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 LancĂ´me 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.

 

*****

 

Sunday, 18 July 2021

No 117 - Elegy for a wasp

 


I
crouched for twenty minutes in winter sunlight in my back porch and watched a paper wasp die.

It flopped into a channel between floor-tiles and tried feebly to right itself. All six legs and both antennae worked and waved. The sun shone coppery through its almost translucent thorax and fluted wings. It seemed unable even to attempt to fly. It hunched towards its abdomen and half righted itself, then tumbled over again. The legs twitched and signalled directionlessly. Silent. I wondered if at some cryptic frequency of wasp-language it was screaming, or grunting.

The wasp belonged to a colony that has established itself on the upper skirting board of the porch, not a foot from my washing-line. Two summers ago they began, starting in this quite undistinguished spot with a single little aerodynamic peg or stump, from which the whole edifice would thereafter hang. It would grow outwards into a broad, patty-shaped flange, a shelf of ranked cells, almost as clearly hexagonal and precisely arranged as a honeycomb. Over its surface an increasing number of wasps busied themselves raising the brood in their snug silos, crafted from chewed wood-pulp and saliva – a library of wasp-genes. On a rough count, in the end, some 300 of them. Somewhere among them, a queen was laying her eggs and chaperoning love affairs.

How did they find food? – mostly caterpillars they would immobilise with a sting, munch them up, regurgitate them for the larvae. Which would in time burst through the grey caps of their chambers, shake out their damp and crumpled wings, and fly off, just like that. Navigating, hunting, nurturing, collaborating, obeying mechanisms of instinct and divisions of labour from the very first day. The under-surface of the brood building would be wall-to-wall with reddish, energetic parents – the early ones sterile females, the later ones fertile males and females. In all this activity, how would one distinguish between automatism and choice, between instinct and loyal altruism? Why would one think altruism and a moral sense is confined to humans?

Most of “The 300”, no doubt, would be picked off by birds somehow insensitive to venom and crunchy shells. Some might just get lost. Some would manage to establish new colonies elsewhere. Some would remain, even after the last larva had hatched, a skeleton crew of guardians on the edge of autumn, females wintering over in the tubes of flowers.

This little individual, maybe a male dying after fulfilling his mating duties, was wrestling futilely with its own demise. Its leg and antenna movements were growing weaker. Getting off its back now seemed beyond it. It once curled its greyish sting-tipped abdomen convulsively skywards; I wondered if this was the equivalent of a person turning up their toes. I momentarily contemplated killing it quickly, mercifully ‘putting it out of its misery’. Does a wasp feel misery? Does it possess either more or less consciousness than a fish or a tree, a human or a stone? What could it be struggling for, if not some imagined prolongation of a treasured life, if not begging for help to stave off the slow petrification of its systems? Having observed all the wonderful complexity of its lived experience, it seems simplistic and demeaning to reduce it now to the involuntary twitching of an autonomous nervous system.

I wondered if this – he – was one of the guardians of the previous brood. Exactly a year ago, in the winter of 2020, a baboon, openly defying all Covid-19 restrictions, raided the porch, managing to leap from the windowsill and knock down the wasp-house (by then as broad as my palm). Hoping, I suppose, to suck up any last remaining larvae in a lean season. I picked up the discarded nest: so light and papery, yet so sturdy, honed to purpose, still vulnerable to massive external forces such as a simian paw. So it goes in all the world: all you’ve worked for, perhaps over generations, all you’ve lovingly built, beggared yourself for, invested your identity in – smashed to smithereens overnight by a riot or a flood. What, realistically, can one hope for but to have lived one’s brief span with some usefulness and beauty?


Anyway, this nest was no more, a husk. I thought, Okay, I’d never been totally comfortable with a horde of vicious stingers so close to the washing-line. They, for their part, would turn head-on and flutter their wings rapidly in warning or horror when approached too brusquely by a wet pair of underpants. But I would sing a phrase to them, the way my mother used to calm wild bushbuck with a musical phrase. Do they even hear, and if so, what, with what interpretative equipment? In any event, they never once attacked me. (Unlike another lot above the studio door: there my head was passing too close and too often for comfort, and they delivered a few hearty stings before I had to destroy the nest.) Though the porch tribe had been pretty chilled I thought, Right, this is a good opportunity to just fob off this colony, too; after all, there were a hundred other overhangs to go to. So I scrubbed off even the last vestige of the anchor-stump and sprayed the lintel for good measure. This, in my experience, was always sufficient to dissuade them from returning.

Not this time. A couple of stragglers I waved away and dusted with chalk and pepper, trying to explain that they were welcome to build, but not there, okay? But throughout the winter, just two or three wasps kept coming back, exploring, almost caressing the very spot where the stump of the former construction had been. And in spring they began a new one, a yellowy waxy pedestal, and soon enough a few whitish brood chambers. This, it seemed, was home; they had perhaps been born here, their metaphorical umbilical cords were buried here, and they would accept no other suburb. The queen hath spoken. Oh-kay, I sighed, stay then. Just don’t sting anybody. They haven’t. Yet. I, and my wet underpants, are apparently acceptable and accepted. I have to play my part, of course.  As with almost anybody else in the animal kingdom, accord them sufficient social distance, approach with gentleness, grant them their dignity, and there’s usually no problem.

This chap, the last of the year’s guardians, was weakening yet further. The movements of legs and tiny curled feet


lessened, becoming ever more tentative and aimless. Unless one has the (mis)fortune to be nipped out by a flash-flood or a shrike, a baboon or an infarction, this is the way it ends for most of us, I guess, bodies gradually crumbling to arthritis and sclerosis, eaten out from the inside by cancers and dementia. We want to afford our own kind the opportunity to die in their own time, in a warm space, with courage, watched over however distressingly by family and neighbours – why not this one, little brother wasp?

When the faint signals and tremors of feet and, last of all, the antennae had finally stilled, I laid the little corpse on a pretty flake of stone, to be carried off by a raven’s bill or a gust of July wind, to reintegrate into the ecosystem from which it was built.

*****

Dan Wylie's new novella, THE FLIGHT OF THE BAT, available soon from d.wylie@ru.ac.za

Saturday, 26 June 2021

No 116 - Where's the zol in our literature?

 



As everybody knows, dagga
Cannabis sativa, marijuana, hemp, pot – is everywhere. It always seems to have been there, moving beneath the surface of so-called civilised life like a dark and smoky doppelganger. In the centuries before it became criminalised, it was of course entirely above the surface – and in recent times, as it becomes progressively de-criminalised again, it rises pungently back into sight. The building crew next door blow its fumes through my windows; my generous neighbour grows it in profusion, distils it into numerous forms of crumble, cake, chocolate and unguent, and tries to cure with it all my ills – my abrasions, stiffness, insomnia, congenital grumpiness and other manifestations of mental instability. It has never agreed with me. When I tried smoking it as a student, I couldn’t really inhale through the coughing, and it just made me feel wobbly and ill. First and last attempt. In any form it smells ugly and as a treatment for sleeplessness it made my dreams even weirder than they were before. Enough already.

Nevertheless, as I pursue a larger project on the role of plants in Southern African literature, I’ve mulled upon dagga’s historic ubiquity, and wondered why I hadn’t encountered it more in our literature. Or had I just not noticed, since I wasn’t looking for it?  I began to think of it as a pioneer boundary-breaker, supreme among the many plants that care not a fig (so to speak) for our imposed borders, controls, cultural predilections and scientific distinctions. It is, or would be, the perfect patsy for what is being touted by eco-academics these days as “multispecies history”. For starters, cannabis early breached the great avowed divide between the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘alien’. Cannabis is originally from Asia, introduced to southern Africa through Arabic East Coast traders, if not a “thousand years ago”, as our own Hazel Crampton suggests in her entertaining little book, Dagga: A Short History, at least a very long time before Europeans settled. Not strictly indigenous, then, but it might as well be, so pervasive has its presence and social effect become. It breaches all the flimsy and artificial borders between classes and race groups, between geographical areas, between economic distinctions.


As for appearances in written literature
, we obviously have to begin with Jan van Riebeeck, commander of the first Dutch settlement at the Cape in 1652, who recorded in his diaries that he found local “Hottentots” already smoking cannabis. I’ve found a few more references in my scratchings. The traveller Peter Kolbe illustrated it in detail in 1719, and subsequent explorers regularly noted its intoxicating effects on its users (often with racist disdain). Two early Rhodesian poets noted dagga’s local use, though didn’t admit to trying it themselves. Kingsley Fairbridge, who arrived at the cluster of huts that would eventually become my home town, Umtali/Mutare, in the 1890s, was despite his youth a competent poet. He wrote “The Smoker of Imbainje” (mbanje is Shona for dagga) as one of his several rather noble if flawed poetic efforts to speak in the headspace of Shona personages. This old man is dislocated and confused, the ancestral spirits swarm, his wife is dead, he cannot even find his dagga-pipe, suspecting his nephew Goro, “the dog”, of having stolen it. Dagga is his consolation, an escape:

              The kraal, night-hidden, sleeps;

              The hill-rain weeps

              Along the sodden slopes. But, Pipe, we know

              Dry paths beyond the Distance … Let us go

              As we have gone before.

              The ghost-hands cannot hold us any more …

              We go, Imbainje, thou and I […] the Weed

              Catches the windpipe, wakes the cough, but stirs

              The blood within the vein, and blurs

              The Hunger and the Need.

Hm, maybe Fairbridge had tried it after all. A couple of decades later, a less gifted Rhodesian poetaster, Cullen Gouldsbury, depicts in his similar poem “The Daha-Smoker” an old Shona man escaping into dagga’s dream-world as a glum response to loss of his family, of his lifestyle and spiritual beliefs, even of the “sentry trees” which once surrounded his homestead, largely destroyed by the “White Man, peering and prying”. To bring the travelogue-as-literature into the modern era, there are the amusing episodes of joint-smoking among the canoeists of William Dicey’s wonderful Orange River account, Borderline.

The “zol” is probably most often depicted in our more liberated, seamy contemporary urban fiction. During the prohibitive twentieth century, dagga smoking acted variously as transgressive in all sorts of ways: it was part of youthful rebellion against authority, used as psychological escape, alternately an adventure and a stigma, alternately essential to some people’s sense of ease, and inducing madness. So the protagonist of K Sello Duiker’s brilliant little novel Thirteen Cents uses dope – in between the other hard drugs floating around his destitute Cape Town life – to blur “the Hunger and the Need”. In Duiker’s other well-known novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, the protagonist is institutionalised, his cannabis-induced breakdown symptomatic of a much wider socio-political malaise. 

A similar instance is the key novel of Zimbabwe’s inspirational maverick Dambudzo Marechera: The House of Hunger’s phantasmagoric quality is, it has been suggested, governed if not caused by the characters’ beliefs that “dope is heaven”, that there “is a part of man that is permanently stoned, and that is beautiful”. The personal reflects the political: the characters crave freedom “as one craves dagga or beer”. (In fact, behaviour in the novel is more thoroughly affected by alcohol – also plant-derived, of course.) In a brief encounter in Nthikeng Mohlele’s 2016 novel Pleasure, the narrator’s brother rants “about why police never tired of arresting him”, despite the fact “that there are far greater and unacceptable crimes than cannabis use”. On the other hand, his lawyer dismisses him as a “weed-smoking goat stuck in the sewers of self-pity and denial”.  A little more positively, Cape Town writer Tatamkhulu Afrika’s poem, “The Dagga-Zoll”, depicts the speaker approaching a pair of lurking down-and-outs (bergies). He suffers various class-induced anxieties and fears, until the man “smoking a dagga-zoll/ pass[es] me the spittle-/saturated end” – an offhand, if slightly unhealthy, gesture of unexpected sharing.

This smattering of examples, all brief but sociologically resonant, is surely just the tip of a heap of dried dagga-leaves. I haven’t even started exploring Afrikaans or Xhosa or Zulu literatures. My most talented scouts and informants believe Koos Kombuis would be a likely source. There must be many, many more. If you know of any I’d appreciate a pointer. Is there a work out there in which dagga is really central, as opposed to passing mentions? If not, why aren’t you writing it? Will there be any stimulus and pizzazz left in dagga now it is legal again, or will it become as routine and barely significant as “He lit a cigarette” or “A dog barked”?  Has CBD oil found a literary stage yet? Do let me know. Koff koff.

