Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Anti-consumerist poet with a Luddite bent

A review of 876 by Fox, Third Word Publishing, Johannesburg

This first collection by Johannesburg poet Fox shows his work is as powerful on the page as it is in performance. Fox’s concerns and themes become apparent from the first poem, as he addresses issues of status-driven consumerism, our demands for instant gratification, oppression, the abuse of power, damage to the environment and threats not only to the survival of humanity, but to the planet itself.

Fox’s work is also characterised by an intense energy of language, and experimentation with language, often joining words or engaging in free association, word play and irregular, disruptive punctuation.

The first poem, fast, begins: “fastfood-god, i. have nomore language with me/dead people live/fast-asleep in the fastlane beside me”.

Fox’s poetry is inhabited by images of fast food, TV, cellphones, taxis, megabytes, rain forests and obsessions with money and power.

It is not poetry created in a study, but rather in the bustling streets, as in the poem 154 Market Str, Johannesburg: “Everybody knows — a train in or out of Joburg/is Guerilla warfare, though the glass is harder/than any you would see through, the only/rabbits are those in your headlights”.

Fox mocks, and perhaps laments, our obsession with technology. The poem, If I had a hammer, opens with the lines: “If I had a hammer/&cellphone/I would ring the changes, I would walk in on the president/demanding a precedent”.

In The Gimp Wars, Fox makes it clear how his world view differs from those wishing to climb the corporate ladder: “Ive got my own directive, but management dont care for that/management want a scatter-brained scaredy/cat, someone to fuck and smile & walk the extra mile for assholes”.

He criticises a civilisation brainwashed by TV, as in his poem Remote generation, commenting on people passively “still sitting still/thumbing through/channels,/breast fed on Americanism all morning and oprah winfreedom/fighting phantoms/in Afghanistan”.

He believes people are willing themselves into slavery, as in USER interface: “Our little machines cook in our brains/Little alarm bells give little warning/ Our demise/their control/what can be done has been done”.

In 6 Billion Copies Sold, we are confronted by a world driven by consumerism, where the corporate powers focus on making goods “cheaper, breakable, instantly replaceable/useless, nonredeemable, cash sale no refundable”.

There is concern for the environment, as in his poem BraZillion Rain Forest, and the awareness that greed and power are often the culprits.

There is also, despite the poems’ strong focus on contemporary issues, a frequent look at prehistory, as in the poem, in the footsteps of the satellites, which begins: “funny how we found all those dinosaurs by following muddy/footprints through glacial marshes to their bed in the lime,/ sleeping sweetly as if they never once had teeth as long as my arm/ and a gut full of my ancestors”.

One section of poems in the collection is dated September 10 2001, the day before the World Trade Centre attacks. They carry a sense of impending disaster for a corrupt and power-crazed civilisation intent on “mass producing these weapons of self destruction”.

This seems to be what the title 876 implies — the final stages of a countdown.

The collection also contains a long poem, PRESS DRUK, about a train journey from Johannesburg to Grahamstown, much of it reading like notes, or a montage of fleeting impressions, again undertaking an irreverent critique of technology.

On a local note, Fox criticises the newly emerging black elite in the poem No work: “New money for No work —/black exec in a white merc” while “a distant housing development/looms largely in the future/people walk to work in dirt/ride home in the rain”.

Another poem is a furious tirade against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe: “monarch of faceless dogs and/ patron of filth, you wretched waste of black skin”.

The collection also contains quieter and more gentle poems, such as Lettered Curves or love you like, though it is in such poems that Fox occasionally produces weak, almost trite, lines, as in the poem, empty the sea, which opens: “empty the sea of the blue sky/wash the waters sterile white,/ at night the moon will swim/alone while we cast our eyes/along her naked form”.

But Fox is a strong, vibrant and original voice in contemporary South African poetry and 876 is an invaluable collection.

First published in The Weekender, April 12 2008

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