Douglas Reid Skinner South African poet

Work > Heaven

Heaven: New & Selected Poems (2014)

A life’s work comes together here, brick slotted to brick, all cohering. From early to late this is poetry that has the courage, artistic as well as moral, to see things exactly as they are.

JM Coetzee

Skinner’s ‘The Present’ masterfully brings together the impossible temporal concept of ‘the present’ with the word’s unrelated meaning of ‘gift’. A child stands at the door of a birthday party, holding a present as well as his mother’s hand, which he must relinquish in order to go inside. The poem works as a companion piece to an earlier Skinner poem, ‘The Telling’, composed in an agonisingly irresolute litany of present participles (‘coming in’, ‘stepping’) accompanied by an equally painful avoidance of the pronoun ‘I’ that work together to convey the life-changing moment when a young boy is told by his father that his mother is not coming home. Skinner’s gift is to sing in beautifully measured, musical lines what his unflinching eye sees.

Finuala Dowling

I have an unnerving feeling that I’m writing the same six poems over and over. You see this in novelists and painters as well, patterns repeated with variation. (More than one writer has noted that there are only seven stories.) I suppose to me it resembles the way old cartographers mapped a terrain, by repeated journeys, following the same path, gaining a little more understanding with each overlapping.

Douglas Reid Skinner

  • The Present

  • Can I open it now? the boy asks his mother,
  • who holds his free hand in hers as they walk
  • away from their Hodges Street home and along
  • the edge of the Green, to the birthday party.
  • They stand at the door and wait to go in.
  • Inside they can hear all the boisterous boys.
  • No, it’s not one for you, she whispers to him
  • through a smile that he will recall for as long
  • as his memory goes on serving him well,
  • for as long as he remembers every so often
  • to stop what he’s doing and ponder a while,
  • let the tool in his hand dangle unused
  • or the half-peeled vegetables wait in the sink
  • while he sits and thinks his way through the years,
  • getting smaller and smaller, his trousers shorter,
  • until he can see his mother still standing,
  • standing again in the dress with bright flowers,
  • the cloud of perfume that reminds him of meadows…
  • to stop and remember them back on the porch,
  • back in the sunlight and quietly waiting.
  • In his hand is a present wrapped in blue paper,
  • in the other, her hand that makes him feel safe,
  • the hand that she waved as she went down the steps,
  • the hand he will hold at the moment of death.
  • They stand on the porch in afternoon light,
  • the present grows heavier and heavier in his hand.
  • He knows that the door will open to darkness.
  • Again and again, he doesn’t want to go in.