Wednesday, 14 October 2020

No 109 - Stephen Watson and the death of Nature


I never got to meet Stephen Watson
(1954-2011), Cape Town poet, creative-writing teacher at UCT, and critic.  He was evidently deeply admired, his early death deeply mourned. One of his students, the novelist Imraan Coovadia, wrote in an obituary that as a teacher Watson was “almost unfailingly courteous, engaged, unexpected in the direction of his thoughts, generous in his intelligence, and insistent only on his humane temperament. He cared to be a human being before a poet, and to be a poet before a professor.”  He could nevertheless be controversial in his literary criticism, even – as one reader put it – “tetchy”.

 These are qualities evident at times in his Selected Essays (1997).  In a long, rich but entangled review of that volume, Jean-Philippe Wade judged that Watson could be both pretentious and naive, and was desperately locked in self-contradictory philosophical tussles about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, between beauty and activism.  An aspect which Wade touched on only briefly – though it seems to me central to the issue – was Watson’s conception of the natural world. No one else has made much of this either, as far as I know, apart from a brilliant essay by Hedley Twidle. and one on Watson’s Romanticism by Dirk Klopper. Yet “the presence of the earth” – the title of Watson’s best-known volume – pervades his extensive output of poetry. Indeed, that output is ripe for a more thorough and comprehensive reassessment.

 I was initially interested in Watson’s poetic versions, in the collection Return of the Moon (1991), of /Xam Bushman testimonies drawn from the famous Bleek-Lloyd Archive. I was intrigued by the efforts of several poets, including Jack Cope, Antjie Krog and Alan James, to ‘poeticize’ those records, and by the depictions of the natural world. As for Watson’s original poetry, I find it often beautiful, though rather languid for my taste. Typically, long lines loop back and forth through overlapping repetitions and sometimes misty pronouncements. It’s also typically more than a little embittered, even nihilistic. In a curiously diffident review of In This City, an explicitly Cape Town-centred collection, Peter Wilhelm professes a twitchy reluctance to label the poetry “bleak”, as if the beloved poet might feel insulted. In fact, there’s no escaping it.

It was also in relation to ‘Nature’ that I tackled Watson’s 1986 essay on Sydney Clouts, while working up my own study of that slightly earlier Cape Town poet. Watson – going through an early phase of leftist political advocacy that he later modified – accused Clouts of being a self-absorbed displaced Romantic shielding himself from the harsh political realities of apartheid. This was an accusation often levelled at Eurocentric bourgeois poets, not without reason, though I argued that Watson, for all his intelligence, sensitivity and vast reading, had got this one all wrong.

 Watson’s critique of Clouts was all the more mystifying since his own poetry, as well as his later A Writer’s Diary (1997), seemed to express some strong similarities. Over many years, Watson would head out of town to sequester himself in the Cedarberg, north of Cape Town.  He celebrated the experience of desert solitudes, walking endlessly in those spectacularly scoured massifs and closely observing the natural world around him – much as Clouts did around Table Mountain. Like Clouts, he lamented the marginalisation of the natural by the urban and the commercial, and found in the hills the closest to spirituality he could manage in a tawdry, polluted, politically violent and secularised world. But there seemed to be a near-despairing, obsessively analytical, even cynical streak in Watson that couldn’t settle on any easy escapism. Take this stanza from the poem “Cedars”:

             That skyline of fired cedars, abstract against the light

that inks their splints against the dusk’s abstracted skin –

how many times, dead-eyed, they’ve suffered it at this hour:

the sky a tissue drained, leached for the star-pouring dark,

the skyline at a standstill, its sag formalized in black,

these cedars freezing in the horizon’s inch of formalin –

while feeling their flesh freeze over, grow abstract as bark,

their gaze weighted by the earth, weighted by a wordlessness.

Listen to the accumulation of words of stuck-ness and enervation: fired, splints, dead-eyed, suffered, drained, leached, standstill, sag, freezing, formalin, weighted. Though there are hints of beauty, and hints of life in personifying the trees, they are overwhelmed by the poet’s feeling of being “abstracted”, “abstract”, anaesthetised and weighed down by his own inarticulacy. It’s a grim way of seeing one’s relation to poetry and the world – and an ironically wordy manner of asserting either the trees’ or one’s own “wordlessness”.

 I’ve quoted the version published in the magazine Upstream in 1985. When it reappeared in his Selected Poems, The Other City, fifteen years later, it was re-titled “Nature morte” – nature dead – and he has recognised the unconvincing bathos of personifying the cedars: now it is he who suffers, his flesh freezing, his gaze that is weighted. A more honest version, but still in the third person, still a bit removed from the confessional “I”. 

 “Nature morte” was included in a justly admired clutch of poems named “A Kromrivier Sequence”. Kromrivier is the sector of the Cedarberg that Watson most frequented, and the locale for a 1996 series of ruminations published in A Writer’s Diary. If there was something a bit portentous in publishing one’s “selected essays” at the age of only 45 – he was still a “young fogey”, in Wade’s phrase – so there is too in airing one’s somewhat oracular diary observations on sundry subjects. That said (we academics are often prone to such parading), there is much in A Writer’s Diary to provoke and intrigue. I’ll select just some pronouncements concerning ‘Nature’ (the scare quotes are obligatory these days, alerting us to the human-constructed quality of the notion of a ‘Nature’ somehow separate from ourselves).

