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COLUMN: The Roots of Rhythm


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.

REVIEW: Aftermath


Aftermath – On Marriage and Separation

Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Aftermath is the second book Cusk has written that seems to have united disparate groups in an almost rabid hatred of her.

As with A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, I am amazed that she is able to draw such odium – mostly and particularly from women – and must conclude that any attempt to think more deeply about the political as it manifests in the personal is an activity society is not ready for.

It is far easier to think globally, than personally; to fight for the right for women to request divorce, or shout against the rise of divorce statistics and the disintegration of “family values”, than to talk about the personal anguish that leads to divorce, and the crosshatch of interwoven losses that follow it.

Cusk begins with the personal, quite literally, in the opening sentence of Aftermath: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.”

It is precisely the memoir form that ignited such vitriol against Cusk. What right does she have to speak so openly about such personal matters? How dare she expose her children and her husband so rudely in order to write a book for which she will make money? She is exploitative, cold, rude and embarrassing. These are only some of the criticisms against her.

The truth is, that if it’s voyeurism you’re after, you won’t find it in Aftermath. Cusk is too deft a writer, too in control of her craft to get messy. No-one is named. The reason (though there never is just one reason, is there?) for the divorce is never given. She does not trash her ex-husband. If there is dirty laundry here, it is in fact public and political dirty laundry and not the bloodied tablecloth over which a single marriage came to shatter.

I couldn’t help feeling that part of the reason for her critics’ ire – if they’d bothered to read the book at all, instead of mish-mash, sensationalised newspaper “extracts”– was that their voyeuristic inclinations had been left frustrated.

Aftermath is not, in fact, a personal story. It is the story of the institution of marriage, and how it reconciles itself, or not, with feminism. In describing her married life – in which she worked and her husband looked after the children and cooked, in which she earned money, baked, fetched children and fulfilled deadlines – she says: “In a sense I was living at the high point of feminist possibility: there was no blueprint beyond ‘having it all’…to have both motherhood and work was to have two lives instead of one, was a stunning refinement of historical female experience”.

Using Greek mythology – a place populated by unashamedly emotional and rigorously impolite gods – and the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, Cusk sets out to examine the more honest battles of life and love than the unquestioning authority of marriage and its concomitant moral pronouncements.

“There are no devoted mothers [in Greek mythology], no perfect children, no protective dutiful fathers, no public morality. There is only emotion, and the attempt to tame it, to shape it into a force for good.”

Shaping personal or political trauma for a force of good is, after all, what one believes the study of history and sociology to be: an attempt to examine what has happened, to find the patterns, to work within the strictures of what simply is, while also testing dogmas that seem implacable. Aftermath, is such an examination. Of course it makes people uncomfortable. Which is why it is an excellent book, a stringent, merciless and thoughtful reflection, using the tools provided by all the writer’s faculties, and harnessing the power of history and experience.

Aftermath  is also about the loss of security divorce brings, not just financial, but social.

“I feel our stigma, our loss of prestige: we are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary. I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty,” she writes of her post-separation life with her two daughters.

Cusk walks the fine line of the confessional delicately, revealing only enough about herself to tell a more universal story. In an interview she says: “It is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds…with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me.” She says that in the breakdown of a marriage “the whole broken mechanism of feminism” was revealed to her.

Along with Susan Maushart and Katha Pollitt, Cusk forms, in my opinion, the frontline of new feminist thinking, which apparently concerns itself less with the academic and polemical public face of feminism (though this is not, in fact, at all true, as all three are intellectually deeply sunk in feminist history), than with the way feminism plays out on the border between the self and society.

Cusk is, however, not just an intellectual and emotional force on the page, but a fine, nuanced, disciplined writer. Aftermath reads quickly in spite of almost every second sentence being a direct confrontation on received wisdom which requires the reader to pause for his or her own emotional and intellectual response.

I declare Aftermath unequivocally fantastic. But then I don’t belong to a larger camp – the one which vilifies the messenger in order to avoid considering the implications of her message.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in May 2012.


A story for Christmas


Drawing by Willem Samuel

In spite of the extra time I’m banking on over Christmas, I am unlikely to get through the piles of books I have. For the first time in my life I will not have a book title on my Christmas wish list. But I am not without a book-related wish.

At the risk of sounding like a desperate vacuous wannabe Miss World tottering on six-inch heels and speaking through a superglued smile, staking her winning ambitions on a vaguely formulated desire for world peace, I will share my hopeless wish.

But I insist that it is not a frivolous wish; that it has gravitas, history and gargantuan piles of academic research to back it up as a real answer to many of the ills that plague the world.

My wish cannot be reviled by a god-squadder of any theistic hue or brand. It cannot be subverted by any politician. It will not be sullied or trampled on or argued with, because its very nature and longevity have proven it an unerring joy and an immovable force. It will not be owned, boxed or tamed. It is deeply private and joyously communal.

My wish is that every baby born from now on, and every child that currently walks the earth, will be inducted to the magic of stories by having one told to them by someone they know. By a grandmother, an uncle, the local shopkeeper, an older cousin. By a father washing the dishes, by a mother helping a toddler into her sandals. By a teacher, a Rabbi, priest, monk or imam, the doctor, the dentist, the sangoma, a social worker, a friend.

Because a story is a tilling, the invaluable preparation for a garden. Because stories beget stories. Because stories beget  a demand so urgent (“Tell me of another one, tell me another one!”) that it ignores a child’s lack of confidence or shyness.

Because stories beget curiosity. Because stories begin the first loop of learning more effectively than anything else you can possibly think of inside the ancient human endeavour to hand down something to a next generation.

No one needs time or money to tell a story, and no amount of ersatz stuff you can buy at any shop can ever replace the experience of being told a story by an older person.

No one needs a special qualification, a special education, a special (acquired) language or an especially interesting life to tell a story. Almost anyone can tell a story, some better than others – though we do exult and cherish those particularly.

I wish Christmas really was magic. In the proper way of magic: supernatural forces mysteriously combining to grant wishes. Perhaps if I induce ritual – climb up into a pair of shiny stilettos and speak nervously through bright lipstick – my wish will come true. But no number of world-peace endorsing long-legged, glossy haired women ever brought about even an instant’s ceasefire.

So I’ll just have to rely on words – mine and others’ – repeated ad nauseum: if you want a better world, tell a kid story. Or read them one. And do it every opportunity you get, until you, personally, have done every single thing in your limited power to make something in this often truly vile world a bit better.

This column appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012

The drawing is by the comic book illustrator Willem Samuel whose work can be seen here and who blogs here.

Don’t know how to tell or read a story? Here’s where to look: Nal’iBali website.