Saturday, 28 November 2020

No 111 - "Rock Water Life": Lesley Green's new book


An article in a recent issue
of the Eastern Province Herald (26 November) notes a worrying algal bloom in Algoa Bay. The oxygen-guzzling algae are stimulated by the spewing of untreated sewage into the Swartkops estuary from upriver townships – a long-standing and persistent problem as damaging to ocean ecosystems as it is to human health. It’s also an issue entangling natural dynamics, the unresolved inequalities of apartheid-style urban planning, and current misgovernance.

Cape Town’s equivalent, the notorious “red tide”, is one of several environmental themes explored in Lesley Green’s excellent new book, Rock, Water, Life (Wits University Press). Lesley Green, an anthropologist, directs the Environmental Humanities programme at UCT, and most of her points of focus concern her home region. Her case studies exemplify the aim of the programme: that is, broadly, to get the environmental sciences and the humanities (especially sociology, politics and anthropology) talking to each other. This drive towards “interdisciplinarity”, often talked up, is less than easy to achieve in practice. The so-called “hard sciences”, which tout their objectivity as somehow standing above and outside individual perceptions and social or political biases, are notoriously insular and specialised, barely talking to one another, let alone to psychologists or poets.

This isn’t confined to the sciences. A recent article in The Economist (14 November, p.67) quotes Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow’s disdainful dismissal of critics: “When they want economics to be broader and more interdisciplinary, they seem to mean that they want it to give up its standards of rigour, precision and reliance on systematic observation interpreted by theory, and to go over to some looser kind of discourse.”  That word looser conceals the discipline’s reluctance to account for, and engage with, the actual messiness of human life. Many scientists and economists have laudably tried to find ways to communicate their ideas to “the masses”, but frequently flounder, impelling them back into their disciplinary bunkers. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the current chaos concerning face-masks. As this same article notes, epidemiologists were wholly unprepared for the politicisation of this apparently straightforward anti-Covid measure. “Follow the science!” is the clarion call – but clearly large, distrustful portions of the population are unwilling to do so. Any attempted policy which fails to acknowledge the resistance and understand the reasons behind it, is bound to fall short. In any event, “the science” is seldom singular or seamless: the progress of scientific research towards consensus is itself congenitally messy, contested, and provisional.

A mixture of respect for good science, a cool scepticism, humane empathy, and exemplary self-awareness, energise Lesley Green’s studies. She begins with the charmingly personal: as she cycles, drives and kayaks around Cape Town, she keenly observes the everyday signs of how its geology, water sources, animal denizens, and ocean currents have been historically corralled, modified and polluted by burgeoning humanity. In a series of absorbing, densely researched but readable chapters, she explores the original Khoekhoen people’s relations with the mountain from which they were eradicated like vermin; the so-called “baboon problem” on the same ground, with its clash of scientific, fence-them-off views as opposed to other let’s-be-neighbours strategies; the attack on “Western science” by the #FeesMustFall movement on the UCT campus; debates about fracking in the Karoo; and the clash of community fishing, policing, and poaching off the littorals.

These apparently disparate issues are underpinned by a fundamental concern for the health of the environment, and also by Green’s insistence on asking awkward questions. Failures to resolve these and related flashpoints are partly due to an inability or unwillingness to ask the right or searching questions. Ask in a different way, Green suggests, you’re likely to come up with different answers. Hence in every chapter the reader is confronted with a welter of questions – questions at once dislocating, cogent and exciting. These are the scene-setting challenges from her introduction:


How to be more present to expunged pasts? How to imagine what others have felt in these places in other times, in other disciplines, as other species, as the earth itself? What is it to be present at the massive ecological destruction of our times, amid the pressing sense of the failure of “scientific nature” to find a voice in South African political life that can speak to voices other than those of “whiteliness” ...: the expert, the judge, the martyr? How to feel and think, and hold onto relationships that matter in a time of neoliberalism where all relations that matter in “the economy” have been translated into dollar terms for “the market”, while the rest have become invisible?