******

Dan Wylie's new novella, The Flight of the Bat, will hopefully be launched in Makhanda during the National Arts Festival in July.

For more on Jill and Dan Wylie's books and art, visit www.netsoka.co.za.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

No 115 - "In loff - wiz a kat!"




A few poems apart, a blog on ‘feline philosophy’, I’ve not written about Siberia. Why not? Not even in private, where I needn’t be reserved about others’ views, of being twee, or misanthropic. When did I care about that, anyway? Yet hers has been one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. She has made the last twelve years immeasurably richer, emotionally layered, companionable. No doubt I would have lived through them without her, as I had the previous twelve years, but how much I would have missed! A couple of years ago on TV I chanced on a clip of the late Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion mogul. However treasured and respected he may have been in the fashion world, he seemed to me rather weird and creepily self-conscious. But apparently he
had acquired a great fluffy white feline who accompanied him everywhere, and of whom he now said, in his thick Germanic accent: ‘I neffer rrealiced zat zo late in life one coult fall in loff – wiz a kat!’ Now that I can wholly understand. I do not merely love this cat: in am in love with her. It is of an order and kind quite different from that with any human. I have been in love with other humans, too, but with an animal the range of emotion has an edge of something else: a subtly different set of responsibilities and freedoms, sensualities and communications. It is also, of course, more limited; a cat makes you realise how phenomenally complex, awkward, deceptive humans can be. This creature, when she’s happy, she purrs; when she purrs, you know she’s happy. Simple as a Buddhist mantra.

              Which is not to say she’s stupid. In fact, for someone with a brain the size of half a golfball, she’s pretty bright. Surprising, perhaps, for one brought up in the gutters behind Clicks. My friend Ann and I spotted her one freezing wet day, a manky scrap scuttering like a tiny rabbit into the stormdrains. She was, it seemed, the last survivor of a litter that had died, the mother moved off, but still tempted by milk put down by the local hairdressers. We just couldn’t leave her there to die, so we arranged to have her trapped, which the Feral Cat Project did in short order. Since both Ann and the Project people had more cats than they could handle, I said, OK, I’ll get her over the spits and clean her up, then we can find her a home. Being busy and peripatetic, I’d long resisted committing to having animals, much as I love them.

              And spitty this one was, boy! She hurled herself at the sides of the trap at one’s approach, every claw and tooth and vocal cord deployed, prepared to do battle with any monster. I enclosed her in my safest room, the bathroom –  a bit bleak, but free of dangers – and ensconced her in a wicker basket in the corner. She spat and slashed, but as she cowered in that haven, I lay down and tickled her ribs with the handle of a wooden spoon, which she found less threatening than a great clutching hand. I fed her, of course, and in between sat on the floor and read aloud reams of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. She seemed to like phenomenology. Or at least got very used to the sound of my voice, growing to realise it wasn’t a threat. I shut her in for the night with all she needed, and the next morning continued with the spoon and Merleau-Ponty and other stimulating literature. After a time the stroking of the spoon evoked just the beginnings of a purr, and slowly-slowly I ventured forth with fingertips. There were no claws, just a strengthening purr. Within 36 hours she wanted nothing but to climb onto my lap as I sat on the loo. Without doubt, that moment when she first purred for me – for me – I was a goner.

I gave her her first bath to get rid of the fleas and dirt; she cried and struggled and her hair went all into points. She didn’t consume much water, since she could pretty much fit into a large coffee mug. It was only when she was dried off in the sun that I realised just how pretty she was: a kind of silver tabby, with a stripe down the back and squares on her flanks, dark cross-stripes on the forelegs and ring-tailed as a lemur. I figured I’d better get her to the vet for a check-up and any health necessaries, before taking the next step. But I had to phone Ann and ask, “Listen, if I’ve bought a catbox” –  which sort of spontaneously I had – “does that mean I’m committed?”  The question was, of course, rhetorical.

For a few nights I confined her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t get into trouble in any of the sundry corners of my open-plan cottage. From the outset, she used the sand-tray quite naturally, and never needed any further house-training. Then, once she knew the full layout by day, I gave her the run of the house at night, too. Except my bedroom; I didn’t want her disturbing my already dodgy sleep, or to roll over onto her inadvertently. I’d open my door in the morning, and there she’d be, sitting a metre away staring fixedly at the door handle, then crying out as I emerged and scooped her up. As I said, a goner.


