Spoken-word poems and poems that employ music—its powers, its rhythms—these are some of the richest, most evocative poetries that describe the indescribable and eschew the page. MOIRA RICHARDS shares five collections that have music at their hearts.
Cinnamon Press, 2010
A black-gowned cellist bows a stormy wake for a white shrouded image of herself, half sucked into (half spewed from?) a heavy Pandora’s box-like chest/coffin. The cover of Ang’s fifth book alerts me to the unquiet read that follows.
Her poems are of bereavement and anguish; her poetry, turbulent, surreal, beautiful. I can’t stay long here – confronted, too vividly, by old pain I’d thought grown over with protective scabs. But I can’t resist returning – this poetry, an affirmation that death, as part of life, is magnificent too.
Nineteen years since our emergence from the delivery room, South Africa and South Africans too, are as imperfectly perfect and as brimful with possibility as any teenager on the verge of adulthood. Like teenagers, we rail at what disappoints us, not yet sure of the extent to which we actually hold the power for change; like teenagers, we struggle to find our own true, rather than conferred by others, identities. Such is the stuff of this collection, first part of the trilogy, Separation Anxiety.
This performance poet’s poems remonstrate, repudiate and, sometimes, keen. Her words, written for speaking aloud, swell and recede along irregular line lengths and, with repeatings of sounds and phrases, wind a sinuous rhythm through the pages.
A sad yet optimistic love song for us and our not-yet-adult country, and I look forward where the poet takes us in the next part.
How does a poet survive tragedy? Teenaged sister dead in car smash… This poet, at the open graveside, listens and ‘In seven notes of Bach, she has enough / to live. The boxwood sings.’ She stops writing poems; learns to play the oboe.
After ‘thirty years of silence, of images clutched / wordless in darkened corners of her mind’ she lays aside her instrument to write once more. She writes the music of that sorrow; memories threaded through with Mozart, with opera and especially, with Bach who lost a young wife and ten young children to death.
‘I gather up small pearls of Bach / … / an oboe’s dying phrases echo pain. / I linger at his Stammtisch, sipping tea.’
by Carol Levin
Playing on life’s stage, cast as supernumerary (non-singing performer) for an opera company and subsumed in the flamboyant and sublime, is the poetry of Carol Levin’s fourth collection.
Whether girl with the giggles slid into a burlap sack doubling, at her mother’s behest, as the dead body of Rigoletto’s Gilda, or grown woman dancing the role of a Grace attendant upon Tannhäuser in the grottos of Venusburg, it is the spaces in the sounds the poet explores. The grander the music, the more profound the silences it communicates – as imaged in a poem describing the exquisite prelude to Das Rheingold in which Wagner “sets you adrift / on an inhale of the baton.”
Before reading the poems in this collection, you’d do well to log onto the poet’s website, www.ntsikimazwai.co.za and listen, first, to the few sound tracks uploaded there. Hear Ntsiki Mazwai’s poetry performed to the mesmerising rhythms of music, get a sense of her work as performance, learn how you might read Wena out loud inside your head.
We’re none of us ignorant about what life serves up to South Africa’s women, whatever their ages, and this is a young poet who says, “I don’t write quiet storms.” Her collection of poems, the celebration of a spirit determined to triumph, refuses too, to be read in quietude.