Review: Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice

6 June 2011, 6:41 pm

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”.

The Free City of Benghazi

22 April 2011, 2:27 pm

The Free City of Benghazi
(After W.B. Yeats)

I want to live now and go, and go to Libya, Benghazi,
and there brew some coffee, bake bread;
a few chairs where people can sit and look out on the sea
and tell me how it is to arise from the dead…

(full poem forthcoming in Groundwork, Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2012)

(This poem is based on W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’)

The lines and idea came to me as I was listening to this song by Libyan revolutionaries in the Nafusa Mountains (link tweeted by one of the Libyan tweeters I follow).

The English translation reads:

Where do you want us to go?
Give me your hand
So we can go to Benghazi
The City of Freedom
So we can go to Zawiya
The City of Martyrs
So we can go to Zintan
The City of Knights
And in the end Libya will be free, and we will live in love and tranquility

William Everson, The Poet Is Dead

21 April 2011, 12:08 pm

The Poet is Dead

A memorial for Robinson Jeffers

In the evening the dusk
Stipples with light. The long shore
Gathers darkness in on itself
And goes cold. From the lap of silence
All the tide-crest’s pivotal immensity
Lifts into the land.


Read the rest of this entry »

Keith Gottschalk, Beginning of a Beginning

13 April 2011, 2:15 pm

Cape Town poet, Keith Gottschalk, has a series of poems about space exploration. It started, I recall, with poems about the Soviet space programme, but has broadened beyond that.

Here’s a poem celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the earth:

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Die Beginsel van Stof, Breytenbach

10 March 2011, 9:24 am

Breyten Breytenbach, Die Beginsel van Stof, Human & Rousseau, 2011

(originally published in Die Burger, 4 March 2011, translated by Willem de Vries. Afrikaans version online at Boekeblok.)

I was 14 in 1980 when my Afrikaans teacher lent me two banned books wrapped in brown paper: Brink’s Kennis van die Aand and Breytenbach’s Om te Vlieg. We were out on national school boycotts, becoming politicised and teachers who cared did what they could.

Of course the explicit sex in Brink was any teenage boy’s fantasy, and the book’s politics also took away the breath. But the Breytenbach book is the one that stayed with me, just as any fantastical dream stays with one. After the giggling at swear words, what remained of that book still remains: the complete otherness of the book. Om te Vlieg showed what was possible in a book, and what was possible in that book, what Breytenbach did in that book, has remained a hallmark of especially his Afrikaans work, specifically his poetry.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rethabile Masilo, six poems

20 October 2010, 9:06 am

For a long time I have wanted to place some of Rethabile Masilo’s poems at Groundwork. It’s taken too long, but here now are six poems by him.

Originally from Lesotho, Masilo lives in France. I was first introduced to his blog in 2007 when he requested permission to use one of my own poems at Poéfrika. Since then, and via correspondence (alas, as these go, not frequently enough), we have discussed things literary and other shared fondnesses, reggae especially.

I like his poetry mainly for its tone: there’s a world-weariness in it, but it is never without hope. I hope that soon we’ll see a volume by him.

Poem for Troy Davis*

The sun that is rising
comes into view at last;
how stunning, the way it leans
like a moon above marshes
that fleeing slaves –
yelped at by dogs and sought
by glimmering lamp –
must have tramped!
Sometimes I just walk
across town and back again,
considering it: your mother
has come here each morning
to tend to her plot, like,
through the years all along
she’s known how this
should not have happened.
And each day she takes
a look in the mirror at
the hole the sun left when
it rose, as without a word
the world turns and turns.

She took herself

Like a coat from
behind a door
she took herself,
past dawn half asleep
she walked away
past neon lights
that wink at streets.

And now below his
window whores laugh
as if they know
that she’s gone,
whores all of them,
as he lies there
next to himself.

And when sleep does
claim him at last,
he withdraws into
a separate shell,
the hard chamber
where he and all
his alcohol do well.

White canes bend at two places, like fingers

Cities through fingertips inebriate me.
Everywhere I travel lies this pavement
defining the town with a kerb that may
or may not curve to where I go. Patient,
I like to try and see it with my cane,
slightly slanted in the hand. Not a stick,
a pen I use to trace my life again
as I walk and tap or touch stone or brick
or granite at my feet. No need to prove
God or splendour. If you don’t listen well
to night you may miss the bat that moves
with rubber wing, and flickers round walls
in a feeding frenzy. For the glory
of everything belongs truly to the night,
which holds day as dead retinas carry
light, to watch life with previous sight.