Such a capacity to be present, to probe and to innovate in itself makes Rock Water Life an immensely important book, not so much for answers to specific problems as for the boundary-testing mindset of inquiry. Green is humble enough not to pretend to have answers to all her own questions (though she does end with some challenging recommendations). Nor is she blindly idealistic. But she is able to give at least one achieved, practical example, in respect of the problem of “over-fishing” off Cape Town’s coasts. This has been bedevilled by an insuperable gap between scientists’ focus on ecological systems and measureable catch sizes, versus fishing communities’ deeply-held cultural mores. The pre-eminence of “the science” in policy decisions resulted in strongly resented quotas, the exacerbation of “poaching”, the criminalisation of the wrong people, and increasing inadequacy of policing. This unfortunate situation has been markedly improved by a single innovative intervention: the supply of a custom-designed smartphone app to all fishing-boat captains. The app records boats’ positions and fish catch information in detail, which helps find fish, reduces and identifies genuine poaching, makes policing easier, and feeds scientists with data at a density they could not achieve on their own. The fishermen have become “citizen scientists” in a community-affirming way which bridges divides dating back, in crucial aspects, to colonial times. In a sense, a new language has been forged by which different communities, radically divided by economic class, race, and/or apartheid-designed geographical distribution, can at least in some respects fruitfully communicate.

All the divides revealed in Green’s chapters – between “decolonial” students and established academics, between gas companies and Karoo residents, between ethologists and baboon-lovers – require some such innovative leap towards a new basis for communicating and problem-solving. Above all – and this is Green’s overarching point – “science” cannot pretend to be loftily divorced from the history and society in which it is embedded, and public policy cannot be single-mindedly dictated by its comfortingly clean adherence to “objective evidence”. That smacks to many residents of just another exclusionary tranche of colonial imposition: much “environmentalism” has become “part of the era of expulsions, and of extractions driven by expulsions, and of the struggles against extinction in spaces of extraction”. Green is by no means anti-science, only anti-“scientism”. She puts it pithily: the book is about “navigating a path that welcomes and celebrates scientific enquiry, scientific achievements, and integrative thinking, and questions scientific reductionism and transcendence, and associated forms of environmental authoritarianism”. Just as fences don’t deter baboons, and even rock does not ultimately sequester poisonous chemicals, science can’t cordon itself from the complex, messy, sometimes un-measureable interflows of physical materiality and human cultural perceptions and ethics.

Green’s subtitle is Ecology and humanities for a decolonial South Africa. Though she is clearly in favour of “decolon(ial)isation” in some form, she is not uncritical of, for example, the loud and simplistic denunciation of Western science by some #FeesMustFall spokespersons. The term “decolonial”, and what it might look like, is of course itself hotly contested, and ultimately needs further unpacking than Green allows here. So, too, do two other terms that are foundational to Green’s approach: neoliberalism and feminism. Though her case studies arguably show neoliberal tenets (primarily the monetisation of natural resources, horribly dubbed “ecological services”, and the consequent reduction of both human and non-human denizens to faceless counters in a global game of big-business financing and collusive governance) and/or patriarchy in action, another book might be needed to solidify those also complex realms.

Her final recommendations are procedural, a matter of mindset. To blithely collapse her subtlety and wide theoretical reading into paraphrases of her subtitles, they are these: resituate scientific authority; disassemble the nature/society divide; depose the neoliberal gods of Reason; move from a relation of mastery to a relation of presence; rethink space and time in terms of flow and movement.

These kinds of thoughts have often been proposed before, pre-eminently by feminist ecocritics, also by poets (“flow” was one of Cape Town poet Sydney Clouts’s central terms). But Green contextualises and applies them to South African realities with trenchant detail. Of course, I’d also like to see the socio-political and anthropological aspects of the “humanities”, so expertly applied here, extended even further to the performers and the writers. So much of what Green explores is manifestly amplified by story-telling amongst participants, by poetic declamations, by imaginative new relations, by songs, by lying, by theatrical public performances. These, too, affect and pervade our relations with the natural world, from which we are indivisible. Much comes back to language and languaging. Green writes:


Finding a language in which to think and speak about “nature”, “green”, and “environment”, outside of the already written and the already said, is like riding a bicycle through the bush instead of taking the road ... you navigate the slow stuff, hoping that there might be a different insight, [and where] there are no auto-completes for words or thoughts.


That’s almost lyrical, and I hazard that the poets should be further consulted for new ways! As the Swedish master-poet Tomas Tranströmer echoes:


            The language marches in step with the executioners.

            Therefore we must get a new language.

              (“Night Duty”)


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Saturday, 24 October 2020

No 110 - In memoriam Stephen Gray

Stephen Gray
, eminent South African man of letters and general provocateur, has died aged 78, after a massive stroke. An acerbic, neat, slightly campy, sometimes catty reviewer and commentator, he was a serial innovator in literary affairs, expressing himself variously as novelist, poet, biographer, editor and anthologist. An irreverent maverick: despite teaching at Rand Afrikaans University until 1992 he was always picking away at the walls of formal academe, and not always appreciated for it. Though an assiduous researcher, he was, you might say, as much an interventionist as a scholar. Interesting for us Grahamstonians, he was educated at St Andrews, later Cambridge University and Iowa.

