‘When any of the fugitives said, “Let me go over”, the men of Gilead said to him…”Say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan (and thus) 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.’ – Judges 12: 5-6


Calf deep in water and no turning back,
We bury our swords in sacks of grain,
Smear on wet loam to make our faces dark.

Black hours. The riverbed clings to our skin
As we plan our way home across the marsh
To where a firm shape of the land begins:

Tribesmen, with our heavy gear and horses,
Bringing a full harvest. The first sentries
Take us at our word, and, lifting a measure

Of dry corn from our bags, wish us peace.
In the pale light we haul the animals
Champing at their ropes into the morass,

Trust our luck and the still-distant swell
With our feet, eyes. Then from too close
Among our submerged ranks, a yell –

A bucking horse, a rock, rope loosed
From the grip – that makes the watchmen turn,
Curse, fix us with a sterner glare. Years

Later on Jordan’s bank another man
Will comfort his people, by your words
You will be justified. Here on the open

Water there is nothing, nothing to hold
As the word comes faltering to our lips,
Wide nothing that makes our voices heard

Above the river’s lisp, nothing like sleep
Or the comfort of sleep. As we speak
The mud slips off our faces into the deep.

Theophilus Kwek was born in Singapore and has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (Ethos Books, 2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and has been published in The North, Southword, The Interpreter’s House, Eastlit, and other journals. He works at The Oxford Writers’ House and Asymptote, the journal of world literature.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.