Wednesday, 2 October 2019

No 90 – Brian Walter’s new poems: Allegories of the Everyday

Wow, Brian Walter, what have you done??

I have always liked Brian – he’s like a cross between a burly bear and an owl with fierce eyebrows and an ineradicable smile. And I’ve always liked his poetry: I wrote in academic vein about his Swartkops estuary poems. I’ve had a weird soft spot for the Swartkops of Port Elizabeth ever since, walking on the mudflats with a friend many years ago in search of pencil-bait and flamingos, we came upon a human arm. Just the arm. I raise this grisly memory because it reflects Brian’s own primary concerns: close observation of the natural world, and questions of social justice. He knows his birds and watercourses intimately, describing them with the same empathy he accords our less privileged peoples.  Poem after poem, in his collections Baakens, Otherwise and Tracks, and the numerous poems he has contributed over the years to the Ecca Poets group, underlines the fact that these two realms are in fact indivisible. After leaving his teaching career at Fort Hare, and moving back to his native Port Elizabeth, he has been doing sterling work with youth poets from the township of Helenvale. One poem in Allegories of the Everyday describes this group locking themselves up in their reading venue, a defence against criminal elements more symbolical than effective – and reading on. It feels like a moment distilled from the national consciousness – it is an allegory of the everyday lives of so many – a poetic capsule. Oddly but crucially, an allegorical reading makes the courageous devotion to the poetic word all the more real.

In Allegories of the Everyday Brian does shift somewhat away from the presence of the natural world, though herons, crabs, wasps and forests make an appearance. As we are accustomed to, Brian’s subjects range widely, from the most intimate and homely – like a pot of African violets or the fate of the poet’s own bonsais, any of which everyday nuggets can be read as allegorical of our profoundest existential dilemmas – to the wittily metaphysical, such as the thought that “my living flesh ... is but someone else’s allegory.”  The concept of allegory – the deployment of word and image to reveal the deepest universal patterns – of course undergirds the collection. A bit like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, the poet is on a quest, by which he can

... recognise the elements, can know
the spiritual trek, the happy allegory,
and can plumb the grave and comic ways
our deep, and old, and endless pathways go.

The path is not always clear, never predetermined, and sometimes deliberately ‘lost’,

setting myself quite pointedly adrift
to wander amongst the quick mundane
so that our simple allegories can show.

Brian wanders far. A number of poems arise from travels, to France, to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, to Lagos in Nigeria. Brian is as alive, varied and humane as ever, but through many poems runs a vein of new and different sadness. Utilising one of two main literary touchstones, Brian quotes Derek Walcott, wonderful Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean poet: “Spent with heat/ I brood on three good friends/ dead in one year,/ one summer’s shock,/ here where summer never ends.” Brian, too, writes of three recently-departed comrades – to judge by the poem “Thread”, these were Viv England, Mike Snyman and Norman Morrissey:

It’s the frailty
- the thin thread of life.

I’ve breathed words
from tentative scripts
at memorials for three friends
this year, alone

and my heart is as dull
as our hollow
water-tank [...]

This stricken realisation of our mortal fragility brackets and suffuses the collection. The elegiac note is, I suspect, partly responsible for the affecting lucidity and directness of this new collection.  In previous volumes, if I may venture a mild criticism, the poems often struck me as rather rough-hewn and shaggy, which has a certain honest attractiveness. But they at times also feel either slightly strained towards the obviously ‘poetic’ – awkward Hopkins-like portmanteaus, for example – or uncertain about how to end, sometimes finishing with an abrupt nail rather than a resonance which can carry the poem beyond itself. In Allegories, there is almost none of this: the poems ring like bells, or wells. Hopkins is still there (the Kestrel is “our windhover”), but so is Thomas Hardy (notably in the title of Brian’s poem “The Darkling Rainbow”) and Robert Frost (echoed in the lines, “I try to find a thought/ not taken”). It’s as if Brian has managed to combine something of the latter poets’ tight versifications with Walcott’s open but rich marriage of word and environment. Brian includes another Walcott epigraph: “Leisurely, the egret/ on the mud tablet stamps its hieroglyph.” This notion that the world writes us, that our signs and poetries are already implicit in the materials around us, suffuses a number of these poems, too, especially those set in Guadeloupe, in which Brian almost inevitably echoes Walcott’s world of oceanic islands, mangroves and sea-life. A section of the poem “Shell” exemplifies what I mean:

