Friday, 27 December 2019

No 95 - Mapping South African poetry: The politics of anthologies

Most countries try at some point to collate and survey their national poetry. Anthologists read and select, arrange and comment, try to discern and evaluate the poetry’s take on the national pulse, its history and values. They often quarrel bitterly with one another behind the scenes, which is fun.

Covers are always interesting:
a Grahamstown cover for New Coin - 
Grahamstown-Makhanda of course
being the poetic heart of the universe.

South Africa’s English-language anthologists, who have been at it since 1828, have probably had a tougher time than most. I have a whole bundle of anthologies in hand – nowhere near complete, but enough to be fascinated by how the editors, in their Introductions and selections, have grappled with certain perennial questions. What should the status of such a minority-language collection be? What should the relationship between artistry and politics be? How should English white liberalism, arguably the core of this community and of late increasingly vilified, articulate with other ideologies, races and languages? Are these anthologies dictating or merely recording taste and quality? To what does this moniker ‘South Africa’ refer, anyway?

When you haven’t yourself ploughed through the thousands of poems from which the anthologists have made their selections, it’s hard to comment validly on those choices. It’s a big enough job just reading the anthologies themselves! So what follows are just a few very tentative observations, teasing out what a succession of editors have said about their projects in their respective introductions.

1959. Guy Butler, A Book of South African Verse.  There had been previous anthologies, but we might as well start in the year of my birth. Butler’s baseline-setting anthology is dedicated to Roy Campbell, who had just died. Arch-patron Butler has been periodically critiqued as propping up an outmoded form of white supremacism, disguised as liberal bonhomie, and for having the gall to ‘set the standards’ for everyone else. But his ‘Introduction’ here is both humble and sharply self-critical. He begins with numbers – a recognition of the paucity of English-speaking whites in South Africa, then just one million out of some 14 million. This “poetry of a linguistic, political, and cultural minority” could hardly aspire to the status of a national literature. The narrowness is both sign and result of an “intellectual apartheid” between groups; moreover, the English group lacks “cultural awareness and make[s] a very half-hearted and ineffective contribution to political life.... Our cultural capital is London... We cannot support a single literary periodical ... Because we are economically safe, we simply cannot imagine that we are in any other sort of danger.” Scathing satire of the kinds Campbell and Anthony Delius wrote remained sparse. Nor, Butler thought, did the poetry have any popular roots, remaining restrictively  “an educated man’s affair”. Butler notes a frequent shiftlessness: many poets were not born in South Africa; many, including 1820 settler Thomas Pringle and, a century later, Campbell, shortly left for other lands. A sense of exile, dislocation, or instability haunts the selection. Butler observes the formal and linguistic struggles Pringle had trying to match inherited poetics to a new landscape; regrettably, Pringle’s influence dominated a century to come; only in the 1920s, in Butler’s view, does a diction emerge which really ‘sees’ the landscape. Even this becomes mythologised as ‘wide open spaces’ that are, however, ultimately figured as indifferent, even hostile. Equally rapidly, those spaces were “caught under nets of roads, rails, telegraph poles, survey beacons and stock fences”. Urbanisation and the dislocation of the “tribesman” into the horror of the townships compels many of the poets acidly to critique modern technological society and the ills it has brought. Hence, the South African poet “ends up outside the consolation of any tradition, with an increased self-knowledge, but stultified by doubts”. There is a pervasive sense, in short, that the white poetic community feels like a “floating island” (in Ruth Miller’s poem of that title), freighted with doubts and anxieties, heading with sickening inevitability towards the precipice of Victoria Falls.

