Tuesday, 31 March 2020

No 100 - Pestilence and words

I was set to devote my 100th blog-post to the most recent wave of Zimbabwean fiction, but now that the bookstores are closed… I guess I’ll just have to write cheerfully about pestilences, plagues and pandemics.

"After the pandemic?" (c) Dan Wylie

My first impulse in all worldly matters is to consult the resources of history and literature. (After all, isn’t literature itself a kind of pandemic, saturating our global lives and changing our consciousness in invisible ways, albeit not often fatal?) The literature of plagues and contagions is vast, dating back at least as far as Homer’s Iliad. A minute or two on the internet of course turned up several lists of Covid-containment reading, as if that’s all we’d want to do in our lockdowns. One interesting list includes a couple I’ve read – Margaret Atwood’s unavoidable Oryx and Crake and José Saramago’s brilliant Blindness – and a whole bunch I’d never even heard of.  Scratching around in my own bookshelves, I emerge with some random thoughts.

I happen to be reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), a journalistic barrage of fast-breathing and alarming factoids and figures about our probably bleak global future. In his short, patchy chapter on plagues (written before Covid-19 struck), he focuses on those that might be released from ancient tundras by global warming. One needn’t look so far: epidemiologists have already recorded over 300 zoonotic viruses – that is, contracted by humans from animals whose territories and isolation they have increasingly invaded. SARS, avian flu, swine fevers, ebola and more have already rattled our collective complacency. There are still one or two people alive who experienced the last great flu pandemic of 1918, which killed anything between 50 and 100 million people (and one particularly tragic case of an ancient lady who survived 1918 but has succumbed to Covid-19).

The other historical touchstone of course is the bubonic Black Death of the 1340s, which carried off an even greater proportion of the population.  Wallace-Wells wrongly says it was largely confined to Europe. In fact – as I discover from revisiting my battered copy of historian Barbara Tuchman’s marvellous history of the Middle Ages, A Distant Mirror (1978) – it was blamed on China, where it was said to have begun. Then as now, that picture turned out to be simplistic: the world was already globally interconnected, albeit in slower fashion back then.  Still, China and India suffered massive loss of life before Europe did. Then as now, rumours, crackpot theories and misinformation swarmed and compromised efforts to combat the disease. In the absence of an understanding of the microbial and the viral, most in mediaeval Europe attributed it to humours, alignments of planets, or a punitive God. You’d think we would know better but even now, religious fervour has ignored all historical precedent, believers gathering in large numbers to pray and lament – in South Korea, New Delhi, Dallas and Bloemfontein - thereby only making it worse. To their credit, both Pope Clement VI then, and Francis today, ‘saw the light’ and curbed such congregations. Then as now, people looked to place the blame or project bemused anger: in mediaeval Europe the Jews were targeted, here the foreign and the poor are already being harassed. Then as now, inequalities are crucial to the disease’s distribution and impact. The impoverished always get it most badly, though in the end no class is spared; back then, princes and nobles – the Boris Johnsons of their day – also sickened and died. Then as now, many were by necessity abandoned to their fate, dying without their loved ones around, buried without due ceremony. Then as now, courageous and selfless charitable helpers themselves succumbed in disproportionate numbers, and the crisis brought out both the best and the worst in people.

Tuchman’s thesis is that the Middle Ages provides an illuminating ‘distant mirror’ to our own century; even she might not have anticipated so close a parallel to this crisis. She mentions the First World War as a comparable upheaval but not, oddly, the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed even more people than the war. And of course, there are significant differences: today’s numbers, technologies, communications networks and medical understanding will make our responses qualitatively different, and likely far more effective. The Black Death waned after a couple of years, apparently of its own accord; so will Covid-19, and we are unlikely to see the kind of toll the Black Death took – fully half of Paris’s population of 100,000, for example (it was a major world city then, but hardly bigger than Grahamstown today!).

