Announcing the Winners of Our Second Poetry Prize: Scherezade Siobhan and Theophilus Kwek
Congratulations to Scherezade Siobhan and Theophilus Kwek, the winners of the second Berfrois Poetry Prize!
I love the richly dynamic textures of Scherezade Siobhan’s poems, the sound waves of their vowels and consonants, the repetitions and partial rhymes, threading throughout the work. Scherezade is a poet whose language pushes her poems’ coherence right up to the edge, but they never trip over that line. Her lyricism is both lush and disciplined, and the poems never devolve into stock footage imagery. Meaning Scherezade has things to tell me about those human icons—the sky and moon, etc.,—I didn’t already know. That’s no small trick for poems written in the 21st century. I admire Scherezade’s work immensely.
Theophilus Kwek demonstrates such a clean mastery of form, such astringent clarity within his poems’ narrative and historical complexities, that I’m a bit gobsmacked I’d never heard of his work before. He has the storyteller’s instinct for knowing what to leave out of his poems’ tales, which is equally as important as that which is stated. He also builds characters expertly with an economy of words. The portraits of people in his poems are three-dimensional. Easy to give Kwek’s poems the highest compliment I have to offer, my envy.
Four Poems by Scherezade Siobhan
4 From “Bombay, Uncut”
Midnight & I am leased out to the shuttered craw of Bombay 70.
This is a tropic of crows kissing the pathogens before rigor mortis :
coyote-brown, blood-hot-pumice. The trove of a beach scrolled in
-side me, miles & miles of barbwire. Black tar syringes giftwrapped
in silver foil. Bombay baring all the metal
disciplining its teeth, Bombay threshing its plural glow,
its vulgar cornucopia lamped up
behind the afeem-blissed railway tracks. Matchstick men tightening
a cruddy shoelace at the cusp of bone & vein. Shiva hemorrhaged
by his hexed-up slumgods. Light names the spaces between a face
& its forgetting; leaves the children opaque to shatter against each
other like a ricochet of carrom men. Leaves the mothers broken
like headlights on ambulances coding the streets with their
ceremonial, cadaverous Ill-legal binaries.
When he speaks of suicide, I think about the first time
we went for karaoke. That whole trick of goading
the rooster out of its coop. I remember the cheap ceramic
silken with poached duck. The wild instrument
of his vodka-fondled voice.
I watched him float away from the derogation of a life
swallowed by rote. Its mulish nerve. Its still-not-strangled
Soon, he is a room thumping beneath the evanescence
of its own echo. He mouths the lyrics as if he can barter
the defeats of the day against a single hour
of loud imagination
On the lax tapestry, the peanuts come unhusked
like snail shells in a rain of salt. Our skins are shed
our hollows slick inside this brilliant translucence
of black fauna. His song is a wayward wish – a thing
(s)mothered, a groove limned with temporary amnesia.
He knows he can’t regret what he forgets
which is almost everything except the music.
The way it hunkers in the marrow of memory,
The way it nudges its teeth into the filthiest vein.
A god rises inside of him – a primitive defiance
a phantom of insomnia he can void into –
When it is over, we stumble home
through alleys darker than opioid withdrawals.
Our elbows are curved into treble clefs
For a while he doesn’t speak
in a language of spectral bridges. For a while
his mouth doesn’t round itself into a pale noose.
the tree we anchor turns into a kurdish folksong.
valleys of coral snakes & ochre moons swelling into holy bread
earth kneaded into domes & dunes –
its water glimmering with the prayer of gravity
do the rivers dream of dilaudid?
does the child know of the distance
between the voice & the body ?
on a phone-call i perform an abstraction of ropes
our third invention. our memory knotted into black braids
it is said that girls are taught to apologize
for every path they can or can’t take.
the mountain comes unconditioned
of it gender. the dust with its tiny mouth
will swallow each oval of velocity
will touch everything. will hold nothing.
a girl is told she is nothing. she hums
into the soft dark – just wait
till i come back
& eat you bare
till your heart cries blue
till your bones are fear
Always, my father’s july سائے loose amid the ornery
tufts of acacia blossoms. Each cresting the gilt & lava
birdhouses of dusk. The mosque, arterial mahogany, fish
-blue mapwork of palmettes; the tamarind pelt of his hands
brisk with dewdrops of garlic buds. Fire-licked
knives slicing the pillowed indolence of cottage
cheese. Butter hissing its furious conjurations,
the sky turning skillet-black, a kettled buzz —
the sallow broth soothing my sickness back
to the darling sheen of guava pink cheeks.
This house I sleepwalk through is part jazz, part aspic.
