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Eighth Day: History poetry

eighth day

Poems and history have coexisted since before writing began—as part of the remembering and passing down, from generation to generation, of oral histories. And today poets continue to explore people and events and retell those stories as poetry. MOIRA RICHARDS shares her thoughts on five collections of poems with history.

DLDAn Elastic State of Mind: D.L.D.’s Autobiography in Poems

Ren Powell

Wigestrand

Published together with Eirik Lodén’s Norwegian translation, this collection dramatises the life of 19th century champion of the indigent insane, Dorothea Lynde Dix – personal friend of the 13th president of the USA – who supported herself as author from age 22. Her first book reached its 60th edition in just 45 years.

Powell bases the poems on biographical studies, divides the book into three acts with a cast listing, and background notes about the subject – my favourite way to learn history, and to enjoy poetry.

Two sestina convey a sense of some of this redoubtable woman’s underlying ambivalences but the villanelles… oh, the villanelles. Two close the first and last acts, a third lies midway in the second; all are in first person, in the voice of Ms Dix and sooo effectively bring to life, the woman, her determination, and her sense of self.

CloudPharmacyCloud Pharmacy

Susan Rich

White Pine Press

Central to this collection is the small group of poems that portray the work of Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard who, employing the alchemies of mirrors, montage and multiple exposure settings, created fantastical self-portraits as means of coming to terms with her life after the death of her teenage daughter: “Look! I’ve learned to slice myself in three / … / three women I’m loath to understand—”

Around that core, Rich spins ephemeral images of her own (sur)realities in which memories, appetites and the ambivalences of half a lifetime swirl among almost tangible disquietudes: How to move beyond the compass of the past, its dead and its obfuscations to best live the dubious half a life left? “How to write your one blue life?”

FrancoisVaseTales of the François Vase

Julia Older

Hobblebush Books

Imagine, if you inhabited this world for two and a half millennia, what you might witness and experience! Older writes a variety of voices to recreate and dramatise the “birth” and life of a famed museum piece—ancient Greek wedding bowl used to hold wine for guests. In the opening poem, the vase herself sings an ode in celebration of her charge, as heady now as 25 centuries ago.

The poetry continues, narrating witness of the travels, diverse contents, and the three smashings and putting together-agains in the life of the vase… until at last she is set down quiet and secure in a light that shines upon all her stories: five bands of pictures depicting dozens of scenes and hundreds of figures from Homer’s Iliad.

PlumePlume

Kathleen Flenniken

University of Washington Press

Horror seeps gently yet relentlessly from the words in these pages—as uranium might from an underground contamination plume. The poems pick through the 70-year history of the USA’s Hanford nuclear production site that, inter alia, manufactured plutonium to build nuclear weapons during WWII.

Flenniken crafts images of the nearby dormitory town where she grew up, populated by government employees and their families in identical houses—all infused with the same patriotic pride, untruths about the river in which they swim and fish for food, and with stray bits of the radioactive waste of their labours; the tragic irony that many of them, too, become ill as did survivors of the Nagasaki bomb. Poetry of betrayal, dread, and helpless understanding of fathomless consequence.

TheEyeBbThe Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems

Laura Long

Finishing Line Press

Sister of the more famous Sir William, German-born Caroline Herschel was a respected mathematician and astronomer in her own right and lived to see her (also more famous) nephew, John, sail to Cape Town to chart the skies of the southern hemisphere in 1834. Long introduces this fictional autobiography as “imagination steeped in historical siftings and the breath between the lines”—my favourite way of learning about the people of the past.

Like a tiny constellation, these 21 poems (most of which contain at least one star) illumine the inner life of an unmarriageable former scullery maid who, enthralled by the Milky Way galaxy in her telescope, lived from clear night to cloudless night to read nebulae, catalogue stars and, perchance, divine a comet—or eight.

 

 

 

2014’s Top Ten South African books

ten on yellow

Every year, The Star asks me to select the top ten South African books of the year. Lists – just like literary prizes – are inherently problematic, exclusionary and faulty, yet I love them for their cranky assumption that they are right. Cranky, because I think lists know their own vulnerabilities but bliksem forth anyway.

I chose this year’s list by asking myself: if a foreigner came to live here for a while, which books would give him or her a sense of what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to be South African? These are the books I’d send them to:

TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2014

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

Spanning almost four decades in South Africa from the seventies, this intelligently devised chronicle takes in the lives of figures on the fringes of power, taking in broad social change and highlighting the individual against the backdrop of history. Coovadia’s fluid and unstrained prose shows the complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Mark Gevisser

Publisher

Memoir and history meld together around Gevisser’s cartographical journey into the social and geographic soul of Johannesburg. A breathtaking, intelligent and incisive poetry of place and identity emerge from the pages of this compelling non-fiction work.

Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

Maria Phalima

Tafelberg

This brave author, who seeks first to find fault with herself for her inability to continue coping within an inoperably sick public health care system, lays bare one of the most appalling failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Diving

Helen Walne

Penguin

This marvellous work is quick to read but plunges very deeply. Walne writes with a kooky clarity of vision about her brother’s death, examining suicide with unflinching intelligence and – oddly – with humour.

Dear Bullet

Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

A devastating story about a single act of insouciant, casual and unspeakable inhumanity.  The “before” story has warmth; the “after” story is chilling considering how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised.

An Imperfect Blessing

Nadia Davids

Umuzi

Davids investigates notions of liminality and heritage in this compassionate and humorous novel about Alia, a teenager at the time of the first democratic elections. She captures the in-between spaces in South Africa’s history, geography, identities and relationships.

A Man of Good Hope

Johnny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

A chronicle of a young Somalian’s journey to South Africa at a time our country was particularly inhospitable to foreigners. Steinberg investigates the loss of control, the “in-betweenness” of having been displaced by great forces of history.

I See You

Ishtiyak Shukri

Jacana

Set in a fictional African country and around the life of an abducted photojournalist, this utterly singular novel elucidates how the present is also a part of history, and makes a case for dissonant and dissident voices.

Black Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

Stepping gently into the potentially explosive area of farm murders, Sherry writes about the rippling effect of trauma through the eyes of a young girl. This is an unsentimental and richly rewarding novel that tightens its grip as it develops.

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

Set in Cape Town before anti-retroviral drugs became generally available, Ntshanga’s brilliant debut follows Lindanathi’s life as it segues into the murky world of legal and illegal drugs. Lyrical and haunting, the novel “hears” the youth the way the goverment refuses to.

  • This list first appeared in The Star in December 2014.

 

REVIEW: Esther’s House

rdphouses (2)

EHEsther’s House                      

Carol Campbell                     

Umuzi

ISBN: 9781415207406

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Carol Campbell in this, her second novel, has tried to bring to life the depressing, dire situation in which many, if not most, of the ordinary people of South Africa find themselves. She is showing us what it’s like to be decent people living in an indecent world, what it’s like to have no food to feed hungry children at night, what it’s like to be a helpless person faced with official corruption and utterly unfairness. We have all read the stories of the endless housing lists, the endless waiting, the endless despair, the utter hopelessness of poverty – whether of opportunity, money, resources access to infrastructure, or, in fact, of everything.

Esther is a mother, a wife, a reformed drunk, a good friend to her neighbours and – most importantly – thoroughly ticked off with the situation she finds herself in. Husband Neville is a waistrel, daughter Liedjie is trying to pass matric at night school while son Jaco has, unbeknownst to his mother, dropped out of school.  Their friend Katjie, who is also living in a backyard shack, is managing to keep body and soul together (just) as well as deal with her no-good daughter Shireen and Shireen’s two little girls.

And so the story begins with Katjie’s shack burning down, killing Shireen, and Esther trying to care for Katjie’s family as well as her own. Without wanting to spoil the ‘surprise’ of the unfolding dramas and traumas, things do not improve from here onwards.  Although – (warning – here comes a spoiler) – they do almost all come right in the end, at least for Esther.

The aangaanery in the lokasie and the newly built RDP houses is described in a mixture of Afrikaans, English and South African vernacular without any recourse to italics or a glossary.  This is fine for us South Africans but could be a little confusing for others.  In fact, the language is pretty plat. Despite this, the protagonists often express unusually insightful thoughts which are, unfortunately, not very nuanced; they could all have come from the same person.  On the whole, this is the problem with Campbell’s book.  The intentions are admirable and Campbell clearly has done her homework on Oudtshoorn and other Karroo towns and has knowledge of the townships that hide behind their hills as well as an ear for some of the language.  But the characters, even when behaving feistily, come over as one dimensional.  The various deaths, and there are a number, are dealt with in a matter of fact manner and then the story simply moves on.

The shenanigans involved in Titty’s acquisition of a house when not even on the housing list (nor having been born when Esther and Katjie put their names down) is treated in a fleeting manner which is a pity because, I think, this was the premise that Campbell was pointing to when writing her novel – the corruption and graft that is going on in South Africa to the detriment of all. But, eventually, the ending is almost fairytale-like.

 

Masande Ntshanga’s been reading a lot of fiction by women

Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive

I’ve been reading women fiction writers lately, some of them recent books and others older releases. From the recent past, I was taken in by The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, and here in particular her story, “Virgins”, which is the first in her collection. ‘

Hunger, the novella by Lan Samantha Chang and The Hunger Angel, a novel by Herta Müller, also drew me in, in particular Müller’s book.

Corregidora by Gayle Jones, which I read for the first time around four years ago, is one I plan to go back to, and more recently, I’ve liked the debut novels coming in from North America: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, and Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce—especially this last one. I also liked what Claire Battershill, a fellow nominee for the 2013 New Voices Award, did with “Circus”, her first collection.

Then, closer to home I found Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia instructive and The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto haunting. Still on my to-read list, I have: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry—which I feel lucky to have found—The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, The Erl-King by Michel Tournier, In Her Own Words by Joan of Arc, and Indaba, My Children by Credo Mutwa.