By Karen Press
Three first collections from publishing house uHlanga add welcome breadth to the range of South African poetry currently available in book form. uHlanga defines itself as “South Africa’s progressive poetry press”, a branding gesture that may lay a heavy yoke around the necks of the “promising young poets” whose debut collections it is committed to publishing. But the first three of these poets don’t seem to have been reined in by this embrace: each collection resonates with a strong individual voice asserting its presence and preoccupations.
Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths And My Other Crimes begins with a declamatory commitment in “You have no power here” to act as conscience of the world and wake-up call to the reader: “I will tell you what I know / It won’t be what you want me to tell you…/ It won’t be nice/ It won’t be like wine…” But this clarion call is modulated in many poems by a wry and often tender turn to the insights that come from observing others with a well-tuned eye and ear. In “Children watching old people”, for example, he offers us the double gaze of both the old man at his beer and the way the children read the old man’s actions:
the last of his chibuku beer
as though he were
hitting the carton
palm of his hand
In many poems there is a finely calibrated tonal balance of big feeling and small banality that reveals a poet strongly in control of the emotional rhythm that structures the poem, keeping any potential grandiosity of expression in check with a soft undertow of irony. An example, from “Domkop”: “A sore heart brings to mind an open wound that/is the consequence/of some mishap with a Minora blade…”
Sometimes the words of poetic oratory run away with a poem, leaving careful meaning behind; and in the occasional poem – “Adam Kok III as man of sorrow” is one such – the statements of meaning offered are too opaque or abbreviated for satisfaction. But in the closing poem, “I guess we were happy”, which is identical in its formal structure to “Adam Kok III”, the brevity is perfectly chosen to send the reader back to earlier poems in the volume that amplify its wise, half-wistful summation of a whole childhood world:
“See how the grass grows, no matter
what? We grew up like that,
Most powerful are those poems where the declamatory voice takes a back seat, and the tangle of feelings exposed and evaded comes to the fore through the unflinching narration of an episode, the precise naming of its parts, the care with which details are chosen and offered to the reader. “Monkey’s wedding” is a wondrous example, as is “The thing about Manto”, where the exquisitely right placing of the one phrase “I expect” controls and shadows all the apparent happiness unfolded in the details of the poem.
The control with which Jijana interweaves exhortation, doubt, documentary clarity and a deep sense of empathy with his subjects in the structure of these poems suggests an already mature voice that can continue pushing poetic form in many resonant directions in the future.
Genna Gardini’s reputation as a poet of dazzling and intensely wrought poems precedes her, and hers is a good example of the important role that a first collection plays in a poet’s development: it both allows her to extend her scope, through the challenge of selecting and refining individual poems that must at some level form part of a coherent whole, and lets individual poems resonate with the echoes and continuities of other poems in the same volume.
Matric Rage is structured to encourage this sense of continuity: its four sections focus on clearly distinguished stages of development in a young life – child, teenager, matriculant into emotional adulthood. But this is no gentle Bildungsroman. A slow burn of rage works its way through the sections, anger at the violations of body and soul to which the child-girl-woman is subject, spinning itself image after image across the poems. The brutal culminating poem “Mister” in the section headed “Junior”, for example, has the startling effect of rendering all the body-bound intimacies and delicate acts of reaching out in earlier poems retrospectively toxic, as the little girl – already primed, we realise, by those earlier encounters with the world – is
“bucked and perched, my bit chest fresh,
my patent white feet swinging wide-soled and sweet,
while one finger, thick and sticky as a popsicle,
is slid in to check if the dough is ready.”
Gardini’s poems ride on a wildness of heart that accumulates its expressive power image by image, each bursting with knowledge of what it is naming – she seldom drops out of this register to more literal expressions of thought or feeling. For the most part this technique works, because of the sense of an underlying emotional coherence producing the images: “This girl sits down opposite me,/her shirt white and riding the space between the passage door/and the bed” (from “Out”); “when I moved along it with you/and knew how even rocks could dilate/like an eye behind a frame” (from “Matric Rage”). There are times, though, when the images sit too (un)easily on the surface of a poem, or when an awkward rhythm betrays the gap between a story being told and the underlying flight path of feeling (“Il Diavolo” is one such poem), or when skill with metaphor seems its own reward, the real subject matter of a poem (“How I Hate You”). But overall this is a collection that delivers very much more than the “promise” of things to come.
The title of Nick Mulgrew’s book, The Myth of This Is That We’re All In This Together, captures the spirit of reflexive unease about “the point of the poem”, and ultimately the point of the self’s response to the unreachable other that infuses the book. Like Gardini, Mulgrew structures his collection so that there is a clearly identifiable expansion of focus, section by section – from “One” to “Two” to “Many” – and this thematic shift is given emotional resonance by the shifts in degree and range of alienation of the voice that speaks the poems, as it moves from discomfited solitude to encounters with an other, and on to engagement with the wider world.
This is a quieter voice than those of Gardini and Jijana, sometimes a little world-weary, always conscious of the gap between speaking and being heard. A sense of the futility of making art, making contact, making meaning is a recurrent theme; in poems such as “trope” this produces a tense multifocal experience as the reader is given both a rich evocation of the world the poem is trying to capture, and a commentary on the poet’s failure to capture it. At other times, though, the poet’s failure becomes the poem’s failure, as the lines enact the effort of challenging others’ meanings with a helpless exhaustion.
Mulgrew has a fine ear for the different registers of language that express whole worlds of feeling and values: attraction evolving into boundless irritation in “To the Greek man at the airport”; the struggle to honour another person’s suffering in “Commitment”. And the casual tone with which many poems begin can surprise, in those poems where it becomes the vehicle for a tightly structured dramatic episode (“In the Company’s Garden”) or the understated voice of a delicately realised moment of intimacy (“Eyebrows):
“I miss you
and that warm sting
as you look
in all those places that
no one really looks at
in all those places that
no one really cares for
those places that
I suppose were meant for
when we think
there’s nothing left
Three new volumes, three distinctive poetic voices. uHlanga credits Nedbank Arts Affinity through the Arts and Culture Trust with providing supporting funding for two of these collections; let us chant and pray and twist the arms of all the cultural entrepreneurs and global philanthropists to whom we are related to keep the volumes flowing, and above all to ensure that each poet’s first volume is not also their last.
This review features in the Chronic (April 2016). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.