Here he darkened the green volition of watercress
when he held each leaf as if inspecting its veiny streets
for an unnamed evacuee. A heartbeat — the wet accent
of sizzled fronds. In a few years we will lose this —
the song-red geometry of naked bricks, the bridal gold
of his kitchen widowed to white. At best, laughter lit
like an open window, the knotted taste of lemongrass,
basil & marjoram lush between its wrought-iron teeth. At best
the roots of his pear tree teaching the sparrow how to kiss
gravity & remain ceaseless — salving the body
between a call to prayer & a closed coffin.
Four Poems by Theophilus Kwek
These are things that shake us in our sleep:
doors left open, drawers, the bare-backed chair
that still, without a coat, swivels gently,
books in boxes. Pictures taken down, squares
of darker paint turned over to the sun,
and above all, their wiring undone,
the lights’ glass tubes put away in plastic.
Once is enough. The eye learns to plot
all of this in each new habitation,
recognize the empty room’s joints, pivots,
dimensions – every house has a skeleton –
while the body learns it must carry less
from place to place, a kind of tidiness
that builds, hardens. Some call it fear,
of change, or losing what we cannot keep.
Others, experience. Truth is, it has no name
or station, and only the weight we give.
Old friend, I feel its steep tug again
this evening, across wire and lens
as you show me the house, a bare continent.
(These are things that shake us in our sleep).
Dead Man’s Savings Won’t Go To Wife
‘Ms Diao, a Chinese national … claimed to love Mr Soon and to meet him for dinner about once a week, but could not say why she loved him, and claimed they would eat fish, when Mr Soon did not.’
– The Straits Times, 8th September 2016
How could I explain? Your first glance
Was that of an old lover’s. All guilt,
No charm. As I washed the breakfast things
You struggled with your shirt, belt,
Looked away when I knelt
To lace your shoes. Those mornings
Turned out to be my favourite –
Us two in the park downstairs,
Your arm on mine as joggers passed,
Wings touching as we flew. Months
Wore on. You ate little, spoke less,
But still I knew you’d give a thousand coins
For my smile, the way you’d sit
By the door waiting, or press a little extra
Into my palm as I went to market
For threadfin or garoupa,
Something for myself. For you this
Was enough, an extravagance, nearly,
Of joy. And I? I loved the house
And the crows that nested there,
The missed appointments, separate beds,
How you always left the radio on.
In the end, they said,
You gave no last instructions,
So it wasn’t clear my claim was genuine.
That, I tried not to mind.
I wish you’d told them how much this would mean.
One who knows my voice is hard to find.
* Italics denote loose translations of Chinese idioms for love:
一见如故, 比翼双飞, 千金买笑, 爱屋及乌, 知音难觅.
My Grandfather Visits Pyongyang
Too late, we find among his photographs
A kingdom mostly dreamed of,
Its absurd architecture where
He alighted some time in October.
Frame after frame resists comparison.
There isn’t a place we’ve seen
That stands as still, or with the same intent
Raises its glass towards heaven,
All normalcy locked within a sound
These pictures don’t contain – a pitch rung
In the earth’s confines, too low
For human hearing. Friends tell us to allow
Ourselves the time it takes
To grieve, or whatever brings us back
To last year’s long continuum,
But something stays the eye. How in some
Perspectives he’s already gone,
Gone from the boulevards where wide-crowned
Trees fill up the viewfinder,
And men and women in work clothes hover
Outside our field of vision.
He’s Somewhere else entirely, now close,
Now looking in, the disappearance
Nothing more than a trick of the lens,
Though we fall for it again and again.
How like him, we think,
Then catch ourselves. The leaves turn
On their own impulse in our hands.
Monologues for Noh Masks
9th November 2016
Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford
i. A god who has taken the form of an old man
Early November a narrow seam unzips,
Fills up with rain. The whole earth is untuned.
In the water’s timbre is both pain and sleep.
Take my word: these are the things I knew.
ii. A young man, who has not yet adopted the conventions worn by older men
Father tells us it is no surprise, a bad year.
Harvests come and go. By next winter we’ll have made back
Our loss, replenished the stores, turned the ship around.
I don’t ask why I’ve seen him count up our stock,
Or, in the stables long after the men have gone,
Brush his favourite horse from head to hoof,
Run gloved hands through her hair as if to comfort both.
Without her there is no way he can draw the plough,
Turn our old mill, take the grain to market,
Or ride home over the road from a day in the fields
And tell us it is no surprise, harvests come and go.
iii. An ageing woman who cannot enter the next life
Easier to say the time wasn’t right. Or,
I did what I could, and though whatever
You did was nothing, is nothing, these
Are not lies. In time you become used
To the charge (which is the power to shock)
That you have less to own up, in fact,
Than you thought. Less, even, than nothing.
Apart from this there is no reckoning.
iv. The ghost of a man in the world of both the living and the dead
Touch me to your temple. I’ve heard it said
This is how it feels to be afraid