Many of these critiques and perceptions hold true even today, as English as both a colonially-rooted minority language and the international lingua franca struggles to position itself locally without becoming parochial and irrelevant. Butler had almost inadvertently exacerbated the isolation by distinguishing between ‘poetry’ and ‘verse’, thereby excluding more ‘popular’ forms of expression, such black-written poetry in English as then existed, and translations. Anthologists duly set about rectifying these restrictions. In 1968, Jack Cope and Uys Krige edited the first Penguin Book of South African Verse, which included translations from other South African languages, thus introducing another strand of debate: to what extent can translations be included in ‘English’ anthologies? Though departing markedly from the white liberal collective as delineated by Butler, Cope and Krige would be repeatedly critiqued for positioning these translations in silos, (Afrikaans, Zulu, etc) almost as if recapitulating apartheid itself.  A decade later Butler himself, in collaboration with Chris Mann, updated the anthology as A New Book of South African Verse in English (1979). This collection still began with the obligatory Pringle, but now included some ‘popular’ verse which departed from ‘poetic’ English, such as A G Bain’s ‘Kaatjie Kekkelbeck’ and Jeremy Taylor’s ‘Ag pleez Deddy’. Some black poets now appear, including HIE Dhlomo, Sipho Sepamla and Mongane Wally Serote, who would become increasingly canonised. Chris Mann tells me that they tried to include Dennis Brutus, but he was a banned writer at the time; Chris solicited the help of Van Zyl Slabbert, who approached the relevant minister. When asked why his request failed, Slabbert said it was because the minister was “a dumb tit with power”. Despite this nod towards resisting apartheid, the introduction doesn’t mention apartheid explicitly – a diffidence that characterises subsequent anthologies, too. At the same time, it’s interesting to note the disproportionate space given to Sydney Clouts, who for some is the acme of the ‘difficult’, modernist, liberal white poet.

1981. Michael Chapman, A Century of South African Poetry.  If anyone has inherited the mantle of National Anthologiser from Butler, it is Chapman.  A Century actually covers 150 years, offering 300 poems by 137 poets  (where Butler had gone for fewer poets, each represented by more poems). Chapman carefully distances himself from Butler, but his introduction is curiously ambivalent. He has to go back to Francis Carey Slater’s Centenary anthology of 1925 in order to emphasise his ‘new’ valorisation of the modern and the avant-garde (Slater had averred that “much modern poetry is scarcely a sign of healthy development and strength”). Butler’s anthology, Chapman points out, is dominated by the “conciliatory ideals” of English liberal humanism, implying “an underlying confidence in given moral and literary values”. This seems to me a misreading of Butler’s commentary. Also a bit unfairly, he quotes Ian Glenn’s remark that the 1979 Butler/Mann anthology betrayed “an editorial bias against certain themes or styles ... a dislike of the bloody, the ugly, the vulgar, the sordid, the apocalyptic, the frightening”. Humanism, claims Chapman, “is not the South African English tradition – but only one important aspect of it”. In short, he adds, “the liberal humanist voice is richer and more varied than Butler’s own remarks (‘I cannot detect a peculiar style, or verse form, or intonation’) might seem to imply” - an oddly self-contradictory statement. At any rate, Chapman thus justifies his inclusion of “public and private voices, the familiar and the surreal, the traditional and the avant garde” extending to “the ‘radical’, to the experimental, the demythicising stance; to that poetry in which image dominates over statement, the cryptic over mellifluous syntax”. This included an expanded range of black poets (notably Peter Abrahams and HIE Dhlomo prior to 1960) “trying to establish an authentic black voice of protest” and, after 1976, those he called the “Soweto poets” (Mafika Gwala, Sepamla, Serote and others – a categorisation those poets themselves subsequently rejected). At the same time, you can feel Chapman grappling with the same question Butler did: what constitutes good poetry anyway? Chapman doesn’t want altogether to let go of what the academic humanists would regard as the necessity of craft, of poetic artistry: his criteria are still “primarily ‘literary’ rather than ‘sociological’.” (These were the hot terms of debate when I was a student.) Of course, Chapman hedges, “the two are not really separable”. ‘Sociological’ implied, crudely, viewing poetry as commentary and intervention in societal struggle, and could thus be conflated with ‘political’, direct statement on political affairs. If this was not to devolve to mere clich├ęd party sloganeering, craft and artistry had to be returned to the equation: according to Chapman, “the best poetry has fully taken into account the metaphysics of action and hate”. (No, I don’t know what he means by ‘metaphysics’ either.) Somehow, I suspect, this is connected to the aforementioned (possibly strategic) diffidence about discussing apartheid: though Chapman mentions responses to “a system of institutionalised discrimination” and “a crisis of authority”, the word apartheid appears nowhere in the Introduction.  (He also mentions, pointedly, the regrettable exclusion of Dennis Brutus.)  Chapman further feels ambivalent about the status of English in the first place, and rather ironically echoes Cope and Krige in concluding: “Until South Africans are proficiently multilingual, the most satisfactory arrangement would seem to be separate anthologies catering for different languages.” As others would later point out, by and large only white English-speakers tend to be monolingual.

Still depicting domesticity?
1984. Chapman, The Paperbook of South African English Poetry. Just three years later, Chapman produced the serviceable Paperbook, which I found useful for a South African poetry course, and which has been reprinted several times. It still begins with the obligatory Pringle, and the introduction repeats many of the observations from Century. Yet of its 238 poems, only 44 appear in Century, attesting to the intrinsic riches of the available material. Chapman revisited “diverse sources, including old newspapers, journals and obscure anthologies of the last century”, and updated the coverage from “the little magazines of the last five years”. Of the latter, unlike in 1959, quite a few had emerged – not least of all New Coin, which Butler himself had inaugurated in 1965, and is still going. Chapman had to ask himself, “Is another anthology of South African English poetry really necessary?” He cites poet and academic Stephen Watson’s review of Stephen Gray’s simultaneously published Modern South African Poetry, suggesting that there was insufficient local poetry of quality for more than one anthology at a time: “If most poetry is bad then South African poetry has a badness of its own”. (Several editors react defensively to Watson’s repeatedly dyspeptic remarks about South African poetry’s “linguistic deadness” and such like.) Chapman revisits the aesthetic-vs-sociological debate, trying to “occupy a position between these two poles”, and valorises a new term, the hybrid, as a defining feature, and even a distinctive strength, of our literature”. Against previous anthologies’ assumption of “middle-class academic values”, derived from the theories of English doyens Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis, of “‘balance’, moderation, reasonableness and ‘sanity’, Chapman gives “greater emphasis to the ‘uneducated’ voices ... to voices of ‘modern’ stress, extreme situation, and political apocalypse.” Again, apartheid per se is carefully skirted, though it is implicit throughout, and a kind of pressure-valve is released in the unarguable observation that “the historical process in which we all live is difficult, morally compromised, messy and flawed.”

Cecil Skotnes cover: combining African
and European motifs, or a new style?
1989. Stephen Gray, The Penguin Book of Southern African Poetry.  Man of letters and general provocateur Stephen Gray is another assiduous literary surveyor, in several genres. He begins his introduction to this selection: “The anthologizer’s task of selecting ... is an over-responsible one.” He is too readily seen as aiming to dictate taste, and “readers can all too conveniently take the part for the whole.” Although Chapman had tentatively included certain Rhodesian-Zimbabwean poets, Gray now deliberately takes in the whole subcontinent, regarding the ‘nation’ as essentially “arbitrary”. The Cope-Krige strategy of dividing the several languages “seems outdated, even offensive”. Hence “our indebtedness to translators becomes substantial ... unblocking channels of communication to insist on the reciprocity of human feelings”. He engages in the unavoidable but dulling quarrel between the aesthetes and the politicos (there is always a whiff of straw-man argumentation in this): “The comparative approach is usually more sociological and historical than aesthetic’’ but many poems are both. Gray wisely adds: “To expect poets to give systematic testimony of their times, at the one extreme, is as unjust as to expect them always to be superb technicians on the other.” So a 1974 anthology of Freedom Poems by Barry Feinberg he finds “hyper-activist and technically banal”, while conversely DJ Opperman’s perennial Groot Verseboek is “an utterly gutless trove of the finest writing.” Gray’s own selection is idiosyncratic and energising, and he makes no apology for his “obstinacy in avoiding most of the chestnuts”. For almost the first time, this breed of chronological survey begins not with Pringle but with a long extract from Luis de Camoens’ epic Lusiads, and with some early San and other ‘traditional’ material, challenging the very notion of what a ‘poem’ is. Also for the first time, Gray alludes to the gender imbalance, though finds that the available material doesn’t allow for much redress. In sum, Gray goes for poems “that I admire, find memorable, and for many reasons feel are irreplaceably valuable. ... [N]ot many of these poets feel library-bound – elitist, privileged and effete. ... poetry is still felt to be living communication rather than bookish exercise.”

Soweto boy on trampoline:
1997. Denis Hirson, The Lava of this Land: South African poetry 1960-1996. Gray’s subcontinental purview further blurred the everyday pre-eminence of apartheid in the South African experience – these compilers tend to characterise the 1948-1994 era as a period of dreadful “transition”, or “Interregnum” in Chapman’s odd term, perhaps hoping it would end long before it did. But the advent of constitutional democracy in 1994 threw anthologists into a fresh set of transitional dynamics. So Hirson opens his introduction to this more restricted collection: “’South African poetry’ meant something quite specific to many readers not so very long ago: a momentary flame of words in the sombre confinement of apartheid, a sign that not everyone had been snuffed out by the pig-iron hand and airless language of oppression. Yet South African poetry has always been highly diverse, rooted in both African and European traditions, reflecting what has until recently been a ruthlessly divided society.” (Which also seems to me self-contradictory; only at the end of this period do poets begin to mix languages in a single poem.) Now there are ever more new poets and magazines in view, and Hirson’s criteria are almost anti-poetic. His 54 contributors produce “poems whose raw music throbs at the edge of change. ... They dispense with any regular metre or form, breaking through the deliberate, finely controlled, and ultimately defensive gauze of words which characterized the poetry written by whites up to (and even beyond) this period. White poets like Breytenbach and Jensma jettison the guilt and ‘polite cowardice’ associated with this poetry; black poets, on the other hand, often avoid the belittling stance of the victim.” He cites Robert Berold, then incoming editor of New Coin: “It feels like an exciting movement is happening in English poetry in this country ... The English language, the language of settlerdom, power and commerce is being shaped by African sensibilities and forms – African not necessarily meaning black. Increasingly since the 1970s and particularly since the unbanning of the ANC and the demythologization of Mandela, poets are more and more using the living language, breaking the grids of formal political or literary orthodoxy.” Oddly, the highly personalised or meditative poetry that always existed but that was in some circles vilified for avoiding, if not betraying, the struggle for democratic freedom, is now itself liberated. Hirson writes, in terms more poetic than explanatory: “the exploration of extreme, personalized vulnerability would seem to correspond to a time when the straightjacket has been removed from South African society, the wind of change stinging against newly exposed skin.”

There are also collections of even narrower scope as well as different principles of organisation. In 1989 David Bunyan, one of the succession of editors of New Coin, had gathered a selection from the magazine’s previous quarter-century, 25/25, supplying in my view the most insightful of all these introductions.  He organised the poems under 25 notional themes, provoking some interesting juxtapositions. In that year Robert Berold took over the editorship, and ten years later compiled an equivalent selection from his decade, it all begins (1999). In the same year Adam Schwartzmann decided on Ten South African Poets, according each between ten and twenty poems and a more detailed biographical note than customary.  And there are many more. Still, Chapman for one wasn’t about to relinquish the grand survey, arranged in notional periods.

Race relations at the centre of our poetry?

2002. Michael Chapman, The New Century of South African Poetry. Yet again attesting to the variety available, Chapman’s update of A Century has remarkably little overlap with its predecessor. Even as this indicates some desire to continually reinvent the field, he wants to implement some sort of overarching structure, “a common field of consideration.”  A “key aesthetic criterion,” he writes, is “the power of functionality”. Odd: if 'functionality' implies a move away from old art-for-art’s-sake, it’s not an aesthetic criterion at all. It feels like another incarnation of that literary-sociological hedging. So in effect we fall back on something more fluid and personal. Chapman cites Adam Schwartzmann as liking it “when poets do something fascinating and invigorating through language”; and Robert Berold (another emergent, strong arbiter of taste) as valorising the “risk-taking” poem, “even when its articulation is clumsy”. That raw clumsiness is then excused, even validated, as “at times a deliberate ploy to undermine the high imagination of the modernist’’, somehow authentic in its honest revelation of “human fallibility”, and thereby achieving “an immediacy of communication”.  Ironically, the convention-breaking rebelliousness of modernist poetry of a century ago, is now itself considered over-poetic. Despite the bewildering diversity of responses, Chapman wants to see them as mirrors of each other, coming from “a single society shaped by a multiplicity of impositions and influences.” More than ever, then, translation across languages and cultures is crucial, involving “numerous and necessary crossings of borders”: “The social equivalent is equality and respect.” It’s a sweetly utopian notion; it would be hard to argue that the country has matched up to it.

