Poetry Project

The close up

Write a poem that observes closely the details of a specific event that depicts broader aspects of character and relationship.

Solitary Child
by Tatamkulu Afrika

"Hold the plank", he'd say,
building the house.
"Don't jiggle it".
But he would jiggle it,
sawing with the short,
harsh thrusts of one
who copulated or raged,
lopping me off from him with the iron
teeth of his iron,
applying no balm
to that which was alien to iron,
leaving it to time to staunch
the bleeding though
still I bleed,
old fool, now, with an old pain.

For a Five-Year-Old
by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Impassable Bridge
by Mz Mahola

I phoned for an MP
A former bosom friend.
His secretary asked,
In connection with what?

It punctured my ego,
I felt my manhood shrinking.

I said,
Give him my message
Tell him that poisonous mushrooms
Sprout under rotten logs.
If he asks for my name
Say it was an angered poet.
If you can do that for me
I’ll be OK.

But she was quick to add,
She said,
And lizards don’t fly
For their food
They crawl.

She hung up.

Submitted Poems

Dude, it's your birthday!
Masi Ncube

My pavement pillow
My puke-duvet
Broad bouncers snuggle me to sleep
Boom-boom lullaby;
The kaleidoscope neon clubs fade
Why do we do this every year?
Happy Birthday?

It has stayed linear in our lives
A hazy reminder of Mama Death's bosom
As our glossy gumball-days drop in the machine
From the days of toy tussles
To beer belches and hussy hustles
Blow out the candles
Down the tequila shots
What was our achievement?
Being born, of course.

You hail your birth
But don't know why you exist.
You revel every year
But surely
You can only celebrate
Once you know
What are you doing here?
Why are you here?
Who are you?

Brief encounter
Linda Zinzi Sealy

I met you today on the mountain
wearing your hiking clothes.
You stood above me and smiled,
it was an instant vision.
Around your head
the crown of eagle feathers
of the war bonnet.
Your copper skin
painted with strange forms.
Bear claws and wampum on your breast.
Your bearskin cloak
and the buckskin garments
moulding your upright form.
Then you spoke to me,
your accent harsh,
and the vision
sharply receded!

For Jean
Linda Zinzi Sealy

I cannot think of you as ashes in the ground.
Your funeral flowers
will be nibbled by deer.
Foxes will walk over your grave.
Your funeral tree
will house bird feeders.
There you are in the cold ground,
gone from the cottage where I saw you last,
sillouetted against the light
from your English garden.
Happy there in your declining years
amongst your comforts,
doing your puzzles.
I did not see you sicken and die.
With thousands of miles between us,
how could we share our lives?
I have travelled here to say goodbye.
Here I am holding your funeral urn
with skeleton trees around me,
in this bare place of rest.
I am the winter landscape,
my soul hoping for
new growth and softer thoughts
in Spring.

The Joy of Being British
Ross Fleming

Yes he finally learned the appropriate behaviour.
He stopped kissing his father.
We did it to obviate effeminacy,
needless to say.

Isn't it strange that her imaginary friend
has still not gone at age 13?
They'll hound the beast down.
It's a fox but they'll get it in the end.
You mark my words.

How odd that the neighbour's children
would prefer swimming with no clothes on
to the right and proper privacy
that the Good Lord ordained.

How unnatural for the Jones child to follow ballet,
and for his sister to be reading nuclear physics,
and as for that infant -
it clutches itself incessantly!
A terrribly, terrribly confused family.

Wanting to write with your left hand
is an affliction that can,
with persistence,
be corrected.
Believe you me.

A great source of comfort to me in my dotage
is that I know one thing
without a shadow of a doubt;

that I am,
thank God,
perfectly normal.

Kate-Ellis Cole

A pathway between fingers
  – where papery skin is stretched –
Looks bluey green and darker
Where a
                vein is lightly
Footprints of freckles
              skip         scattered             across the wrists
And folds of
                        wrinkles everchanging,
Appear everytime she twists.