She grew more and more trusting, more and more beautiful. I called her Siberia, because she was the Snow-Tiger-Who-Came-in-from-the-Cold, in the winter of my fiftieth year – a birthday present from the Universe, Ann claimed. By dint of much repetition, she quickly learned her name. I recently read about some of those wonderful scientists who, through multiple field observations and double-blind controlled experiments, ‘discover’ what anyone who lives attentively with animals knows all along – in this case, that cats might actually know their names. Well, this one answers to several: Siberia, Tiger, Skittoon, Skittleberry, Wodwo. And Gorgeous. Of course tone and pitch of voice are crucial, too.

At first her language skills were shaky. She’d curl up next to my chair, and when I’d lean over and say “Siberia!”, she’d look up and go “eck-eck-eck” in the hunter’s yammer. But after a while her instincts somehow told her to reserve that sound for birds at the window and spiders on the wall.  Over time she developed a whole range of sounds, communications that would never be used with another cat, that were human-orientated if not actually attempts at mimicry. There are greetings and queries and Thank-you’s and Yes-pleases. There’s a particular meow that asks for a certain cupboard to be opened, or the ladder to be put up through the trapdoor; she won’t desist until I do it, and performs a weird little circular motion with her head as I obey. (Sucker.) Another meow is just a contact call when we’re out walking, but it changes tone markedly when she’s stopping for a pooh. She knows a number of specific English words, too, including milk, Whiskas, come, up, walk and brush. I know she recognises them as individual words because I can embed them in any variation of surrounding sentence and she’ll pick them out.  Of course, she understands No! as well. I only had to swot her off the kitchen table once with a wet dishcloth and a No! for her to desist forever from trying to steal food. She had to learn not to tear things up with her claws. A certain armchair – which literally fell off the back of a truck and is so badly made you can’t even sit on it – is fine for ripping, which happens en route to bed every night. A temptingly velvet-covered footstool, on the other hand, is not fine for ripping. She started to have a go once, and from my chair I said sternly No! and made a threatening gesture, and she backed off blinking. A day or two later I was sitting in the same chair, and she sauntered up to the footstool, planted both sets of claws on its side, chunk, chunk!, paused and looked meaningfully, challengingly, straight at me, clearly in order to gauge my reaction. No! I said sternly. She withdrew, and has never tried to scratch it again, though she frequently relaxes on top of it. As I said, not stupid.

Another sign of intelligence is a capacity for boredom. Especially on those socked-in days of mist and rain, when we both get a bit cabin-feverish: then she starts to be ‘naughty’ – threatening to climb up a wall-hanging, knocking objects off side-tables, or attacking my ankles. Because I’m her sole companion, she demands that I Do Stuff with her. Partly this is because I’ve inculcated it in her myself, taking her on my walks in the afternoons, for example. She’d happily walk for kilometres through the forest, climbing trees, stalking rustles, meowing, getting particularly excited at entering new territory. She came to expect this, so almost to the hour you can see her glancing at her watch and drumming her fingernails, C’mon, c’mon, let’s Do Stuff. I still find this whole inter-species relationship close to miraculous.

Though I know I ‘rescued’ her, that she ‘imprinted’, in the ethologist’s term, I marvel that she wants to be with me, chooses to follow, to come when called, and not just for food. That she looks desolate when I leave in the car, waits for me at the garage, runs to chirrup in greeting on my return. Not that she doesn’t spend large portions of day and night independent and away, adventuring , controlling the local rodent population, or just lying up who knows where. I worry. There are all sorts of predators out here: adders and eagles and caracals and owls, reckless drivers and other aggressive cats and wandering dogs. Mostly dogs. Once she must have been mauled, coming in wet around the throat and with a wound on her cheek that turned nasty –  and a broken upper incisor, so now sometimes her top lip gets hitched up on the lower incisor and gives her a raffish, supercilious sort of smirk. But mostly she transforms herself into something resembling a puffer fish and sends the dogs yelping off in all directions. I secretly call her my caniphage: Dog-Eater. Only once, when she was still quite small but fully at liberty, did she go truly missing. One Friday night she went out the window, wasn’t back by morning, nor by the following night. I circled and searched and combed the bushes and called until I was hoarse. I was beside myself. Desperate and already going cold with grief, convinced she’d been taken by something, I could scarcely eat or sleep. On the Sunday night, well after midnight, I finally collapsed into bed and turned out the light – and a minute later a little meow of greeting asked me where the supper had got to. I crushed her to my chest and wet her cheeks and mine with relief, and asked her where the hell she’d been. She never did say. As I said: in love.