And Chapman has indefatigably updated the volume yet again, with his 2018 Third Edition. It follows roughly the same pattern, making most of the same points in the introduction. But he takes out a hundred poems, includes 107 new ones, and adds a fifth section for poems from the post-2000 period. So he subtly coveys yet another kind of take on South African society and its concerns. There are new concerns, for example the environmental, which cast new light on old and new poems alike. But as he wisely says, we can't expect poets always to directly reflect their times,  and we can't expect a necessarily choosy anthology to do that either. Different choices from an ever vaster field would convey a different trajectory. At any rate, one cannot doubt the inestimable value of Chapman's decades of work and criticism.

Does abstraction escape ideology?
2014. I’ll end with Denis Hirson’s follow-up to Lava of this Land, his selection of poems from the small magazines of 1996-2013,  In the Heat of Shadows.  He opens his introduction: “Anyone who followed the development of South African poetry through the darkest of the apartheid years, and was aware of its constantly recurring themes of guilt and victimization, rage and denial, identity and dispossession, might be surprised by its current reach and range. South African poets today find themselves writing in the midst of uneasy political transformation, some of it neither planned nor hoped for, while spinning outwards from the casing of isolation to join the bustle and complexity of the turning world.” The TRC had “allowed for the emergence of hidden, unspeakable apartheid-era stories”, and “if the language is sometimes purposefully crude, this only serves to fuel more intensely the energies needed to move beyond the discourse of dependence, to a point where the poem becomes part of the dialogue between poet and community.” How to delineate that ‘community’ or intended readership is surely still problematic and evolving, precisely because the many black poets included are “reclaiming a history and sense of ancestry denied for centuries by successive white regimes”, and there are more poems than ever translated from other languages.  Still Hirson wonders “if it is really justifiable to assemble ‘an anthology of South African poetry’ consisting of poems all written originally in the same single language”.
African Sun Press has produced a series of
thematic anthologies; the latest on ecological affairs
Still, more than ever now there is surely room for everyone. I can almost hear Guy Butler, as alert to these issues as anyone since, urging, Come on, get over your ideological selves; English in its many, mutating forms is here to stay – and there are so many riches here.


 Visit Dan Wylie at

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

No.94 - The meaning of mantis

 Reports are accumulating about the global ‘insect apocalypse’: catastrophic die-offs of beetles, butterflies, moths and bees, all absolutely vital to ecosystem health and the pollination of both wild flora and domesticated crops. One study targets what should have been blindingly obvious: a large part of the problem is one of humankind’s major civilising achievements – our ability to banish darkness with artificial lighting. Untold trillions of insects have perished beating themselves to premature death, scorched on hot glass, made vulnerable to predators, distracted from mating, nest-building, and breeding. So amongst all the other things to feel crap about, are the exquisite moths  and mayflies and Christmas beetles I find dead on my windowsills, inside and out.

Amongst the trapped and frantic insects I encounter, and sometimes succeed in rescuing, are praying mantises. Whatever its  ecological importance, the mantis is also mythic: to lose them would be to lose the real source of centuries of legend, story, and symbolic richness.

In our region, of course, the most profound and ancient mythic presence comes from the Bushmen or San. Mantis was never the simplistic ‘Hottentot god’ of earlier colonial lore, nor ‘worshipped’ in the manner of a Western god. Rather, Bushman groups generated a complex and unstable set of mythic tales or kukummi centred on the figure of /Kaggen, a volatile creator, the first shaman, a trickster-god who could metamorphose into many creatures, but manifested often as a mantis.  David Lewis-Williams, in San Spirituality, summarises:

/Kaggen’s association with the praying mantis insect has long been a subject of debate. His name can certainly be translated as ‘mantis’. In [the story] ‘The Mantis takes away the Tick’s sheep’, we learn that this transformation, effected by ‘getting feathers’ and flying, is into ‘a little green thing’ ... It is also an insect that, like man, hunts. This notion has led some rock art researchers to look for depictions of mantises. They were disappointed ... It seems that /Kaggen is best thought of as a protean figure capable of numerous manifestations, of which a praying mantis is one. (113)

/Kaggen loved the animals he had created, and apparently enjoyed tricking hunters into losing their intended prey; in one tale, he contrives to save a hartebeest while in the guise of a mantis. This is one of the stories first related by /Xam convicts to the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek in Cape Town in the 1870s. Some were translated into English and re-written, problematically poised between exoticism and accessibility, by Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in a collection titled Mantis and his Friends (1923). This has spawned a string of mimics and refurbishments, often lushly illustrated for children, by Sarah Barber, Marguerite Poland, and Jenny Seed, amongst others.  A number of novels have also drawn on the mantis stories, ranging from Ethelreda Lewis’s Mantis (1926) to Andre Brink’s Praying Mantis (1997).

