Review of “It All Begins: Poems From Postliberation South Africa”

Desiree Lewis

In the early seventies, Mongane Serote published a poem called “Ofay-Watcher Looks Back”. Its a powerful poem, forceful in the way that Bessie Head’s writing is when, superficially it seems to be dealing only with clear-cut social protest, predictable outrage, a quotidian world we already know. The opening lines read:

I want to look at what happened;
That done.
As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil
I look at what happened,
Whether above the houses there is always either smoke or dust,
As there are always flies above a dead dog.
I want to look at what happened,
That done,
As silent as plants show colour: green,
I look at what happened,
When houses make me ask: do people live there?
As there is something wrong when I ask – is that man alive?
I want to look at what happened

The poem is charged in the way it palpably evokes a yearning – existential, political and also, (impossible word for South Africans in the seventies), spiritual – to introspectively and retrospectively think about what be-ing in this place at this time actually means. Something few black poets really did in the seventies and early eighties. Because, frankly they were told there wasn’t time. No time and no place. Especially no imaginative or discursive place because our anti-apartheid cultural climate insisted that culture-was-a- weapon-of-struggle. And struggle meant, in a very literal, direct and – as Njabulo Ndebele pointed out at the time – mimetic way, challenging racism, injustice oppression. And not, definitely not, widening horizons and broadly exploring “be-ing”.

Currently, whatever reconciliatory politics and consensus-making myths work to shape our national consciousness, tells us we now have the time and imaginative space for what were previously considered elitist, cerebral, reactionary, escapist. And so, much cultural expression and the platforms for this have been looking simultaneously backwards and inwards, opening up paths into multiple pasts that are notunidirectional and straightforward but labyrinthine and multi-layered. And also inwards, which helps to explain the vision behind novels like Sello Duiker’s or the genre of narratives of childhood by, for example Rob Nixon or Mark Behr.

The offering of a platform for multiple directions and new vistas into interiority is what the collection, It All Begins, seeks to do. Drawing on a decade of poetry published in the literary magazine, New Coinbetween the late 80s and the late 90s, the collection has been motivated by a far more comprehensive, reflective and, in many ways, productively blurred sense of what poetry does, than by the heavily doctrinal principles that shaped collections like, say, A World of Their Own (1976), Voices From Within (1982) or Call of the Amasi Bird.

The anthology consequently offers us poems that illustrate what Kelwyn Sole, in his afterword, calls “experimenting with language, consciousness and imaginative process” (229). There are some remarkable poems here. Like Rustum Kozain’s “Cape Town, Jerusalem”, which clearly demonstrates how the shift towards interiority among many South African poets is by no means a denial of the outer, but a new way of making connections between inner and outer worlds, and, in many ways, a refusal of the neat binary. It concludes powerfully: “And I turn more away from things/preferring solitude and work/to tongue at stories/from their silent insides: an orphan/ who in a new house sense an old taste/ and quietly mulls thus a morsel/ that brings memory darting/ like a wasp in the head/ then withdraws his tongue/ from probing. Back to the mute bed,/the civilising cradle of the jaw” (157).

The anthology also offers poems dealing with eroticism, sensuality, sexuality and (Ndebele will be pleased) what some (Kelwyn Sole, Donald Parenzee) are actually defining as love. To me, especially memorable lines and images are “curling lips clicking and singing/sucking the sap of your bone/slowly honing into the song of your soul” (112) from Liza Combrink’s “In the moonlight” or “coming in/from near a dream touch-touching/the flute contours of your belly/mumbling secrets/ only singing deserts can understand” from Khulile Nxumalo’s “SleepStroker” or from Maria Petrato’s “She”: “She swells to her size/She sharpens the air/She shortens her night-husband/She exchanges a kiss with the moon” (103).

I’m also struck by poems that describe intensely personal experiences – hazy, unsettling, obscure and not conveniently tied to familiar South African narratives of struggle and resistance. In Chris van Wyk’s “Memory”, for example, a poem alluding to the mother of the speaker’s abuse focuses on the pain of remembering childhood. It concludes: “Ma gives a savage scream that echoes across the decades/ and cauterises my childhood like a long scar.” (71)

There are also poems that cynically confront the political present, forcing us to abandon the abstract or triumphalist projections implicit in many early struggle narratives. Like “The Graduate”, a poem that uses irony in a way that speaks more incisively about betrayed dreams than any pointed attack about political betrayal. Or the same poet’s equally caustic “Mandela Have you ever wondered?”

While the collection is definitely “forward-looking”, it does not reify a moment miraculously severed from the past. It’s especially significant that there’s no obvious attempt to periodize the poems, although they were presumably written at certain moments. The first section identifies the repressive political climate of the early to late 80s, and the collection as a whole encourages us to consider the ever-present impact of our past on our present. We see this very directly in, for example, Lesego Rampolokeng’s overwhelming poem, “Lines for Vincent” . And for me more persuasively in Tatamkulu Afrika’s “The Funeral of Anton Fransch”, where he represents Fransch’s death as “Africa/the photograph I had seen the night before/ of a buffalo being dragged down by hyenas/one eye ripped out, the bloodied muzzle/ agape and bellowing”.