(first published in Orbis 143, Spring 2008)

The Weapon
for Nelson Mandela

As you took up arms, ntate,
we stood by and admired your guns
and your uniform, while you prepared
to mount the country to kill railways
and post-offices, we nodded agreement,
we acknowledged how the continent
was a pistol facing earthward, with the trigger
right at Nigeria’s oily wars of religion between
once-peaceful regions, the left hand now hacking
and being hacked by the right.
From out in the cold you made sense
of lives the way a bullet never can,
our poetry on the shore, washed up on the rocks;
doves came and sat on the eaves.
We thought it was a mistake – I am prepared to die,
but it was in your voice, carried to our door
by the choice of words, joined by others
from village to village, where cold and hot
scuffle for the light of dawn, east and west,
the chill of night when the wind is still
and stars are out. Somalia’s hammer
is just now falling into place on land and sea
where ghosts whimper your name, on the island
where no one is, save webbed gulls and dolphins
that know your tribe, and seek us among
painful rocks. From then on the smell
of gun-powder would be with the world. Yes,
and we rubbed the struggle into our hair,
our jeans, our black mining boots, walked
to the freedom of our lives, leaving a thin curl
of smoke rising from South-Africa’s
muzzle, into crisp, morning air.

The Prophet Seekers

Today I know we’re going to unbury the dead
to get this over with before it engulfs us.
We’ll wake Motuba up, Fischer,
rouse Biko and Lumumba, Hani,
put their hands on a stack of bibles or not,
and let the questions begin. To hell, then,
if we can’t bring the child to the tree
on which their bodies were hanged,
arcs stopped dead like broken pendulums,
the mechanism smashed, time strangled.

Here is my body to light the night;
as the flame goes higher and higher,
take please my name off your certificates,
you can display my culture in glass cases,
libraries, to learn how to build a pyramid;
through the season of our discontent
our children have always faced their history,
as all children must, one day or another,
nineteen sixty, nineteen seventy-six.
And this century is only at its start.

We’ll take our kids to the prophet’s tomb
whose engravings and marks scar our face
as hieroglyphs are necessarily Egyptian,
and we’ll sprout roots, shoots, stronger limbs,
standing here on this path to the minster,
swinging fists at the heavens to question
their political stance in the face of all this,
like Dennis Brutus when death stopped him,
ready to get at last to the bottom of it. We
are gonna have to see this thing through.

The Grotto of Chehrabad**

There’s a point between water and fire
where lies my dream, where a woman without fear
navigates the continent on her way
to the sea, a sparkle in the eye as she goes,
a tempest caught in her dress,
driving her into voyages across time.
I’m a salt man, and I watch her stoop
as with the grace of a goddess she scoops water
and lifts her cup of love,
raising the chalice that keeps us alive,
that contains all the fire and water,
all of it, and the rage of our winter,
knowing that my siblings and I live in
this hollowed out cavern we call heaven.

(first published in The Mom Egg, #7, 2009)



* Troy Davis

** Chehrabad Saltman

Review: Bodyhood, Leon de Kock

19 October 2010, 10:02 am

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Derek Walcott, White Egrets, #2

31 August 2010, 9:04 am

Your two cats squat, heraldic sphinxes, with such
desert indifference, such “who-the-hell-are-you?” calm,
they rise and stride away leisurely from your touch,
waiting for you only. To be cradled in one arm,
belly turned upward to be stroked by a brush
tugging burrs from their fur, eyes slitted
in ecstacy. The January sun spreads its balm
on earth’s upturned belly, shadows that have always fitted
their shapes, re-fit them. Breakers spread welcome.
Accept it. Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,
trying to fasten on everything it moved from,
how salted things only increase its thirst.

(from White Egrets, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010)

Derek Walcott, ‘Pastoral’

30 August 2010, 9:20 am

In the mute roar of autumn, in the shrill
treble of the aspens, the basso of the holm-oaks,
in the silvery wandering aria of the Schuylkill,
the poplars choiring with a quillion strokes,
find love for what is not your land, a blazing country
in eastern Pennsylvania with the DVD going
in the rented burgundy Jeep, in the inexhaustible bounty
of fall with the image of Eakins’ gentleman rowing
in his slim skiff whenever the trees divide
to reveal a river’s serene surprise, flowing
through the snow-flecked birches where Indian hunters glide.
The country has caught fire from the single spark
of a prophesying preacher, its embers glowing,
its clouds are smoke in the onrushing dark
a holocaust crackles in this golden oven
in which tribes were consumed, a debt still owing,
while a white country spire insists on heaven.

(from White Egrets, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

W.H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, #2

30 August 2010, 8:57 am

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

(from, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson, Faber & Faber, 1977, 1978, 1986)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 119 other followers

%d bloggers like this: