Saturday, 20 July 2013

What I'm reading: Kobus Mooman

Poet Kobus Moolman was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1964. He has been awarded the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Pansa award for best drama, the Dalro poetry prize and the South African Literary Award for poetry. He teaches creative writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. He has just released his latest collection of poems, titled Left Over (Dye Hard Press).

I’ve just spent three months at Rhodes University as their Mellon Writer in Residence, which not only meant lots of time staring into the blue yonder, writing new pieces and fragments of pieces, but also plenty time to read and to amass new titles.

I finished Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, a brutal and austere book about a rural doctor who takes his son with him on his daily rounds, but filled with extraordinary passages like: “The darkness is cold when the head is switched off.” Then Roberto Bolano’s Monsieur Pain. Bolano is one of my favourite writers, though I admit I have not yet pushed through his 2666. After Bolano there was Sleeper’s Wake by Cape Town writer Alistair Morgan. The first half of the book was excellent – the opening chapters winded me. His prose is clean, cold and beautiful. Then I read lots – and I do mean lots – of poetry, and discovered many new authors. The American Alice Notley, for one. Her new and selected poems, Grave of Light. Extraordinary! Read lots of Louise Gluck, and Marianne Borusch, Mina Loy and Jorie Graham.

Then a friend gave me Anne Carson’s An Oresteia, her translation of three Greek tragedies. I’ve only read her introduction to Agamemnon so far that begins thus: “It’s like watching a forest fire.”

(Published in Cape Times, July 12, 2013)

Friday, 19 July 2013

Sunday, 14 July 2013

New title from Dye Hard Press: fhedzi by Khulile Nxumalo

fhedzi is Khulile Nxumalo's second poetry collection.
94 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9869982-1-8

Khulile Nxumalo was born in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 1971. He finished school at Waterford Kamhlaba, Swaziland, and went to the University of Cape Town, University of Natal and Wits University. His first poetry collection, ten flapping elbows, mama, was published by Deep South in 2004. His work has appeared in several literary journals in South Africa, Canada, the UK and the US. Nxumalo has twice won the DALRO award for poetry.  He has two children.

Khulile Nxumalo is one of the few poets in South Africa using longer experimental forms. He has found a creative way of breaking up the English language and fusing it with other languages. He is also capable of intense lyrical expression. – Robert Berold

magma-burn. emotion-lava spilling out. of wounds. 
and thoughts of them expressed in ghostly words
of the divining spirit. and coming thru the smog.
and dust,blood-rained on strange children's games.
and ever The Voice, lonesome, wearied, spiralling inward...
with this one, sikhulile!  Lesego Rampolokeng

fhedzi will soon be available at bookstores countrywide, at an estimated retail price of R145. If ordered directly from the publisher, the price is R120, including postage.  contact to order.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

My sorceress

Can we know the dancer from the dance? - a review of Gail Dendy's Closer Than That

This collection of poems comprises four numbered but unnamed sections, leaving it up to the reader to determine the significance of this formal structure. The first section might be thought of as dealing with perspectives onto various types of creativity, including the creation of earthly existence according to the mock-theology of the demiurge in the first poem, ‘The Apprentice’ (pp. 9–10). Other areas include writing (‘To Write or Not To Write’ [p. 11]), trapeze work (‘The High-Wire Artist’ [p. 12]), and ballet (‘Swan Lake’ [p.13]). To disturb my neat categorisation, the section also provides perspectives onto past school-acquaintances (‘Linda’ [p. 14]), love (‘Constancy’ [p. 15]), ‘Vertigo’ [pp. 19–20]), and, with a backward glance at Wallace Stevens, fruit (‘Ruminations on the Plum’ [pp. 16–17]). Part II might be read as concerning objects, poems, amethyst, skin, cats, the sun, computers and books (pp. 23–35). Part III deals with the self’s relation to activity and to others (pp. 39–54), whilst Part IV concerns itself with the self’s relation to a wider world (pp. 57–71).

Of course, the moment one tries to delimit the significance of a structure, the inadequacy of doing so becomes apparent, and the reader appreciates the poet’s use of numerals rather than titles − they give a pace to and, more importantly, a place for the reading. The numerals provide compartments in which to dwell for a time, until the resonances within the parts become clearer, and the structural logic of the arrangement justifies itself from within, rather than being imposed from without. As always, in this book too, one has to live with poetry, not just read it once or twice, in order to appreciate it. And Dendy warrants re-reading. Her style is lucid, her language and images accessible, even when meanings are not immediately apparent. My one complaint is that some poems, whilst they might contain intriguing ideas (I think of ‘The Apprentice’, which provides a comic cause for a bungled creation), have throwaway lines which, although in keeping with the necessary lightness of touch required in this particular poem, are simply not memorable. The demiurge in ‘The Apprentice’ ‘tried to say sorry’ for the ‘bloody disaster’ he or she or it caused (and here comes the final line, the supposed climax of the poem): ‘I did. I really, really did’ (p. 10).

The book is noteworthy for the lively intelligence that Dendy always shows, even in those poems that present themselves as ‘throwaway’ poems (in reality, no poem good enough for publication is ‘throwaway’; they all require intense effort in the writing). This is best exemplified through a few extracts. Here is one from the beginning of ‘Amethyst’, which reminds me of aspects of Neruda’s Sky Stones:

The potted violet is blooming again, 
its miniature florets feathering out 
like scattered amethysts on a sea-green floor. 
It opens like a breath underwater. 

The interplay between the tetrameter beat and the varying feet − amphibrachs, dactyls, trochees, and iambs − creates a delicate rhythm, which takes its cue from the polysyllabic cluster in the eponymous ‘amethysts’. The modulation amongst images is very fine, being at once descriptive, kinetic, and imaginatively transformative, where breath inhabits an element that should be foreign, but is in perfect accord with what went before.

