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Occurrence

BY THEOPHILUS KWEK
 

Oxford University, '16
2016 Adroit Prize for Poetry: Runner-Up


6.35 p.m. on 23rd November, 2015: the victim was struck on the face with a metal rod by men in an unidentified car, on Oriel Square, breaking his glasses. No assailant could be traced. 
 

Nothing much then, now nearly unseen –
a cut beneath the eye. A bruise, fading  
to skin, frown and furrow, fine print. How 

soon the body grieves, forgives how easily
it gives. Already these marks are marks
of other things. Sleepless lines that mar 

an early frost. Fields turned for planting,
sandstone shorn against the river’s brink. 
A fishhook’s incline, the doubling pitch 

of flight like a whaler’s reckoning. In
the hollow of a bridge the water leaves
no scar, only trembling. A sound gone 

as if from a whipped bowstring, between
where the arrow flies and, at each end, 
thread spliced so as to pucker wood: the eyes.

 

Ventnor

BY THEOPHILUS KWEK
 

Oxford University, '16
2016 Adroit Prize for Poetry: Runner-U
p


Isle of Wight

 

i. 

Here is the sea. Here are cliffs at the edge
of the sea, and on them houses in lines 

like battlements. Here are churches designed
to hold at bay the sea’s smaller gods, yards 

of stone and flowers, shops shuttered from storms. 
Here are walls with warm doors, curtains, parks

that are all swings and stairs. Roads, wet thatch, 
grit like frost on paths. Geese in a swarm.  


ii. 

The mist appears at four in the afternoon, 
builds into fog, fills the cove’s raw room.

In the small of the island a knot of wind
wears the vanishing roofs like a glove, 

mars brick to water as cloud sweeps inland
heavy with light, unseeable 

except for ghosts in the sand, and the trees
whose shadows touch outside the locked buildings. 


iii. 

We pick our way along the steep outcrop
as old pavement falls away to the sea – 

here is no place for disbelief. Far below
the tide is a thing of beauty, and the distance,

like the smell of salt, a salve. What is faith? 
Through the blackthorn, grass
                                                     that despite all covers 

the ridge. In its knees and ankles the path
holds grace sufficient for our small dangers. 

 

Meridian

BY THEOPHILUS KWEK
 

Oxford University, '16
2016 Adroit Prize for Poetry: Runner-U
p


Royal Observatory, Greenwich

 

Thinking it inconceivable
for an untimely world to number

polar days, long monsoons
from this hill, this noon

I came one morning to find
Wren’s building, its dull line

a hammered fact on the fell
as if the continental shelves 

were not, against permanence
locked in their slow dance 

nor soft earth waltzing underfoot. 
I found nothing more plain, or more odd 

than all the clocks wound
to shifting stone, save for how 

given these months, even vowels
had begun turning with the hours 

as on one spoke, and in this zone
ticked double-time to my own,

showing a gift for complexity
or perhaps complicity

that made both spell and sentence
of words I knew to make sense in.

As if there were only so long
before time and tongue 

tuned by love, newly here
loaned words to fill a borrowed year.

 

These poems are careful and taut, though they yield brilliant moments of winding syntactical power. Mooring man in the natural world, these poems look closely at language, time, belief. Big subjects, yes, but always grounded in wonderfully precise imagery. “Occurrence” examines invisible wounds after trauma, couching them in metaphor. “Already these marks are marks / of other things.” It is these other things—rendered through the fine imagination of the poet—one returns to, returns for. When witness fails, when what is visible fades, poetry can give language back to the body, to experience. 
-Corey Van Landingham, 2016 Adroit Prize for Poetry Judge

 

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (forthcoming). He won the Martin Starkie Prize in 2014 and the Jane Martin Prize in 2015, and has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is president of the Oxford University Poetry Society.