I never got to meet Stephen Watson (1954-2011), Cape Town poet, creative-writing teacher at UCT, and critic. He was evidently deeply admired, his early death deeply mourned. One of his students, the novelist Imraan Coovadia, wrote in an obituary that as a teacher Watson was “almost unfailingly courteous, engaged, unexpected in the direction of his thoughts, generous in his intelligence, and insistent only on his humane temperament. He cared to be a human being before a poet, and to be a poet before a professor.” He could nevertheless be controversial in his literary criticism, even – as one reader put it – “tetchy”.
It was also in relation to ‘Nature’ that I tackled Watson’s 1986 essay on Sydney Clouts, while working up my own study of that slightly earlier Cape Town poet. Watson – going through an early phase of leftist political advocacy that he later modified – accused Clouts of being a self-absorbed displaced Romantic shielding himself from the harsh political realities of apartheid. This was an accusation often levelled at Eurocentric bourgeois poets, not without reason, though I argued that Watson, for all his intelligence, sensitivity and vast reading, had got this one all wrong.
that inks their splints against the dusk’s abstracted skin –
how many times, dead-eyed, they’ve suffered it at this hour:
the sky a tissue drained, leached for the star-pouring dark,
the skyline at a standstill, its sag formalized in black,
these cedars freezing in the horizon’s inch of formalin –
while feeling their flesh freeze over, grow abstract as bark,
their gaze weighted by the earth, weighted by a wordlessness.
Listen to the accumulation of words of stuck-ness and enervation: fired, splints, dead-eyed, suffered, drained, leached, standstill, sag, freezing, formalin, weighted. Though there are hints of beauty, and hints of life in personifying the trees, they are overwhelmed by the poet’s feeling of being “abstracted”, “abstract”, anaesthetised and weighed down by his own inarticulacy. It’s a grim way of seeing one’s relation to poetry and the world – and an ironically wordy manner of asserting either the trees’ or one’s own “wordlessness”.
the idea of pastoral has persisted, however attenuated or ironically inflected, if only because it is based on a constellation of human needs that can never be eradicated from the psyche ... At its best, pastoral is in fact a critique, even a form of rebellion against the human condition as such (74).
In the Cedarberg, at this time of year, the bush and grasses stick to the valley floor like salt and hair to a side of raw meat, curing it, darkening it. There is no soil to soften the earth. Here it is all sand, littered shale, ironstone, gravel pits ... cauterised by sun. (69)
For millennia it is the earth that has been the beginning and end of
humanity’s faith. Reverence for the earth and the fruitfulness (i.e. essential
goodness) of the earth is religion, at least in its beginnings.
Any violation of the planet thus introduces a profound disturbance into the very heart of that to which humanity has always turned in order to confirm its faith and verify its most essential hope. To eliminate a species or overrun one more area of wilderness is to jeopardise the very possibility of hope itself. This is why we are inclined to experience any injury to the environment as a form of metaphysical mutilation as well. The destruction of the natural world, eroding as it does that capacity for hope that defines humanity, also undermines the very concept of humanity itself. (103)
fall, its lines self-cleansing, drawn through their own downpour,
this earth, its air machined and re-machined, can only grow
more heat-choked, orphaned in its sack of poisoned gases;
to know that this year, or the next, will only issue in
more heat, more pollution – and more pollution in that heat;
to know that time itself can only bring a rain acidified,
falling without the wateriness of water when it’s pure,
without that absolution that is in water, only when it’s pure...
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