Tuesday, 16 November 2021

No 123 - Seriousness: George Steiner, literary giant


I thought, for once,
I had a chance to air a tribute to a great writer before his demise – but, as usual, I dithered, and lately discovered to my great sadness that George Steiner had died last year, aged 90.

 You’re unlikely to have encountered Steiner unless you’re pickled in literary criticism – and possibly not even then, since the academic establishment has had a habit of marginalising him at crucial times. This despite him fielding hundreds of reviews and public lectures, publishing some 40 books (only a handful of which I’ve read myself), and eventually holding some exceedingly prestigious posts at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Geneva.

 During my undergrad years, my beloved mentor Don Maclennan introduced me to Steiner’s 1975 magnum opus, After Babel. This is a daunting tome which, ostensibly about the problem of translation from one language to another, turns out to be so much more: an extended meditation on the phenomenon of language, on interpretation, on the slippery relationship between objects and the words that describe them, in the end on the nature of consciousness itself. I was instantly entranced by the opening pages, in which Steiner unpacks a longish passage from Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama, Cymbeline. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the play: it was the way Steiner showed how every word and sentence structure fizzes with its specific energy, history, and concatenations of meaning. He goes on to do the same with an extract from Jane Austen, revealing how her vocabulary and syntax was so specific to her eighteenth-century milieu, class and education that it is fundamentally impossible now to recreate in our own minds the fullness of her meanings. It is – to use one of his favourite words – incommensurable, never completely translatable, always slipping away into mystery – the mysteriousness of poetic creation itself. No neurological brain-scans can perceive how this facility operates.

 I was also blown away by Steiner’s own language-use: thick, metaphorical, laden with literary reference, slick. Every sentence was, is, a cultural education. If he name-dropped as densely as an encyclopaedia, it seemed to me not so much pretentious as authoritative. If he could bring into intimate proximity Homer, Goethe and Walter Benjamin, somehow you knew that he had actually read all three, in their original languages, thoroughly and with a penetrating understanding. Above all, he instantly convinced me of his seriousness. Unlike many popular polemicists, he was never playing intellectual games, but took the task of accurate, knowledgeable, and honest literary appreciation and cultural interpretation as vital to our very humanity. Even as a young and (he admits this) insufferably arrogant whippersnapper, he was openly intolerant of academic pomp and pretence. There would never be any hesitation in panning anyone’s sacred cows, so it’s little wonder that he was sometimes regarded warily. In our Honours course on Literary Theory, I remember professor Nic Visser sneering at Steiner as somehow behind the theoretical curve, but admitting a certain genius: “God, to be able to write like that!” But then Nic favoured Marxism, which Steiner dismisses as largely dangerous nonsense. I must have, in some half-baked instinctual way, agreed with Steiner: I ploughed through Nic’s photocopied reams of Marxist literary criticism, from Engels through Christopher Caudwell to Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, but – like cosmic rays passing invisibly through my body without disturbing a single cell – not an iota of it stuck. But Steiner: now here was someone whose eloquence and depth spoke to my very core.

 A certain dismissiveness persists. He is in various commentaries characterised as “literary critic”, which is right, but also absurdly narrow. There are few who could range as he did from linguistics to neurology (he nearly became a scientist), from writing on foreign affairs for the Economist to a book on Heidegger. He did, in retrospect, accuse himself of dabbling too widely, making certain over-hasty judgements, but – compared to a compulsive dilettante like me – even his dabbling has enormous and provocative weight. He knew enough to locate yawning gaps in scholarship and understanding, being fond of saying “we know nothing about” X or Y, concerning not the usual scholarly trivia, but the profoundest existential questions. (I took as epigraph to my novella The Flight of the Bat such a sentence from After Babel: “We have no history of the future tense.”)

 He is also routinely characterised as “French-American”, which doesn’t begin to describe this Euro-polyglot. True, he was born in Paris (just two weeks after my mother in April 1929): his Viennese-Jewish parents saw Nazism coming a long way off and got the hell out. And true, having moved again, he became an American citizen in 1944, and was later educated at Chicago (loved it) and Harvard (awful; they mutually vowed never to have anything to do with each other, though they still granted him a chair some forty years later). But he moved back to the UK and Switzerland, closer to his European roots; if he didn’t stay there, his beloved father said, Hitler would have won. Thus, “French” was only one touchstone in a man who also spoke English and German from childhood, and who became more than conversant with half a dozen further languages, from the Russian of Dostoyevsky to the Italian of Dante. The cultural richness he can thus draw on is fantastic. He deplores the snobbish monolingualism of so many Anglo-American academics, and of the extinction of so many of the world’s minor (but no less wonderful) languages by the global dominance of American English. The mythic splintering of the world’s languages “after Babel” he regards as engendering a manifold, irreplacable richness, even as it creates insuperable problems of cross-cultural understanding. It is among his abiding questions: How did that even happen? What is this universal “languaging” facility in humans that has spawned such cultural magnificence in literature, art (and above all for him) music? And how is it that such beauty can coexist with such cruelty and hate? As an inadvertent escapee of the Holocaust (he prefers Shoah), he repeatedly asks how an Auschwitz commandant could return home after a mass gassing of Jews and weep at a Schubert sonata.

 Perhaps the unflinching, even embarrassing acuity of such questions is what turns some away. The Wikipedia entry on his “Views”, for example, is exceedingly brief and feeble: fully a third is given over pruriently to a four-line quotation from his memoir, Errata (1997), about how he lost his virginity to a gentle prostitute (while ignoring pretty much all of the major ideas, including his lengthy condemnation elsewhere of pornography).

 I delayed writing this piece partly because I wanted to read Errata first; the rest of the work said remarkably little about him. Like some other readers, I was a little disappointed that Errata remained thin on the personal. It is mostly about the ideas that have coursed through his work, so there are compact discussions on translation, on his secular version of Jewishness, on language and music, and a characteristic whinge about the state of the academy, its “professionalisation” of mediocrity, the commercialised, shallow over-production of tens of thousands of unreadable theses. He is particularly scathing about the current predominance of “theory”, much of which he condemns as unreadable, even “mendacious”  posturing by “the circus folk of deconstructionism” which adds nothing to the appreciation of creative works themselves. Being rubbish at wielding theory myself, I’m inclined to concur. One reviewer sniffed that you would do better going to the other books to get these ideas’ full treatment, but Errata might equally serve as an introduction to them. (The other good way in would be Penguin’s A George Steiner Reader. Among its various extracts from the big works, is one from his only novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., which imagines Adolf Hitler re-discovered alive and well in the Amazon. Steiner seems to fancy he could/should have written more fiction – he did publish three volumes of short stories, which I haven’t read –  but I find Portage close to impenetrable.)

 In tiny snatches the life is revealed. An unspecified “car mishap” when driving with his wife Zara occurs, but only because Steiner wonders if his instinctive shout reveals a “first language”. (Inconclusive.) Something about old age provokes a numbing description: “a malodorous waste, an incontinence of mind and body made raw by the remembrance of the unfulfilled.” Ouch. He mentions his son and daughter just once each. Only in the closing chapters, when he pays tribute to various of his life’s teachers, do we get piercing and fond portraits of others, something verging on the anecdotal. (He can be quite anecdotal, slyly humorous, in his interviews on YouTube.)  Otherwise, he remains focused on the serious business, especially of teaching: “The signal reward for a teacher is to engage students whom he discovers to be abler than himself.” One of his mentors, R P Blackmur, he said, “let down by his poetry, burnished his prose to a pitch of obtrusive brilliance, of ornamentation so visible, so ‘palpably designed’ (Keats’ admonition) as to interpose itself between insight and object.” Some might say the same of Steiner’s own prose. It’s sometimes a relief to catch him writing a simple sentence.