I’ve been most interested in the series of poets who have been inspired by the gnomic testimonies of the Bleek-Lloyd archive. It perhaps began with Laurens van der Post, one of the earliest to sense the poetic potential of the often enigmatic tales from //Kabbo, Dai!kwain, and other /Xam informants. Van der Post wrote brief story-versions, as well as A Mantis Carol (1989), an avowedly true story in which the mantis appears as a kind of Jungian manifestation of archetypal interconnectedness.  Poet and editor-extraordinaire Jack Cope ‘translated’ some kukummi into poetry in the 1970s, and he has been followed by such prominent poets as Stephen Watson (The Return of the Moon), Alan James (The First Bushman’s Path), and Antjie Krog (The Stars say Tsau!). Krog, often following the line-breaks necessitated by the narrow notebooks used by Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, found a ‘natural’ poetry emerging.

In fact, these transcribers or ‘versioners’ of the Bleek-Lloyd material make little reference to the mantis in their selections. Subsequent mantis-centred poems, throughout the last century, are haunted by the notion of a god-like figure, but it has moved a long way from the /Xam conception; it hardens into something more forbidding, less a trickster than an implacable devil. Terence Heywood, writing in the 1950s, doesn’t really seem to know what to make of ‘Mantis’: it’s just a bundle of strange anatomical attributes:
(c)Dan Wlie

Square-stanced hind legs; body rectangular;
            colour a broad-bean green-brown;
            forelegs ridiculous; a tapering neck;
two broad arms, peaked upwardly, angular;
                        head, eye glittering, a rotund speck:
            such I discern as I lean down.

So much, so bland; awkward observation without resonance. I’m surprised Guy Butler thought the poem good enough to include in his compilation, A Book of South African Verse (1959).  A better inclusion is Eve and Broughton Gingell’s poem ‘Praying Mantis’, introducing the common notion of the mantis as ruthlessly predatory, some kind of avatar of apocalypse:

She kneels and prays
Long searching prayers
And with a whip of silence flicks them
Up to Heaven.
She murders stealthy flies.

There is an unstated equivocation between ‘praying’ and ‘preying’: this inexorable creature’s religiosity is deceptive, a perversion: ‘Her fatal piety/ Has no Amen but Death ... Kneeling remorseless/ At her green and sundry prayers’. Guy and David Butler make this explicit in another anthology, Out of the African Ark (1988).  Their introductory note asserts that the female mantis is sometimes cannibalistic, that the ‘supplicating gesture’ with the forelegs is really a ‘readiness to extend their spikes and hooks with lightning speed to seize unwary insects ... He is a deadly little predator, and should be called the Preying Mantis’. 

Almost as an antidote the Butlers include an oft-anthologised, slightly tongue-in-cheek poem by Robert Dederik. Dederik’s ‘Mantis’ is more vulnerable than threatening, what with this humungous human looming over him, putting him into ‘such a zone of worry as may/ Make the least inclined to prayer/ Suddenly inclined to pray’. In a ‘longer view’ – which the poet assumes the insect doesn’t have – man and mantis might be seen as equal ‘effects’ of some ‘primal Cause’. We share our existence and destiny on this planet. Also, those raised, joined hands appear ‘not entirely stranger to’ a ‘thanksgiving mood’. The somewhat contorted syntax doesn’t make clear what the mantis might be grateful for, unless it’s for not being squashed by the human’s ‘whelm of power’.

 The Butlers also anthologised the most famous mantis poem of all, by Ruth Miller. Here, too, the triangular relationship between mantis, human and a god is deeply troubled and fraught. Like the Gingells’ mantis, this one initially appears formidable and deathly:

Carmen Welz's illustration in Out of the African Ark
He lifts his small hands
To god of nothingness.
Jagged legs stand
On pale green crutches.
The pear-shaped pod
Flanged for flight
All dainty lines
Except the head:
Except the triangle terrible as death.

