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Theophilus Kwek

Merton poet wins Martin Starkie Prize

June 2014

Merton first-year undergraduate Theophilus Kwek has been awarded this year's Martin Starkie Prize by the Oxford Poetry Society. The prize, named after the actor, writer and director who founded the Society in 1946, is awarded annually to 'an emerging, noteworthy voice within the Oxford poetry community'. Theo was presented with the award last Tuesday (10 June), at a special evening in celebration of Oxford poetry.

Theo says:

"I’ve been dabbling in poetry for several years, since joining Singapore’s Creative Arts Programme as a student in Raffles Institution. It’s been a strange and exciting journey: from writing the first tentative verses to publishing two (slim) collections of my own, and I’ve learnt priceless things along the way from fellow poets and longsuffering editors.

"Winning the prize means a lot to me especially as an international student: it tells me that while I trip over figures of speech and struggle to copy accents, there’s something about language that bubbles past daily misunderstandings. In a bigger sense it tells me that words aren’t hemmed in by the worlds we come from, instead, they help us identify with common experiences like growing up and growing old.

"My winning poem is about one of those unifying themes—age, and facing and accepting death—rooted in a quite ordinary scene of being shown around someone’s home. The ten-syllable terza rima was an experiment which, thankfully, turned out better than expected!"

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 the eponymous part IV of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, 1955