 “[A] retreat to the natural world is also a return”, Watson writes on 9 May 1996. A return to what? A pre-industrial way of life? That would usually be labelled “pastoral”, common enough in mediaeval and Romantic periods, but much more fraught, if not impossible, in the globalised post-colony. Still, as Watson notes, 

the idea of pastoral has persisted, however attenuated or ironically inflected, if only because it is based on a constellation of human needs that can never be eradicated from the psyche ... At its best, pastoral is in fact a critique, even a form of rebellion against the human condition as such (74).

 As such? Meaning ... an existential condition? Certainly pastoral can be wielded more narrowly – more politically – as a critique of poisonous modern industrial urbanisation and chemical-dependent farming. Among other English Romantics, Wordsworth enacted exactly such objections two centuries ago at the onset of the Industrial Revolution by glorifying the Lake District, its wild natures and its organic farming. This is an ever more urgent ideal: James Rebanks is re-instating it in practice today, as he relates in The Shepherd’s Life (2019). The Cedarberg is a far less salubrious environment than Rebanks’ green Lake District, as Watson depicts it:


In the Cedarberg, at this time of year, the bush and grasses stick to the valley floor like salt and hair to a side of raw meat, curing it, darkening it. There is no soil to soften the earth. Here it is all sand, littered shale, ironstone, gravel pits ... cauterised by sun. (69)

 Yet there are also “oases”: a lone oak tree; a sheep fold; a water furrow.  “In such landscapes one of the more elemental human dramas is writ large, vividly. One discerns the actual drama whereby culture is wrested from nature.”  It’s not a matter of human culture escaping from, or civilising itself out of nature; rather: “Almost nothing seems so authentic as that which still carries in itself some traces of the non-human realm from which it has been wrested” (77). So Watson’s search seems in part for whatever it is that might count as “authentic” and elemental, and he was attracted to this bony, scratchy landscape to find it.

 Implicit here is the feeling that Watson – and many of us – have lost touch with such elementals, whether one is an impoverished township-dweller or a pampered, bookish bourgeois. Not an uncommon thought, though Watson seems compelled to view it through multiple lenses of irony and self-doubt. The ultimate consequence of such divorce and distraction from the primordial realities of life-in-an-environment is a comprehensive trashing of the planet by industrialised commerce. Even in the Cedarberg, the effects of global warming and desertification were – 25 years ago – so evident that Watson considered the cedars themselves to be imperilled. He asks: “Why should this knowledge distress me so? It is hardly news. Yet no matter how often it comes to mind, I am left distraught, as if I’d just heard it for the first time”.

 I can so identify with that.  Indeed, we need a new term for “environmental or ecological grief”. Watson goes on:

 For millennia it is the earth that has been the beginning and end of humanity’s faith. Reverence for the earth and the fruitfulness (i.e. essential goodness) of the earth is religion, at least in its beginnings.

           Any violation of the planet thus introduces a profound disturbance into the very heart of that to which humanity has always turned in order to confirm its faith and verify its most essential hope. To eliminate a species or overrun one more area of wilderness is to jeopardise the very possibility of hope itself. This is why we are inclined to experience any injury to the environment as a form of metaphysical mutilation as well. The destruction of the natural world, eroding as it does that capacity for hope that defines humanity, also undermines the very concept of humanity itself. (103)

 Again, hardly innovative thoughts, but ever worth hammering home. Oil-rich moguls, rightwing politicians, and crime-lord traffickers in pangolins are unlikely to include themselves in that “we”, though; and too many millions do not or cannot in practice give a shit about such an idealised “humanity”. Yet for Watson, for all his drift towards the cerebral, the problem was not abstract: it was daily evident in what he saw in his native Cape Town, its appalling underbelly of physical detritus and consequent damage to human inhabitants. This informs poem after poem, exemplified by “After Reading The End of Nature”. (The End of Nature is a prophetic book by activist Bill McKibben, who is also still shouting the odds 30 years on, to little visible effect even as his prognostications prove grimly correct). The poem lingers over the effects of a welcome advent of rain after a dry spell (written long before last year’s water crisis), how it washes at the complex, compacted “filth” in the city’s gutters. Sure, it refills the aquifers and dams:

             But to know what’s known by now: that even if a rain should

fall, its lines self-cleansing, drawn through their own downpour,

this earth, its air machined and re-machined, can only grow

more heat-choked, orphaned in its sack of poisoned gases;

to know that this year, or the next, will only issue in

more heat, more pollution – and more pollution in that heat;

to know that time itself can only bring a rain acidified,

falling without the wateriness of water when it’s pure,

without that absolution that is in water, only when it’s pure...

 Can anything be clearer now: that we need civilisations and technologies that are “self-cleansing”. Anything short of that – as both poets and scientists constantly insist – is ultimately grief and suicide in a toxic stew of our own creation.




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Friday, 25 September 2020

No 108 - The dark surrealism of Phyllis Haring's poetry


Haring and (?) husband [MyHeritage]
No doubt there are thousands of minor poets who flare briefly in the darkness and are gone – some of them perhaps deservedly so. Every so often you find a worthy whose ember is barely alive, but you have a chance to blow a little life back in.

I just rediscovered a little volume called A Taste of Salt, by one Phyllis Haring. In a life that lasted nearly a century (1919-2016), she published just 50 poems, 22 of them in A Taste of Salt. But what poems! She is dark, death-obsessed, fractured – but also unflinching, musical, a startling surrealist. She drew on dreams and myths and fairy-story motifs, carrying on fragmentary conversations which are both overheard voices around her and aspects of her own psyche.