 The concentration on education – his life-work, even more than criticism, which was being “a happy parasite” really – you might follow up in his book Lessons of the Masters (2003). Ranging across pedagogical encounters from Socrates to Schopenhauer, he drops lapidary thoughts to keep one thinking forever: “The pulse of teaching is persuasion ... and, optimally, collaborative dissent.” “Argument should end in poetry.” He worries that the age-old organic relationship between Teacher and Disciple is eroding in our age of internet and mass literacy; for all its power, it depersonalises: “Human fidelity, ... love and betrayal, are foreign to the electronic.” Perhaps. Personally, wedded to the face-to-face nature of ‘real’ teaching, I am so grateful to be spared having to teach via Zoom.

 Or one might pick up on his ubiquitous references to the great philosophers and read The Poetry of Thought (2011), in which he shows how thinkers, from Hellenism to the present, have used poetics to convey philosophic concepts. Plato formed fictional dialogues to pursue arguments; Nietzsche used the character of Zarathustra; Marx engaged constantly with literature; Merleau-Ponty wrote almost pure poetry. (I simplify horribly.) Again and again he returns to the primacy of the linguistic in forging human self-awareness, even though “The inherited fixities of vocabulary and syntax can never altogether bridge the gap between articulation and the flow and eddies of consciousness.” Because of that, Steiner believes, we in effect act constantly in what amounts to a state of religious faith, a belief, forever deferred, that we can articulate the world, that we can reach out to “real presences”, not just phantasms of our imaginations. Don Maclennan gave me his copy of Real Presences (1989), scored over with his wavering pencil lines and left-handed marginal ticks. Among the points he marked as worth attention: “I would define literature (art, music) as the maximalisation of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression”. Chew on that for a bit!

 So much more might be said of this “Platonic anarchist”, as he thought of himself. Much is arguable, but it would be facile to dismiss him as an outdated elitist. Steiner pursued excellence in all things, and so disdained those modes of political correctness which substitute easy slogans and a culture of complaint for the hard graft of creative reading and interpretation. Like the great literature he makes his stamping ground, he is worth going back to again and again. He has certain limits. He is European to the core: Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes scarcely register. Well, he has enough to work with. He does show signs of attending to more global, less literary concerns. He saw towards the end of his life some redeeming hope for humans in their increasing concern for animals and the natural environment. And Errata includes this passage, as good a summary of our planetary plight as any:

 All of us are guests of life. No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of its “thrownness” into the mystery of existence. Why is there not nothing? Why am I? We are guests of this small planet, of an infinitely complex, perhaps chancy weave of evolutionary processes and mutations which, at innumerable points, might have gone otherwise or witnessed our execution. As it has turned out, we are vandal-guests, laying waste, exploiting and destroying other species and resources. We are rapidly turning to poisonous garbage this uncannily beautiful, intricately adjusted environment, and even outer space. There are trash-bins on the moon. Inspired as it is, the ecological movement which, together with a nascent perception of the rights of children and of animals, is among the few lit chapters in our century, may have come too late.



Saturday, 6 November 2021

No 122 - On Deadly Ground


Deep mine (c) Dan Wylie

Well, that was – predictably – a pretty bad film. I had decided to give it a look because it promised to be about a campaigner fighting heroically against Big Oil. (Objecting to Big Oil being trendy at COP 26 and all.) The film in question, On Deadly Ground, was predictably bad because not only is the lead actor Steven Seagal: he was also making his directorial debut. The film was roundly panned by critics, one of whom was rude enough to compare Seagal’s “lardy posterior” to the grandiosity of his ego. Predictably, Seagal’s acting comprises growling, wearing frilly leathers, and occasionally narrowing his eyes.

His role (I won’t worry about spoilers, because you’ll never want to watch it) is as a disillusioned oil company employee, Forrest Taft, who turns on his Big Oil boss, Michael Jennings, acted by Michael Caine. It must be the estimable Caine’s worst performance ever, as a monochromatically angry, foul-mouthed exec who has to complete a slew of pipelines and a gigantic refinery on Alaskan territories before his leases run out. Those leases, of course, are carved out of exquisitely beautiful lands belonging to Native Americans, who naturally object. (Such scenarios, as Donald Trump forcefully reminded us quite recently, are no idle fiction.) 

Jennings’ mercenary heavies try to kill the whistle-blowing Forrest (get the symbolism?), who is luckily rescued by local Native Americans. The heavies then sort of accidentally-on-purpose murder the wise old chief, who has already sort of initiated Forrest into the tribe via a myth-laden hallucinatory experience. Many feather headdresses, screeching hawks and incantations threaten to bury these people under a sludge of stereotyping, though their recourse to a man-bear legend of origins is well-enough attested. (Some critics call them Inuit/Eskimo, which is just wrong.)

Forrest is rather unimpressed by all this traditionalism, interestingly: he says to the chief’s bereaved and very pissed-off (and very beautiful) daughter Masu, that such mumbo-jumbo won’t cut it against Big Oil and their army of gun-toting mercenaries. His methods will. Masu (Joan Chen) joins him, and between them they go at it: super-efficient hand-to-hand combat (oh ja, Forrest also happens to be ex-CIA, which organisation has, as we all know, a spotless legal and environmental record), explosives conveniently cached nearby, swathes of gunfire and sprays of blood, downed helicopters, and a numbingly prolonged finale of spectacular explosions that reduce the refinery to wire wool. Each of the main heavies (including a young Billy Bob Thornton) get their come-uppance, and the chief’s daughter has the satisfaction of dropping Mr Jennings into a vat of his own crude oil.

So much, so Seagal, and the critics I read were almost uniformly scathing. What really upset them, however, was the very final scene, in which a suited-up Seagal soberly reads a speech to assembled reporters, tribal members and others. Against a backdrop of documentary footage of gas flares, highway traffic, smog, oiled seabirds and polluted rivers, Seagal lays out the venality of Big Oil, its collusion with governments, its knowing but shrugged-off damage to pristine environments, its roughshod mistreatment of the first peoples’ rights, rites and wilderness, the deliberate sabotaging of progressive technologies, and so on. The critics merely raged: how dare he get so preachy!

To be sure, the sermon fitted ill with the action genre: blowing up the refinery alone probably spewed more CO2 into the skies than the whole of Los Angeles on a bad day. Some doubted the sincerity of the environmental message. Yet it encapsulated what Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and a thousand other environmental scientists have been warning for decades. It might have been Greta Thunberg standing there, though Seagal’s a touch taller.

"Riot" (c) Dan Wylie

Note: the movie screened in 1994.
No one was listening. A quarter of a century later, nothing has changed, except we peer through an ever-thickening murk of rhetorical obfuscation and hollow promises from the very players who might make the greatest difference. I watched the film, after all, in the very week when the Big Oil execs were trying to fudge their way through questions in the US Congress. (Doubtless smug in the knowledge that government, the banks, and Big Oil finance and back one another in an Unholy Trinity.)

I thought to ferret out other ‘entertainment’ feature films concerning Big Oil, and turned up a couple of lists. One of them purported to survey the top 5, and included the superb Let There Be Blood, featuring Daniel Day Lewis, a truly corrosive exposé of early Big Oil’s horrors. This particular list, however, was compiled by one “Petroleum Service Company”, whose raison d’être was clearly to sell oil products  And guess what: you would swear from their brief summaries that the films were advertising the benefits of fossil fuel, and not – as they actually are – attacks on it. Either the site’s compilers are woefully ignorant of the films, stupidly misconstruing them, or deliberately concealing their critical content. Whichever way, I find this deceitfulness disturbing, short-sighted, and self-serving, arguably a minor case but symptomatic and frankly frightening. As noted by one slightly woolly but more academic article on the subject, “there are no positive portrayals of  oil executives in feature films after the 1950s”! Clearly, said executives don’t care. Or: they care just enough to try to cover their butts in such fraudulent ways.

Look, no one thinks a transition away from fossil fuels will be simple, so dependent has global society become upon them. Though many technologies already exist to make that transition, implementing them at scale will cause widespread disruptions to existing structures of industry and finance. (This is Australian PM Scott Morrison’s argument for doing nothing to reduce coal, though continuing the way we’re going is inevitably going to cause exponentially greater disruptions world-wide.) And panelling the egregious lies of Big Oil, however much they might deserve it, is to narrow the history and absolve all us users from responsibility. Big Oil also tries to shift the blame to consumers, in the way that cigarette, firearm and opioid manufactures repeatedly have: “Oh, we’re just responding to demand; it’s no concern of ours that our products sicken and kill people!”

"Toxic event" (c) Dan Wylie

But we are also in this situation
because over the last century or two millions of people have made trillions of little everyday decisions, in perfectly understandable and non-evil ways, to participate in petroleum’s benefits: from electricity to vehicles, from plastics to soaps, from syringes to paints, from telephones to tweets. Only today do we face the inescapable realisation that at the present massive scale we – the Six Billion Plus – are now over-poisoning the planet even as we benefit, while consuming its resources way, way faster than they can be replenished. And changing that – whether or not governments legislate, whether or not fossil fuel production and dependency shrinks voluntarily or otherwise – will entail millions of individuals making trillions of little everyday decisions to do things less damagingly. We might as well start. The greatest impediment to change is not so much technical as cultural.

OK, I’ll stop preaching now. Good night, Steven.


For more art and books see www.netsoka.co.za 

Sunday, 19 September 2021

No 121 – Representing Kruger National Park


I was conceived
in Kruger National Park. So said my mother, anyway, and she should know – ‘with the moon singing in wild grass/ to a lion’s pulsing roar’, as she put in a poem. Though oddly I haven’t been back to the scene of the crime very often, I realise that willy-nilly I’ve accumulated a number of books on Kruger, and sought out a couple of new ones. So here’s a scratchy and incomplete list of things to read on South Africa’s flagship, iconic wildlife sanctuary.

 ‘Flagship’; ‘iconic’ – the kind of language often bandied about. But flagship of what philosophy, exactly? Iconic in whose eyes? Almost a century old now, the KNP has meant many different things to different people.

 You might as well begin with the KNP’s very first Warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton (1867-1957). English-born, trained at Sandhurst, and erstwhile rider with an irregular Boer War unit called Steinacker’s Horse, Stevenson-Hamilton was first appointed Chief Ranger of the Sabi and Singwitsi Reserves, later incorporated into the KNP. He remained Warden for 44 years. Feisty and stubborn, he spearheaded a shift from unthinking extermination of wild animals to ‘preservationist’ ethics in the face of an often indifferent and dilatory bureaucracy. A competent administrator and writer, two books of his in many ways set the pattern for future accounts.

 The first, a memoir, he entitled South African Eden – an early hint of how a mythology of ‘pristine’ wilderness, of an imagined stable and original state to which the park should be returned and maintained, would come to dominate popular rhetoric and at times deleteriously skew management policy. In fact, the region carved out for the KNP was far from Edenic and untouched: it had been inhabited and used by humans for centuries, despite being malarial, and was all but bare of wildlife when Stevenson-Hamilton started. There were a mere 10 elephants, for example. South African Eden was first published in 1937; the 1993 Struik edition I possess includes a Foreword by his son, and is edited by Jane Carruthers, about whom more in a moment.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s second book is more a study or survey of the KNP’s various animals, entitled Wild Life in South Africa (1947), thereby setting an exceptionally low bar for imaginative titles. Though richly amplified by personal experiences, it had some pretensions to science – there are short chapters devoted to the Orygine, Alcephaline, Tragelaphine, and Cephalophine Antelopes, for example. Four chapters on the lion, but not much on birds, and nothing on vegetation and insects. In a way, it is still marked by the Big Game obsessions of the hunting fraternity out of which the KNP partly sprang. But as Stevenson-Hamilton remarks in his foreword, even short lapses in time are liable to render accepted wisdoms about animal behaviour redundant, even dangerously deluded: ‘towards the end of a lifetime of observation, the student begins to comprehend how little he knows’. Any ‘mental complacency’ can cause ‘irreparable mischief’, especially as humans have ‘such absolute power over the existences of other creatures of the earth’. Nature, he concluded darkly, ‘has her own way of wreaking vengeance.’ Seventy years on, this is more pertinent than ever. One such delusion involved lions: generally regarded as inimical ‘vermin’, they were early on almost eliminated from park precincts – several hundred killed by Stevenson-Hamilton himself – until it dawned that ‘within their proper sphere, [they perform] useful work in Nature’s economy’. It took many more years for insight, experience and research to reveal the similar problems with mass-culling elephants.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s extraordinary career has occupied a decent chunk of environmental historian Jane Carruthers’ time. Her biography of the man himself, Wildlife & Warfare (2001) is eminently readable. More important, perhaps, is her earlier compact study, The Kruger National Park; A social and political history (1995). This is truly the definitive history, not in the sense that it is the last word on the subject (it is not), but in that it defines the field going forward; no subsequent scholar can validly ignore it. Through meticulous archival research, Carruthers unveils the complex, often tooth-grindingly slow legislative build-up to achieving the declaration of the KNP in 1926, the conflicts between political blocs as power shifted from Dutch/Boer hands to British, the emergent influence of North American park policies, the role of the hunting lobby, of racist land-use ideas, and of government bodies long indifferent to the whole idea. The actual preservation of wild animals for the delectation of non-lethal tourists was only one of a slew of motivations for wildlife reserves in those early days.

 Above all, Carruthers decisively debunks the myth that Oom Paul Kruger was the lonely, heroic and forward-thinking advocate for the park. Not only was his interest in wildlife confined to the consumption of biltong (as Stevenson-Hamilton snorted), legislatively he had virtually nothing to do with it. The naming was a manoeuvre of nationalistic politics, no more. Less space in the book is devoted to the period after 1926, and unlike the warden/ranger accounts, remains focussed on what people were doing, rather than on animal behaviours. Especially important is a chapter on Africans’ presence and role. Far from being simply ejected from the KNP, though some two thousand were, local communities had always lived there, criss-crossed it, and derived a living from it (suddenly transformed into ‘poaching’ and ‘trespassing’). And some continued to live and work there.