Here, a crab in a shell
tries to make me believe
this homely shell is but
a random thing, dead in itself,

using her house of metaphor
so well in her poetry
of the pathway

keeping herself safe
in a dead shell
with suggestion.

And an enhanced lucidness in the poetry may be exemplified by this passage from “Rags of Time”:

Rare friends during this year of deaths
have gone down into the backward dark;
but here is an old colleague in her home
in a French village, with a fire lit, books
and artworks, masks, husband, daughters.

We walk the woodland roads. A fence
at times keeps our way, or we baulk
at some beguiling path. Blackberries
and rosehips, perhaps a few mushrooms,
or hanging yellow leaves of the season
all tell how the earth rides the heavens [...]

The evenness of the line-lengths, the rightness of the line-breaks, internal rhymes of Yeats-like subtlety, the gently insistent alliterations and assonances (French village, with a fire lit; leaves of the season), and the sheer simplicity of action, brings out a rhythmic quality I’ve not seen so much in previous poems. Not that all poems do, or should, achieve this mellifluous resonance; others rather approach the dark and rough provisional quality of the Rodin statues Brian experiences in Calais. So, in “Rodin”, he writes:

Love here is hefty and never-ending,
the large-limbed suffering is fixed,
the burghers still brood loss of town and being,
of citizenship and dignity, their bodies
tongues for pain:

I feel part of this drama
and yearn to speak to you
but language is stilled in my head,
forms fix, only the leaves of my mind
dry slowly, and darken. Allegories shape,
large and flesh and static.

In this garden enclosed,
I stand before The Gates of Hell.

The parallels with the lives of many South Africans hardly needs underlining. “Here”, “this garden”, can be anywhere. The insoluble tensions here between love and suffering, the Garden and Hell, echo throughout the collection, as does a renewed probing of the role and value of the poet and his art. A number of poems are explicitly about this, such as “Art on Art” and “Metaphors”. I am attracted to any number of lines, gently oracular near-aphorisms which describe Brian’s methods and motivations, a potential manifesto for poetry itself:

... words packed like parcels

[Philomel’s] art-voice
straight and true ... picking and unpicking
silent screaming art.

... it’s the chaos of things
that’ll flush out the hidden.

There are also spasms of doubt. Both the journeys to other hemispheres, and the deaths of loved ones, threaten to turn everything “upside down” (he uses this formulation several times), and the value of the poetic life is paradoxically both intensified and undermined. Sometimes, Brian seems to feel he has himself already gone beyond the Gates into “Deads’ Town”, as Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola terms the afterlife in his famously phantasmagoric, creolised novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Alongside Derek Walcott, Tutuola is the other important literary touchstone. Brian connects his younger and more recent drunken revels – and griefs – with the dreamy dislocations of the novel’s palm-wine tapster. Imagined forays into Deads’ Town, which both underlies and mirrors the land of the living, provide points of leverage to re-evaluate “our naked world, our unbuilt labyrinth”. So the poet-tapster has

                                    ... borne the world’s egg
and becomes such a judge that he can steady
earth and sky, setting the world in its place
below in balance. But our man-judge-god

won’t crack the unsolvable mysteries
but passes them to us, living readers,
passes on his old quest to visit death
and grapple with our unknowing, as all

good story tellers do, or fine drinkards,
on this laughing, trying and troubled earth.

It’s worth reading Allegories of the Everyday just for lines like that last one. The collection is, in my view, easily Brian Walter’s best.

Allegories of the Everyday is published by Dryad Press,


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