But there is more diversity in conveying political protest in the poems throughout the anthology in terms of voice, register and imagery than is the case with poetry anthologised in the seventies and eighties. This breadth surfaces also in individual poems. Jeremy Cronin’s awesome “Even the Dead”, which incorporates a map of Angola and a newspaper cutting, and confronts a global landscape of injustice and the role of cultural expression in relation to it, is especially noteworthy here. One effect of this broadening of what “protest” can entail is that a poet like Tatamkhulu Afrika, who has always written on different levels about far more than a mimetic confirmation of the immediate, is now anthologised in a context that allows us the freedom to fully appreciate the different levels of his work.

The thematic range I’m only hinting at here gives a sense of how vast the poetic imagination that broadly explores “be-ing” in South Africa is. This range is signalled in the anthology by extracts taken from poems, rather than by conceptual categories formulated by the editor. This works very well for me as a reader. I find the introductory extracts urge me to read the poems as opening up intellectual and imaginative horizons. Rather than boxing the poetry in, the introductions free me to experience what the editor tells us good poetry does in his introduction: to be moved, nourished, woken up.

Previously, we were told that poetry could be poetry of “protest” or of “resistance”, that it could be motivated by a “liberal imagination” or a dionysian or apocalyptic vision, that South African women’s poetry tended to do certain things, that black women’s poetry focused on this, and white women’s on that. These categories are sometimes “useful”, but too often they are not.

As Sole writes, then, the poems are indeed allowed to be read for themselves, and “not in any anthropological sense as ‘typical’ South African poems communicating from some ‘Third World’ front line”. That the anthology provides a structure and range that allows the poetry to speak, rather than a preset idea to speak through the poetry, is evidenced in the title of the collection as well, taken from Mxolisi Nyezwa’s “It all begins”.

I’m more than uneasy, though, about the subtitle, “Poems from Postliberation South Africa”. Surely the point about Nyezwa’s “it all begins”, as well as many other poems included is precisely the fallaciousness of the idea of postliberation? A related point: the anthology is presented as a collection of South African poems. And yet Marechera is represented as, to my knowledge, the only non-South African. Marechera’s reputation rests on his being an immediately recognisable rebel, an iconised iconoclast who went against the grain of nationalist rhetoric and set expectations about the “committed African writer”. Marechera’s “Raid” is used to frame one of the sections (“I packed away my camera and notebook/ I headed for the nearest bar/I always said When this kind of Uhuru comes/Thank god for alcohol/ any kind of alcohol”, so that the authority of his authority of subversion strongly resonates in this section. And, I believe, in the anthology as a whole. I think Lesego Rampolokeng’s as well, although not as strongly. The inclusion of Marechera, or more importantly, the idea of Marechera gives the book a certain weight, identity, image of flamboyance, rebelliousness, iconoclasm. My main point being that the collection does end up somewhat forcing the idea of a “new moment”, a “new aesthetic”, a new free-spirited, inconoclastic world view. And Marechera’s image usefully anchors this.

Related to this is the question of canonisation. The anthology draws on work published in New Coin between 1989 and 1999. Under the editorship of Robert Berold, New Coin, we are told in the afterward, worked hard to shed its traditional liberal image, and began to accommodate many new poetic voices. But this world was of course limited by the fact that New Coin was situated at Rhodes University, Grahamstown and by the remoteness of the publishing and writing world it represented for many South Africans. Many “poets” between 1989 and 1999 did not send, and would not have dreamt of sending their poetic expression to New Coin. And yet there were many pathbreaking poetic contributions from, say, South African youth (hip hop for example). I think of this omission especially in relation to the blurb at the back of the anthology, explaining that the period covered “was a time of innovation”…when “for poets, it was a time of innovation. Music, street rhythms and international influences were opening up the vocabulary. Groundbreaking poems were being written in different variations of English….” Or black women poets in the WEAVE group in Cape Town for example.

For me, a poetry collection that presumes to call itself “Poems from Postliberation South Africa” could include more of the diverse voices that have spoken poetically in relation to a period of massive cultural and political upheaval. I am unsettled by the prominence of, for example, Lesego Rampolokeng, Kelwyin Sole, Karen Press. Granted, the collection is described as one that draws together work published inNew Coin. But there is also a pretension that this work is in some way representative or comprehensive; the subtitle is “Poems from Postliberation South Africa”, not “Poems from New Coin“.

I sometimes wonder whether canon formation in anthologies is inevitable. Yet what prevented the editor from both including poems printed in New Coin and seeking out other poetic contributions? And just how much does this kind of anthologising work against the spirit celebrated in the note of the editor, when he quotes Rampolokeng: “poetry is democracy beyond the statute book”?

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