Dendy is herself a dancer, and how well she inhabits the movement, the at-oneness of dancer and dance (to draw on Yeats), in the words of one of the poems in this book, ‘Circles’:

The fire encircles the dancers, 
and the dancers are like flames, 

and their feet are flames 
and their skirts are like the circles 

when rain beats on the water, 
and the water dances 

to the sound of the rain, 
and in silence  

the rain stops dancing 
in its silver circles, 

and so the dancers are gone, 
and you are a solitary, whirling flame. (p. 52) 

Her inhabiting of the dance is also, we realise by the end of the poem, an internalisation of the dance by the writer, to the point of identification with the flame (which originally was likened to the dancers): ‘and you are a solitary, whirling flame’. The second person pronoun here empties selfhood, underlining absorbed identification with the ‘whirling flame’. Interesting, as in ‘Amethyst’, is the presence of ‘water’. Coterminous with flame, it helps signal the transitivity amongst radically different elements, a figurative pliancy, which extends into the transformation of form into movement, and the inhabiting of sense almost void of consciousness (being the ‘flame’ in an after-effect kindled by the dance). For me, this is Dendy at her best, the poet whose formal elegance can celebrate an interpenetration of formal boundaries, whose vision thrives on the fluid effects of suggestion.

This volume will appeal to readers of contemporary poetry who value accessibility allied to intellectual acuity and emotional sensitivity. It is also a fine example of the flowering of poetry in South Africa over the past two decades, especially amongst female poets.

Nicholas Meihuizen
First published in Literator, North-West University, South Africa

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

From mimetic punctiliousness to imaginative free play: a review of The Edge of Things

In 1958 Randall Jarrell, the American poet, edited and brought out a collection of stories, Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, which contains a famous introduction. The book was long out of print
but has been recently republished as a New York Review Books Classic (2002). It is, naturally, very difficult to generalise about a book such as the one under review, but there is one section of
Jarrell’s introduction that seems pertinent to The Edge of Things, in its mixture of complexity and comprehensiveness:

It is so good, our stories believe, simply to remember: their elementary delight in recognition, familiarity, mimesis, is another aspect of their obsession with all the likenesses of the universe, those metaphors that Proust called essential to style. Stories want to know: everything from the first blaze and breathlessness and fragrance to the last law and structure, but, too, stories don’t want to know, don’t want to care, just want to do as they please. (Jarrell 2002: x)

The range of the story: from mimetic punctiliousness to imaginative free play. Arja Salafranca’s task, as compiler of The Edge of Things, is not to ponder the nature of short fiction; it is to present as many works as possible, with an eye on quality, in order to promote the genre in this country. She notes that the stories submitted for publication in the book showed ‘an astonishing variety of narratives and approaches, shifting from realism to playful absurdity and crossing the boundaries from the strictly fictional to something that sits just beyond fiction, but isn’t quite nonfiction either’ (p. 7). Jarrell would have approved.

Looking at the stories themselves one finds it hard to pick out those that deserve special mention, but let me refer to some. ‘Bounce’ (p. 9), by Jayne Bauling, is a curiously gripping account (perhaps because this reviewer has tried to do the same) of the attempted rescue of a baby lourie, psychologically bound to the loss of a murdered partner. Salafranca’s own ‘The Iron Lung’ (p.18), juxtaposes two first-person accounts, those of mother and daughter, about life with the iron lung device; the device assumes a figurative significance. Cunningly different from other stories is Liesl Jobson’s ‘You pay for the view: twenty tips for super pics’ (p. 30), a life story constructed around the said tips and moments captured as camera events. The events begin with
‘1. Hold it steady’, and end with ‘20. Watch the light’, and cover a period, not always in strictly chronological order, of 32 years. In this and other stories failed marriages are at issue. I think of Gillian Schutte’s ‘Doubt’ (p. 50), with its erotic daydreams, and Karina Magdalena Szczurek’s ‘The Basket’ (p. 62), where the death of a newly-retired husband in a motorbike accident actually brings the protagonist (and the reader) a sense of relief.

In the collection’s eponymous ‘The edge of things’ (p. 78), by Jenna Mervis, the protagonist is alone with her dog in a cottage on the edge of suburban space, that appears to be spied on by possible intruders. She is without, or is separated from, a partner, and the narrator uses this absence and her sense of vulnerability to create suspense. In the end, though, Samson the dog, in the middle of a moonlit night, leads her outdoors, away from her locks and alarms, into a magical dream dimension, ‘on the edge of things’ in a different sense from that originally suggested.

Pravasan Pillay’s ‘Mr Essop’ (p.137) is a matter-of-fact, Hemingwayesque account of an instance of coldly administered cruelty to a child, with some fine moments of dialogue in Chatsworth dialect. Again, it is obviously impossible to mention all the stories in the book, but let me conclude with a brief look at Dan Wylie’s ‘Solitude’ (p. 256). Here we find a punctiliously crafted story, indeed. The protagonist is an aloof, cynical academic, complacently single, with a distaste for the life around him. He works on a crossword puzzle, clue by clue. The puzzle proves intrinsic to the plot, as the life around him, with its grubbiness and despair, enters into his puzzle (though he remains imperturbable.

The book will appeal to lovers of fiction and narrative in whatever forms. Those who relish detail, those who desire free play, are catered for. Not all the stories are of the same quality, but each, in its way, is enjoyable, and is reflective of the old cliché that everyone carries a story, or stories, within him or her. There is something of this democracy of the narrative urge in these stories, which makes of them a useful and enlightening panorama of local experience, states of mind, and states of emotion.

Nicholas Meihuizen
First published in Literator, North-West University, South Africa

Saturday, 06 July 2013