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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.

 

 

 

Eighth Day: Speculative Poetry

floating grass

Speculative poetry  – poetry themed on science fiction, fantasy, horror—some, any, sort of ‘other’ reality – can be funny, provocative, subversive and, since 1978, has been encouraged and recognised by the Science Fiction Poetry Association via its annual Rhysling Awards. MOIRA RICHARDS reviews a clutch of speculative poetry collections that have recently passed through her hands.

Thaliad-2Thaliad

Marly Youmans

Phoenicia Publishing

Modern-day epic poetry of the destruction of our 21st century world and the seven children who escape toppling mountains and the great inferno. One hundred pages of mesmerising iambic pentameter surge and swell, plunge and soar the journeying through the children’s grief and the rotting remains of what was our civilisation until at last (very) few of the seven triumph over danger and lingering evil and grow into adulthood to parent a new, post-apocalyptic future for humankind.

Blank verse on grand scale, heroic imagery, narrated by the latter day Bard of the Clave tasked with preserving the best of old-world literature and recording the history of the new. Wise beyond her years but, so endearingly, as susceptible as any 19-year-old to charm spun by a stranger with eyes “green as Glimmerglass in a storm.”

The Receptionist

The Receptionist

The Receptionist and other Tales

Lesley Wheeler

Aqueduct

A feminist spec-fic fantasy in which a dastardly college dean, who will quash the budget of any campus colleague rash enough to attempt a thwarting of his sexual predations, is served his just deserts. So too, after some little nudging from Yoda and the (re)discovery of her own powers, is the reluctant hero of the novella.

Lesley Wheeler narrates her tale in thirty-three 10-stanza cantos, every one crafted in the plaited terza rima form that is as seductive of the senses as ouma’s koeksusters. And, albeit in a different sort of way, just as sweet.

You have to read The Receptionist once through to root the hero on, as you boo the villain; a second time just to savour the metaphors; and a third to marvel at the craft with which the poet finesses the form into the service of her content.

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Linda Ann Strang

Honest Publishing

The work of this South African poet from the Eastern Cape appeared in online and print journals the world over before an indie UK publisher snagged her collection of fabulous women. Crafted with startling images and deft twirlings of language, they’re as diverse as a bruised wife who wears her “gore like an evening dress – / tanzanite, rubies, and blueberry pearls” and a feisty grandmother who “beats her demons into frothy submission / with a wooden spoon and broom, / and bakes them to keep watch at her gate / like good dogs.”

For some, Strang writes love scenes so erotic that “even the warty witch / with her frog’s egg fingernails, // has drenched herself in Chanel No. 5 – / secretly longing for valentines this year.”

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

 

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue

Sally Rosen Kindred

Hyacinth Girl Press

Kindred’s speculative poetry digs into the silences of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, giving resistant voice to some of the characters. Tinker Bell wishes to be less dependent, less ephemeral—with more physical (and sexual) substance; Wendy Darling picks away at glossy idealisations of mother; Tiger Lily, the story’s “dusky Diana”, elects to shut, and walk firmly away from, the book that objectifies her as exotic beauty and allows her to say nothing at all.

Threaded among these poems of fantasy/social commentary, are the most moving bits—poetry of sombre reflection on the precarious responsibilities of mothering in a dangerous world, and poetry of little boys lost to their birth mothers. Some of whom may be found again through adoption; others, destined to remain forever lost, never some mother’s darling.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?

Zara Raab

Finishing Line Press

This narrative poem spins the old fairy tale celebrating the triumph of good over evil into an exploration of greed, the powers men exert over “their” women; of a young woman’s loss of innocence, coming of age and her ultimate subversion of imposed power.

Subtitled as a comedy in seven scenes, the play’s cast list is reminiscent of period farce: the chorus of three hoary village elders remaining on stage to help the story along with droll comment and innuendo; a miller father who, we’re told, is barely distinguishable from the manipulative, pointy-shoed and pointy-nosed imp; a Saint Bernard dog, politely bored by the momentous goings-on around him; and Rumpelstiltskin himself, more a suggestion than a tangible presence, less a threat than those who feel threatened. A jolly presentation of thought provoking ideas.

 

COLUMN: The Roots of Rhythm

The_Highwayman

By Karin Schimke

Worker’s Day was filled with chores. I was folding the washing when my daughter asked me whether she could read me “The Highwayman”, a poem by Alfred Noyes. (To see some artists’ impressions from the poem click here.)

I haven’t read or thought of the poem for many years, its narrative long forgotten. My daughter, having heard it read by her teacher, read in a mesmerising tone, the ancient, story-telling voice, which like music and rhythm, is hard-wired into our responsive brains.

Resistance was futile.

“He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there/but the landlord’s black-eyed daughter/Bess, the landlord’s daughter/plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.”highway3

My hands had ceased folding and I was there on that “purple moor”, at that landlord’s inn. By the time King George’s men arrived, I might have – had I paused to take stock – noticed, a subtle vibration under my skin. Not just of rising tension about the soldiers’ menacing arrival (and the universal fear of all women everywhere when a band of men darkens the doorway) but an almost physical straining towards what happens next.

Later on Labour Day I went for a run. I recently found a way to motivate myself to run for longer: I pick an album and listen to it in its entirety, something I haven’t indulged in much since I was a student. I picked Paul Simon’s Graceland album, which I’ve not listened through since my student days.

I was running, singing in my head and planning the next day’s performance of poetry at my daughter’s school. The lyrics from the song “Under African skies” broke through the endorphine haze: “This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain”.

For the second time in one day “the best words in the best order” – as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained poetry – snuck up and raised goosebumps from their indifferent slumber on my arms.