That none are immune to such a scourge or its aftershocks is the burden of Edgar Allan Poe’s symbolic story, “The Masque of the Red Death”, published in 1842. It was possibly sparked by Boccaccio’s observation of Florentine’s notables during the Black Death. Poe’s lushly wrought parabolic tale opens with a description that parallels the terrible buboes and irruptions of the mediaeval bubonic plague:

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

(Covid-19 may be less dramatically visible, but is hardly less terrible, drowning you from the inside.) In Poe’s story, Prince Prospero (doubtless an allusion to the mage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) sequesters himself in a castle with his coterie, building impenetrable walls and welding the gates closed with great bolts, while the Red Plague mows down the hoi-polloi outside. Within, a great party ensues, with masques and dances reeling through numerous brightly coloured rooms – the nobility fiddling while the world burns. But in the background a clock tolls forbiddingly – then a deathly hooded, rotting figure appears, mistaken at first as just another masquerade, someone’s macabre hoax, until someone dares to rip at the clothes, to find nothing beneath but the Red Death itself. Self-serving delusions of grandeur and immunity, Mr Trump, will eventually be exposed.

My internet browsing also turned up an essay about another prescient story, this one a novella by Jack London, he of White Fang fame. Clearly indebted to Poe’s psycho-fantasy, The Scarlet Plague (1915) is an astonishing forecast of subsequent pandemics. It imagines San Francisco in 2073, and depicts the aftermath of a pandemic that has erupted there in 2013 (a century in the future when London published the book, but eerily the very year in which the bird flu scare would in fact occur). The story is largely related by old ‘Granser’ Smith, an erstwhile English professor (go, Prof!) who survives a mass die-off, the burning of the city, a futile attempt to self-isolate in his university’s Chemistry building, and years of solitary wandering, eventually to rejoin one of the tribelets who remain. (In this it’s not unlike my own The Wisdom of Adders, though I envisaged a more complicated catastrophe unfolding over a further century.) London extends Poe’s motifs of the scarlet rash and “dissolution”: his pestilence kills swiftly and the corpses disintegrate, releasing yet more germs, killing indiscriminately, without justice, even the bacteriologists in their laboratories. Supplies of gas run out, airships disappear, chaos and heartlessness reign, communications collapse altogether. Wild nature takes over again.

New York City and Chicago were in chaos. And what happened with them was happening in all the large cities. A third of the New York police were dead. Their chief was also dead, likewise the mayor. All law and order had ceased. The bodies were lying in the streets un-buried. All railroads and vessels carrying food and such things into the great city had ceased running and mobs of the hungry poor were pillaging the stores and warehouses. Murder and robbery and drunkenness were everywhere. Already the people had fled from the city by millions—at first the rich, in their private motor-cars and dirigibles, and then the great mass of the population, on foot, carrying the plague with them...

In short, “Ten thousand years of culture and civilization passed in the twinkling of an eye, 'lapsed like foam.'

Simplistic and dramatised, perhaps, and we've taken the opposite tack - lockdown - but the depiction of pandemic fear feels psychologically true. As so many people are now belatedly trumpeting, we can hardly say we weren’t warned.  It’s a mystery – or a significant illumination of human myopia – that despite everything, the world still seems woefully ill-prepared for this calamity.

Even more uncertain, naturally, is how the future will look. Little or no fiction explores economics, the new demigods of the "market" that now dominate our lives. There are pessimistic and optimistic projections (well laid out by Peter C Baker).  Humanity will surely survive, as it has before, but in what mode? Will we be jolted into becoming somehow a better, more compassionate, more environmentally caring species than before? History is not too encouraging. Tuchman has an arresting paragraph:

Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.

Covid-19, whatever its scale and duration turn out to be, looks set to be the convulsion to loose the moorings of our particular lifetimes. History does seem to indicate that we too will find ourselves “neither destroyed nor improved”. Old bad habits will die hard, forgetfulness of trauma sets in remarkably quickly, the good and the beautiful will still – as imagined by 1001 sci-fi novels and movies – struggle to prove the greater force.

"Sunset" (c) Dan Wylie


For more Wylie-esque paintings and books visit www.netsoka.co.za

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 www.netsoka.co.za 

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, <bridgetegan@cybersmart.co.za>.  
Also available on Amazon Kindle.