Leon de Kock, Bodyhood, Umuzi, 2010
(Afrikaans original at Boekeblok)
With its eye-catching cover designed by Michiel Botha, Bodyhood is Leon de Kock’s third collection of poetry. As the back cover describes, the themes of the poetry revolve, among other things, around the body and being, love and its loss, and desire. There are also poems about eating and poems about raging jealousy.
The epigraph to the book signals a philosophical intent and is taken from an essay on language and the brain (and possibly providing the title to the volume). Specifically, the epigraph speaks to the central role language plays in our being human. But it also signals the parts played by academic research and academic discourse in De Kock’s poetry.
In general, there’s a sense of an academic wit at play behind the poetry, and I find that this cleverness raises a barrier between reader and poem. The poems are not filled with academic jargon, but, where the poems employ witticism, it divides the readership between those who get it and those who don’t. In this way the poems cover themselves from criticism.
In the play between reflection and experience – there are two poems respectively called ‘Apollo’ and ‘Dionysius’ – I find that the poems are often self-reflexive at the cost of the poetic realisation of an experience. ‘Middle of the night’, for instance, describes a night of anxiety. While it struggles to give the reader a sense of what it is like to experience an anxiety attack, it also contains its own commentary. The poem is commenting on itself: ‘Not to put a fine point on it’. This is a throwaway line, a casual line; not only does it interrupt the reading, but it turns the tone of the poem to something casual and one wonders about the depth of the experience (anxiety) that the speaker suffers.
In ‘Scholars in a Johannesburg garden’ a similar impulse – of self-consciousness – gives us these lines:
… a sliver
A slice, a weeny bit
A mere modicum
Something about the body
Something about pleasure
Or pain, perhaps
But not too much
No, just the merest touch
Like the brush of a hand
On a leg
Or a blouse
Almost all of this could be said in the image of a hand brushing a leg or blouse. What precedes that image becomes an authorial direction: telling too much, showing too little.
I find the two best poems in the volume are “The boatman” and “The day the Buddha arrived in Gauteng”. In both these, the author disappears. There is no hand that directs the reader, that explains how the story or images should be interpreted. They are clean, strong poems.
It seems, overall then, that despite the balance or tension that the volume seeks between Apollo and Dionysius, Apollo is the victor.