Haring was born and died in Johannesburg, and lived there most of her life, except for a brief period in London in the 1950s. As she described it in a letter to Jack Cope, who edited A Taste of Salt, she was a tearaway youth, a “love-addict”, who “married too young, divorced too soon – wanted 6 children and had one.” That one, a son, died young, spinning her into depression and therapy, not for the first time. Yet for decades she also ran a swimming school.

There’s a slippery relationship between the poetic techniques of Surrealism and psychic disturbance. Surrealism – think of paintings by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali – challenged the norms of realism, logic, coherence itself, trying to represent the unfathomable leaps and juxtapositions of dream-thought. Early Surrealists like founder André Breton espoused a kind of automatic writing, writing by pure instinct, with almost religious fervour. Dissenters like Georges Bataille were tougher, materialist, even excremental. The established narratives of religion, politics and nation went out the window. Life had no direction, no goal, no predictable outcome, quite possibly no discernible meaning at all. In short, if you are bordering on mad or just rebellious, Surrealism is ideal.

Phyllis Haring tackled her own disturbances, mostly indirectly through scenes that hint at underlying narratives or parable-like promise, but end with no didactic wisdom. In one unpublished poem, “Found Lunatic”, she represented mental trouble more directly:

             Now that the room

Is mysteriously full of flowers

And your hands are colder by far

Than last winter’s winter,

You don’t need to pretend any longer.

You can get up and go out.

... I’ll just stay quietly here

And try to collect myself.


... I must have been walking worriedly

Towards that sudden second all my life,

Watching myself in shop-windows, admiring myself ...




... And I remember childhood,

The long lane at evening, acorns popping underfoot,

Swimming in summer and small boys in trees.

At seventeen there was no-one to talk to ...



And now that the room is so mysterious

This policeman won’t believe a word I say –

You tell him, darling.

 A cacophony of voices, heading nowhere. Mostly she depicts ordinary life as superficial and programmed, false, mere performance in the shadow of inevitable death. In the 1970s she explained to Cope: 

I now love and admire animals & birds more than people, children more than adults, am still anti-fascist, and am also anti women’s lib. For me the natural world is far more important than the political or religious, or anything, since it encloses us all. If I have a faith at all, it must be more or less the same faith a tree has, & wish I had the same acceptance of the ills of the world. When it is time to die, I will console myself with the thought that in any case in my life time there is no understanding, pity or love between people and things. So, call me a crank!

 Surreal and dark features were evident already in Haring’s very first formally published poem, “The tunnel”. 

Life, and the passage of time,

The days and the nights converging,

And the long tunnel of time. Tell me,

Where are you going, what waits there?

Who dies in the dark there, who dies?

There’s nothing in it for us at all,

Unless you can say to me, “I am going

Here and there, to do this and that,

And I have an appointment with my lover!”




Like this, with only the scream of wires

And the personal idea of a station somewhere,

The silence presses too hard on the head

And heart, and some of us are quietly

Sick on the side. It’s not necessary;

We’re all here, look around, say something!

For God’s sake lift your hat!

See how it feels, getting together,

Getting the low-down on what it all means.

And stop pushing.

 Here is the deceptive simplicity, the unflinching questioning, the mushy hysterics of not-quite-inner voices in conversational drama. Society’s trivial gestures, endured rather than enjoyed, performed rather than valued, hint at a terrible emptiness behind – the pressure of silence. The governing existential questions are repeated in another early poem  titled “Who”. The final stanza is shockingly bold: 

What am I but only a particular

Particle of dust, of nothing but blood and bone

Beseeching, searching, wandering forever

Along the delicate snail’s trail your spirit leaves

In passages and doorways, in halls and auditoriums,

And in books and theatre programmes, in love

With whomever has lips to meet one. ... You stare

Solemnly with the eyes of anyone, you speak to me

With the voice of strangers, calling me onward. ...

To what end? What destination? What new death? 

 As with other poems, the second-person addressee may or may not be an actual or notional outsider, may be a reflection of herself – or both. Is it mere wandering, or a search? If so, for what? Repeatedly, it appears to be for a god whose “name and address” she does not know, for a resurrection, or just for an affirmation that she “too, could be holy”. All putative goals prove elusive or delusory. Even “reality” appears almost mystically friable, if not threatening. As she puts it in “Iscariot”: 

But my hands clasp the heavy shadow

Of a faint reality, in the huger shadow of the world –

Therefore I send myself along regretful avenues,

Towards houses with secretive numbers, relentlessly [...]

 A surreal search for “tantalising fruit” again ends in a question, as if from an already-emptied afterlife: “Will the flown soul/ Return from distant orchards to inhabit me?”  In the poem “The Search”, a narrative is more evident: the speaker is searching for a brother “among markets/ And harbours, among old men and sailors”. I am reminded of Khalil Gibran, with his gently sonorous Biblical prosody, a setting simple as that of a mediaeval allegory, and a figure of a lost pilgrim. But this pilgrimage, if it is that, has already begun unpromisingly: 

The earth asks, and receives rain, the benediction

Of rain and of sun, and the population of seeds.

But the worm inhabits the earth, and multiplies itself

And makes merry in the blind earth above which

The birds suspend themselves, aware of the end. 

People live on, “with talking/ And laughter, surrounded by dogs and by children”, but they are subject to forces far greater than themselves, and the poem, circling back to the imagery of its opening, turns apocalyptic: 

[...] the earth presses upward against their feet

So that they remain upright: but elsewhere

The earth opens and engulfs a city, and perhaps

My brother is hastening towards that city.