Over the years, as the KNP became increasingly organised, visited, managed – a massive enterprise over an area the size of Belgium – many rangers came and went, and a number wrote memoirs. Their style became increasingly generic, rather like the nineteenth-century hunting accounts of which they are descendants, a mix of self-deprecating derring-do encounters with dangerous animals and pragmatic ruminations on management policies. I’ve by no means read all of these memoirs (including one by the appropriately named Kobie Kruger), but I have a couple to hand. The earliest is by one of Stevenson-Hamilton’s own colleagues, Harry Wolhuter. He too had been a youngster in Steinacker’s Horse in the Boer (sorry, South African) War, some members of which had plundered (poached) big game themselves. It’s interesting how soldiers and hunters at the time migrated and transformed themselves into a ranger elite, quasi-military to this day. Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger (see what I mean about unimaginative titles?), published in 1948, celebrated (also) 44 years of service under Stevenson-Hamilton: ‘no superior officer was more loyal, kindly, and considerate to his subordinates’. (In fact, that superior officer often confessed himself enraged by subordinates he considered naive idiots, but he was nice to Wolhuter in his Foreword to the latter’s Memories. He approvingly noted Wolhuter’s ‘tendency to understatement’, which also seems a constant feature of the ranger mode.) Richly endowed with small and competent line drawings, Wolhuter’s book drifts from lively narrative about his earlier life, war effort, and induction into game preservation, to chapters more strongly centred on individual species or groups of species, observations on behaviour leavened with laconic accounts of hair-raising encounters with cobras, lions, buffalos, etc.

 By 1995, when ranger Bruce Bryden published A Game Ranger Remembers, the world (except book titles) had changed enormously. The structure of the memoir, though, remains similar: a farrago of chattily delivered anecdotes devoted to experiences the ordinary citizen will never have, some clustered around particular species in racy chapters. As the blurb has it: ‘there is a great deal of shooting, and a fair amount of running away ... extraordinary characters ... hilarious mishaps ... and throughout, a great love and respect for both the wilderness and the creatures that inhabit it.’ But the modern ranger is also a scientifically trained ecologist (Bryden began his career doing lion research). Instead of shank’s mare and the occasional horse he has Land Rover, Bell 205 helicopter and R1 rifle at his disposal; he has to wade through as much dull administration as adventure; and he spends not a little time killing off animals perceived as overpopulating or being a ‘problem’ in and around a now ferociously defended park. Primary of course among these difficult animals is the elephant – a matter of deeply conflicted emotions to a man who loves elephants but is obliged by KNP management policy to slaughter large numbers of them. He defends the strategy of culling, even as he is contemptuous of armchair policy-makers – as was Stevenson-Hamilton. Pragmatic, tough, knowledgeable, determinedly humorous in the face of danger, with a conventional denial of stylistic flair that is itself a point of conscious stylistic choice: that’s our contemporary ranger.

The ranger memoir partakes not a little of the narrative techniques of fiction – and of course there are novels involving the KNP, too, though I don’t know of many centred on it. One I glanced at as part of my book, Death & Compassion, was a fairly trashy novel entitled Elephant Across Border by Colin Burke (1968). The border in question is the Mozambique-KNP boundary, which has ever been vexed (especially the northern frontier around so-called Crooks’ Corner). The international border had been carved right through resident human communities as well as traditional animal migration routes (the KNP, for all its size, is hardly a coherent ecosystem). The novel is set at that transitional period when fences were poor, poachers overlapped with so-called professional hunters, and the ranger was just becoming the new hero. In the story, the KNP provides sanctuary for a great elephant tusker, one of those which a certain class of macho posturers did – and still do – find it somehow satisfying to blast into oblivion. And of course the KNP features strongly in Deon Meyer’s thriller, Blood Safari. Know any others?


I was particularly taken with the title of Mitch Reardon’s book Shaping Kruger (2012), recognising as it does that various forces – both human and natural – have built the KNP: though it’s big enough for lots of natural processes to unfold independently of (or at least oblivious to) human interference, it is fundamentally an artefact. (He has also written Shaping Addo.)  He admittedly, like the hunters and rangers before him, focuses his 12 substantial chapters on the usual suspects of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ – elephant, lion, buffalo and so on – but he does devote some chapters to otherwise potentially overlooked mammals, including impala and roan antelope. In all cases, anyway, he writes well and illuminatingly. He explains intriguing behaviours; makes specialised and up-to-date research accessible; delves into the unfolding phases and failures of historical management; and has a poetic touch which elevates his descriptions a notch above those tempting clichés. Indeed, he is concerned to disburse the older ideas of some Edenic ideal landscape, in favour of fluid and sometimes unpredictable biodiversity models. The scientific/managerial focus is leavened with just enough rangery personal anecdote to bring it back to real encounter. The book itself is charmingly designed, with pertinent photographs in full colour. In all, I’d recommend Shaping Kruger as a very good place to start reading about the KNP.

 Another decent starting point might be David Fleminger’s Fair Game (2018). Though it’s entitled A hidden history of the Kruger National Park, it doesn’t really add new knowledge to the literary landscape, but for a first-time visitor to the field (or the park) it is certainly filled with short-section nuggets, ranging from the Delagoa rail line to Jock of the Bushveld, from elephant culling to the Makulele land claim. Stevenson-Hamilton nevertheless dominates the historical first half of this 200-page book. The second half is aimed more at the tourist, a what-to-do-and-see overview; though detailed, there are no illustrations and inadequate maps. The book falls a bit uneasily between potted history and guide-book, which explains why publishers wouldn’t take it on, and Fleminger had to self-publish. Still, it’s quite fetchingly written, with thoughtful discussions and rich information.

Finally, at least two recent academic books have taken new approaches to discussing the meanings of the KNP. Leslie Dikeni is a well-established researcher with the universities of Wits and Pretoria, with a pet project of challenging the government’s ‘deterministic’ developmental programme. He extends this interest in Habitat and Struggle (Real African Publishers, 2016) – on the awful uninformative cover the designer has unaccountably added an exclamation mark, which over-dramatises the analytical content. As one might expect from the recirculation of an academic thesis, the book bears an unwieldy subtitle, ‘A study of the outcome of the interface between government, NGOs, managers of natural resources and local communities.’ What the book shows, in effect, is that there are many interfaces, many competing interests and cultural understandings of the KNP and its surrounds that centralised planners brush over. For my literary taste there is unnecessary emphasis on sociological methodology, which I suspect is not as revolutionary as Dikeni claims, nor are his conclusions ultimately terribly exciting. It’s ‘complex’, basically. What’s most interesting is the range of interviewees Dikeni encounters, from ministers to rangers, from local chiefs to park workers. He includes extracts of the interviews themselves, so one can see how Dikeni’s questioning progresses, and get glimpses into the life-stories of multiple actors. Albeit somewhat bitty, these provide the central interest for me.

Jacob Dlamini
is already well-known for his book, Native Nostalgia. In Safari Nation (Jacana, 2020) he produces another ‘social history’ of the KNP. Essentially he picks up the shorter discussion of Africans’ presence contained in Jane Carruthers’ earlier history. He doesn’t radically challenge Carruthers’ foray, but greatly extends it, drawing on a range of previously untapped documentary resources to amplify how Africans were always, and remain, intimately involved in the KNP region. (You wouldn’t believe it paging through no.14 of the Kruger Magazine in which, some ranger recruits excepted, scarcely a dark face appears.) Dlamini expounds illuminatingly, inter alia, on the migrant labour system, which built a rail line, transit camps and some of the main roads within the park, and the growth of tourist-travel and hunting interests within the black middle-class, particularly before formal apartheid. Contrary to common belief, black visitors were never legislatively excluded from the KNP, but they were not enticed by comparatively meagre facilities. Handily illustrated by period photographs, pamphlets and maps, Safari Nation fascinatingly reveals an almost wholly ignored side of South Africa’s history of travel and leisure. It is a period and arena which actually shows, he concludes, that ‘the welfare of whites did not have to come at the expense of blacks’, and ‘the black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation on principle. They opposed injustice.’

 Perhaps the most telling photograph of all in Safari Nation is one of the author standing dwarfed by the massive, jowly, not say Stalinist-style statue or bust of Paul Kruger at the KNP’s Kruger Gate – symptomatic, one might say, of the persistence of at least some myths, parameters and attitudes in the face of change. How to extend the good foundations, then, and shed the unfruitful ones, in our current age of land hunger, pandemics and climate change?


Friday, 3 September 2021

No 120 - Norman Morrissey's 'Gripscapes'

For three decades
the Eastern Cape’s Hogsback mountain village has harboured a periodically shifting but indomitably productive group of poets. Founded in 1988 as the Echo Poets, they became the Ecca Poets, so-called after a rugged local pass. Some, like Brian Walter, Mzi Mahola, Lara Kirsten, and Cathal Lagan have moved away from Hogsback but continue to contribute; some have left the coterie altogether, some stayed – notably Silke Heiss –  while younger ones have joined more recently. Year after year, the group has published collective volumes, as well as numerous individual collections on their own accounts. It is a truly remarkable bunch, producing a broad swathe of very good poetry (I have written more academically about Walter and Mariss Everitt).

            A stalwart of the Ecca group over the years was the late Norman Morrissey. Like most of the members, I met him now and then, usually at poetry readings, and came away with the impression of a bustling intelligence, a bluff directness, a sturdy bonhomie. All of that I think is evident in the poetry included in this new substantial volume, Gripscapes, collected posthumously by Pietermaritzburg academic John van Wyngaard, and rather courageously published by Jim Phelps’s Echoing Green Press.

            As the slightly unusual subtitle, Newly collected poems, might hint, Gripscapes is a rather odd enterprise. As if Morrissey’s published volumes were not enough to cement his reputation – particularly his own last selection, Strandloop – van Wyngaard has devoted a good deal of academic sleuthing to unearthing more poems from archival material, hundreds of letters written to friends and lovers, sundry notebooks, and the annual Ecca collections. So he includes no poems previously gathered by Morrissey, but does include some published by Ecca, and a large, hitherto unseen number which Morrissey never intended for publication at all. As I learned from trawling Sydney Clouts’s manuscripts, avid for undiscovered gems, this can involve a plethora of judgement calls. Among these are degrees of ‘finished-ness’, and in the case of the letters, matters of privacy (even where the letters were willingly surrendered by the recipients). Van Wyngaard is sensitive to this, and says in his compact foreword that he excluded material that was explicitly “personal”. While right and understandable, this runs the risk of skewing our impression of Morrissey’s range, of confining us to the editor’s view of significant themes and quality. I also wonder what “personal” means exactly (lovers’/partners’  intimacies, one is obliged to guess), since there is little that isn’t personal here: the poems are, as Morrissey averred more than once, his “autobiography”, and thus inevitably private in some sense. He isn’t one to be “embarrassed by tenderness”, to borrow his own phrase.

            Anyway, here it is: over 200 poems, mostly punchy and short, arranged in strict chronological order (almost all datable to the day, such was Morrissey’s habitual precision). Three sections reflect Morrissey’s life and careers. The first section covers the years 1979-1983, when Morrissey worked with the Natal Parks Board, grounding him in an observant reverence for the non-human world that never left him. The second section covers the years 1983-2002 as he taught at Fort Hare University in Alice, bringing in a wide range of literary reference. This is seldom pretentious, even in the many poems that carry the kind of informative and philosophical air of a compulsive teacher. The third and final section covers the “Hogsback years”, 2003-2017.  What all this evidences is a phenomenal energy and enviable discipline: van Wyngaard estimates that Morrissey produced a poem, on average, every six days – not counting drafts, redrafts and incomplete sketches. Over 40 years, that’s a very considerable body of work. Most of the pieces included here are characteristically sharp and short; a minority spread to more than a page. The decision to stick to chronological order (combined, I suppose, with economic constraints), means that many poems are carried across a page-break, with the consequence that non-stanza breaks have to be distinguished from stanza-breaks (coded where needed sb), and some sadly ‘widowed’ lines. Also slightly cluttering on the Contents pages is the scholarly finesse of identifying the multifarious sources with three-letter ‘codes’ next to the title, referable to a key; those pages resultantly look a bit like a Sanskrit shopping-list. But these are minor quibbles about a somewhat crammed and shaggy feel to the layout.

            As for the poems, they can be a bit shaggy, too. It’s in the nature of such ‘informal’ writings to feel often more like ‘notes towards poems’, but even in pieces that Morrissey approved for publication, I’m often reminded of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures at the Uffizi, an arm or a shoulder of high polish and definition emerging from the powered chisel-marks. Short, crisp lines suddenly fly off into one so long it has to be run on; a line of fabulous lyricism will abruptly stumble into another that’s puzzlingly clumsy; a disarming, transparent directness is sometimes punctured by a usage straining after poeticism. Indeed, he believed poetry should be different from loose and everyday speech, tighter, more startling, even though he regularly courted the chatty. So in some ways the poems are the chisel-marks – poems about working at poems.

Still, while probing and ever-thoughtful, the poems are never difficult in the way of post-Eliot Modernism, or elusively strange like Kobus Moolman, or mellifluously lyrical like Stephen Watson, or archly compacted and demanding like Peter Anderson’s latest volume In a Free State. Nor does he venture towards the controlled versification of, say, a Yeats (whom he admired) or a John Eppel.  In his mode of free verse (there is little formal variation from beginning to end), Morrissey muscles and shoulders through his poems, robust, open-faced, wholly un-mysterious. Sometimes I feel the end of a poem is unnecessarily blunt, like the closing bar of a Beethoven symphony; he is not one for leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. It’s characteristically a poetry of assertion: even when he’s expressing doubts and self-deprecation, he manages to do so assertively.

Among Morrissey’s strengths for me is the intimate attention he paid to the tiniest objects, such as a miniscule insect interacting with a droplet sliding down a beer-mug. He applies this attentiveness – surely the foundation of love of the world and its denizens – to an extraordinary range of subjects. Little escaped his gimlet eye, whether beautiful or grating – the movement of a cat, a student waiting at an ATM, a tortoise, micturition, surfing, getting sick and ageing. The resonant title Gripscapes encapsulates it: he seizes the world and its intricacies with a fierce and compassionate  absorption. He seems to have had that facility to translate every and any mundane event in his day into a meditation and a poem – “moralizing in happy madness”, as he lightly scoffed. The ordinary is often catapulted into greater significance by a deep awareness of evolutionary heritage, of us little humans being mere fragments in the vast swirl of history and the cosmos. There’s something of this in one of his sweeter poems, “Wind”:


I’ve heard you, wind,

these days

lying in bed,


hungry, sick at the smell of food,

in pain:


heard you sidling about,


shouldering the house-corners,

fiddling window-catches


- like something of the oldest times

snuffing at this curious shell

over and again.