The ‘crutches’, the daintiness, strike a note of fragility, but when the poet reaches for the mantis it retaliates; it seems to grow as large as herself, ‘the pointed face/ Filling with knowledgeable malice’, those hands coming and creeping and feeling for her through space. It takes some imagination – and some inner vulnerability – to feel threatened by a creature so small that to it an ‘inch’ seems ‘cosmic’. In the final part of the poem, the poet imagines herself as ‘brittle as a twig’ – as mantis-like – desiccated by time and now trying to be ‘quiet and restrained’; and closes with a question: ‘Would the terrible triangle of my face/ Make him afraid?’

Who is that ‘him’? God? The ‘god of nothingness’ mentioned earlier? The mantis himself? It’s deliberately ambiguous. At the very least the mantis functions as symbolic of a paralyzing fear of death.

Roy Holland’s fine poem, ‘Mantid’ (anthologised in Colin and O-Lan Style’s Mambo Book of Zimbabwean Verse), echoes this notion of the mantis’s implacable air confronting us with our own mortality. The poem begins:

Outside, musty as damp wool scarves,
The dark coiled back on itself
Like life mouldering in a plumstone.

But she was alive there,
Transparent on the window-pane,
Insatiate with her own green light.

At the angles of her head
The bald green eyes looked inward,
Outward, watching the juices

Of divination run through her long flanks,
Her two razors of supplication
Hone themselves on prayer.

That terrific phrase razors of supplication captures the ambivalence of the poet’s responses. This female mantis is munching on ‘the fused wire of her mate’s claw/ Twitching out its voltage in her mouth’. That disturbing cannibalism by a creature with ‘no sense of loss ... appetite merely’, prompts the poet’s grim closing meditation:

Her breath is a green frost; famine her mandibles.
And Time is browsing, mantis-jawed, on the delicate
Distal of my foot. I am digestible.

Also writing from Zimbabwe, N H Brettell finds his mantis equally impenetrable to emotion. In ‘Mantis and Moth’, the poet observes a mantis, the ‘little monster god’, perched on the aerial of his radio set. Through that aerial thrums the sound of Kathleen Ferrier singing Mahler’s tragic Das Lied von der Erde. Does the mantis, the ‘more than self-sufficient hexapod’, its forelegs raised in ‘derisive supplication’, feel anything of that orchestral human yearning and melancholy? Will Ferrier’s soprano, approaching like a soft moth, survive that ‘saw-toothed trap’? No:

It does not shake the mantis,
The aeons of the species’ strict tradition,
Indifferent to the yearning desperation,
Knowing it all, once for all:
He has no need for sweet regretful folly...

All that glorious music, laden with its ‘doomed and perfect voice’, does not move the mantis – nor, implicitly, all of Nature – one jot. The mantis might represent something apocalyptic or final – but only we humans seem to have the capacity to worry about it.

Finally, Harry Owen’s mantis, again caught on a window pane, seems like Brettell’s  to preserve some impenetrable, ultimate and quasi-divine knowledge of our own fate. Like Ruth Miller’s, this poem ends on a question. It is everybody’s question.


san god or prophet
you swivel that mitred gaze
past all our futures

Wake me up, mantis, your name the cursive
scrawl of your thorax, lend me your special
wealth, your voracious perspicacity.
You shouldn’t be here on the window glass,
gazing out from this garage’s dusty
gloom to a world of light and greenery.
Are you trapped, lost? Or are you here by choice?
You twist your head and glare at me.
We are alone. What is it I do not know?

Thanks to Marike Beyers of Amazwi Museum of Literature for helping me locate mantis material, and to Harry Own for permission to quote his poem in full.


Visit Dan and Jill Wylie’s work at

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

No 93 - Remembering Don Maclennan, 10 years on

It’s hard to believe that Don Maclennan has been gone for a decade. He would have been 90 this month. As his long-time colleague and friend, Malvern van Wyk Smith, noted in his essay in the volume No Other World, Don grew darker in his vision of the world in his later years, not least in the key volume of poems, Collecting Darkness. Don himself admitted to writing perhaps “too much about death”, though, rather like W B Yeats, he did so from a rather oddly early stage. Later, of course, stricken with motor-neurone disease and seeing his contemporaries dying around him (not least his sister, and his suicidal friend Sammy Lieberman), it would be surprising if he didn’t focus more on the ageing of the body and impending oblivion. Being a troubled atheist confronted him also with a particular kind of existential problem: how – even why – does one create meaning in the face of obliteration?

