Future from another past – Review: Letter To South Africa

Letter to South Africa: Poets Calling the State to Order, Umuzi, 2011 ISBN: 978-1-4152-0125-1

(the original review appeared in Afrikaans at Die Burger)

At Versindaba last year, Marlene van Niekerk invited a group of poets to write a ‘letter to South Africa’ using Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’. The poetry by Van Niekerk, Danie Marais, Leon de Kock and others found approval among the crowd and Versindaba extended this on their site, inviting more writers to clear their throats. And so Umuzi took the opportunity and invited scores of writers, in any South African language, to contribute to an anthology along the same lines.

This anthology, with a cover in appropriate agitprop red and black, is then a selection of these. Poems not in English – all in Afrikaans – appear in their original versions and in English translation. While the call invited contributions in any language, it seems the only non-English ones to make it through were Afrikaans poems and Ike Muila’s poem, written in his idiom where he forges a new language from all eleven official languages and more.

Not all the poems take their form in the spirit of the Ginsberg poem, an understandable editorial license. Nevertheless, I find that it is exactly the poems that stay close to the spirit of the Ginsberg poem as protest poem that are for me the most successful in terms of the anthology’s title.

What characterises these poems is a kind of literary excess that runs the gamut of emotions, from anger to playfulness. But there’s also the linguistic excess of Muila’s poem, “Halala Emzansi Pluckfontein”, which is a celebration of an urban, working class identity that exists beyond and through multiple languages. Like me, readers who speak only English and Afrikaans unfortunately miss out on the buzz created by Muila’s idiom. It glimmers through in lines like:

auties en oufies van ekasi mandulo
check jy nou die laaste vulavala
mbiza van die African world cup diski
soccer ball cities emzansi mbizo
left no significant change.

Such exploitation of multiple languages is our future 50 years on and Muila will be its literary pioneer.

Of my favourites I have to single out prime instigator Van Niekerk, as well as Danie Marais and Andries Bezuidenhout, two voorbokke, and Leon de Kock. Again, while limited to languages available to them, their poems nevertheless push at the boundaries and celebrate their own textual excesses with funny, ironic, satiric and powerful wordplay. And here I find these poems take the Ginsberg poem and tear it up. But perhaps my liking comes from hearing their performances recorded on a CD that came with my copy of the book (unfortunately not available with retail copies).

On the recording, Van Niekerk’s poem moves from anger and resignation to comedy and satire, and the movements coincide also with the rhythm of the poem, where pauses give it shape and hold the excess in check. Marais’ poem I enjoy as it takes in not only the key phrases of our times and cultures – 1994, soccer worldcup, voortrekkers, alles en nog wat, ens., and which similarly appear in many of the poems – but he has a feel for a demotic aanklank between English and Afrikaans:

Suid-Afrika, Mzansi, mama, baby,
Delilah, fokkit, definitely maybe…

ek wil nog altyd offer wat jy vra
maar wat dit is, weet nugter, bra.

But it’s Andries Bezuidenhout that had me guffawing, ironically: “[Fritz Deelman’s] uit die toekoms van ‘n ander verlede.” As a reviewer in Beeld mused, had this book been published in the 1970s or 1980s, it would have been banned. I wonder, would this book ever have seen the light back then, from Stellenbosch, inbetween all those debates and arguments about politics in literature?

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