Did you muse like this

over that huddled firstcomer

just crept from the sea?


Rare in ending with a question, this poem otherwise is representative of Morrissey’s approachable lucidity and raw honesty, his propensity for new coinages (firstcomer), his at times idiosyncratic, but never gimmicky, use of line-breaks and spaces. At one end of his spectrum he can drop lines and images of wonderful lyric surprise and accuracy – “a prowed heron rocked down to roost”, “that kingdom-withering sun”, “the inhuman clench of wasting bones” – or of sympathetic feeling; at the other he can be scathingly satirical or touchingly funny, as in “Highway Blues”:


            Wish tyres was like folks

            - start out smooth

            and slowly get treads on ’em.


Above all, as van Wyngaard points out in a useful closing essay, Morrissey compulsively mused on the art of poetry itself, its provenance, its craft, its ultimate meaningfulness. Poetry was not so much a retrospective expression of his engagements with the world, but his ever-present means of engagement, of literally “grounding” himself. Poetry was and is the cornerstone of an “independent self-sovereignty” he craved or defended, even as in old age he felt himself begin to crumble and fade. Yet, for all his fierce devotion to the only activity liable to outlast him, he had no illusions about its fragility: just as he himself is a “tiny inwhirling eddy”, a poem’s “just a kick at the wind”. For all his bluff assertiveness, he was persistently self-deprecating: his “ideology” he summed up in “one line:/ I’ll never know much for certain about anything/ at any one time.”

One thing he seemed sure about: the critic is “just a tagger-on/ at the elephant’s tail”. I suppose that means me. Best to move on and just read this multitudinous volume.


See also www.netsoka.co.za for more books and art.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

No 119 - I got the jab!


A while back I went round to the local pharmacy in the hopes of getting a Covid jab – or, at least, a jab that, weirdly, being a vaccine, is both Covid and anti-Covid. The word ‘vaccine’, I recall, derives from the Latin for ‘cow’, the first animal to receive such a treatment, so I think of this as the Bovid-Covid jab. Which, as I understand it, guarantees nothing, but hopefully has a something-% chance of keeping me out of hospital when I do get Covid. This places it just a notch above the frailty of a face-mask that is, as a medical acquaintance put it, as effective against transmission as underpants are in containing the smell of a fart. Well, nothing ventured, nothing protected.  Belt and braces. 

As I was saying, I went round to the pharmacy, but they had run out of Jabs. The solitary nurse promised to phone me when she had some. I was not optimistic. But blow me down, she called, and here I am, queuing up for the needle. 

Happily, it’s a warmish winter day, since we first have to queue on the pavement. Apparently the facilities are too cramped inside to accommodate both ‘jab-ees’ and Ordinary Shoppers, who are on a last-Friday-of-the-month gallop to buy Clearance Sale kettles and baby-towels and Lancôme and headache powders and bog-roll and sunglasses and other such necessities of modern civilisation. All of which seems to me to have just an edge of the frantic about it, not only because everyone has just been paid, but because in other parts of the country malls and pharmacies like this one are being looted and burned and destroyed utterly. 

Sketch by a friend -
from the same queue

But here, today, all is peaceful
, if slightly in(s)anely busy. I suspect the ‘scheduled’ jab-ees have been infiltrated by the unscheduled, but we line up obediently, multi-racially, amicably sharing pleasantries in a variety of tongues. This, I think benignly, is the real New South Africa. Part of it, anyway. The nurse and her assistant appear sporadically with a small shopping trolley bearing clipboards, Jab Record Cards, and Indemnity Forms in which we affirm that if the vaccine kills us we have only ourselves to blame. We help one another with pens and what to write where, while assuring confused Ordinary Shoppers that they can indeed go on in and don’t forget to pump the foot-pedal on the steriliser. (What an extraordinary range of such machines has been quickly designed, manufactured, labelled, distributed – I knew I was in the wrong line of work.) 

We are being ushered into the pharmacy in small batches, as the newly-jabbed trickle out. In between lurches in the line we wait: half an hour, an hour, more. It’s a great time to people-watch, kind of like taking the pulse of our times. Alongside us minibus taxis pull up frequently, with the distinctive roar of their sliding doors, disgorging and engorging; happily, unlike Cape Town, they aren’t shooting each other to bits. People pass, striding or waddling, languid or hustling. It’s just a touch cool, so many are wearing tracksuit tops, emblazoned “Primal Rage” or “University of Wisconsin” or “Refinery Dry Goods Supplier” or “Strike a Woman/ Strike a Rock”. Most people are responsible about wearing face-coverings – some plain, some elaborate, some disposable, some homemade, some close-fitting, some beaked. One man has a sort of elasticised head-sleeve, camo-patterned, which covers his entire neck, mouth, nose and ears, leaving exposed only his eyes and bald pate. A lesbian couple of insouciant demeanour and ultra-tight jeans, holding hands, have matching masks with yellow smiley emojis. Two Muslim women need no more than their usual full-body chadors, revealing only dark glossy eyes, superficially plain in black but on closer inspection adorned with subtle lace and silver-embroidered hems in discreet showiness. 

The shop flanking the pharmacy entrance is owned by (at a guess) Pakistanis, who seem to regard themselves as pandemic-immune and eschew masks, as does the massive ebony man (at a guess, Senegalese) who guards it. At the door gauchely-made mannequins shoulder knock-off Adidas jackets, violently vivid dresses, and pre-torn jeans; a crudely hand-written notice promises ALL cellradioTVlaptop repair; the elaborate silver tubes of a hookah glint behind the window. A red parka on display is impressively realistically stuffed – until it moves, being, it turns out, occupied by a living human. Shoes are shelved in pairs against the far wall, toes turned demurely in. Such multi-purpose stores are the name-of-the-game in survivalist times. From a row of window-sill spikes, intended to repel the bottoms of loiterers, hangs a panoply of colourful face-masks. Business goes where business is. 

Sketch by a friend,
from the same queue

I notice inside this shop a white-and-red painted narrow spiral staircase, a strand of DNA coiling up out of sight. Who notices these remnants of architectural adornment now: a carved wooden pillar, a row of almost iridescent green tiles, the sculptural cast-iron walkway post I lean against, its cream paint peeling? Across the street, too, I can see the tawny stonework of an early nineteenth-century church, the complex facade in pale blue and white of Georgian wedding-cake style on an historic clothier, the copper angel statue atop a World War One memorial, the characterless 20th-century frontage in industrial grey and yellow of a tyre-fitter. One is boxed in by history. Beyond this rank of (relative) Euro-elegance, the far hill-slope is crammed with the ragged rows of little township houses – the source, no doubt, of the majority of these passersby. 