– While I, as I lie on my comfortable bed, as the blood

Courses through my hands and my feet, as the blood

Courses over streets and over flagstones, up to the doors

Of houses and cathedrals, over the altars

Of the new religions, over the world, I thrust my thought

Deep into the earth, watching the worm with my mind’s eye:

The worm which devours itself with the beak of a dead bird.

 This is highly self-conscious myth-making by a ‘self’ querying itself through its own imaginings. Is the search really for a way of living in the world which does not feel (as depicted in the poem “Poker-face”) as trivial and depersonalised as being dealt out like cards at a cheap game – or, worse, dealing oneself out like cards? It may be that any authentic being-in-the-world is a fantasy; so she projects it in the poem of that title: 

There are times when the skin,

Where it joins down the middle of my back,

Splits open and lets me out –

And I move quietly among you,

Touching the colour of your eyes

And holding your voice in my hands

Like the light notes of piano

Or the soft sounds chrysanthemums make

When being beheaded in gardens. (“Fantasy”)

 The speaker tries to compensate for that macabre note by encouraging her faceless hearers, “Don’t be afraid”; but as in many poems these ‘conversations’, one suspects, are between aspects of herself; behind this slightly disturbing, insect-like escape from her own “bag of bones” lie opposing fears both of being socially present and of being alone.

 Beneath the surface of apparent fantasy, common emotional truths spark. As R D Laing famously suggested, this “schizoid” quality inhabits all of us, as we balance private self-conceptions with acceptable social masks. In Haring’s case, though, this state of internal fracture can appear positively self-destructive – nowhere more so than in “Attack”, which reads in full: 

I’ll set my anger loose upon you

Like a warm, red beast

To beat your head in

With its hoofs of music;

To gore your breast repeatedly

With sharp, distracted horns

Hidden in honey,

As for a sacrifice. 

That’s an extraordinarily compact poem, its animal-human conjunction redolent of Greek myth. It is ambivalent about the nature of this sacrifice, if it is one. The language is tensed between “warm” and “sharp”, “set” and “distracted”, the double entendre of “beat”, the grotesque deception of “Hidden in honey”. Yet these antitheses are held together by a robust and careful musicality: the internal echoes of “loose” and “hoofs”, of “beast”, “beat” and “breast”, of “gored [...] horns/ Hidden in honey”. It is a fundamentally mysterious yet forbiddingly powerful drama.

 The poems often express such feelings of entrapment (I hesitate to say ‘Haring’, because I don’t think you can unproblematically ‘psychoanalyze’ a writer through their poems; they are fictions, after all, no more so than in this work). No feeling of entrapment is more unsettling than the recognition that, as the cliché would have it, we are born to die. Extinction is implicit in the seed, and therefore haunts even the fruit that is relished in the living interim. The ambivalence is encapsulated in one surreal poem’s very title, “The sun imprisoned”, which reads in full: 

The sun,

Imprisoned in the profound, close house of the apple,

Astringently contained in quinces, caught

For a season in the polished shell of a walnut,

The sun has gone away for Christmas.

Here’s the moon, and carnivals of crossed stars,

All heaven is festooned everywhere with brave lights

   But the dark leans over everything.

The dark ...

And yet, behold the god returning,

The sun enormously an orange in his hand. 

“Astringently contained in quinces, caught [...]”: such a great line! The governing antithesis is ironically counterpointed by the assonance-alliteration of astringently and quinces. The word caught at the end of the line is carefully balanced with Imprisoned at the beginning of the previous line, as well as half-rhyming with walnut in the next. Haring can be as gifted as Yeats in this kind of control, even as emotion spills into broken lines with the advent of “the dark”. Fruitful day returns, powerful as a god, but it is already devilled by darkness. 

So many poems cry out for quotation, but I’ll stop with one of her most-anthologised. In “Foetus”, the poet imagines herself in the space of the womb – an inland sea, as it were, where “bones form themselves quietly,/ Turned on a lathe of tide,” and in which a “disconsolate” and “opaque dreaming” prevails: 

There is slime everywhere,

There are fishes, and powerful anemones,

And an army of snails softly advancing ...


Spread themselves on my face and on my neck, like fungi,

And my skin crawls, my hands clutch and clasp

The warm temperature of the water.


My head leans on the water, sad as a bell,

Surrounded with silence, with heaviness ...

Therefore my arms cross my heart

And with humility I hope to die. 

Phyllis Haring was indeed humble, publishing nothing in the last two decades of her life, dropped from anthologies of South African poetry and never reprinted. But in my view her voice is an unusually powerful and individual one, strangely beautiful in its very gloominess – well worth re-reading.


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Thursday, 13 August 2020

No 107 - Cats in some South African poems

In a forthcoming book chapter, our pre-eminent literary-animal scholar, Wendy Woodward, notes that while studies of dogs in our literature are growing, cats scarcely feature. Indeed, in discussing just three texts, she figures she has virtually exhausted South Africa’s stock of fictions in which cats are central. 

The situation may be different in poetry. (We are talking about the domesticated cat, not lions, leopards, cheetahs, servals, caracals, or black-footed wild-cats.) Trawling just through some of the collections I possess – archives being awkward in the Age of Covid – I turn up a fair slew of cat poems. So while the following sample is as small as a six-week-old kitten, we can make a start. Just what it is about cats that turns these poets on? 

One facet is of course cats’ innate kind of pent-up power, allied with uncommon grace. Perseus Adams’ 1965 poem “The black cat” is filled with an atmospheric electricity that the cat seems to embody, “igniting a black spell” – an allusion no doubt to the association of black cats with necromancy. By association, but also in paradoxical opposition, the cat seems to derive its mysterious energy from its wild ancestries. The final stanza reads:

If anything stands easy before him here 
 It is that brazen jaguar the sun 
Frying the garden with his steaming breath 
And bringing the house to his jungle door. 

