Friday, 11 August 2017

No 48 - The Ecca Poets

In memoriam Norman Morrissey
(Quilt by Mariss Everitt)


Eastern Cape denizens often speak of the Hogsback with an obvious affection – its humped dolerite ridges, its forest walks and waterfalls, its eco-shrines and oddball potters and painters, its famously tiny chapel and soggy leaf beds and quaint seclusions. It’s one of the special little havens of green high leisure on the edge of the more gaunt Karoo.

It has also for decades been the haunt of a unique cabal of productive poets, who call themselves the Ecca Poets, after the name of the regional shale that undergirds much of the area, and the pass that curls through the dramatic hills between Fort Beaufort and Grahamstown. There isn’t to my knowledge another group quite like it in the country, at least not in the rural areas. (The Batsotso Jesters may be an urban equivalent.) Over many years they have produced almost annual collaborative volumes: they started up in 1989, and I suspect that the National English Literary Museum’s database is incomplete. NELM’s earliest record is of Cast (1996), followed by (amongst others) Holdall (2002), Passover (2003), Dispositions (2004), Keynote (2008), Spaces (2009), Brood (2010), Gold in Spring (2016). Add to the collaborative collections a number of  two- or three-partner publications, occasional pamphlets, and a goodly number of individuals’ volumes. There is a lot of very good poetry in this steady and devoted stream, amounting I imagine to at least several hundred poems. Yet the Ecca poets have been almost entirely neglected by the critical establishment. Even Jeanette Eve, in her sumptuous A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape, while including some of the individual poets, makes only a passing mention of the group's earliest manifestation as the “Echo” poets. It’s high time someone did a major study.

I’ve known many of the poets, more or less tangentially, been to a number of their readings and launches, occasionally reviewed one of their volumes. Inevitably over the years the composition of the group has waxed and waned. Steady at the centre stands the owlish bonhomie of Brian Walter, in whose strongly ecologically-aware poetry I have taken most interest. Like other Hogsback residents and writers, he taught at Fort Hare University in Alice in the dry valley below, before some years ago moving to Port Elizabeth. Another is the robustly humorous Catholic priest Cathal Lagan, who brings a particular theological depth to some of the poetry. To judge by the number of poems these two dedicate to each other, they are especially close comrades. There was founder member Basil Somihlalo, the only other member of the band, as far as I know, to have passed away so far (in 1994). Mzi Mahola, once attending Fort Hare university, later mostly occupied with running a museum in New Brighton, contributed for a number of years, as well as producing individual volumes. Of roughly the same generation is Quentin Hogge, who a while ago was (at least by his own account in his recent volume, More Poems, Boet) ostracised for publishing a particularly non-PC poem. Hogge has a uniquely wry, colloquial and forthright – one might say distinctively Eastern Cape – voice. Norman Morrissey’s voice is not dissimilar: punchy, pithy, colloquial, at times sardonically wise.

Leavening the gritty voices of these older gents are some younger voices. Lara Kirsten, when she isn’t on tour playing the piano, contributes a vigour and theatricality in Afrikaans. Mariss Stevens (Everitt), on the strength of owning a Hogsback house, joined in for a while, until (despite having produced a lovely volume of her own, On Gardening) she decided she’s a better quilter than a poet. And in recent years Silke Heiss, already an established poet in the little journals, fell in love with Norman; together they energetically promoted poetry through readings and workshops, even as she supported him in his last years. Both their latest productions, including Norman’s last volume, Strandloop, are saturated with their love for one another.

Only an extensive survey could do justice to the range of voices, concerns, ideas, subjects, forms and settings covered by this vivacious bunch. Few of them do not ruminate at some point on the purview, power and purposes of poetry itself. Brian Walter, for example, sets out a succinct manifesto, or methodology, that would help many a baffled student, in “Memo”:


            Try not to say too much,
            but with a Keatsian hand of chance
            trace with a light touch

            a sketched instance;
            cut and shade, tone and hue;
            close with a Janus glance.
            (Bookmark)

Cathal Lagan ends his poem “Tickler” this way:

            I wanted to be a tickler of fish,
            catch the sprung muscle of it
            with a fearsome grip,
            but in that there was no art.
            Now it is mine to play with words –
            figuring them out.
(Bookmark)

That “sprung muscle" - lovely. But for now, the story is the celebration of the words and hefty presence of Norman Morrissey. In a poem dedicated to Norman, Quentin Hogge touches on a theme common to many Ecca poems – disdainful suspicion of corrupting urbanism and commercialisation in contrast to the rich organic belonging of the paradisal Hogsback.

            Paradise

Airports respect no dreams:
the taxi terminus
and subway stations stink,
these human sewers,
where canteens serve
soya sossige and acorn coffee.
Machines go berserk.
sensing steel fillings
in obsolete teeth,
while terror climbs aboard unnoticed.
CNN will take you there –
don’t leave your lounge.

Unless,
where you want to be
is where the loerie
floats the synapses of forest,
a scatter of scarlet wings
in the ganglions of light,
where the silent boomslang
rules,
a pause of utter command.
(Borderline 2002)

Perhaps in belated response to this, Morrissey wrote “Eden”:
 
(Quilt by Mariss Everitt)
My boomslang
would lie hammocked atop the hedge
- thick as my wrist,
two metres and more in the lounging –
and let me get near
as she basked.
Then I got a gardener
and she suddenly
disappeared

- which is a slash ahead of Yahweh,
he left the Serpent at least
at peace in Eden.

There’s that trademark wry humour, the little sardonic twist of wisdom. So although many of the Ecca poets might be regarded as modern-day pastoral organicists, they were hardly oblivious to the serpents in the garden – the technologies and politics that interpenetrate everything, the ills that bedevil the blood itself. As he aged (though he was ‘only’ 68 when he died), Norman attended to the voices of his own body. He wrote in “Just Sound?”:


There was a hip-replacement
then a long, deep pneumonia
that nearly got me – body and soul

- that set me on crutches.
The legs are weak and stiff
and the lungs I must have to walk again

need legs to strengthen them.
Doesn’t it all sound
just like life?

He wasn’t about to collapse into maundering self-pity, though, reminding himself in the very next poem in Bookmark, entitled “Bitching”:

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote
in a dungeon,
Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

came out of a gaol;
and here I am
bitching

about writing
from
a mere sick-bed!

There was always something of the twinkle-eyed grumble about Norman, as he delivered his poems with a ponderous gruffness from behind his whitening beard, affecting something of the air of an oracular sage. At the Grahamstown launch of his last volume, Strandloop, in May last year, he read more slowly and gruffly than ever – we were beginning to suspect even then that the sick-bed was getting the better of him. But so much of his poetry is about beauty, and love, and the holy delicacy of the natural world and its denizens. Like so many of his poems, “Wind” is as short and direct as a tossed pebble:

I once saw the wind
a stream
like crystal water
flowing

You may be out in the invisible wind now, Norman, but the words flow on, crystalline as a Hogsback stream.


*****

2 comments:

  1. Dear Dan,

    What a special tribute to Norman.

    Silke send me the link to this blog post.
    She requested that I get in touch with you and get this tribute onto the Ecca Blog as well. Will it be possible for you to send it as a word doc?

    Thanks and warmest regards,

    Lara

    ReplyDelete
  2. Intriguing, to get to know these poets through your eyes. And hoping you can craft this into a book.

    ReplyDelete