These are wildly varied – as varied as the inventive things people do with their hair and braids. Gum-chewing boys ride mountain bikes down the pavement. One woman is totally done-up in gleaming gold, false eyelashes, and inch-long false nails in livid green that don’t seem in the slightest to inhibit her smart-phone operations as she minces by on perilously high stilettos. A lot of people are absorbed with their phones. There are youths, loping busily behind delapidated supermarket trolleys, rattling scavengers, their clothes edged black with their accumulated poverty. A teenager who has been loitering for a while cradling an empty black bucket decides she might as well slot into our queue, though clearly she’s not a jab candidate. No shoes, no mask, no physical distancing; if I’m going to catch Covid anywhere it will be right here in the vaccination queue. The girl looks absurdly pleased with herself; she is pretty in a sturdy sort of way, with a pretty but vacant smile, and a top that once was pretty but is now splitting its seams at the armpits. She suddenly releases a prodigious stream of saliva into the gutter, half vomiting half spitting, then still smiling dances over to the pharmacy’s pseudo-Classical entrance pillars and almost lovingly caresses the layered posters stuck to them: Jesus the Resurrection Revivalist Meeting and Sons-of-Man Quartet alongside Call this Number for Penis Enlargement Find Wallet Lost Love. The girl is obviously mentally – whatever the politically correct term is these days – not quite all there, but apparently harmlessly, contentedly so. Happily daffy. 

"The Shopper"

The line is moving
; my batch is invited to enter the brilliantly glittering, neon-washed, narrow-aisled, bustling interior of the pharmacy. Its sterilisation-bottle mechanism like a glum mechanical Cerberus. In my batch are a long-haired biker-looking man, wearing for face-mask one of those triangular red bandannas now mostly associated with invaders of the Capitol; a lean fellow all in black who might be a displaced clergyman; an ancient hobbling Xhosa gentleman and his worried-looking be-hatted wife. Just ahead of me is an overweight lady crammed into a shiny green dress and a haughty but cheerful manner, whose diminutive twin girls are obliged to wait all this time with her. Except one overhears that in fact they’re a year apart – five and six – despite being dressed identically in little pink parkas with grey faux-wolf fur ruffs, cerise masks they have trouble keeping on, identical hairstyles of elegantly raked cornrows supporting twin bobbles tied with colourful bead-strings, and spangly blue gum-boots. They are exquisitely well-behaved, and almost everyone going into the shop pats them or waggles their fingers at them, finding them just too cute for words, which they are. 

Less cute is an unusually loud and unusually tall individual who keeps shouting the odds about the confusion over who is to move to which plastic chair, and why is it taking so long, and hey, isn’t she jumping the queue, what the hell? He will not sit down because he says he has back problems. He converses, if that’s the word, with another fellow with a reedy penetrating voice about how all this rioting is just bloody Africa and Ramaphosa doesn’t have a hope in hell now and why can’t Eskom stick to its bloody schedules.  They hurt my eardrums. Sandwiched between them, I take out an art magazine and pretend to read it, having zero desire to engage. But Mister Tall-and-Irrepressible spots this and lunges over me: “Are you an artist?”

            I hedge, “Well, nah, I’m just interested.” For some reason I don’t want to admit anything to this intrusive fellow. He starts going on about his aunt being artistic. I put a finger behind my ear and pretend I’m too deaf to carry on this exchange, but this just makes him speak louder.

            “At least you’ve got your eyes. Eyes, hey! My eyes, mm-hmm!” He prods his rather thick glasses. He has thinning black hair slicked back over his brown skull, a frizz of beard turning grey. He is, I’m guessing, a rather indeterminate racial mix, not quite Coloured nor White nor Indian, a true scion, one might say, of South Africa’s entangled past and future.

            “You look fit!” he bellows. “Are you a hiker or something?”

            I sigh.

            “Where do you hike around here?”

            “I like the Drakensberg,” I offer, though in truth I haven’t been to the ’Berg in a decade. He leaves me for a while. I suffer instead through the appalling pervasive shouty-screamy noise-over that passes for pop-musak nowadays, and the perpetual, robotic, plummy-toned announcements at the pharmaceuticals queue, “Number Ess Two Four One, serving at Counter Seven ... Number Ess Two Four One, serving at Counter Seven ... Number Ess Two Four One ...” Number S241 has evidently gone home already, or gotten lost in the toothpaste section. So much for AI. I can hardly credit the number of people in here buying all this stuff (although I confess I bought myself a new kettle in this very shop not long ago...)

            “Are you an ornithologist?” Why the fuck would he ask me that?

            Fortunately at this point the jab-nurse calls me in – sometimes they call me Daniel and sometimes Wylie – to the little sanctum behind the cluster of waiting-chairs, while the assistant patters my details into her laptop. The nurse closes the door, as if exposing my bicep is an exceedingly private thing. She has been very patient, is really very sweet, and delivers the jab with such deftness I barely feel it.

            “So this your life now, huh,” I say to her, “this Covid thing doesn’t look like going away any time soon.”

            “Oh, I’m so bored, this isn’t what I trained for. I’m qualified in HIV care and monitoring, a student can do this stuff, I’m looking elsewhere, I’m telling you.” (One is tempted to extrapolate this mismatch into ailments bedevilling the entire national medical superstructure, but we won’t go there.)

            I have to sit and wait for another ten minutes in case I suddenly keel over. I don’t, and the assistant presents me with my completed Jab Record Card and a hearty “Congratulations!” Of course, I have been terribly brave. I execute a mock bow, which a well-groomed Afrikaans lady in the chair opposite deems worth a titter, and scuttle away, out of that capitalistic corner of hell, as fast as my ornithological legs will carry me.




Monday, 26 July 2021

No 118 - Kobus Moolman, The Mountain Behind the House - a review


Apart from coming out
as a balding old curmudgeon, I have another disclosure: I consider Kobus Moolman to be a fabulous and heroic human being, a good friend who constantly makes me burst out into wholly uncharacteristic laughter. Besides, in a note to his volume of poems The Mountain behind the House (Dryad Press) he acknowledges my “invaluable comments”, whatever those might have been. All this of course disqualifies me from making anything like a dispassionate assessment of the poetry. But I’ll try to give potential readers some sense of what the collection is like, and why they might find it worth reading.

Too chummy? Fine. In his contribution to that marvellous compilation, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Nils Bubandt writes that “we have increasingly lost the ability to tell the difference between our own world and the natural worlds we make and destroy.” We have entered a fragile age of “necropolitics”, our unavoidable condition of living through, organising within, and writing about an envelope of “ruination and extinction”. “As each new scientific discovery reveals more details of the complex play between human worlds and natural worlds,” we increasingly enter a realm of “metaphysical indeterminacy rather than certainty, unintended consequences rather than control.” [Bubandt G124-5]  Replace that word “scientific” with “poetic”, and I think we have a way into the delicate strangeness of Kobus Moolman’s work.

Now Professor of Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape, Moolman has been at it for some time. Among his publications: Feet of the Sky (2003); Light and After (2010); Left Over (2013); A Book of Rooms (2014); and The Swimming Lesson and other stories  (2017). Over this period his poetry has, if anything, become ever more cryptic, compressed and elusive. His most recent pamphlet, All and Everything (uHlanga), is most spaciously designed of all, tiny poems flitting like semi-transparent moths among the illustrations. It becomes increasingly difficult to say what the poems are about.

