/ 9 May 2007

Poetry: cycles of life

Seasonal Fires gathers together poems from Ingrid de Kok’s three collections so far (1988, 1997 and 2002) and a volume’s worth of new poems. As a “selected” should, it demonstrates the breadth and trajectory of her work, and shows its remarkable consistency.

From the earliest poems here (often, appropriately, framed by childhood), De Kok’s voice is clear, and her way with metaphor is subtle and worked through any particular poem with considerable nuance. Up to the most recent works, which feel somewhat looser, perhaps more provisional, the poems are tightly woven and carefully, delicately patterned: there is a very satisfying thickness of texture here, though none of the poems feel heavy or too dense.

In such a volume, it is possible to see connections across the oeuvre, to read, for instance, the early poem about the father who “would not show us how to die” against the later My Father’s Books, where a complex act of remembrance and imaginative sympathy takes place among “his log books, navigational codes I cannot understand”. Through the merest hints, Our Sharpeville (1988) casts forward to the group dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (from Terrestrial Things, 2002). The young girl’s apprehension of the miners who “roar past in lorries” as she plays hopscotch, her sense of their biblical otherness, and her grandmother’s warning that “they do things to little girls”, reaches some kind of empathetic reversal and also expansion in poems such as The Transcriber Speaks, a moment of paradoxical ventriloquism to rival Primo Levi’s extraordinary speech on behalf of one of Hannibal’s elephants.

Empathy and compassion are the keynotes in poems such as these, in which the poem is a way of meeting, treating and in some way internalising the words and worlds of others — to use the title of one of De Kok’s collections, a kind of “transfer” takes place, one that speaks to and of common humanity, without assuming that it is a given. The many poems dealing with children, often lost in some way, are perhaps the central core of such acts of empathy as performed by De Kok’s poems. An early exemplar is the very powerful Small Passing (whose mothers “will not compete for the ashes of infants”); in the later Child Stretching, the poet almost feels her way into a photograph of another’s child, and in The Head of the Household “a girl of thirteen, children in her arms,” has the “house balanced on her head”.

There is also much wit and humour in De Kok’s work, a wry sense of the difficulties of love and sex. In To a Would-Be Lover, the poet rejects a “pyrotechnic suitor”, preferring a “sillier body, earthbound, with its many joints and dents”; in Brush Stroke, she celebrates the simple moment of waking alongside one’s lover.

Such simplicities are at the heart of Don Maclennan’s work, also gathered in a Selected Poems, one that reaches back to 1971 and forward to 2005. There are long poems with long lines, but overall his characteristic voice is found in shorter poems built of short, terse lines that return again and again to the most straightforward possible utterance, to an attempt to identify and hold the most essential, basic things. As he puts it in Letter in a Bottle (and this is the whole poem):

When death takes me

I’ll be in no mood to recount

the way I saw things

or work out my account.

All I’ve ever wanted to make —

a few clean statements

on love and death,

things you cannot fake.

The sensual world, whether in the life of nature or contact with other people, is always pressing against Maclennan’s thought, and the poems become forms of meditation on this world, and then on themselves as vehicles for contemplation. The poems often ask themselves what they are, what they do. Sometimes a “clean statement” is provided on what poetry is and does, but at the same time many of the poems seem to exist at a kind of juncture of the speakable and the mysterious, where “words slide off the page and disappear”.

Gus Ferguson, by comparison, has a sharp sense of mystery as well as absurdity; one senses that for him these may be the same thing — and the lesson to be learnt. His latest little volume, Dubious Delights, presents another clutch of small, perfectly formed jewels — works whose very smallness is part of their programme as poems. They read like a cross between Ogden Nash and a Zen koan, and they most enjoyably find in a single perception a kind of lens that takes in a cosmos, as in Kraaiku:

Yet, even in the

battery farm the rooster

calls the break of day.

Ingrid de Kok appears at the Spier Summer Arts Poetry Festival together with poets from around the world. The line-up includes Nuno Júdice (Portugal), Catherine Kidd (Canada), Erwin Mortier (Belgium), Zein Al Abdin Fouad (Egypt) and South Africans Kgafela oa Magogodi, Charl Pierre Naude, David Ferguson, Zanne Stapelberg and Gabeba Baderoon. The festival runs from 7.30pm on February 2 and 3