Drawing up his dignity the black cat departs 
While the lawn hisses with an electrical tongue. 
            [from The Land at my Door

Anyone who has lived attentively with a cat knows how often the creature seems aloof or elusive or mysterious somehow. Eleanor Anderson captures something of this in her four-line poem “Witch cat” : Tamina, black and shining, leaps in through the window from the heavy rain. But she is dry. [from A Very Far Place

Somehow, that dimension of inexplicability coaxes or lures one into a space of self-reflection. So that fine poet and mentor of Johannesburg, the late Lionel Abrahams, writes in “Meditation with a cat”: 

 The cat inhabits this moment on the bed 
complete, nothing left over, nothing intended - ... 

Alongside, I simmer with thought, 
 intentions, memories, questions, memories... 

 The cat’s lesson seems to be that we should put down all those roiling thoughts to achieve an “agile, replete/ inhabitation of the moment”, an inner peace. I’d go with that, but Abrahams complicates this in several ways. The cat is also “gaoled” in the moment; he watches her test its limits. He knows – or thinks he knows – that beneath “her curious elastic ease” she is “tensed by suspicion” and a “cunning lust to kill”. He also knows that those motives are being attributed to the cat by him – an instance of that thorny philosophical question of anthropomorphism. Literary-animal scholars like Woodward are fond of referring to an essay by French man-of-letters Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that Therefore I Am”. The essay opens with Derrida standing naked in front of his staring cat, wondering what the cat is thinking of him. But the cat for him comes to symbolise utter incomprehensibility. I think Derrida was more worried about the state of his ageing equipment than about taking the time and trouble to read the cat. Several other respondents have demurred from Derrida, including Jenny Diski in her lovely, honest book, What we don’t know about Animals. The point is, we never really know what’s going through another animal’s mind – but if we’re attentive and willing to learn we can find an awful lot of animal commonality, and we can close the communicative gulf. In contrast to that, however, Abrahams ends his poem stressing his all-too-human difference and uniqueness: 

 Perception and concept and design 
 are the space wherein I’m free. 
          [from A dead tree full of live birds

 Cape Town poet Gabeba Baderoon is attentive. She even learns life-lessons from, or at least parallels herself with, two cats, in the truly lovely three-page poem, “Something I Know So Well”. Perhaps part of that something is a condition of entrapment: the cats, arbitrarily named by someone Krona and Mark, are rescued from a cage in an animal shelter. At the poet’s home, “Each day I learn/ the language we must speak to one another”. The kittens gather or make toys for themselves. One day it is an unravelled spool of wool: 

 One cat lies by the end of the strand 
 and one by the tangled mass. 
 I sit on the edge of the bed and watch 
 a small set of rules. 

 One tugs, and rests; the other picks up the end and takes it to the side, and rests; the first tugs again: “Without a sound, the centre point/ of the skein moves three steps back/ and forth between them”. “In broken objects,/ the cats seek/ the makings of things”: likewise the poet: 

 I want to find an unmade thing, 
 a raw length, and feel resistance 
when I hold it. A taut response, 
never greater than mine. 
I wish, on the other end, 
 for something I know so well 
I do not need to look at it. 
         [from The dream in the next body

 A model for successful relationship. Another of Baderoon’s poems is “At the breakfast table”, a compact, resonant observation-of-an-observation: 

 At the breakfast table 
 the cat looks intently at my food. 
 Suddenly, his head swings up 
 and swivels in a slow half-circle 
across the ceiling and down to the window. 
I see what comes into view - two geese 
flying over the house to meet his gaze. 
         [from A hundred silences

 The cat in a way ‘teaches’ the poet how to look. Derrida’s gaze goes all ways. There’s also the ever-present darker shadow of the cat’s ineradicably predatory nature. 

 The self-styled Tatamkhulu Afrika, once Cape Town’s favourite bohemian poet, lived for a period at the bottom of someone’s garden, and so was well-placed to observe the vicious antics of feral “Spring Cats”. Here, outside, named-and-domesticated and “silken-haired Maybelline” becomes impervious to the poet’s “ingratiating tones”. She is interested only in sex with roving males, whose “god speaks to them in tongues/ of blood and sperm”. Though at other times “prescient as a shade ... knowing she was beautiful and strange”, she now screams “outraged”, as battle-scarred tomcats “gang-rape” her. The poet persuades himself that this urban violence “is the quickening of the wood,/ this is the resurrection and the dream” – but he has to turn almost squeamishly away, feeling as if those primal fangs are “fastening in [his own] spine” [from Turning Points]. 

 Even more liberated are the denizens described in Ingrid de Kok’s “Italian Cats”. There, the ferals are barely tolerated, partly because of their historic predation upon plague-bearing rats, even as they “ransack/ leftover pizza with any sauce ... eyes acquisitive as sin”. 

The padrone wants these lean medici poisoned 
but does nothing 
except close every door after him. 
Still, they monitor his moods, entice, 
collude with younger guests, 
gaining on him and his city of food. 
         [from Terrestrial Things

 More domesticated cats have to endure, or choose to negotiate, a balance of domestic constraint and ‘wild’ freedom. Another Capetonian, Geoff Haresnape, writes in his poem entitled simply “Cat”, of a cat among the “criss-crossings” and “interface” of branches and walls. From innocuous and “tolerant” pads spring claws “like little bowie-knives of polished stone”. This hint of concealed savage wildness is echoed as the cat contemplates a flurry of White-eyes. Nothing happens, though. The cat has her “queendom”, but it’s small, really. Still, she can revel “in the fugitive moment[;]/ she takes as a universe/ minutiae that happen to be here”. The poem ends on a line of antitheses, in which we are reminded of the control we exert over our pets – especially their sexuality – even as we provide them with la dolce vita: “spayed but not spoiled in her Elysium” [from New-born Images]. 

