Poems by Dan Wylie
Etchings by Roxandra Dardagan Britz
Fourth Wall Books (ISBN: 9780987042941)
There has always been good reason for the refined art of book illustration. Poetry too, with its courtship of language structures, will often polish typography and print for the reader’s edification and pleasure.
The etchings by Britz, crisply reproduced in this handsome publication, classically toned in printer’s sepia, are a reminder of how visual imagery can extend and enrich the reading experience. Fred Smeijers’ calculated typography – sorry Kindle readers – too sharpens that enjoyment.
With a waywardness that sometimes slips from simple realism – suggesting myth or signalling mystery – these pictures are an enhancement of the layers Wylie weaves in the anthropomorphic construct that themes his anthology: Africa’s animals in mournful contemplation of the environment, transposing to metaphor the melancholy and concern about the state of Africa, of Time, of Man.
As accompaniment the images work well with the poems, which, at times, resonate in sonorous expression. These are indeed words to be heard as well as read. They lock in senses as the poet plays with synesthesia.
A sculptural sense for constructing phrases and a tuned ear for the sharp edge of individual words often lift Wylie’s phrases off the page. It compounds the sadness, drives the urgent message.
The dehorned rhinoceros (Britz portrays the animal with an ironic neutrality that singes with dark assertion) laments: “I hear the harrier’s cry, but can’t interpret it/ The ring of hills hovers in blue bewilderment./ I no longer recognise my world,/ can no longer map the thickets that shade me”.
With the “long hand of my compass broken”, the great beast’s “nowhere to go” becomes the reader’s moral wasteland to negotiate. The dramatic battle of survival shifts squarely onto human shoulders, through the title “Be bounteous and kill me”.
This is taken from a quote from Jonson’s famous Jacobean comedy Volpone, a sly satire about greed which parallels animals as cover for human failure. The contemporary message is rivetingly clear.
All Slow Fire titles reference a variety of literary sources, and Wylie supplies these as enhancing notes at the back of the book. The integration of this material is pure reader pleasure.
Not all of Wylie’s poems in the book are as tight and dynamic – or as dark – as the one mentioned.
A playfulness peaks through from time to time. A hyena is urged to “Be economical in movement, tireless in the chase./ Savour life, down to its essential bone”.
The dung-beetle complains about his “spindly barbed shanks sticky with shit,/ black carapace dusty with servitude”.
Anthropomorphism can come unstuck in unwieldy hands, and while Wylie doesn’t always avoid the awkward bump, his compassion for the natural world flows readily and smoothly.
The dramatic title for the baboon and baby poem – “That worst of beasts upon the edge of stone” – may be from Dante, but the mother’s commonsense warning is an African reality: “Know that rightness comes easy,/ but evil more easily still./ Ride your luck when I’m gone;/ but unbridled,/ and beautiful”.
You want to read all of this and more.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014