June Poetry: Two Poems by Theophilus Kwek

"Fifty-One" and "The Gamble"
June 20, 2017

Image Credit: Lennart Tange via Flickr

Our two June poems by Theophilus Kwek borrow wisdom from the spirit of children for withstanding life’s unpredictable losses. “Fifty-One” paints a portrait of grief’s quiet monotony, which manifests as the morning spent “tending the fire in the urn downstairs” and resigning to chores. The poem’s contemplative, nostalgic tone echoes in “The Gamble,” which begins as a lively account of a children’s game before unfolding as a metaphor for “our longer hours… spent / In fruitless pursuit” and for “our hands’ imperfect work.”​

— Eugenia Leigh, Poetry Editor


       9th August, 2016

This year, it falls in the seventh month,
Which is when the dead remember us.
Now that I live alone, I’ll spend the morning
Tending the fire in the urn downstairs:
The grass is red and white with last night’s joss.

In the afternoon, if it doesn’t rain,
I’ll do the laundry. Take the curtains down,
Hang out the sheets. It’s hard to find
Another day like this for a thorough clean.
Believe me. Something’s always left undone.

Evenings are usually when I phone the girls.
Not today. It’s a long weekend, so they’ll have gone.
I’ll take a walk instead, then lock the door.
It’s said that most can’t quite get past the step,
But you never know what spirits lurk beyond.

Mother used to say as we get older,
We take after our children more and more.
I’m not so sure. My second one is braver,
Asks, every year, why I would bother.
My first won’t even come close to our altar —

She’s found something better to explain
What we’re for, where we go to when we go.
Where else but here? That’s what I’d like to know.
It was I who taught her to ask such questions.
With age, these are the things that start to show.


The Gamble

       ‘Oh-yah-pay-yah-sohm’, lit. ‘black-and-white-and-count’: a system for drawing lots,
       where all players display their palms at the same time, either facing up or down; a children’s game.

Believe me when I say it meant everything
Not to be caught with your palm open,
Pearl-white and marking you out among
Sunned knuckles, wrists wrapped in veins,
Nails rich and streaked with too much earth.

One wrong move could cost an afternoon,
Seeing as there was no deliverance
From being chosen by your own hand
As fire, hunter, damned to the far-fetched chance 
That your quarry, set free at a touch

Might run out of steam, or in a moment’s
Distraction deliver an unlucky ally. 
And so all our longer hours were spent
In fruitless pursuit, until finally
What began to dawn as a kind of truth —

Even then — became inescapable.
The empty hand, the curse of the chase, fear
Driving through the field of broken hurdles,
A parched track, grass beaten under…
Too close, the cut of childhood’s metaphors

For shorter days in taller houses,
Far safer to keep the children indoors
Than have them learn, by trial if not error
How after each round, our hands’ imperfect work
Was forgiven by their turning over.  


Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek has published three collections of poetry, as well as a recent pamphlet, The First Five Storms (2017). He won the Martin Starkie Prize in 2014, the Jane Martin Prize in 2015, and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and was recently placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation, 2016. Having served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, he is the Co-Founder of The Kindling and a Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry.