Sunday, 15 March 2020

No 99 - Paper conversation: Sydney Clouts and Stanley Kunitz

When I wrote my study of the poetry of Sydney Clouts, entitled Intimate Lightning, I framed it with his life-story, but otherwise pursued what Clouts himself termed “the method of the fleck and the speck”. In his poetry, this meant that he picked up on scintilla of material existence – a rock, a gesture, a bird, a beetle, the gleam of light on a coat-button – and placed them in startling, interdependent juxtapositions. In my study, it meant that I picked out ideas and images in the poems that intrigued me, and wrote up short responses, in no especial order. A different reader would make a different selection – just what Clouts would like, I think – and more can always be said.

Especially when more material comes to light. Clouts’s wife, Marge, who has been wonderfully generous with my intrusive project, recently sent me two hitherto unseen letters which contain some interesting commentary. These are letters written by Clouts to his twin brother Cyril, rediscovered and passed along by Cyril’s widow, Rose. One letter, undated but probably late 1959, discusses efforts to publish an early collection entitled “First Poems”. It includes some slightly diffident correspondence with the then more famous poet and novelist William Plomer (Plomer would later present Clouts with the Olive Schreiner prize for the collection One Life). More illuminating, given that we have rather little of Clouts’s thoughts on poetry itself, are his own comments on some of the poems, including some of his best-known.  The relevant sections of this letter read as follows:

Dearest Cyril,
            Your long 3-letter letter came a few days ago and now your letter about the ms. [“First Poems”] has arrived, with one from Plomer, whose words are friendly. He says, “I have read your First Poems with curiosity and attention, particularly as I had already seen yr work in Butler’s and McNab’s anthologies. May I say that the clear imagery and delicacy of touch in your poems are appreciated by me. The two I like best are ‘Roy Kloof’ and ‘Dawn Hippo’. Cape’s seldom publish new poets. Even where merit is evident, the prospect of financial loss is bound to influence them, and they do not feel able to publish this volume. But don’t let this discourage you. ...

Plomer suggests that Cyril try Chatto & Windus, to which Clouts adds wearily: “(Well, this of course has been done.)”  Publishing poetry was evidently no less difficult and unprofitable then as it is now.  Cyril, ever a sensitive reader and supporter, seems to be taking the responsibility for approaching publishers and small magazines. Sydney continued this letter with a critique of his own work which is more perceptive than Plomer’s:

I understand what you [Cyril] mean about the poems you feel should perhaps be ommitted [sic], and I don’t agree with Plomer in his choice! Dawn Hippo and R Kloof are simply not as good as a few others. The “Henry [the Navigator]” poems don’t completely satisfy me. Perhaps the best thing in Henry I is that “meditating lantern”. Yes, I think the poem has a too obvious rhythm but I wanted it in, if only for its treatment of a theme that is particularly dear to me [the Portuguese maritime explorers]. It still is but I should handle it differently now. “Dawn Hippo” gets better as it goes on, don’t you think. I think I’ll keep it in for those last lines. “The Sea and the Eagle” deserves excision. Please remove it and draw a line through the title on the contents page. I’d like to preserve “The Strong Southeaster” and “Reading an Old Book”, if only for their expression of certain moods. “The Sea and the Eagle” is rather clumsy from a technical point of view, the rhythms are imperfect; perhaps it only really gets going in the last stanza.
            I’m sure you’re wiser than Plomer in your feeling about “D. Hippo” which I must say I nevertheless have some affection for. So lets keep it. The manuscript is flawed, I know that. It wobbles in a number of places and I don’t know (anyway, I get a bit tired of my poems after a while) whether it really contains enough good matter to warrant publication. This is not lack of confidence but one must look squarely at what one has done, and then go on from there. ... I don’t delude myself into thinking that I have made a book of complete authority. That is to come, I hope.

“First Poems” never did get published, though a number of the poems remained in One Life, the one volume Clouts did publish some six years later, under the auspices of Guy Butler’s journal New Coin. That slender book was indeed as close to a volume of “complete authority” as any I know in South African poetry. Its quality was in no small measure due to Clouts’s ability to step back and evaluate his own poems with a cool eye, and with his obsessive last-minute changes, which would drive more than one future editor to distraction.

Clouts also hints here not only at his attunement to rhythm as a poetic resource, but his willingness to sacrifice rhythmic purity in favour of a more shaggy immediacy of mood or theme. This was part of his congruence with major currents of Modernism in other parts of the world, especially the United States, the contemporary poetry of which he preferred to the British. Much as he revered the formal solidity of early modernist W B Yeats, he gravitated as he matured to the more limber imagism of a William Carlos Williams or the elliptical lyricism of the Italian Eugenio Montale.

In Intimate Lightning, I take some time exploring the question of influence and originality. Like just about any poet, Clouts learned from his predecessors, from all ages. I look especially at the echoes of  William Blake, Yeats, and the Afrikaner modernist NP van Wyk Louw – but of course for a poet as widely and intensively read as Clouts, the ‘sources’ and provocations are multiple and mostly untraceable. One such contemporary – a fellow-traveller more than an influence –  whom I mentioned only in passing – was an American who has suffered a marginalisation not unlike Clouts’s own. This was another Jewish poet, Stanley Kunitz.

Stanley Kunitz; from the back cover of his
Collected Poems
Kunitz is the burden of the second letter Marge gave me, a folded blue aerogramme (anyone remember those?) dated 28 November 1959 and written, as was the first letter, at the Clouts residence at 20 Sir George Grey Street, Oranjezicht, Cape Town. Stanley Kunitz was some twenty years Clouts’s senior. Rather like Clouts, his densely-wrought, intellectualised earlier poetry restricted his appeal. However, he did receive a Pulitzer Prize for the Selected Poems that Clouts mentions in this letter. Unlike Clouts, who died relatively young, Kunitz lived almost twice as long, dying in 2006 aged 101 – having been rather belatedly appointed the tenth US Poet Laureate at the age of 95. His long life produced a lot more poetry than Clouts’s, and shows long-term developments of style into something rigorous but much more vernacular and homely in vocabulary and setting. For all that, as doyenne of literary critics Helen Vendler once noted, Kunitz has never quite got his due. He does not appear at all in three standard surveys of twentieth-century American poetry I looked at, and is mentioned only once in passing in Michael Schmidt’s compendious book Lives of the Poets. Much like Clouts’s reputation: treasured by a minority but frequently sidelined.

In 1959, nevertheless, Clouts had come across a review, and obtained Kunitz’s Selected Poems, as he related in his enthusiastic letter. As the aerogramme has been torn off down one edge,  it’s not entirely clear where the quotation from the review ends, so I hazard a guess.

Dearest Rose and Cyril,
            Both the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] and the Paris Review have arrived and we are now reading them with great interest. What you wrote about the belated “official” English attitude to American literature, music, painting, etc – is I think quite correct, but the supplement’s editorial is still only half a recognition, so typically frigid. It has the niggling sort of atmosphere of “Yes, so-and-so’s very fine indeed. Of course, he’s no Michelangelo”. I have recently come across the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, described as you have probably noticed in the supplement as “the most underrated poet writing today[”]. His Selected Poems is nothing less than a revelation, in the best meaning of that term. He writes great poems with the assured power of a man who has discovered the secret of turning life into art and back into life again. Entering his subject with immediate knowledge and vision, he explores it with an intense and passionate awareness that has not been equalled since the last  superb phase of Yeats. His poem “The Terrible Threshold” is without doubt one of the greatest lyrics of the century; and I am also sure that Kunitz is the finest poet of love since Donne. He proves that old point over and over again: the great creator can choose any form he pleases, since whatever he touches, once he has achieved his mastery, glows and builds into authentic flame. Any critic who hurls Kunitz’s book against the wall will find himself being shot to bits by the ricochet.

A vigorous image – Clouts was quite disdainful of ‘critics’ – to back up some rather sweeping and perhaps untenable claims. But what sparked the enthusiasm? Curiously, the title poem of the Selected Poems, “The Terrible Threshold” apparently hasn’t weathered well: I can’t find it online, and it wasn’t selected by Kunitz himself for the Collected Poems of 2000.  Other poems from The Terrible Threshold retain strict stanzaic measures, rhyming and rhythmical – such as the opening stanzas from “The Dark and the Fair”:

A roaring company that festive night;
The beast of dialectic dragged his chains,
Prowling from chair to chair in the smoking light,
While the snow hissed against the windowpanes.

Our politics, our science, and our faith
Were whiskey on the tongue; I, being rent
By the fierce divisions of our time, cried death
And death again, and my own dying meant.

I imagine the strength of those images in the first stanza would have appealed to Clouts, though the obviousness of the allegory – “the beast of dialectic” – and the direct intellectual intervention of the second stanza are techniques Clouts would strongly eschew. He had already moved strongly away into free, almost instinctual verse. But he might well have responded empathetically to Kunitz’s poem “The Science of the Night”, in which the poet ruminates adoringly on his sleeping wife, oblivious and oddly estranged as she lies “so deep/ In absent-mindedness,/ Caught in the calcium snows of sleep”. It thus has powerful echoes of Clouts’s beautiful poem for Marge, “The Sleeper”, might even have been thought an influence had not “The Sleeper” been published two years before.  Similarly, Kunitz’s poem “The War Against the Trees” might be interestingly ranged alongside Clouts’s “The Cutting of the Pines”. Kunitz, as far as In know, was never aware of Clouts.

A few other poems in Kunitz’s Selected Poems begin to move towards the freer verse, more vernacular language and subject-matter that would characterise his later work; at this point – as Kunitz himself later acknowledged – his poetry was, for all its evident power and control, still a bit too abstract, formalistic, arch. He was prepared to comment directly on politics in ways Clouts generally avoided – a voice very different from Clouts’s own. Clouts’s evident disdain for regular politics, however, would doubtless have thrilled to Kunitz’s brief and timeless barb, “The System”:
To order Seahorn Messiah, a new edition
of Clouts's complete poems, contact

That pack of scoundrels
tumbling through the gate
as the order of the State.

In many other poems, though, Kunitz showed a detailed and attentive awareness of the natural world much like Clouts’s. In short, in Kunitz Clouts seems to have found a fellow-traveller through themes and techniques that preoccupied mid-century, late-modernist poets everywhere, responding deeply to Kunitz’s forcefulness even as he groped his way to his own distinctive style and approach. Like Clouts, Kunitz said he eschewed the nerve-jangling ‘confessional’ mode of many of their contemporaries like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. “The work is the thing,” Clouts said, not the personal life. Nevertheless, I think Clouts would have liked Kunitz’s statement:

The poem comes in the form of a blessing – “like rapture breaking on the mind”, as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of the poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.

For more books and art by Dan and Jill Wylie, visit 

Friday, 6 March 2020

No 98 - A new study of "Rhodesians"

Katherine Withers: Those were the days, my friend: A literary history of Rhodesian discourse in colonial times and beyond.

A number of recent studies have explored various constructions of ‘whiteness’ in Zimbabwe, especially the lingering and modified forms of pre-Independence ‘Rhodesian’ identity. I was raised myself on some of those constructions: arrogant in its very modesty, mythically self-sufficient, self-deceivingly racist. Studies by McDermott Hughes, Rory Pilosoff, Andrew Hartnack and others have tended to focus on the farming community. While an important segment of white society – thrust into the limelight by the post-2000 land reform process – that is only one slice of a broader community that was numerically more urban, artisanal and administrative, and more internally rifted, than Ian Smith-stimulated legends of the archetypal ‘Rhodesian’ imply. Moreover, such conceptions of Rhodesian-ism evolved subtly over the century or so of white occupancy. Imperial ideals of the 1890s, while lingering long beyond their natural demise, are markedly different from the decidedly anti-British sentiments of the Smith period, and different again from the new sense of belonging residual white residents after 1980 were obliged to forge – or tried to fend off.

We should not be surprised to find that, on close examination, even so apparently coherent a community as ‘white Rhodesian’ – like many other ethno-social entities which come to be defined more by a public stereotype than by the more complex reality on the ground – proves to be somewhat fractured and mobile. Still, stereotypes emerge for a reason, and some always find societal comfort and belonging in conforming to that stereotype, providing a centre of gravity for belonging, however fissiparous it might get around the edges. It was not all, or not only, clinging to the 'lifestyle' of the suburban tea-gathering depicted on this book's cover.

So how do actors within such a community actually express their values and sense of belonging? What might constitute a so-called 'Rhodesian discourse'? There are any number of ways, of course: through physical objects and places, aesthetics of architecture and landscaping, and through more cultural artefacts like paintings, novels, memoirs, more or less self-serving histories, and songs. We older folk remember the words and melody of the war-time song that Ian Smith’s son-in-law Clem Tholet sang about fighting through thick and thin and keeping the enemy north of the Zambezi.

Katherine Withers’ study of this unfolding sense of identity concentrates on the literary end of such discursive productions. Her title Those were the days, my friend come from another song, not Rhodesian particularly, but which I remember being popular in the late 60s and ‘70s. It captures the nostalgia that still suffuses segments of ex-‘Rhodies’, especially those that populate some online sites. But Withers' title is laden with irony: the study is far from being a retrospective defence or justification for white rule or supremacism. Nor is it a conventionally left-wing assault on an immoral regime. Withers, being English-born and a trained historian, has the capacity to take a level-headed view of the phenomenon, while being resident in Zimbabwe long enough to have an insider’s understanding.

The back-cover blurb reads:

1890 was not the beginning of white settlement in the land between the two great rivers, the Limpopo and the Zambezi, but it was a defining moment, as the Pioneer Column sent by businessmand politician, Cecil John Rhodes, made its way north from Bechuanaland to Matabeleland. Why did they and their many successors come to the country they called ‘Rhodesia’? What were their attitudes to the land where they settled and its indigenous people? What were the consequences of their perceptions?

Against compact chapters of historical context, then, Withers explores how selected literary works exemplified and amplified overlapping, sometimes conflicting, and evolving senses of Rhodesian identity. These works include memoirs such as those of Ian Smith, Ken Flower and Doris Lessing, Illuminating insights arise from unusual comparisons, such as Terence Ranger’s historical study Bulawayo Burning with Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning. The  crucial themes of Rhodesian-Zimbabwean history – the mythology of the ‘Pioneers’, the land question, the traumas of the war, the ambivalent position of the churches in wartime – are touched on. The examples are selective but provocative, showing ways of integrating historical evidentiality with the less tangible operations of emotion and sentiment that is the stuff of literature – and therefore also the engine of history. Each chapter could, and should, spawn further in-depth studies of this kind. It’s a wide-ranging, lucid, and sometimes unsettling read.

The book is distributed from East London. Contact 
Bridget Egan, <>.  
Also available on Amazon Kindle.


Friday, 21 February 2020

No 97 - Out of the hills...

He came down out of the hills, and descended into Hell.
            Because his home town was nestled amongst wooded ridges and granite domes, his school had adopted a biblical verse for its motto: Ex montibus robur – Out of the hills my strength. In full, in the King James version of Psalm 121, “I raise mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my strength. My strength cometh from the Lord.” Which no one seemed to have noticed made little sense, until – much later in life – he learned that this was a mistranslation from the Hebrew. Someone had left out a question mark: “I raise mine eyes to the hills. Whence cometh my strength? My strength cometh from the Lord.” Ah.
            If this technically eviscerated both the motto and the notion that one’s mojo might magically emanate from hills at all, for him it remained true at some level. Running as a rather wild child over the mountain slopes of his parents’ informal wildlife sanctuary had endowed him, he figured, with both physical fitness and a certain robust independence, if not an antisocial leaning towards hermeticism. His mother in particular had taught him to treasure every life, from leopards to moths, to be observant of the tiniest detail – of an ant’s nest, of the fold of a cat’s ear, of the glow of dawn light through the veins of a leaf.
            Now, this morning, he had diverted his long and solitary road trip to take a few hours’ detour through an unfamiliar game reserve, some temporary relief from hammering in his noisy bakkie along the highways. In the mesh of minor roads and turnoffs to mining compounds and near-slum townships, he’d had to stop and ask directions to one of the park’s less-frequented entrance gates. Once within the park’s confines, though, he felt its greenness and space descend on him like a blessing.
            The relief was not total, of course: he was still driving, albeit at the mandatory forty k’s an hour, and there were horned and toothy creatures, the brochure warned, ever ready to predate upon him, so he had better stay in his vehicle. He knew also that the park had been refashioned out of farmland; that there had been forced removals of human inhabitants (humans had been leaving their traces here since the Iron Age); that the twisting gravel roads had been designed to make you think you were going deeper into the wild than you really were; that it had been denuded by hunting and that most of the present animals had been more or less artificially re-introduced. There were other cars. It was hardly pristine “wilderness”.
Nevertheless, when he pulled up on a gravel apron overlooking a small dam and turned off the engine, an unspeakable peace soaked into his bones. The wind played in complex voices through milkwood trees, fringes of reeds, the surface of the water. Ripples spread and meshed where swallows skimmed a tipple on the wind, where the nostrils and eyes of wary hippos nudged through the sheen. At the dam’s edge a grey heron stalked, standing still for an age, watching, stalking a few paces on, neck curled back, a coiled spring. Slow food, he thought. Some squirrels chanced along, alert and hopeful, their feathery tails jerking and flickering in russet sun.
So it went: he drove a bit, stopped here and there. There seemed to be a rufous-naped lark every hundred metres, each one with a subtle but discernible individuality in its bush-top call. He watched a pair of young bull elephants amiably wrestling their way down to a pan, skirting a grumpy-looking hippo. A dung-beetle manoeuvred a ball of elephant poo across the road, and he waited until it had disappeared into the grass. Wildebeest watched him with idle curiosity; a baby zebra suckled, oblivious to his presence. A jackal buzzard floated on a liberating thermal. After recent rains, greenness pulsed and rustled in a hundred hues of quiet and fundamental life.
He wondered why he was leaving the park, eventually: wondered at the driven life of deadlines and obligations to which he would return, at the diastole-systole of adventure and home comfort that he discerned as having governed his life. On the far side of the park, where he emerged, he met the same charged busy-ness of crossroads and scrappy sidewalk stalls, of battered unreadable signs alongside new ones, of potholes and rumble-strips and robots and trash bowling along on a dusty wind. The park, he realised, was a tiny island carved out of a morass of oblivious human activity.
He stopped at a fuel station to fill up and to find something icy to drink: the day had turned forbiddingly brassy, and the midday heat beat up off the tarmac when he parked and opened his door. Nearby two burly farmer-types in obligatory blue-grey neo-military outfits, leaning against their massive 4x4, talked loudly, their mouths crammed with takeaway burgers. At his feet, as he stepped out, the desiccated husk of a chameleon lay, long flattened to a cardboard cut-out of its once-vivid life. As he walked across the esplanade, past the fuel pumps and towards the conventional one-stop shop complex, vehicles seemed to converge on him from all sides. A flushed, tight-lipped holiday-maker trying to edge his caravan-trailer into the pump queue; thick-necked business types in low-slung Mercedes swinging in at pretentious speed; small busybody sportives emblazoned with gauche advertising colours; a rusting Mazda saloon bulging with beanied youngsters jerking their heads in time to the doef-doef pulse of their sound system: it punched up into his very solar plexus and made him feel ill. Just across the road a loaded cattle truck had pulled up, the stench of its blue-black exhaust mingling with that of dung and terror; he fancied he could smell the incipient death of the abbatoir.

He almost stumbled to a halt in the midst of this assault. It was that: an assault. Noise: the petrol attendants yelling at each other, the poor imitation of music – some anodyne woman screaming unintelligibly over the PA system – all the vehicles revving and growling and purring like some herd of demented yet curiously pre-programmed animals coming into their mechanised troughs, as if their drivers were mere appendages to the grinding pumps and the nosing hoses, the beeping card machines through which intricate financial systems zithered through radio-active air into the very skulls of their human servants, the clang of bonnets being closed and the sharp hiss of compressed air. Reek of petrol and diesel and carbon monoxide and hot metal and rubber and deep-fry chip oil. Light assaulted him: everywhere sun spangling painfully off windscreens and chromium, reflecting off the uniform tar, on every side flat and curved surfaces of plastic and glass, impenetrable as an army of polished halberds, all the painted colours flat and primary and unforgiving, without nuance or meaning.
It was hardly better inside. Negotiating the glass front doors, disorientated by quavering reflections of the outside activity as well by as people brushing past him with their Cokes and Twizzers, he felt he was breaching the surface of some underworld, where air-conditioners seethed out their artificial cool, signs warned of perpetual surveillance, the drawers of the tills clanged dolefully. He visited the antiseptic toilets, repellently tiled in white, if thankfully clean: gauche men slammed the thin cubicle doors, flush mechanisms whined and sucked, the cleaner rattled his buckets, the music was louder in here than outside, there was no way to dry one’s hands except beneath the offensive bellow of automatic hot-air dryers thrusting out from the polished walls. He emerged with his head ringing and his belly quaking.
In the shop section with its rectilinear beige metal shelves, its ranks of glittering packets of sweets and flaky crisps and saccharine biscuits, he searched for something vaguely healthy to drink, picking out from the frigid glossy soldiery of offerings in opaque black or pool-cleaner blue a fruit juice he judged to be less addled with preservatives and colourants than the rest. Hungry, he needed something more than Lemon-Creams. He glanced into the restaurant section: named the Purple Steer, it appeared to vie deliberately with the chain eateries for plastic anonymity and blandness: those yellow plastic tabletops with cylindrical bottles of anaemic tomato sauce, families with caterwauling babies, most people not talking to each other but hunched with obsessed myopia over their cellphones, some of the men watching one or other of several flat-screen televisions – one vivid green with the astroturf of some soccer venue, men scampering inanely from one side to the other, commentary filtering in a slightly demented warble through the glass partitions; another flashing up quick-fire adverts, something that was Bigger, better, faster. There was a time, he mused, when they warned about photography that might induce an epileptic fit; now almost all of it seemed designed to do just that. Flash, zip, spin, shout: his senses couldn’t keep up any more.
Forget the restaurant. The shop offered no fruit, or anything else visibly derived from actual life, so he opted for a chicken pie, which at least he had observed coming straight out of the oven behind the counter. He took it outside to a shaded bench and table; it was almost all flaking pastry, with a leaking gruel of filling which burned his mouth and tasted of nothing much. The fruit juice sizzled in his stomach, dispiritingly acid. He hunched into the cauldron of noise around him: a babel of languages, greetings, curses, laughter, orders, queries, denials. A street-bum, gaunt as a heron, grizzled and sunburned to a deep maroon, smoked some grossly acrid cigarette at a nearby table, but paid him no mind; only a small girl, clutching the hand of her cajoling mother, seemed fascinated by him, but when he waggled his fingers at her she did not respond. And a pair of sparrows flickered down and chirped at his feet; they at least flourished on human discards, perhaps more now than in any other era of sparrow history. Beyond them, great yellow earth-moving trucks roared and stank. The heat shimmered its illusory lakes on the tar.
He stood, brushed the remnants of pastry from his shirt, threw the packet and the juice-bottle into a plastic bin whose hippo-like lid boomed at him, a sardonic laugh. Is this what we have come to? he thought. Is this the actuality of all our genius for communication and cooperation, invention and hope? If this is civilisation, we are doomed. Frenetic, selfish, blinded by immediacies, drowning in its own rubbish. It seemed blindingly obvious in that moment that it was all unsustainable; something had to break, perhaps was already breaking, inside him not least of all. The perpetrators – and he did not exclude himself, glumly acknowledging his own inescapable attachments to vehicle and laptop, camera and stove, TV and cellphone – were probably on the individual level mostly quite nice, seldom actually malign, even probably quite interesting, caring of their own, just making do, yet palpably, cheerfully oblivious, or at least helpless, in the welter of what had become accepted as progressive life, determinedly muffled against its own destructiveness. This is, he concluded, Hell itself.
He managed to reach his vehicle without getting run over, gratefully closed the door against the world. It was a while before he could bring himself to start the engine.


Thursday, 16 January 2020

No 96 - The wild potency of poo

Indigenous forest behind a fringe of aliens
I am an alien trying to vanquish aliens. That is to say, I am a displaced Zimbabwean of indeterminate national allegiance; I own nothing and am (I convince myself) unowned; but I am sufficiently enamoured of a local patch of remnant indigenous forest to want to do something to save it from invasion. Perhaps because this forest's lush and complex height reminds me of those of my childhood: species of yellowwood and rhoicissus, turaco and neddicky, bushbuck and blue duiker, are common to both. A certain luminous quality of evening light. 

The (other) aliens in question are largely Port Jackson wattle, a.k.a. long-leafed acacia - dense cohorts of Australian invasives that the Working-for-Water organisation battles right across South Africa. I decided to tackle just one small patch on a neighbouring slope. Which means tens of thousands of packed saplings, under and between which almost nothing grows; nothing nests in it or eats it; nothing curbs it but imported wasps who infect the trees with galls and hopefully prevent them seeding further.

Sterile Port Jackson monoculture
So I bought a tree-popper and a panga and made a start, one tree at a time, one square metre after another. A fire set me back by a year; in its ashen wake a million Port Jackson saplings sprouted, thick as the hairs on the back of a dog, as a friend put it. Anyway, I soldiered on, and still do, uprooting what I can, cutting thicker ones, ring-barking the biggest. I could make much faster progress with a chainsaw, but I can't bear the noise, and my method is better exercise. And I think the slow approach is showing advantages. Next property over, the owner called in Working for Water, who blitzed the slopes in a couple of weeks, chainsawing and poisoning the stumps. What seems to have come up predominantly is a harsh species of grass, almost another monoculture, apart from Port Jackson regrowth they've had to come back to.

After a couple of weeks: looks like Armageddon, little replacement
growth as yet; I dread the possibility of a fire torching all this
dead biomass and setting the whole effort back again.
Something very different has happened on my side of the fence. It's not quite what it was before, but the rewilding, as George Monbiot calls it in his book Feral, is progressing in its own intuitive way. Grasses spread quickly into the bare patches, helped along by a couple of resident cattle. Close on its heels are some fynbos species, seeding into the disturbed earth: we're at the easternmost reach of the fynbos biome here. In between, multiple other unnameable ground-cover plants slowly swarm; long-dormant stumps, cut and burned, are resprouting: rhus and knobwoods. An acacia karoo, a year ago just a twisted remnant, has grown a metre and a half and is presently flowering a blinding
After a few months: waist-high fynbos, dead wood rotting
back into the earth, very little Jackson regrowth.
yellow. With the flowers of course come the bees and moths and beetles and other winged pollenators; for the insects and the seeds come the birds, the cisticolas and the prinias. A variety of new browse attracts the bushbuck; new roots the porcupines and the bushpigs. It is such a thrill to see something like a functional ecosystem re-asserting itself.

It's not an unambiguous process. Each tree killed still feels like, well, a death. I am also killing the larvae in the bolls of the wasps, who are in theory my allies. Each tree downed is releasing its carbon dioxide into the already saturated
Knobwood, one of the hardy pioneer species that will form
the beginnings of a new forest.
atmosphere, and I can only trust that the replacement vegetation will reabsorb it, and plus some. Not everything that pops up is good: sometimes it feels like the Iraq situation: you take out the main dictator, but a whole bunch of even nastier people surge into the vacuum, thorny and sneaky and yet harder to control: more aliens like dormant pines, solanum, lantana, prickly pear. Still, on the whole, things are looking better and better. 

This is where the poo comes in. More and more creatures, from larvae to cattle, excreting fertile richness back into an acidified soil, feeding up the bacteria that break things into useable components, succouring the underworld fungal networks on which the above-ground vegetal kingdoms depend. Life dying back into fecundity. As T S Eliot memorably put it in Four Quartets, the soil which supports us is essentially "fur, flesh and faeces". Tell that to the fertiliser companies. So what follows is a little photographic paean to the potentialities of poo.

Bushbuck's round pellets, often fresh and glossy atop
the older, fading deposits.

Porcupine's distinctive 'bullets'
Baboons like to park their coils on visually prominent spots sometimes:
this example contained few granular seeds, as fruit is short in the drought.
Bird droppings often spread seeds as well as nutrients: this one
isn't likely to fertilise much, but makes a nice abstract.
Bushpigs sometimes establish temporary middens,
usually just where you want to walk.

Cowpats can take some time to break down - but lift a corner
and it's alive with hardworking little beetles and bugs...

... some the spawn of this fellow: what exactly he intends to do with this huge
dung-ball is a mystery - but in a day it's gone.

And the cowpats are the birth-place of such
magnificent silvery folk...
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Friday, 27 December 2019

No 95 - Mapping South African poetry: The politics of anthologies

Most countries try at some point to collate and survey their national poetry. Anthologists read and select, arrange and comment, try to discern and evaluate the poetry’s take on the national pulse, its history and values. They often quarrel bitterly with one another behind the scenes, which is fun.

Covers are always interesting:
a Grahamstown cover for New Coin - 
Grahamstown-Makhanda of course
being the poetic heart of the universe.

South Africa’s English-language anthologists, who have been at it since 1828, have probably had a tougher time than most. I have a whole bundle of anthologies in hand – nowhere near complete, but enough to be fascinated by how the editors, in their Introductions and selections, have grappled with certain perennial questions. What should the status of such a minority-language collection be? What should the relationship between artistry and politics be? How should English white liberalism, arguably the core of this community and of late increasingly vilified, articulate with other ideologies, races and languages? Are these anthologies dictating or merely recording taste and quality? To what does this moniker ‘South Africa’ refer, anyway?

When you haven’t yourself ploughed through the thousands of poems from which the anthologists have made their selections, it’s hard to comment validly on those choices. It’s a big enough job just reading the anthologies themselves! So what follows are just a few very tentative observations, teasing out what a succession of editors have said about their projects in their respective introductions.

1959. Guy Butler, A Book of South African Verse.  There had been previous anthologies, but we might as well start in the year of my birth. Butler’s baseline-setting anthology is dedicated to Roy Campbell, who had just died. Arch-patron Butler has been periodically critiqued as propping up an outmoded form of white supremacism, disguised as liberal bonhomie, and for having the gall to ‘set the standards’ for everyone else. But his ‘Introduction’ here is both humble and sharply self-critical. He begins with numbers – a recognition of the paucity of English-speaking whites in South Africa, then just one million out of some 14 million. This “poetry of a linguistic, political, and cultural minority” could hardly aspire to the status of a national literature. The narrowness is both sign and result of an “intellectual apartheid” between groups; moreover, the English group lacks “cultural awareness and make[s] a very half-hearted and ineffective contribution to political life.... Our cultural capital is London... We cannot support a single literary periodical ... Because we are economically safe, we simply cannot imagine that we are in any other sort of danger.” Scathing satire of the kinds Campbell and Anthony Delius wrote remained sparse. Nor, Butler thought, did the poetry have any popular roots, remaining restrictively  “an educated man’s affair”. Butler notes a frequent shiftlessness: many poets were not born in South Africa; many, including 1820 settler Thomas Pringle and, a century later, Campbell, shortly left for other lands. A sense of exile, dislocation, or instability haunts the selection. Butler observes the formal and linguistic struggles Pringle had trying to match inherited poetics to a new landscape; regrettably, Pringle’s influence dominated a century to come; only in the 1920s, in Butler’s view, does a diction emerge which really ‘sees’ the landscape. Even this becomes mythologised as ‘wide open spaces’ that are, however, ultimately figured as indifferent, even hostile. Equally rapidly, those spaces were “caught under nets of roads, rails, telegraph poles, survey beacons and stock fences”. Urbanisation and the dislocation of the “tribesman” into the horror of the townships compels many of the poets acidly to critique modern technological society and the ills it has brought. Hence, the South African poet “ends up outside the consolation of any tradition, with an increased self-knowledge, but stultified by doubts”. There is a pervasive sense, in short, that the white poetic community feels like a “floating island” (in Ruth Miller’s poem of that title), freighted with doubts and anxieties, heading with sickening inevitability towards the precipice of Victoria Falls.

Many of these critiques and perceptions hold true even today, as English as both a colonially-rooted minority language and the international lingua franca struggles to position itself locally without becoming parochial and irrelevant. Butler had almost inadvertently exacerbated the isolation by distinguishing between ‘poetry’ and ‘verse’, thereby excluding more ‘popular’ forms of expression, such black-written poetry in English as then existed, and translations. Anthologists duly set about rectifying these restrictions. In 1968, Jack Cope and Uys Krige edited the first Penguin Book of South African Verse, which included translations from other South African languages, thus introducing another strand of debate: to what extent can translations be included in ‘English’ anthologies? Though departing markedly from the white liberal collective as delineated by Butler, Cope and Krige would be repeatedly critiqued for positioning these translations in silos, (Afrikaans, Zulu, etc) almost as if recapitulating apartheid itself.  A decade later Butler himself, in collaboration with Chris Mann, updated the anthology as A New Book of South African Verse in English (1979). This collection still began with the obligatory Pringle, but now included some ‘popular’ verse which departed from ‘poetic’ English, such as A G Bain’s ‘Kaatjie Kekkelbeck’ and Jeremy Taylor’s ‘Ag pleez Deddy’. Some black poets now appear, including HIE Dhlomo, Sipho Sepamla and Mongane Wally Serote, who would become increasingly canonised. Chris Mann tells me that they tried to include Dennis Brutus, but he was a banned writer at the time; Chris solicited the help of Van Zyl Slabbert, who approached the relevant minister. When asked why his request failed, Slabbert said it was because the minister was “a dumb tit with power”. Despite this nod towards resisting apartheid, the introduction doesn’t mention apartheid explicitly – a diffidence that characterises subsequent anthologies, too. At the same time, it’s interesting to note the disproportionate space given to Sydney Clouts, who for some is the acme of the ‘difficult’, modernist, liberal white poet.

1981. Michael Chapman, A Century of South African Poetry.  If anyone has inherited the mantle of National Anthologiser from Butler, it is Chapman.  A Century actually covers 150 years, offering 300 poems by 137 poets  (where Butler had gone for fewer poets, each represented by more poems). Chapman carefully distances himself from Butler, but his introduction is curiously ambivalent. He has to go back to Francis Carey Slater’s Centenary anthology of 1925 in order to emphasise his ‘new’ valorisation of the modern and the avant-garde (Slater had averred that “much modern poetry is scarcely a sign of healthy development and strength”). Butler’s anthology, Chapman points out, is dominated by the “conciliatory ideals” of English liberal humanism, implying “an underlying confidence in given moral and literary values”. This seems to me a misreading of Butler’s commentary. Also a bit unfairly, he quotes Ian Glenn’s remark that the 1979 Butler/Mann anthology betrayed “an editorial bias against certain themes or styles ... a dislike of the bloody, the ugly, the vulgar, the sordid, the apocalyptic, the frightening”. Humanism, claims Chapman, “is not the South African English tradition – but only one important aspect of it”. In short, he adds, “the liberal humanist voice is richer and more varied than Butler’s own remarks (‘I cannot detect a peculiar style, or verse form, or intonation’) might seem to imply” - an oddly self-contradictory statement. At any rate, Chapman thus justifies his inclusion of “public and private voices, the familiar and the surreal, the traditional and the avant garde” extending to “the ‘radical’, to the experimental, the demythicising stance; to that poetry in which image dominates over statement, the cryptic over mellifluous syntax”. This included an expanded range of black poets (notably Peter Abrahams and HIE Dhlomo prior to 1960) “trying to establish an authentic black voice of protest” and, after 1976, those he called the “Soweto poets” (Mafika Gwala, Sepamla, Serote and others – a categorisation those poets themselves subsequently rejected). At the same time, you can feel Chapman grappling with the same question Butler did: what constitutes good poetry anyway? Chapman doesn’t want altogether to let go of what the academic humanists would regard as the necessity of craft, of poetic artistry: his criteria are still “primarily ‘literary’ rather than ‘sociological’.” (These were the hot terms of debate when I was a student.) Of course, Chapman hedges, “the two are not really separable”. ‘Sociological’ implied, crudely, viewing poetry as commentary and intervention in societal struggle, and could thus be conflated with ‘political’, direct statement on political affairs. If this was not to devolve to mere clich├ęd party sloganeering, craft and artistry had to be returned to the equation: according to Chapman, “the best poetry has fully taken into account the metaphysics of action and hate”. (No, I don’t know what he means by ‘metaphysics’ either.) Somehow, I suspect, this is connected to the aforementioned (possibly strategic) diffidence about discussing apartheid: though Chapman mentions responses to “a system of institutionalised discrimination” and “a crisis of authority”, the word apartheid appears nowhere in the Introduction.  (He also mentions, pointedly, the regrettable exclusion of Dennis Brutus.)  Chapman further feels ambivalent about the status of English in the first place, and rather ironically echoes Cope and Krige in concluding: “Until South Africans are proficiently multilingual, the most satisfactory arrangement would seem to be separate anthologies catering for different languages.” As others would later point out, by and large only white English-speakers tend to be monolingual.

Still depicting domesticity?
1984. Chapman, The Paperbook of South African English Poetry. Just three years later, Chapman produced the serviceable Paperbook, which I found useful for a South African poetry course, and which has been reprinted several times. It still begins with the obligatory Pringle, and the introduction repeats many of the observations from Century. Yet of its 238 poems, only 44 appear in Century, attesting to the intrinsic riches of the available material. Chapman revisited “diverse sources, including old newspapers, journals and obscure anthologies of the last century”, and updated the coverage from “the little magazines of the last five years”. Of the latter, unlike in 1959, quite a few had emerged – not least of all New Coin, which Butler himself had inaugurated in 1965, and is still going. Chapman had to ask himself, “Is another anthology of South African English poetry really necessary?” He cites poet and academic Stephen Watson’s review of Stephen Gray’s simultaneously published Modern South African Poetry, suggesting that there was insufficient local poetry of quality for more than one anthology at a time: “If most poetry is bad then South African poetry has a badness of its own”. (Several editors react defensively to Watson’s repeatedly dyspeptic remarks about South African poetry’s “linguistic deadness” and such like.) Chapman revisits the aesthetic-vs-sociological debate, trying to “occupy a position between these two poles”, and valorises a new term, the hybrid, as a defining feature, and even a distinctive strength, of our literature”. Against previous anthologies’ assumption of “middle-class academic values”, derived from the theories of English doyens Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis, of “‘balance’, moderation, reasonableness and ‘sanity’, Chapman gives “greater emphasis to the ‘uneducated’ voices ... to voices of ‘modern’ stress, extreme situation, and political apocalypse.” Again, apartheid per se is carefully skirted, though it is implicit throughout, and a kind of pressure-valve is released in the unarguable observation that “the historical process in which we all live is difficult, morally compromised, messy and flawed.”

Cecil Skotnes cover: combining African
and European motifs, or a new style?
1989. Stephen Gray, The Penguin Book of Southern African Poetry.  Man of letters and general provocateur Stephen Gray is another assiduous literary surveyor, in several genres. He begins his introduction to this selection: “The anthologizer’s task of selecting ... is an over-responsible one.” He is too readily seen as aiming to dictate taste, and “readers can all too conveniently take the part for the whole.” Although Chapman had tentatively included certain Rhodesian-Zimbabwean poets, Gray now deliberately takes in the whole subcontinent, regarding the ‘nation’ as essentially “arbitrary”. The Cope-Krige strategy of dividing the several languages “seems outdated, even offensive”. Hence “our indebtedness to translators becomes substantial ... unblocking channels of communication to insist on the reciprocity of human feelings”. He engages in the unavoidable but dulling quarrel between the aesthetes and the politicos (there is always a whiff of straw-man argumentation in this): “The comparative approach is usually more sociological and historical than aesthetic’’ but many poems are both. Gray wisely adds: “To expect poets to give systematic testimony of their times, at the one extreme, is as unjust as to expect them always to be superb technicians on the other.” So a 1974 anthology of Freedom Poems by Barry Feinberg he finds “hyper-activist and technically banal”, while conversely DJ Opperman’s perennial Groot Verseboek is “an utterly gutless trove of the finest writing.” Gray’s own selection is idiosyncratic and energising, and he makes no apology for his “obstinacy in avoiding most of the chestnuts”. For almost the first time, this breed of chronological survey begins not with Pringle but with a long extract from Luis de Camoens’ epic Lusiads, and with some early San and other ‘traditional’ material, challenging the very notion of what a ‘poem’ is. Also for the first time, Gray alludes to the gender imbalance, though finds that the available material doesn’t allow for much redress. In sum, Gray goes for poems “that I admire, find memorable, and for many reasons feel are irreplaceably valuable. ... [N]ot many of these poets feel library-bound – elitist, privileged and effete. ... poetry is still felt to be living communication rather than bookish exercise.”

Soweto boy on trampoline:
1997. Denis Hirson, The Lava of this Land: South African poetry 1960-1996. Gray’s subcontinental purview further blurred the everyday pre-eminence of apartheid in the South African experience – these compilers tend to characterise the 1948-1994 era as a period of dreadful “transition”, or “Interregnum” in Chapman’s odd term, perhaps hoping it would end long before it did. But the advent of constitutional democracy in 1994 threw anthologists into a fresh set of transitional dynamics. So Hirson opens his introduction to this more restricted collection: “’South African poetry’ meant something quite specific to many readers not so very long ago: a momentary flame of words in the sombre confinement of apartheid, a sign that not everyone had been snuffed out by the pig-iron hand and airless language of oppression. Yet South African poetry has always been highly diverse, rooted in both African and European traditions, reflecting what has until recently been a ruthlessly divided society.” (Which also seems to me self-contradictory; only at the end of this period do poets begin to mix languages in a single poem.) Now there are ever more new poets and magazines in view, and Hirson’s criteria are almost anti-poetic. His 54 contributors produce “poems whose raw music throbs at the edge of change. ... They dispense with any regular metre or form, breaking through the deliberate, finely controlled, and ultimately defensive gauze of words which characterized the poetry written by whites up to (and even beyond) this period. White poets like Breytenbach and Jensma jettison the guilt and ‘polite cowardice’ associated with this poetry; black poets, on the other hand, often avoid the belittling stance of the victim.” He cites Robert Berold, then incoming editor of New Coin: “It feels like an exciting movement is happening in English poetry in this country ... The English language, the language of settlerdom, power and commerce is being shaped by African sensibilities and forms – African not necessarily meaning black. Increasingly since the 1970s and particularly since the unbanning of the ANC and the demythologization of Mandela, poets are more and more using the living language, breaking the grids of formal political or literary orthodoxy.” Oddly, the highly personalised or meditative poetry that always existed but that was in some circles vilified for avoiding, if not betraying, the struggle for democratic freedom, is now itself liberated. Hirson writes, in terms more poetic than explanatory: “the exploration of extreme, personalized vulnerability would seem to correspond to a time when the straightjacket has been removed from South African society, the wind of change stinging against newly exposed skin.”

There are also collections of even narrower scope as well as different principles of organisation. In 1989 David Bunyan, one of the succession of editors of New Coin, had gathered a selection from the magazine’s previous quarter-century, 25/25, supplying in my view the most insightful of all these introductions.  He organised the poems under 25 notional themes, provoking some interesting juxtapositions. In that year Robert Berold took over the editorship, and ten years later compiled an equivalent selection from his decade, it all begins (1999). In the same year Adam Schwartzmann decided on Ten South African Poets, according each between ten and twenty poems and a more detailed biographical note than customary.  And there are many more. Still, Chapman for one wasn’t about to relinquish the grand survey, arranged in notional periods.

Race relations at the centre of our poetry?

2002. Michael Chapman, The New Century of South African Poetry. Yet again attesting to the variety available, Chapman’s update of A Century has remarkably little overlap with its predecessor. Even as this indicates some desire to continually reinvent the field, he wants to implement some sort of overarching structure, “a common field of consideration.”  A “key aesthetic criterion,” he writes, is “the power of functionality”. Odd: if 'functionality' implies a move away from old art-for-art’s-sake, it’s not an aesthetic criterion at all. It feels like another incarnation of that literary-sociological hedging. So in effect we fall back on something more fluid and personal. Chapman cites Adam Schwartzmann as liking it “when poets do something fascinating and invigorating through language”; and Robert Berold (another emergent, strong arbiter of taste) as valorising the “risk-taking” poem, “even when its articulation is clumsy”. That raw clumsiness is then excused, even validated, as “at times a deliberate ploy to undermine the high imagination of the modernist’’, somehow authentic in its honest revelation of “human fallibility”, and thereby achieving “an immediacy of communication”.  Ironically, the convention-breaking rebelliousness of modernist poetry of a century ago, is now itself considered over-poetic. Despite the bewildering diversity of responses, Chapman wants to see them as mirrors of each other, coming from “a single society shaped by a multiplicity of impositions and influences.” More than ever, then, translation across languages and cultures is crucial, involving “numerous and necessary crossings of borders”: “The social equivalent is equality and respect.” It’s a sweetly utopian notion; it would be hard to argue that the country has matched up to it.

And Chapman has indefatigably updated the volume yet again, with his 2018 Third Edition. It follows roughly the same pattern, making most of the same points in the introduction. But he takes out a hundred poems, includes 107 new ones, and adds a fifth section for poems from the post-2000 period. So he subtly coveys yet another kind of take on South African society and its concerns. There are new concerns, for example the environmental, which cast new light on old and new poems alike. But as he wisely says, we can't expect poets always to directly reflect their times,  and we can't expect a necessarily choosy anthology to do that either. Different choices from an ever vaster field would convey a different trajectory. At any rate, one cannot doubt the inestimable value of Chapman's decades of work and criticism.

Does abstraction escape ideology?
2014. I’ll end with Denis Hirson’s follow-up to Lava of this Land, his selection of poems from the small magazines of 1996-2013,  In the Heat of Shadows.  He opens his introduction: “Anyone who followed the development of South African poetry through the darkest of the apartheid years, and was aware of its constantly recurring themes of guilt and victimization, rage and denial, identity and dispossession, might be surprised by its current reach and range. South African poets today find themselves writing in the midst of uneasy political transformation, some of it neither planned nor hoped for, while spinning outwards from the casing of isolation to join the bustle and complexity of the turning world.” The TRC had “allowed for the emergence of hidden, unspeakable apartheid-era stories”, and “if the language is sometimes purposefully crude, this only serves to fuel more intensely the energies needed to move beyond the discourse of dependence, to a point where the poem becomes part of the dialogue between poet and community.” How to delineate that ‘community’ or intended readership is surely still problematic and evolving, precisely because the many black poets included are “reclaiming a history and sense of ancestry denied for centuries by successive white regimes”, and there are more poems than ever translated from other languages.  Still Hirson wonders “if it is really justifiable to assemble ‘an anthology of South African poetry’ consisting of poems all written originally in the same single language”.
African Sun Press has produced a series of
thematic anthologies; the latest on ecological affairs
Still, more than ever now there is surely room for everyone. I can almost hear Guy Butler, as alert to these issues as anyone since, urging, Come on, get over your ideological selves; English in its many, mutating forms is here to stay – and there are so many riches here.


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Tuesday, 17 December 2019

No.94 - The meaning of mantis

 Reports are accumulating about the global ‘insect apocalypse’: catastrophic die-offs of beetles, butterflies, moths and bees, all absolutely vital to ecosystem health and the pollination of both wild flora and domesticated crops. One study targets what should have been blindingly obvious: a large part of the problem is one of humankind’s major civilising achievements – our ability to banish darkness with artificial lighting. Untold trillions of insects have perished beating themselves to premature death, scorched on hot glass, made vulnerable to predators, distracted from mating, nest-building, and breeding. So amongst all the other things to feel crap about, are the exquisite moths  and mayflies and Christmas beetles I find dead on my windowsills, inside and out.

Amongst the trapped and frantic insects I encounter, and sometimes succeed in rescuing, are praying mantises. Whatever its  ecological importance, the mantis is also mythic: to lose them would be to lose the real source of centuries of legend, story, and symbolic richness.

In our region, of course, the most profound and ancient mythic presence comes from the Bushmen or San. Mantis was never the simplistic ‘Hottentot god’ of earlier colonial lore, nor ‘worshipped’ in the manner of a Western god. Rather, Bushman groups generated a complex and unstable set of mythic tales or kukummi centred on the figure of /Kaggen, a volatile creator, the first shaman, a trickster-god who could metamorphose into many creatures, but manifested often as a mantis.  David Lewis-Williams, in San Spirituality, summarises:

/Kaggen’s association with the praying mantis insect has long been a subject of debate. His name can certainly be translated as ‘mantis’. In [the story] ‘The Mantis takes away the Tick’s sheep’, we learn that this transformation, effected by ‘getting feathers’ and flying, is into ‘a little green thing’ ... It is also an insect that, like man, hunts. This notion has led some rock art researchers to look for depictions of mantises. They were disappointed ... It seems that /Kaggen is best thought of as a protean figure capable of numerous manifestations, of which a praying mantis is one. (113)

/Kaggen loved the animals he had created, and apparently enjoyed tricking hunters into losing their intended prey; in one tale, he contrives to save a hartebeest while in the guise of a mantis. This is one of the stories first related by /Xam convicts to the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek in Cape Town in the 1870s. Some were translated into English and re-written, problematically poised between exoticism and accessibility, by Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in a collection titled Mantis and his Friends (1923). This has spawned a string of mimics and refurbishments, often lushly illustrated for children, by Sarah Barber, Marguerite Poland, and Jenny Seed, amongst others.  A number of novels have also drawn on the mantis stories, ranging from Ethelreda Lewis’s Mantis (1926) to Andre Brink’s Praying Mantis (1997).

I’ve been most interested in the series of poets who have been inspired by the gnomic testimonies of the Bleek-Lloyd archive. It perhaps began with Laurens van der Post, one of the earliest to sense the poetic potential of the often enigmatic tales from //Kabbo, Dai!kwain, and other /Xam informants. Van der Post wrote brief story-versions, as well as A Mantis Carol (1989), an avowedly true story in which the mantis appears as a kind of Jungian manifestation of archetypal interconnectedness.  Poet and editor-extraordinaire Jack Cope ‘translated’ some kukummi into poetry in the 1970s, and he has been followed by such prominent poets as Stephen Watson (The Return of the Moon), Alan James (The First Bushman’s Path), and Antjie Krog (The Stars say Tsau!). Krog, often following the line-breaks necessitated by the narrow notebooks used by Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, found a ‘natural’ poetry emerging.

In fact, these transcribers or ‘versioners’ of the Bleek-Lloyd material make little reference to the mantis in their selections. Subsequent mantis-centred poems, throughout the last century, are haunted by the notion of a god-like figure, but it has moved a long way from the /Xam conception; it hardens into something more forbidding, less a trickster than an implacable devil. Terence Heywood, writing in the 1950s, doesn’t really seem to know what to make of ‘Mantis’: it’s just a bundle of strange anatomical attributes:
(c)Dan Wlie

Square-stanced hind legs; body rectangular;
            colour a broad-bean green-brown;
            forelegs ridiculous; a tapering neck;
two broad arms, peaked upwardly, angular;
                        head, eye glittering, a rotund speck:
            such I discern as I lean down.

So much, so bland; awkward observation without resonance. I’m surprised Guy Butler thought the poem good enough to include in his compilation, A Book of South African Verse (1959).  A better inclusion is Eve and Broughton Gingell’s poem ‘Praying Mantis’, introducing the common notion of the mantis as ruthlessly predatory, some kind of avatar of apocalypse:

She kneels and prays
Long searching prayers
And with a whip of silence flicks them
Up to Heaven.
She murders stealthy flies.

There is an unstated equivocation between ‘praying’ and ‘preying’: this inexorable creature’s religiosity is deceptive, a perversion: ‘Her fatal piety/ Has no Amen but Death ... Kneeling remorseless/ At her green and sundry prayers’. Guy and David Butler make this explicit in another anthology, Out of the African Ark (1988).  Their introductory note asserts that the female mantis is sometimes cannibalistic, that the ‘supplicating gesture’ with the forelegs is really a ‘readiness to extend their spikes and hooks with lightning speed to seize unwary insects ... He is a deadly little predator, and should be called the Preying Mantis’. 

Almost as an antidote the Butlers include an oft-anthologised, slightly tongue-in-cheek poem by Robert Dederik. Dederik’s ‘Mantis’ is more vulnerable than threatening, what with this humungous human looming over him, putting him into ‘such a zone of worry as may/ Make the least inclined to prayer/ Suddenly inclined to pray’. In a ‘longer view’ – which the poet assumes the insect doesn’t have – man and mantis might be seen as equal ‘effects’ of some ‘primal Cause’. We share our existence and destiny on this planet. Also, those raised, joined hands appear ‘not entirely stranger to’ a ‘thanksgiving mood’. The somewhat contorted syntax doesn’t make clear what the mantis might be grateful for, unless it’s for not being squashed by the human’s ‘whelm of power’.

 The Butlers also anthologised the most famous mantis poem of all, by Ruth Miller. Here, too, the triangular relationship between mantis, human and a god is deeply troubled and fraught. Like the Gingells’ mantis, this one initially appears formidable and deathly:

Carmen Welz's illustration in Out of the African Ark
He lifts his small hands
To god of nothingness.
Jagged legs stand
On pale green crutches.
The pear-shaped pod
Flanged for flight
All dainty lines
Except the head:
Except the triangle terrible as death.

The ‘crutches’, the daintiness, strike a note of fragility, but when the poet reaches for the mantis it retaliates; it seems to grow as large as herself, ‘the pointed face/ Filling with knowledgeable malice’, those hands coming and creeping and feeling for her through space. It takes some imagination – and some inner vulnerability – to feel threatened by a creature so small that to it an ‘inch’ seems ‘cosmic’. In the final part of the poem, the poet imagines herself as ‘brittle as a twig’ – as mantis-like – desiccated by time and now trying to be ‘quiet and restrained’; and closes with a question: ‘Would the terrible triangle of my face/ Make him afraid?’

Who is that ‘him’? God? The ‘god of nothingness’ mentioned earlier? The mantis himself? It’s deliberately ambiguous. At the very least the mantis functions as symbolic of a paralyzing fear of death.

Roy Holland’s fine poem, ‘Mantid’ (anthologised in Colin and O-Lan Style’s Mambo Book of Zimbabwean Verse), echoes this notion of the mantis’s implacable air confronting us with our own mortality. The poem begins:

Outside, musty as damp wool scarves,
The dark coiled back on itself
Like life mouldering in a plumstone.

But she was alive there,
Transparent on the window-pane,
Insatiate with her own green light.

At the angles of her head
The bald green eyes looked inward,
Outward, watching the juices

Of divination run through her long flanks,
Her two razors of supplication
Hone themselves on prayer.

That terrific phrase razors of supplication captures the ambivalence of the poet’s responses. This female mantis is munching on ‘the fused wire of her mate’s claw/ Twitching out its voltage in her mouth’. That disturbing cannibalism by a creature with ‘no sense of loss ... appetite merely’, prompts the poet’s grim closing meditation:

Her breath is a green frost; famine her mandibles.
And Time is browsing, mantis-jawed, on the delicate
Distal of my foot. I am digestible.

Also writing from Zimbabwe, N H Brettell finds his mantis equally impenetrable to emotion. In ‘Mantis and Moth’, the poet observes a mantis, the ‘little monster god’, perched on the aerial of his radio set. Through that aerial thrums the sound of Kathleen Ferrier singing Mahler’s tragic Das Lied von der Erde. Does the mantis, the ‘more than self-sufficient hexapod’, its forelegs raised in ‘derisive supplication’, feel anything of that orchestral human yearning and melancholy? Will Ferrier’s soprano, approaching like a soft moth, survive that ‘saw-toothed trap’? No:

It does not shake the mantis,
The aeons of the species’ strict tradition,
Indifferent to the yearning desperation,
Knowing it all, once for all:
He has no need for sweet regretful folly...

All that glorious music, laden with its ‘doomed and perfect voice’, does not move the mantis – nor, implicitly, all of Nature – one jot. The mantis might represent something apocalyptic or final – but only we humans seem to have the capacity to worry about it.

Finally, Harry Owen’s mantis, again caught on a window pane, seems like Brettell’s  to preserve some impenetrable, ultimate and quasi-divine knowledge of our own fate. Like Ruth Miller’s, this poem ends on a question. It is everybody’s question.


san god or prophet
you swivel that mitred gaze
past all our futures

Wake me up, mantis, your name the cursive
scrawl of your thorax, lend me your special
wealth, your voracious perspicacity.
You shouldn’t be here on the window glass,
gazing out from this garage’s dusty
gloom to a world of light and greenery.
Are you trapped, lost? Or are you here by choice?
You twist your head and glare at me.
We are alone. What is it I do not know?

Thanks to Marike Beyers of Amazwi Museum of Literature for helping me locate mantis material, and to Harry Own for permission to quote his poem in full.


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