The scars map out a landscape
Where                 form
              knuckles             topography,

And every spot and
Is a map only she can see.

snapshots of us
Jeannie Wallace McKeown

yellow roses
from the first flower stall at Embankment Station,
riding the underground to your office, their scent
fainter than the reek of scorched hair from the tunnels.

along the highway past Jeffrey’s Bay
my car hugs the road, chasing heatwet mirage,
each kilometre travelled a statement of intent.

lyrics thrown as a net to hook back the past;
Mango Groove on the stage at Plettenberg Bay,
Roxy Music plays Oh Yeah on the radio
while you drive home in the rain.

Driving on the N2 in the Eastern Cape
Jeannie Wallace McKeown

The landscape evokes a longing
for kinship
such an atavistic desire
but what I am after all
is an ape at the end of an evolutionary chain
my hands clenched to a Volkswagen’s steering wheel

I bleed every month red like the soil
breathe air drink water
consume and void
moving through these spaces held by an umbilical cord
to the earth
a clay body built from the dust of stars
tethered fast

UCT: Memories at 9pm [revised version]
Keith Edwards

A yellow moon drags up over the Flats through
thin cloud, pollution haze. Smudged skull.

Steam columns skywards from the cooling towers.
Up here on UCT’s fields the air is odourless as a
corporate corridor.
Traffic on the freeway below glides by in a wet swish.
The night is dry.

Sprinklers hiss and startle with sudden flung wet.
Now the grass breathes memory,
of school sports’ days from the spectators’ side,
and of father, bending shirtless to his mower
and the weekend lawn.

My Father: Last days [revised version]
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 rippled
like beach-sand after an ebb-tide.
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.

Elvis: Two counterfactual encounters - circa 1957
Keith Edwards

                              a caprice
When Sylvia Plath met Elvis,
she tried to teach him the prosody
of the pop-song-lyric line.
Ah sure don't need educatin, Ma'am.
Your place? Graceland'll do just fine.
When Marianne Moore met Elvis,
they had a high old time.
She took him to Madison Square boxing,
she stood him gins and lime.
And when the day was over,
after the limos, the flowers, the wine,
she said I could certainly employ your rhythm,
don't think you've any use for mine.

Scorpion Fear
Keith Edwards

Report-card time made you uneasy.
My classroom performance perturbed.
Unsatisfactory, Must do better, was
the kind of thing you wanted to see.
(the old double bind)
I was omnivorous then – no one would be stopping me.
In class you were dull - is that what piqued?
Bat and racquet loved you, though.
Balls oval and round flew beautifully
from your hands and feet.
Baby scorpion to your Big
was how I saw the sum of the thing,
you were a back to ride on.
Catawampously cradled, I ducked your sting.

Lines composed upon starin' at a pome fo' haf an hour
Ross Fleming

Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer. Died 1918

Hey Ms Kilmer?

Doze gentle giants,
I'm talkin' trees, sister,

dey got a lot to
be tankful fo'

includin' da hand
o' da Almighty
bein' personally like
how can a girl say it,

kinda responsible fo'
dear appearance
on da planet,
as yo pome says
right hear

an' no tanks
to da 'forementioned pome
which resulted in a good
few trees bein',
well, sacrificed
to, heh heh,
da book industry?

Funny how when
da rubber hits
da road, its only
da select few
who acshally gives
a rat's ass,

but ma guess is
da patron saint
o' forests
breathin' a sigh
o' release

since we all done
got ourselves into
dis hear paperless society.
Now prove me wrong?

The Unfinished Family Room
Sara P. Dias

In the absence of the inherited
tea cosy to warm the memory,
lack of affection extends
along the length
of phone lines —
an expanded sorrow.
This integral space
was supposed to be cosy.

