/ 24 February 2012

Memories from the female soul

Difficult Gifts by Dawn Garisch;
Conduit by Sarah Frost;
Hemispheres by Karen Lazar;
The Suitable Girl by Michelle McGrane
The Everyday Wife by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (all titles published by Modjaji Books)

Since 2007, Cape Town-based press Modjaji Books has been ­publishing the work of Southern African female writers. Each of the five books reviewed here is beautifully crafted inside and out. When I was reading them I kept thinking of ­people I wanted to send them to right away, for different ­reasons.

In Difficult Gifts, Dawn Garisch writes of a life unravelling, what she describes in another book as learning “the difference between loving and lies”. This is a book for someone who has experienced betrayal or divorce.

The poems it contains convey rage and grief but also the salve of cynical humour. For instance, the poem Slow Dozing states: “Slow Dozing in bed/ releasing thoughts of you:/ how it could have been/ and how it is instead.”

Sarah Frost’s Conduit also traces the rise and fall of love — “A continuum/ arcing in a trajectory of loss” — and several poems brim with dark eroticism. This is a book for young people, particularly women, who have been abandoned by those they have loved. “I write, to accept it, solitude, solitude, accept.”

A well of sorrow

Many of the most ­powerful poems in Frost’s book draw from a well of sorrow that extends deep into her childhood and the poet is on firmest ground when she is most solipsistic. The poems Abahlali and Everyday — both about the lives of others — rest uneasily between the poet’s childhood memories, strained sexual encounters and meditations on desire.

Hemispheres is technically a ­personal memoir by Karen Lazar that relates her experience of a stroke resulting from surgery.

However, like all good writers, what Lazar offers us here exceeds the bounds of ­testimony and provides us with her perceptions of a world transformed, not only by the effects of the stroke but by her careful, beautiful words. The book contains a series of ­fragments, funny, critical, brilliant and moving in turn, and although it is not a book of poems it is a truly poetic work.

This is a gift for anyone who is struggling to hold on to their sense of humour, in sickness or in health.

Dense with literary allusions

Michelle McGrane’s The Suitable Girl is a book of imaginings, not all told in the voice of the poet and so a sort of relief from the confessional poems that make up the largest part of Modjaji’s recent offerings.

McGrane is a poet’s poet — her work is dense with literary allusions, ­history, bits and pieces of French and even something that looks alarmingly like Gaelic. Who is this marvellous multiple-tongued wordsmith? The poems collected here will not yield this secret and demand real interpretative work.

Even if you, dear reader, are not up to the task, fear not and read the book anyway for “You will carry/ the music of this memory with you;/ and from time to time/ in the small, ­withered hours/ your body will sing its remembering”.

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ The ­Everyday Wife is an important book of important poems. It is work that makes me feel that we have a poet who can, at least in some way, speak for us, represent us, help us to find the words to say what we ourselves cannot. “Words give a shape to pain/, so that we can find a place/ to put it. In the darkness of forgetting/ words switch on/ the light.”

If I had the authority to do so, I would elect Phillippa Yaa de Villiers our poet laureate.