Moolman, if you ask him, is inclined to be unhelpful. He has reached such a pitch of intuitive lightness of touch that he can scarcely say himself. As he puts it in one poem here, “He does not know what he is doing/ or why he is doing it” (16). Overly humble, perhaps: unquestionably he has refined recognisable techniques of a pointillist surface simplicity that opens up surprising spaces of suggestiveness. One has the persistent sense that he is open to surprising himself, that he can be in so receptive a space that the images and lines somehow find their way to him.

One can lay out a few basics. There are 38 poems (though some are more like prose paragraphs), arranged in 8 (VIII) sections. Some sections consist of a single poem, mysteriously, but at least some of them play around a discernible theme. The opening two sections treat of the Moolmans’ move to a new home – Riebeeck-Wes, though it’s not specified – with its looming mountain, its eucalypts and birds and agricultural milieu. And cicadas: he’s rather attached to the sound of cicadas. Another section is devoted to poems arising from travel to Canada, Australia and the Eastern Cape; Section IV is anchored in the figure of his mother. “Road Trip” follows a route through South Africa in resonant snapshots; Moolman acknowledges the Japanese miniaturist Basho here, though only some of the arrayed fragments are haiku-like. In all cases, though, these hooks are only that: hooks for something more expansive, twig-ends sticking up above a more subtle current.

There are some poems whose ‘subject’ is relatively obvious. These tend to be those devoted to other people, notably the poorer folk around town: a destitute family sitting glumly on the village street, an anonymous tractor-driver plugging up and down all day delivering produce,  the decrepit state of the Cradock Four monument. Compassionately perceptive as these pieces are, they feel a little flatter, just a touch sociologically obligatory- or maybe that’s just my response to our wearying politics. What these poems do say, nevertheless, is that for such folk the world is what it is: grim and unjustly ignored.

The bulk of the poems are more intriguing. Endlessly intriguing, rewarding many re-readings despite their apparent starkness. Two more twigs to hang onto might be the volume’s epigraphs, both from poets’ journals. One is from the late Stephen Watson, about how “the first light does not so much fill the sky as empty it still further”; the second from Greek poet George Seferis: “In essence, the poet has only one theme: his live body.”  So there’s a persistent tension, or perhaps a symbiosis, between the body and emptiness, solidity and obliteration. The very spaciousness of the poems’ lines, elemental material presences hovering in white space, enacts a sense of immense and precious fragility. Take these deliberately double-spaced lines from the opening poem, “New House”:


            At the back of the house is where the mountain lives.


            The mountain with its hard high forehead.


            The mountain with its infinite number of steps into the clouds.



            At the back of the new house there is the mountain.


            And small plants that survive only on air.


            And yellow fish that change behind the curtain of the wind.


So simple, yet implying much, or perhaps just raising questions. The mountain “lives”, a fellow-dweller, possibly threateningly “hard” and ultimately unreachable. Are we to identify with, or admire, the tenuousness of plants surviving on air? We don’t know how the fish change, but that they do could be both exciting and unsettling. Some unspecifiable meaning seems concealed behind a “curtain”, just because there is a curtain, paradoxically transparent or, like the wind, visible only in its effects. There is a sense that despite, or because of, the implacable and familiar presence of the material, we can never know quite what drives everything.

One projected antidote might be to identify with that materiality, with precisely what seems impenetrably ‘other’. So it goes in the next poem, “I Am That Stone”, which reads in full:


I am that stone.


            Red mountain in the morning.


I am that stone that sits.


                        Sharp static of cicadas.


I am that stone that sits still.


                                    Sky between wind and rock.


I am that stone that burns silently.


The poem advances by incremental steps even as it insists on stasis (gotta love that double entendre on “static”, not to mention the echo of Sydney Clouts’ “red mountain” and burning stone). Is this the stillness of meditation, or of paralysis? Is that sense of a core self layered within its milieux, like geological strata, nesting or imprisoning? Is that burning the heat of potentiality, or of self-immolation?

You see what’s happening: this is a kind of poetry which generates puzzled questions which even the poet himself may not have articulated, let alone answered. The only response seems to be further poetry, more metaphors. At its best, or most extreme, this technique implies another world that runs on connections and causalities quite different from our norms. It’s not quite ‘magic realism’, in that over-used term, but something akin to it, something that incorporates the startling, illogical entanglements of dream. I once accused Moolman of being a surrealist, but he insisted he’s the world’s Number One Realist (or words to that effect). Hmm, sure, at one level, as in the way he will sometimes pile observations up without comment, as if they are striking the eye unmediated, un-ordered, immediate.


Brown mushrooms in the grass, and tiny yellow flowers, and dry cowpats, and clumps of dry grass, and small pieces of stone, and some broken bricks, ... and a cold wind across the back of your neck, and a cold wind across your lower back where your jersey and trousers fail to meet, and low grey clouds over the face of the hill ... (“Ystervarkvallei II”)


In many poems, however, the juxtaposition of such simplified elements, like atoms whirling about an invisible nucleus, will explode into a much stranger construction of the world. This is probably best encapsulated by a four-liner from All and Everything:


            Hands over your eyes.

            Eyes closed.

            Fingers crossed for luck.

            - A shriek of geese beneath your skin.


Mundane, if suggestive, gestures – then a line of explosive strangeness, as if sound gets right into the body, as if  there’s some previously hidden chain of causality and somatic response that eludes even the ear. The last line has the punch of a great haiku. Is the effect unsettling, or thrilling? There’s no single or distinct ‘answer’.

So in “Ystervarkvallei I”, for example, elements of usually separable realms are fused into new synaesthetic realities:


                        Ridge of blue cicadas.


            Concrete column of cloud.


                        Fence of moist sunlight.


            The tractor of a crow.


                        Black muzzle of a fence post.


Somehow (as with Clouts) this goes beyond metaphor in a way very hard to explain. 

However elusive in ‘meaning’, the poems are nevertheless often centred in the body – the sensate, rich, vulnerable body. “One foot transmitting ice./ The other transmitting infection.” “One hand cannot feel./ The other cannot see”. “In the deep armchair ...// you have to grip the arms / ... to stop yourself/ pitching overboard.” These expressions of fragility and uncertainty range from the everyday, as in the Wimpy restaurant setting of “Winelands One-Stop”, to the quirkily imaginative. In “The Handle”, the poet imagines he has a handle atop his head, by which he might any moment be snatched nightmarishly up and away. An initially comical poem turns at the end existential: “Now he knows, too,/ why he is so fearful of God.” (Sorry, Kobus, but that’s surreal.)

"Kobus reading - or maybe dozing" (c) Dan Wylie

If in one mode the body suffers its selfhood and gross weight, “pressed into the earth”, in numerous other modes its borders dissolve into its environment. Skin, bone, sensory organs become conduits to inter-infusions of feeling and materiality. “Old chairs” are granted consciousness, eucalyptus trees mouths, a door a serious face and a “reputation for obscene thoughts”. Plumbed repeatedly, this becomes so much more than mere comparison or play, rather the scratchy, tentative delineation, or enactment, of a quite different kind of consciousness. Like the ‘quantum microbial’ worlds explored in Arts of Living, which blur and challenge the very existence of ‘the individual’, it seems to me that it is a consciousness of enormous seriousness and consequence, beautiful and unsettling.