Re-reading Don’s last flourish of poetry volumes – essentially one a year in his last decade – I’m actually struck by how relatively few poems are directly about death. Far more of them – increasingly brief and lapidary as they became – are about death’s very antithesis: a revelling in the sensual fundamentals of just being alive. Everyday smells, sounds, textures. Again and again, the poems filter this simplicity out of complexities – the entanglements of society, the abstrusities of the philosophers, the echo chambers of other great poets, the confusions of his own self-doubts. At the same time, it is the compulsive questioning which drives him; far from settling into completion or complacency, he kept chewing on all those questions that have no answers. Not least of these is Who am I? This is the poem of that title, from Reading the Signs:

I cannot sieve myself out of my life
as you can sieve sand from water.
I exist for a moment
at an intersection
of time and place
free from gravity.
I cannot throw myself away.
I’ll open the kitchen door
and let in a fresh day.

A problematic is diverted to, albeit never conclusively resolved by, a simple sensory experience.

Though Don did not, as far as I recall, express any particular attraction to Eastern philosophies, there is something like a Zen living-from-moment-to-moment in this, or perhaps of Taoist wu wei, a doing-nothing in a receptive manner that approaches enlightenment. Don’s mind was too restless to leave it at that, though, maybe too self-searching to believe that enlightenment was even possible. His wisdom was the paradoxical one of denying he possessed wisdom. He had to be aware that many regarded him as a guide or even guru-like figure, however much he flaunted his flaws. If the poems are any indication (though I’m wary of reading even such apparently honest poetry as simplistically autobiographical), he became ever more self-doubting, the whole idea of finding meaning receding ever before him.

That word ‘meaning’ arises repeatedly. In the earlier poems there was “an early morning urgency to cram/ meaning into unawakened flesh” (“Adam’s dream”), but this becomes increasingly slippery:

If Cratylus is right
there’s meaning to be found
somewhere, day or night;
but the story of my life
crumbles and collapses
into faulty rhetoric.
(“Letter to myself”)

That meaning was not to be found, he repeated, in Christian ideas of a world beyond death:

To me, that other home is fantasy:
it masks the appalling fact
that meaning’s left us in the lurch.
There is no reason why we’re here
except to keep residual humanity intact,
love women, cherish beauty,
and before we die strive to redeem
our paltriness and lack of energy.
(“Extra ecclesiam nulla salus”)

But it is hard to formulate it in this world, either, since words are so limited and faulty:

Words only point
to the event, and fail.
Their meaning winces
in the rancid aftersmell.

Yet, at revelatory moments,

The word becomes a thing,
a thing a word
burning with luminosity,
as Monet’s light
consumes his canvases.

So one comes back to the sensory and the immediate, modulated by art perhaps, but finally locked into its own glorious and transitory present:

If light shines through
my language now, let me
retrieve its darkness,
thick curds
and clots of meaning,
the smell of smoke,
damp beds of herbs
in the harsh sun.
(“In the peppergrove”)

Mere light and clotted feeling leave the abstraction of ‘meaning’ behind.  I am reminded of a phrase from Russell Hoban’s phantasmagoric novel Kleinzeit: “Meaning is a limit – and there are no limits.”

That’s nice, but if one is to reject any notion of an afterlife, then death, of course, is rather a limit:

I don’t accept that when I die
I go off to a better place:
it is a lie to stop me
living where I am,
to counteract the truth
that when breath stops, I stop.
(Excavations, 30)

Like Dante, Don writes, he has awoken

into a world of war,
nausea and self-contempt,
knowing that poetry couldn’t
deliver him from death
though it was all he had
to fight it with.

 Yet poetry is one way of helping us live more fully in this time, body and world, since there is, as Emerson said, “no other world”. Don repeated this compulsively, staving off the lostness of wandering “helpless/ looking for a rendezvous” that never transpires: very unlike the Zen Buddhist, he felt

Life is desire,
and the job of writing is
to help us live,
stay clean. There is
no other absolution.

Only the poetry itself will outlive the tangle of blood and temporary nerves that we are. Don Maclennan, of course, is far from the first poet hope for this – even live for it. One can trust only, perhaps, that one does so in a unique way. And I do believe Don did so. It is up to us to ensure that the poetry does live on.


Visit Dan and Jill Wylie for books and art on