Review: Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice

Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice: On Writers, Writing and Other Things, Penguin Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-143-02690-7

(originally published in WordsEtc, February 2011)


In Stephen Watson’s poetry I have always found a certain obligatory distance, even when poems are in homage to a friend. It could be his modernist legacy, a suspicion of emotion stemming from T.S. Eliot: to display emotion is an aesthetic betrayal which undermines a certain truth and redemption in aesthetics, the pursuit of which is the poet’s metier. I often feel, when reading the poetry, that I am tapping at a thick, determinedly post-Romantic carapace.

But this distancing is in a way the enabling step for what is Watson’s metier: landscape. He is at his best – in poetry and prose – when describing a de-peopled landscape, stony or lush, clouds gathering or in the play of light. When I think of a Watson landscape, I think of flint: hard, sharp in relief, containing sparks, process of formation unclear, but clearly formed over a long period.

In this book of essays variously written over the last twenty years, one gets an idea of those geological processes. But this is also a book on Watson’s enthusiasms and obsessions. Most surprisingly are “Leonard Cohen & Longing”, “Buiten Street” (which ruminates on a first love lost) and “Hannah Hunter Watson” (on the birth of, and addressed to, his first child and daughter) because of their self-disclosure. These essays maintain a flintiness, but they also contain confessions about the author’s neuroses, early ambition and, at times, a Buddhist’s desire for resolution through dissolution. A few weeks before the daughter’s birth:

I wanted all the books I had read, and all the more the books I’d written, to un-write themselves, to return to the nothingness out of which they’d been wrested, leaving the silence unstained. Beauty remained only in those things that bore no sign of human aspiration, and most of all the taint of my own. I longed for anonymity, to disappear. (“Hannah Hunter Watson”)

And then, after the birth:

I was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance. I was now joined to another story – a wider, deeper story – to the great human family and the common fate.

It is a surprising rebirth of the dyspeptic figure behind “A Version of Melancholy” (1989), an early essay about Cape Town and the despair it invokes, as well as of the critic who in his Ph.D. thesis (1993) gags at “imaginative and metaphysical deficiencies” in South African poetry, “a kind of deficiency which is also present in South African culture as a whole”. Like Naipaul’s infamous dismissal of his native Caribbean, Watson cannot believe that anything of cultural worth can come from South Africa (Coetzee, Ibrahim, Sekoto?).

For Watson, however, there are exceptions to “South African culture as a whole”: an essay on Guy Butler, who is also commemorated alongside Alan Paton, Lionel Abrahams and Francois Krige, the painter, in “Four South African Epitaphs”. But he also returns to his uncertain relationship with South African culture in “The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry” where he posits a causal relationship, among others, between the rhetoric of violence in “struggle poetry” and the normalised violence we now experience. It is a sobering read, but also a sociological morass which I am not sure the writer who “was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance” negotiates successfully. One wishes in this essay for a descent from Olympus to the temper of self-reflection that returns the writer, in “Hannah Hunter Watson”, to the writer and man who “was now joined to another story… to the great human family and the common fate”.

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