Perhaps our finest poet of animal presences, Ruth Miller also captures antithetical aspects in “Two Cats”, symbolically white and black. The white, free or feral one is “Drawn towards the moon like any lover/ Awaiting the hunter who will snare her heart”, and “flies away on a broomstick of desire”. The black cat, in stark contrast, seems dangerous, “Sleek as a snake”, but in fact “lies obliterated in a silken sleep” indoors, “too enclosed with windows”: “Only his soft tail twitches, remembering”. Two sides of the cat, but also of the human poet, adventurous fantasy always in tension with easeful complacency. 

Gail Dendy also recognises cats’ predatory side, using some visceral imagery in “Cat and Rat”. A rat’s gruesome death becomes a learning experience for her children as well as a meditation on language itself. The poem ends: 

Cat, rat. The life of single syllables 
straying through all our nursery rhymes, 
prowling the dark around the tongue, 
hunting each specific word down, 
eager to see what happens next. 

A more affectionate poem “Cat, sleeping”, is part humorous, part sad, as Dendy listens to her aged, “oversized” cat snoring. She recalls his “killer” days, but now he’s somnolent, “a little moth-eaten”. But there’s still the pleasure of “listening to the hammers of the small/ wooden box of his chest”, watching him settle into “the last/ slim wedge of sunlight ... ladle up his paws and fix them to himself/ with a rounded scoop of tail”, his snore like “the wheezing clack of looms ... spinning his fur from base copper into gold.” 

Ageing pets, being so much shorter-lived, inevitably die on us, leaving us with the enigmas of affection and death. In the delicate, multi-part poem “Death of a cat”, Dendy buries her pet, put down by a vet: “One silver, slippery jab and she collapsed// in a soft snow of grey rumpling” – that appalling moment so many of us must face. 

With this final spade of earth 
we have damped her down, seeded her, 
placed her underground 
where she perpetually smiles at death 
and the thought of an afterlife 
and how we make sense of them both. 
        [all from The Lady Missionary

Moira Lovell perhaps takes identification with cat-ness furthest in three very short poems in her volume Departures. “Lizard” is a lament at the unnecessary predation of a “sleek pedigree-spoilt” cat upon a lizard, whose decomposition at least goes to “fuelling ants”; the poet slides the remains into a bin, like burying a sailor at sea. In the others, the cat’s perspective is more centrally imagined. “Feline Sky” reads: 

The tall sky 
Ladders above me 
Filled with claws 
Flexing like steel stars 
And your eye 
Tunnelling yellow 
Like the moon 

Cat heaven, perhaps? Even more so in the funny third poem, “Winter Cat-speak”, in which the cat is the narrator. It is being nibbled along its back by a friendly “pumpkin” of a dog, as if, the cat muses, “ I/ am a vegetable/ too; perhaps a mealie-/ (succulent to lovers’ lips)/ cob”. Such cross-species friendships are always amazing to me – part of the new ‘languaging’ of the domestic envelope. 

Wendy Woodward should have the last – if somewhat disturbing – word. In her poignant poem “Parallel Worlds”, we are reminded that however problematic our domestications might be, it’s a very tough world outside that space. The poem depicts the poet driving to work, listening to Ted Hughes’ animal poems (themselves pretty red in tooth and claw). Near her workplace, she notices a feral black kitten, “desolate in the feathery rain”; also feathery, two storeys up, sits a “vigilant” eagle-owl. When the poet returns, the cat has gone from the quad and the hills and plains of his wet desert The owl, supreme, has marked the wall with painterly excrement white against the liver-dark bricks [from Love, Hades & other animals

As I said, a tiny sampling. If you know of other South African cat-centred poems, please feel free to let me know. 

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Monday, 27 July 2020

No 106 - The Animal in Dambudzo Marechera

My original 1988 cartoon
I confess: I don’t much like Dambudzo Marechera’s work. Or I should say: I still don’t like it.

Back in 1988, a year after Marechera’s untimely death aged only 35,  I wrote a brief assessment for the Zimbabwean magazine Prize. I acknowledged that the wild child of Zimbabwean literature was enormously “talented, imaginative and sensitive”, capable of “brilliant moments  and often great delicacy”. Up to a point, I admired his honesty and his assault on conventional English. In retrospect, I would have stressed more the astonishing breadth of reading and sharp if spotty philosophising, unmatched by any other Zimbabwean writer then, and perhaps even now. But his anarchistic thoughts, striking out in every direction with a blend of raw self-exposure and lancing political critique, were too solipsistic, too uneven, too wallowing in self-disgust and misanthropy, never marshalled into sustained craftsmanship, to provide a really fruitful model. So I argued.

I think I largely stand by that, pompous as it was, though Marechera’s fans and acolytes would doubtless retort that time has proved me wrong: he is still inspirational, 33 years later.  Innumerable academic articles and theses have argued in his favour, albeit with, in my view, a certain amount of special pleading. Australian scholar Jennifer Armstrong even wrote a PhD suggesting he is a kind of shaman, ultimately healing – a suggestion I think Marechera would have found mystifying, if not offensive.  But people will get what they get from literature, and good luck to them. For this pampered and over-sensitive white boy, at least, it makes for some tediously ugly fare. Black Sunlight, his second short novel, I now find unreadably vile.