Loud Memories
Sara P. Dias

I still hear, as it reverberates and irritates,
the stressed ‘r’ when the yellow grass
is lamented, as is the neighbour’s spraying
orange cat. And the harder than hard ‘g’ that
bruises – because others are too grand.
And still it chafes where I feel the elongated
‘g’ of the boegoe and vygies
which the orange cat pissed on.
A stabbing motion of hands accompanies
the explosive ‘k’ of “Can you believe it?”
The mouth distorts,
the eyes slide away before you
can glimpse contempt and rage:
injustices to oneself cannot be mentioned
in quiet voice and subdued gesture –
nobody would hear.


In Masi Ncube’s poem, initially addressed to himself, but ultimately to all of us, works effectively with paradox – the cultural tendency to celebrate our lives on the anniversary of our birth by getting trashed. The title Dude, it's your birthday! Initially sounds celebratory, but quickly we realize that it is an admonishing wake-up call. I suggest cutting the last stanza to just the first two lines: You hail your birth / But don't know why you exist. Trust your reader, we’ve got it by then, and the rest is repetition of content, which must have good reason to exist in a poem.

In Brief encounter, Linda Zinzi Sealy also presents us with a paradox. The poem starts in the mundane world, with an encounter with someone ‘in hiking clothes’. Then we realize this is no ordinary hiker, and by the end we understand that it was a vision. The mood changes from friendly to war-like to harsh; so there is lovely movement in the poem, but it ends abruptly without resolution. Poems can be purely descriptive, but this one feels like a set up for something intriguing, and collapses too early. I suggest that the poet writes deeper into the experience to discover what the poem is really about to make it more satisfying all round.

In her second submitted poem, For Jean, Linda Zinzi Sealy pays moving tribute to a departed friend, or relative. First drawing a picture of the shift both Jean and the poet must make as the deceased moves from her cottage into the cold ground, then presenting the image of the poet holding the urn of ashes, the poem shifts to the poet herself becoming the winter landscape in which the ash comes to rest, with the hope of new growth. Generally speaking, attention to detail enriches writing, so I would encourage revisiting phrases like ‘English garden’ and ‘Happy there in your declining years / amongst your comforts. A few specific landmarks and characterful moments would convey better both who this person was, what her garden was like and why the poet loves her.

Ross Fleming’s satirical poem The Joy of Being British takes off the prejudices of a particular kind of Brit. A suggestion: this poem is so very clearly not the point of view of the poet, but what would happen to the poem if it were written from inside the shoes of someone who really does think like that? It would certainly deepen characterization, and perhaps add a darker thread to the tone of the poem; the tension between the light hearted take off and the suffering produced by such attitudes, both for the person the Brit criticises, and for the Brit personified. This would, to my mind, make the poem more interesting.

Lines composed upon starin' at a pome fo' haf an hour (an appropriate length of time to spend contemplating a poem), also by Ross Fleming, takes a couplet composed around a hundred years ago by Joyce Kilmer, and investigates the assertions the poem makes in a satirical and much longer winded way. I am interested in the poet’s decision to give the voice of the poem to an ?uneducated, ?black, ?Catholic, ? female from the American South – this presumably to up-end the assertion by Kilmer that poems are made by ‘fools’. The parallel thrust of Ross’s poem seems to be to point out that in Kilmer’s time, poems were written on paper, which necessitated the death of the tree, whereas now we can write on computers, pleasing the patron saint of forests. I like the juxtaposition of the couplet with a longer form, but I think the poem could be shortened to make its point more pithy. For example, I would take out:

to, heh heh,
da book industry?

Funny how when
da rubber hits
da road, its only
da select few
who acshally gives
a rat's ass,

and I would also delete the last line, which feels unnecessary, and also loses the voice.