I do not know, I never will, what precisely poetry is. What is it meant to do? Why it is so consistently and amply and richly written when its spread amongst the general population is so thin, when so few people read it for pleasure because (they usually claim) they don’t “get it”. Why do these same people turn towards it when they “need” a poem for a funeral or a birth or a marriage?

I will never know what poetry is. Yet this morning I will be visiting a school to talk about poetry. I will perform “Jabberwocky” and perhaps recite “The Witches’ Chant” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or “Tarantella” by Hilaire Belloc or “On The Ning Nang Nong” by Spike Milligan, to a bunch of ten-year olds.

I can bet that not one of them will “get” every poem. But I also know, from often having spoken to children about poetry, that they will be rapt. They will pay attention simply because resistance will be futile. They will be slaves of the best words in the best order. They will know without knowing that they’ve seen poetry for what it is: outrageous, subversive, puzzling stuff that makes your skin tingle and brain fire like a newly oiled machine; that makes space for quiet awe, or unrolls a festival of raucous wolf-whistling and laughing.

Because no-one will have told them yet that they are required to beat the meaning out of a poem in order to “get” it, they’ll be free to just feel it.

I will hold my thumbs tightly that somewhere along the road to adulthood, they don’t learn to un-feel it.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

QUICK REVIEW: Cape Town

Cover_Noakes_printCape Town

Kate Noakes

Eyewear Publishing

REVIEW BY: Sarah Rowland-Jones

Anyone who has looked beyond Cape Town’s tourist traps will smile in recognition at these closely observed poems about the city and wider environs.

A five-month work stint in early 2011 proved a fruitful time for the Welsh poet, Kate Noakes, whose third collection this is.  Her sometimes subversive eye found rich resources in the place, its past and present politics, and life, whether human, animal or avian.

Poems range from ‘a yard of silver’ snoek to the ‘Green and yellow blanket man’ begging aggressively in Long Street, from hadedas ‘plagued with smoker’s cough’ to quagga and zebra ‘bar-coded for its foals to find home’, from forced removals and dislocated homing pigeons, to fracking and HIV transmission.  Noakes employs a deft touch, vivid imagery, and frequent humour.

This elegantly printed hardback is an empathetic, thought-provoking invitation to view our city with fresh eyes. – Sarah Rowland-Jones

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012.

Here’s what others had to say about Kate Noakes’ poems (from the Eyewear website).

Kate Noakes’ Cape Town poems command our imaginative attention with all the power that the crossroads and lawns, wastelands and landscapes of “fateful convergence” commanded hers, a visitor from a hemisphere away. Like the stargazers in her ‘Kruger Nocturne’, “scanning until our retinas gave away”, Noakes writes with an acute sense of atmosphere reminiscent of the photographs of David Goldblatt, capturing sharply the urgency of the present in tandem always with the long echoes of history.
— Jane Draycott

Kate Noakes’ Cape Town takes us on her journey through a landscape that is both engaging and alien, a population at times aggressive, at times welcoming and an intriguing bestiary that includes the almost extinct Quagga zebra – “Each animal uniquely patterned,/bar-coded
for its foals to find home”. This is a collection which engages the Rainbow Nation and its radiantly colourful country with a purposeful eye.
— Tony Curtis

 

COLUMN: Whittling the library for a new life

I am grateful I became an adult in a time when – and a suburb where – one was not expected to have grand material ambition. Whether our parents had money or not was tested purely against the critical question of whether there’d be enough of it for us to study after school without having to get bursaries or loans on our mediocre marks.
The desire to study was based not so much on any sense that we were clever enough to be great, but on the desire not to have to spend our adult lives in the dreary shops and offices where our parents tried to earn enough money to help us avoid having to do so when we left school.
Books were acquired in three ways: for birthdays and Christmas, at the library and by borrowing. At university for a spell my friends and I cottoned on to second-hand book shops and we’d make little bundles of cheap used books for one another’s birthdays.
We were undiscerning readers. What landed in our hands, we read. If it was ours, we kept it. The literature those of us who studied languages bought with our hard-earned waitressing money sat happily alongside cheesy love stories and other pulp on our slow-growing book shelves.
The idea of getting rid of books never arose, that I can remember. Books were read and kept, and shared, and – hopefully – returned.
At some point the collection gained its own momentum, its own raison-d’être. Having books on shelves, displayed and easy to get to, became a thing separate and equally as important as reading a book. It also became, I realised in my twenties, a kind of status symbol: visitors were either enthralled and envious, or appalled and a little repelled that I spent my money on books and actually read them all. It became, in short, a way of refining friendships and alliances – that head-cocked sideways stance of a stranger in your home perusing your bookshelf is, often, the thrill of recognising a kindred spirit.
Five years ago my husband and I embarked on house renovations which were, in essence, an attempt to accommodate our books. Two weeks ago – because life never quite works out the way one plans – I had an enormous book sale at my house and that which didn’t sell must go to charity. My collection – which numbered in the thousands – has been whittled down by about three-quarters.
A few years ago, the idea of getting rid of my books would have filled me with anxiety so acute I would immediately have turned my thoughts elsewhere. And yet the culling now was good, even a little joyous as I passed on some loved tomes to other book lovers.
What I kept were my favourite authors, all my poetry, all my dictionaries, all my favourite children’s book illustrator and authors, books I bought or read in faraway places, books signed by authors or inscribed by friends, and those books which – for sometimes inexplicable reasons – subtly changed the course of my life…like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read at a very young age and was the book that made me want to write.
The rest have gone away, but they’re not gone. They’re stored in the folds of my brain, under my fingernails, between each vertebra – the dust of their words are lodged in my wrinkles. Their work with me is done. But their work is not finished.