and wake the reader up. That is one of the joys of writing poetry – when words come together in original ways. I recommend that all writers own and refer to a Thesaurus. Roget’s does it for me.
Harry Skennel’s poem ‘the infantile horizon’ is another portrait. I like the image of the old man’s lips rehearsing wisdom, and his closed eyes greeting enlightenment, but I am having difficulty putting ‘infantile’ and ‘horizon’ together. I understand the poet to mean that immaturity is being overcome as enlightenment arrives, but the image ‘infantile horizon’ does not work for me.
So much has been written about Sylvia Plath’s life that it is a brave poet who takes on this contentious subject. Keith Edwards’ poem has a sense of the big wheel revolving in its form, contrasted with the sudden arrest of the last line, simulating her turbulent life and sudden end.
His ‘Haiku’ captures a lovely movement.
‘Veteran struggle’ seems to send up the problem of form and content. Is form a tyrannical tail/tale that wags the poetic dog? My take is that many contemporary poets do not take form seriously enough. This poem is a good starting point for fertile discussion around a dinner table of argumentative poets.
‘Wind makes me maudlin’ by Annette Snyckers has a lovely trajectory – the sense of the irritating perpetual fiddling of the wind which ‘blows loose’ a sadness in the poet. I would suggest some minor editing, for example:
it is blown loose in me:
A godforsaken sadness.
Might be strengthened to:
Then it is blown loose:
A godforsaken sadness.
Mark L Lilleleht’s poems are short with punchy endings. I like the way he infers so much while telling us so little: ‘postage stamp-sized slice of sky’ – is the narrator in prison? Confined in some way? Also the contrasts, e.g.: ‘lumber’ and ‘spindley’.
In ‘There are no skollies here’ by Sandra Hill, there are wonderful descriptions of movement, and I am drawn to the enigmas the poem contains, but the reader needs more information. Who is bleeding, and why? Sounds like a dog, but the narrator takes the dog home. Who is Charlie – a painter, using a roller? – and why is he important to the poem? Where have the children gone for help? What have skollies got to do with this?
Again, in ‘Cold Comfort’, I need more information to identify with the poem. The ‘he’ is presumably a child, as he is clutching a ‘thread-bare beloved’. The narrator is presumably his mother. She sounds exhausted, yet she is listening to him, and knows the exact distance between his bed and hers. This might infer that she is caring, yet the poem’s title is ‘Cold Comfort’ – does she resent the intrusion of her child at night? Is the poem about ambivalence?
It is a challenge to give the reader enough information but not over-writing and giving them too much.