The close up portrait of Grandmother by Kate-Ellis Cole is an example of how well observed detail can convey deep feeling. The way the poet positions the words on the page partially enhances content, but I am not sure it is sufficiently effective or necessary. The lovely rhythm and rhyme falls apart a bit in the last stanza, and the lines Where form/ knuckles topography, caused me to stop and try to work out what the poet meant, which interrupted the emotional flow of the poem. Also, in the last stanza, I lost sight (literally) of the specific details of Grandmother. I can see the wrinkles and the freckles as though in a painting, but I cannot see the scars. I suggest revisiting the last stanza, and making it work on all these levels.

Jeannie Wallace McKeown sets up the poem snapshots of us by the effective use of the title: we know we are about to encounter vignettes of a relationship. There are three ‘snapshots’, each with a dominant sensory trigger – smell, visual, auditory. That works well, but each stanza needs revisiting, to my mind, to really capture the nostalgia and to clarify the arc of the relationship. First we have a scene in London, where things seem to be going well; yet there is the ominous ‘reek’ of ‘scorched hair’ (Scorched hair? From the tunnels? It is such a bizarrely dislocated image I have a bit of trouble understanding or feeling what it is doing there). Then we have the poet/narrator driving alone, back in SA, ‘chasing heatwet mirage,’ (oooh, lovely!) both as an actual visual and a metaphor for relationship. I don’t like the last line of this stanza: ‘each kilometre travelled a statement of intent’ – it feels as though the poet is hitting me over the head with a thought, which disrupts the scene. Then we have the last stanza, where specific music is associated with what I assume is the end of the relationship. I suggest, to make this clearer: ‘while you drive away in the rain’.

In her second submission, Driving on the N2 in the Eastern Cape, I like Jeannie’s image of the ape clutching the steering wheel. I would start the poem there, and cut the initial thought, which emerges in the content of the poem. Cut everything before ‘I am after all an ape at the end of an evolutionary chain’ and also ‘by an umbilical cord’. I also like the tension in the poem between moving and tethered, and between locality and the far away starts.

Keith Edwards has submitted four poems. The first: UCT: Memories at 9pm is very evocative, as the poet applies all his senses to depict the scene, and the associated memories. I particularly like the dragging moon that reminds the poet of a smudged skull. I wonder at the poet’s decision to start with that image, which sets the tone of a poem that otherwise does not give many clues to the poet’s emotional state as he observes and reflects. Perhaps this is enough; but maybe the emotional content is slightly underwritten (a less common occurrence than over-writing). I ask this because I am left with the question: What exactly is this poem about?

In My Father: Last days, Keith interrogates medicine’s role at the end of life. I think the poem would be stronger if the last three lines were cut. If the poet choses to retain them, I question the decision to change to the present tense at that point.

Elvis: Two counterfactual encounters - circa 1957 is an hilarious imagined encounter between Elvis and two women poets. I like the ending, the rhythm and the rhyme!

In Scorpion Fear I am uncertain who is being addressed. Clearly a larger and perhaps older person, as the narrator rides on his back. Is this a classmate? Clarity is important in a poem without over-writing. I like the tension in the relationship. I had to look up the word ‘catawampously’, and got two meanings: diagonally and fiercely. Fiercely cradled is an interesting juxtaposition, but I am wary of including archaic terms unless there is good reason. I suggest writing further into the relationship to tease out the tensions of competitiveness, protectiveness, aggression.

The Unfinished Family Room is an example of using a title to maximum effect. Sara P. Dias sets up a metaphorical space, in which things like tea kept warm represents the heart of a home. Yet not only is the inherited tea cosy absent, so are people. Even the construction of the first five lines feels clumsy and awkward, mirroring content. Yet the title suggests that there may be a way for the family room to be completed; there are no clues as to how this might be achieved in the body of the poem, and we are left with the statement of indignant and sorrowful longing.

The subject of Sara’s next poemLoud Memoriesis not revealed, we only hear how the way the complainant speaks grates the listener, forcing attention. An unusual take on how sound and movement convey character and relationship.

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