“Ultimate and penultimate things” by Theophilus Kwek won the 2014 Martin Starkie Poetry Prize awarded by the Oxford University Poetry Society. The annual prize is given to the best single poem by a student of Oxford University. The judge this year was Claire Trévien.
Ultimate and penultimate things
“Seriousness begins where life stops, where we are no more, at the boundary of time.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Forsythia in Spring. The garden wintering
within its mended fence. A thin stone porch
between house and road, the intervening
pebbles set in a path. Under the arch,
indoor slippers against the frame, two pairs
recent and worn. The front door like a church’s,
that does not shut because of the cold air,
and the way wood expands. He explains this
as we step into the hall, points out where
the men tried to lift the bookcase sideways.
More marks on the wall, here a dash of spilt
coffee, hidden by a vase, there a graze
from a previous fall. When the house was built
they didn’t think old people would live here,
did they? Look at this. The front room is filled
with things that cannot be carried upstairs:
a striped rug, some impractical china,
boxes of books that have fled the corners
and lie open. Beneath, the wood vinyl
bathes the whole room, fluorescent in the floes
of morning’s long light. Nothing seems final.
Are there plans, I ask. We’ll see how it goes.
There are beds to plant, leaves to be swept,
other things to ward off the slow repose
of summer, and the summer after that.
He lists them, remembering. But I’m no
longer with him, or the things he has kept
waiting, undone, caught instead by the ghost
of what will, on any similar day
become fact, the lasting to without fro,
baring sudden visage. No loud dismay.
A mere dropped breath, as if, into tall grass,
the departure of a narrowing way
with little on the gentle hill to cast
incline or decline, a possible gauge.
There in the room, our talk, scarcely nonplussed,
picks up each piece – all these things to do, age –
and winds itself round the sustaining thought
that some awareness, dancing at the edge,
might prove enough to hold away the clot
on the scan, or at least with rough meaning
fill up mean time, leave flowers in the plot.
The rest is approximate. Ripening
more than a season, the weight of the wait
takes a livid shade. Forsythia in Spring.
* Title taken from part IV of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, 1955
by Theophilus Kwek
Born in 1994, Theophilus began writing while a student in Raffles Institution and was a member of the Creative Arts Programme, to which he returned as a Councillor in 2011. His first collection, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue, was released in that year, and he was Commended at the Foyle Young Poets’ Award in 2010 and 2011. His poems have been published in the Mascara Literary Review, the Asiatic Journal, and Cha, among other periodicals, and translated into French for la Traductiere. He was the youngest featured poet at the Singapore Writers’ Festival in 2012. His second collection, Circle Line, was released in 2013. Theophilus currently studies History and Politics at Oxford University.