She has of course re-centred and recalibrated my whole life. I spend a lot of mental time and emotional energy wondering either where she’s got to, or how I can love her more. We have collaboratively developed a steady routine. At breakfast it’s a slick of milk. (Not that she won’t beg at other visits to the fridge: you’ve never seen such a wide-eyed expression of innocent expectation on a cat’s allegedly expressionless face). Around mid-morning it’s brush time; at the word she’ll come literally galloping to the little carpet on the porch; her total favourite. Bedtime also has its almost invariable sequence. I get into bed and lie on my back, covers pulled up to my chest. She saunters in, gives the bad armchair a good ripping, then bounces up to the bed and plumps on my chest, settling down with forepaws tucked in and her nose an inch or two from mine. With both hands I then give her a thorough head-massage, working over the skin and the skull sutures. The nictitating eyelids glaze over in bliss. I probe deep into the waxy pits of her ears, almost as far as her golf-ball brain, and in the ears’ folds where ticks might hide, over the little knots of her jaw muscles and down her upstretched chin and throat. After a bit she starts to turn her glance sideways, a signal that I must now let her in under the covers. I make a tent of my knees, and under them she washes while I read. Sometimes the way she bounces onto my chest seems so self-consciously comedic that I dissolve into uncontrollable giggles, at which she starts to twitch her head back and sideways oddly, in a gesture, if not of embarrassment, at least of some bafflement or un-ease. Then she stares deep into my face, as if querying What’s the matter with you? She doesn’t need to read Levinas or Derrida to understand that the face is the primary locus of communication, even as she understands that other useful extremities are part of the whole.

Body language complements voice exchanges. Touch, posture, movement are all integrated communication systems. We learn to read each other. If she’s lazily lying at a distance and I contact-call her, she acknowledges just with a particular twitch of the last inch or two of her tail. It seems marvellous to me that when I crouch and extend claw-like hands and mince-creep towards her, she can instantly interpret this as an invitation to play. Does she translate it as mimicry of her own mock-postures? As all cats will, she’ll make of the hunt-and-crouch sequence an occasion for play, leaping out at my feet from hiding and then breaking off to bounce  away with tail flung high. It’s hard not to think that there’s a certain self-consciousness involved, some recognition that she knows she looks funny from behind; at the very least she’s able to read my laughter as a positive reaction. These kinds of responses can probably be explained drily by behaviourists as mere extensions of instinct; but other more innovative behaviours seem way in excess of that.

She not only makes considered choices –  warm sun, or milk; to walk, or not this time – she invents. She early divined that my wrist-watch was important to me, and that running off with it was a good way of getting me out of bed. She clearly has a conceptual map of forest paths in her head, because she has on occasion taken a wholly unprecedented short-cut in order to ambush me further along. She found that I wanted to towel her dry after she’d been out in the rain (being a gutter-snipe originally, she is undaunted by downpours, thunder or lightning); that felt nice, so she made a game out of going out, getting towelled, going out, getting towelled, going out ...

She trusts me completely. Completely. When I lift her she is like putty in my hands, utterly relaxed. There is nothing more comforting to me than to bury my face in the satiny muffling fragrant fur of her belly. This trust is entrancing, but also very useful: she resists mildly, but doesn’t fight when I need to dose her, or treat a wound, or get her to the vet, or even pull a tick off her eyelid with tweezers. She forgives instantly whatever pain I inadvertently or necessarily inflict on her. I don’t think it even begins to feature in the animal-rights literature, but fundamental to any animal’s existence ought to be the right to be able to trust. Not that many humans seem able to live up to that – but the resultant enrichment of experience is boundless.

All that apart, Siberia is exquisite. Any number of visitors have said, “That’s the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen!” “I know that,” I say nonchalantly.

 ******