Anyway, I found myself returning to his best-known work, The House of Hunger (1978), while looking for instances of dagga-use in southern African literature. It appears the collection’s phantasmagoric effects are stimulated more by alcohol than mbanje – but in the course of that earth-shattering discovery I became intrigued by another aspect altogether: the frequent appearance of animals. What are they doing there?

As far as I’ve found, no one has looked in detail at this aspect. One Chinese scholar has suggested, I think a bit tendentiously, that Marechera modelled much on Chinese tales of the Monkey King trickster figure of Eastern folklore. I am not persuaded that the parallels go as deep as he claims. Other articles mention the animal appearances only in passing. One of the best articles I’ve read, by Christopher Wayne and Bridget Grogan, explains Marechera’s fragmented and tortuous obsessions as projections of what Julia Kristeva has famously termed the “abject”. Abjection – literally ‘throwing-away’ – involves taboo subjects and materials, primarily excreta, viscera, waste and the corpse. Exposing these repressed aspects of life can be used to express other ‘unspeakable’ subjects, including violence, political marginalisation and rebellious or dislocated personal identity. Wayne and Grogan focus on the latter, but I suspect that a reading of animal presences can also usefully be viewed through the lens of abjection. After all, Marechera seemed to view all of life as comprised of multiple layers of abjection: our “chicken-run existence”, he called it in Black Sunlight: trapped, inferior, and doomed to slaughter.

A vicious example occurs early on in the titular story in The House of Hunger. A girl, Immaculate, is being beaten up by one Peter, “raw courage” still showing in her “animal-like eyes”. At the same instant as she is knocked “sideways”, a cat somewhere screams in “utter agony”. The unnamed narrator also gets pummelled: it is as if everyone’s agonies are shared, of a piece. The neighbour’s children shout “break its neck”, then in the darkness “a furry and wet thing” , bloody and half burnt, hits him in the face: “It was my cat. It was dead.” Tension between the narrator and Immaculate he takes out on the cat’s body, giving it a hefty kick, sending it flying right out of the yard. So embittered, “mixed-up”, enmeshed in his “labyrinthine personal world”, hating humanity just “for being utterly and crudely there”, that he has no room for compassion or loss for the actual cat. Indeed, the animal seems to serve as mere cipher for the violence that pervades his township world, his “disturbed universe”, his political oppression, his turbulent “soul-sickness”.

In numerous places the narrator sees human life being reduced to, or at least on a level with, the animal. Humans exist in “the crocodile’s jaws”. A character Philip expostulates: “There is nothing to make one particularly glad one is a human being and not a horse, or a lion, or a jackal, or come to think of it a snake ... There’s dust and fleas and bloody whites and roaches and dogs trained to bite black people in the arse” (58). A little later he figures himself as victimised animal: “You tuck your tail between your legs and some enterprising vandal sets fire to your fur, as you streak through the dry grass of your fears” (59) – echoing the earlier cat casualty.

The question of our commonality with animals is treated at greater length in the hallucinatory, alcohol-fuelled outpouring – it is hardly a ‘story’ – entitled “The Writer’s Grain”. Apparently being attacked by his own false teeth at a party, the narrator suddenly goes down on all fours and starts braying like a donkey, “like a pack-ass lost in the desert” (108). He flees into the streets, is robbed and knocked out.  He comes to:

A mongrel was licking my face and sniffing me with its wet black nose. Its eyes were large and clear and black and hesitant like a child who knows that the world can hurt. Up to this point in my life  I had always hated dogs. And all animals, really. Not so much hated them – because that may imply a ‘reason’ –but because I was afraid of them. There is something in every animal which is also in us... (109)

He attributes this partly to a childhood diet of horror films, and a consequent fear of turning into a werewolf or a vampire, gorging on his sister’s neck or even, tellingly, his own neck. Weirdly, animals still seem to like him.

One day I went up to my room late and drunk. There was a strange cat on my bed. It had fixed its eyes on my own. It was only half-grown; with white fur gilded here and there and long thin white whiskers. Its eyes were green, and the transparent green was brilliantly shot through by a terrible apprehension of its position. (110)

Its position is being trapped with an hysterical human bent on its destruction. A full page is devoted to a graphic description of the “kitten” being smashed to a pulp. It quickly transpires that the cat is an avatar of white privilege: “These feline shits are so used to being treated better than we blacks are treated it probably thought ... Why should I care what it thought?”  With vicious irony, the narrator uses a series of iconic ‘white’ books – Shakespeare, Hardy, the Concise Oxford Dictionary and, for the coup de grace, the Encyclopaedia Britannica – to despatch the kitten before ejecting – abjecting – the corpse across the street.  In this visceral fashion, the writer-narrator symbolically attempts to rid himself of a dependency on cultural influences he sees as creating a false or self-destructive identity – and turning the very language he has learned to use against itself. The disgust the cat-lover will feel at this unashamedly heartless passage is, of course, precisely the effect Marechera desires.