A recent ‘Modern Toss’ cartoon depicts one aged hippy visiting another, and proclaiming: “Hi, you don’t know me but I wrote a review slagging off one of your albums about 40 years ago? I just wanted you to know I stand by every word of it.”  It must be nearly 30 years ago when, as a novice academic way too full of himself, I wrote a review of Stephen’s volume of poems, Apollo Cafe. (The title poem, an affectionate and detailed portrait of a typical Seffrican corner shop, would be subsequently often anthologised.)  I don’t know if I would stand by every word of my review now, but I wasn’t very complimentary. Maybe three years later Stephen and I finally met, and he expostulated, “You just didn’t get it, did you? Some of those poems are fucking beautiful.”  Worse, it was the only review he’d had. Twenty years later he was still reminding me of my youthful misdemeanour.  His poetry still doesn’t blow my socks off, actually, but along with his icy wit he could display a lovely kind of domestic fondness, as in a poem I discovered just recently, “The herb garden”:


My mother before she died insisted

I should have a herb garden

Something in her English soul

Amid rough South Africans

Called for the tenderness of mint

The old scent of lavender and sage


Today after the long heart-stopping drought

My mother’s bed of lost spices

Has so flourished I have cut it back

And the mint is in the crevices of fingers

The sage under my very nails

And I remember her every gesture.


My review notwithstanding, on another level Stephen remained friendly; we had sporadic contact over mutual interests. He remained wedded to good old snail-mail, and a couple of times he sent me inconsequential postcards in his signature tiny, dapper, non-cursive script.

One of the really annoying things about him was that wherever I turned, there he was ahead of me! As I got into my PhD on literary representations of Shaka, I discovered that his early article “Shaka as a literary theme” had already broached much that I was independently turning up. At least he also supplied me with some primary material: he had already written a series of poems, The Assassination of Shaka, to accompany vivid woodcut prints by Cecil Skotnes. Even more usefully, he edited and published the Shakan-period memoirs of Charles Rawden Maclean, more commonly remembered as John Ross. This was a vital and startling counterweight to the established but mendacious and nasty portrayals of Shaka by Isaacs and Fynn.  Moreover, Stephen then novelised Maclean’s experiences in John Ross: the true story (1987) which I rate a very deft little novel indeed.  Stephen was already wittily working over the fuzzy boundary between fiction and history that I was belatedly trying to theorise. I discovered the manuscripts for the novel in an archive, and was astonished by the meticulously organised work-methods, with the day on which he worked on sections written neatly in the margins, sometimes down to the hour. And at least in this instance, he evidently worked just about every day. (I’d also like to write a Shakan novel, but I’m still mulling over it...)

 Then I turned to ecological matters and elephant studies, thinking I was doing something terribly innovative in treating travelogues and hunting accounts as species of literature, only to find that Stephen Gray had already done it in his Southern African Literature: An introduction (1979) – the published version of his PhD. It is still the most readable and conceptually interesting history of our region’s literature. He was ahead of the pack in writing in depth about the Adamastor trope, about Saartjie Baartman and about emergent apartheid-era black poetry. Subsequent surveys may be more comprehensive, but in comparison they are rather conventional stodge, and mostly just extend the ways in which Stephen punctured membranes between nations and classes, races and genders. The same can be said of his edition of The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse (1989), which embodied his genius for finding the hitherto marginalised or convention-challenging gem.

 If Stephen wasn’t especially highly regarded for his own poetry and fiction, he was yet an assiduous compiler and anthologist of both poetry and short stories. He was an early, if not unique, champion of  and acknowledged expert on Herman Charles Bosman’s stories. And even as a new field of Pacific, or Southern Ocean literary-historical studies was being broached by Isabel Hofmeyr and others – a belated sibling to the well-established Atlantic Studies –  he was compiling poetry from the French-speaking Mascarenes, resulting in a delightful collection of little-known poetry titled Invitation to a Voyage (2008). By way of these and many, many other contributions, he will leave a rich, multi-layered and pioneering legacy matched by few in our corner of the literary world.

 The last time I heard from Stephen Gray was after I published my elephant book, and he called to say he had bumped into the environmental historian Jane Carruthers at some do or other, and was delighted to find that I had quoted both of them – on the same page. The sort of quirky thing he liked.


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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