Thursday, December 25, 2008

Poetry Combo

The only thing uniting these five, diverse collections of poetry is that each was launched in 2007 at the Poetry Africa Festival hosted by the University of KwaZulu Natal, and that each poet is a South African.

Diversity is not a bad thing at all: in fact, the sheer range of the poetry collected in these volumes points to the vibrant, flourishing state of modern poetry in this country.

Poets may deplore the lack of outlets, and sometimes justifiably so, but it remains that in any given year a number of new collections are published by various houses in South Africa.

Starting with Kobus Moolman’s third collection of poetry, Separating the Seas,what comes to mind is that you could call Moolman very much a minimalist, paring down words to the point that images form clearly and succinctly. There is no fat in Moolman’s poetry and this lends it a stark, almost bare power.

Here are a few examples of Moolman’s use of simplicity.

Auto de fe: “Hills are wan in the distance/grass is dry and yellow. /Somewhere an old fire burns/a dead man’s dreams.” Or Dawn quietly and beautifully rendered: “Just past Newcastle/the dark lifts slowly/to allow a small morning in.” No confessional practitioner, the poet is obliquely hidden in the third person in poems such as Self-portrait in a window and He: a writer’s biography in eight parts.

Moolman is also not a political poet, but the realities of life are simply and effectively brought to light in Cost of Living, which lists various items of foodstuffs and When there is no food: “What I do/when there is no food in the house/ is to put water on the stove …/then we drink the water and go to bed.”

Gail Dendy brings the same care and pruning to her work as Moolman. While not as minimalist as Moolman, her poems in The Lady Missionary are small, well-crafted gems. Her poetic eye ranges from personal poems that speak of being of a mother-to-be, of a cat sleeping, to the sweetness of love, the evocation of a lady missionary coming to Africa, and the ravages of disease in The Cancer.

Rarely has the effect of this illness been so quietly and yet skilfully brought to the page. From a description of “she started shrinking/…but it was when the weight fell off…/leaving smoke on the wall …./ her hair went next/so that her skull/was a hood/of gristled silver.” The inevitable decline is revealed quick-silver in these lines: “The sun is out/to polish/every gravestone in the city.”

The only performance poet of the five reviewed here is Napo Masheane, actress as well as writer. She performed in the acclaimed My Bum is Genetic, Deal with it last year. Caves Speak in Metaphors marks her debut collection. Masheane is a powerful performer and having watched her perform at Poetry Africa, I can affirm that many of these poems sing on stage under her powerful delivery, and some are more suited to performance than a quiet reading on the page. But since this a collection meant to be read quietly, for my money the more powerful pieces are those quieter ones. Examples of these are Occasion: “In the wisdom of the
wise/time is not stupidly /split up into seconds or minutes/ But flows like beer in a pot/ that is sucked until it is finished.” I don’t Know You is equally powerful in its evocation of a lover who one has not yet met.

Haidee Kruger’s debut collection, Lush, poems for four voices, offers the same care and pruning of voices to reveal a distilled essence in single images. Arranged in the four voices of Agnes, Dorothy, Gertrude and Brigid, each woman speaks of being loved, loving, leaving, of the everyday, of the misunderstandings that pass through relationships with banal frequency. In poem four of the Dorothy sequence, these misunderstandings are delicately put forward: “I say/ I need a heart like/ a glossy suntanned seed/ …you say./ I think your tongue is on fire./ I say/ I feel like a ticking clock, a rising bread/ … you say/you are a /grater.”

But there are also more pleasurable moments of intimacy such as in part six of the Brigid sequence when a mommy is described as “a renowned slayer of monster/ a follower of fairies/ an apprentice of passion.”

My criticism of this collection lies in the use of the four voices: each is not distinct, and each seems to meld into another. Perhaps this is deliberate: perhaps each is part of a whole.

Vonani Bila’s Handsome Jita: Selected Poems is a weighty collection, both in length (it’s over 100 pages, and has been selected from three previous other collections of his poetry) and in terms of subject matter. Bila does not flinch from criticising the ruling ANC, from addressing poems to Mandela to caricaturing Robert Mugabe, to describing the poverty he sees around him every day, a poverty that he does not see being addressed by fat-cat politicians who have forgotten their ideals.

His poetry is often composed of short, sharp and choppy lines, lending a breathlessness in rhythm. There are portraits of ordinary individuals such as The Disabled Man or Car Watcher which illustrate Bila’s style: “She stands in the cold night/A gentleman heaves from a Mercedes Benz/Gonna eat at the Spur. /Can’t be her father/Her father is from Mafefe/ Coughing asbestos dust/ … I’ve slept with men for bread/I was hungry God.”

Bila is also a gifted performer and had set his astonishing Dahl Street, Pietermaritzburg to music. The poem, which runs to several pages, offers a panoramic view of life on its street, ranging from poverty evidenced in sex workers old at 22, the men who prey on them, and the homeless who prowl the street, a true “sham festival of life lost”.

(Published in The Star, March 2008)

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