The scene segues immediately into a wider thought:

Animals. Animals were a steak on a plate, a lamb chop, a gammon, roast chicken... And one was supposed to eat them correctly with a knife and fork and with correct manners and correct conversation. ... And the only ones that could afford them were the bloody whites. And the bloody animals looked and sounded and behaved as though they liked to be eaten only by whites. Not niggers, bleated the sheep.  (111)

Typically, what might sound at first like a critique of the appalling industry of mass animal slaughter resolves into a personalised howl of protest. One can both agree and disagree that the “thing that happened to the Jews has never been unleashed against animals. And the things which bloody whites – among them Jews – are doing to my family, to my countrymen, to black people everywhere, have never been done to animals. What is done to the animals is nothing compared to the grisly history of man’s appetite for inflicting misery on other men.” There is both perspicacity and incoherence in all this – as might be expected from someone self-admittedly “cracking up”.

Insects also recur, both physical and symbolic. Humans are depicted as delicate skeletons caught in a spider’s web. In “House of Hunger” Philip says: “There’s clouds of flies everywhere you go, flies eating our dead. There’s armies of worms slithering in our history. And there’s squadrons of mosquitoes homing down onto the cradle of our future” (59). Existence is “God’s wound and we were the maggots slithering in it” (70). In another passage of extreme existential abjection:

Does the corpse protect the thick black flies that are laying their horrid eggs in his eyes? Flies fascinate me.  Their six legs. Their silver scissors of wings. Their huge compound eyes. Vomiting upon the food we eat. And calmly washing their forelegs. The way they fall into your soup and calmly pierce you with an upward stare as you debate what to do. They prize the unguarded cracks of our soul. (105)

The motif of being scrutinised by the animal also crops up often. In the story “Burning in the Rain”, the narrator confronts himself in the mirror, his body mocking him with “a certain ridiculousness”. An ape, in short, which gets “the better of him ... Those hairy hands and the backs of his hands where the scars ... Monster!”  A kind of Frankensteinian patchwork; he will retaliate by dressing like a human, or rush out into the rain of “self-pity” (83). He meets a lover named Margaret, but he seems incapable of accepting the lyrical beauty and love she represents; rather she is “the punishment for the ape in the mirror” – “his kinsman, the ape, lumbering awkwardly into his intimacy”. It is a kind of doppelgänger – a term Marechera used of himself – “laughing sarcastically”, with a “power over him” to make romantic encounters “more sordid, more unbearable” (86).  It “seemed to be treasuring a huge but secret joke at his expense”. The ape seems to be a figure of all the narrator’s self-doubts, taintedness, victimisation within a “national catastrophe”.

The idea that only clothes distinguish a man from the ape or animal  within reappears in the story “Black Skin What Mask”, in obvious allusion to Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin White Mask. “If clothes make the man, then certainly he was a man. And his shoes were the kind that make even an elephant lightfooted and elegant. The animals that were murdered to make those shoes must have turned in their graves”. That’s a nice irony: to cover the inner beast one wears covers fashioned from other dead beasts. But this character is obsessed with the impossibility of belonging (one assumes the story is set in England – Marechera went to Oxford). He tries to make every other African about mimic him: “After all, if one chimpanzee learns not only to drink tea but also to promote that tea on TV, what does it profit if all the other god-created chimpanzees out there continue to scratch their fleas and swing around on their tails chittering about Rhodes and bananas?” (94). Doubtless this is also in ironic counterpoint to white colonists’ habit of equating Africans to simians. A little further on, the character tells the dishevelled writer-narrator: “You ought to take more care of your appearance, you know. We’re not monkeys”.  But, the narrator thinks nastily, his friend’s dancing made him look like a monkey. All this owes more to Kafka’s ape than to the Monkey King, perhaps.

The second part of “The Writer’s Grain”  is a bafflingly fantastic piece involving a small boy (another Marechera doppelgänger) being lectured by a sardonic Mr Warthog, with two dinosaurs as sidekicks. I’m not sure quite what this nightmarishly illogical sequence is all about, apart from a lot of neo-cannibalistic eating and literary name-dropping. It does seem to boil down to Mr Warthog’s one extended instructive speech exalting

Your right to put the spanner in the works. Your right to refuse to be labelled and to insist on your right to behave anything other than anyone expects. Your right to simply say no for the pleasure of it. To insist on your right to confound all who insist on regimenting human impulses according to theories psychological, religious, historical, philosophical, political, etc. ... Insist upon your right to insist on the importance, the great importance, of whim. There is no greater pleasure than that derived from throwing or not throwing the spanner into the works simply on the basis of one’s whims... (122)

This, a little simplified, is Marechera’s manifesto, reiterated many times, and enacted in the very tumult of his delivery. Animal presences are part of his disorientating techniques, though ultimately they are mere psychic instruments, not ethically considerable in themselves.

While Marechera remains unique in the Zimbabwean context, and his work is particularly challenging in the scope of its self-referential disgust, it’s worth recalling that his stance is echoed by others. The scholar George Steiner has written of the French modernist poets whom Marechera admired, Mallarmé and Rimbaud:

The poet no longer has or aspires to native tenure in the house of words. The languages waiting for him as an individual born into history, into society, into the expressive conventions of his particular culture and milieu, are no longer a natural skin. Established language is the enemy. The poet finds it sordid with lies. Daily currency has made it stale. The ancient metaphors are inert and the numinous energies bone-dry. ... He will seek to resuscitate the magic of the word by dislocating the traditional bonds of grammar and of ordered space ... He will rescind or at least weaken the classic continuities of reason and syntax, of conscious direction and verbal form ... the public crust of language must be riven. Only then shall the subconscious and anarchic core of private man find voice. (After Babel, 178)

Marechera applied such a programme to his colonial and post-independence milieux, with a particularly visceral, animal-populated twist.

By the way, if you know of any southern African literary works in which dagga plays a prominent role, do let me know.


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