|Haring and (?) husband [MyHeritage]|
I just rediscovered a little volume called A Taste of Salt, by one Phyllis Haring. In a life that lasted nearly a century (1919-2016), she published just 50 poems, 22 of them in A Taste of Salt. But what poems! She is dark, death-obsessed, fractured – but also unflinching, musical, a startling surrealist. She drew on dreams and myths and fairy-story motifs, carrying on fragmentary conversations which are both overheard voices around her and aspects of her own psyche.
Haring was born and died in Johannesburg, and lived there most of her life, except for a brief period in London in the 1950s. As she described it in a letter to Jack Cope, who edited A Taste of Salt, she was a tearaway youth, a “love-addict”, who “married too young, divorced too soon – wanted 6 children and had one.” That one, a son, died young, spinning her into depression and therapy, not for the first time. Yet for decades she also ran a swimming school.
There’s a slippery relationship between the poetic techniques of Surrealism and psychic disturbance. Surrealism – think of paintings by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali – challenged the norms of realism, logic, coherence itself, trying to represent the unfathomable leaps and juxtapositions of dream-thought. Early Surrealists like founder André Breton espoused a kind of automatic writing, writing by pure instinct, with almost religious fervour. Dissenters like Georges Bataille were tougher, materialist, even excremental. The established narratives of religion, politics and nation went out the window. Life had no direction, no goal, no predictable outcome, quite possibly no discernible meaning at all. In short, if you are bordering on mad or just rebellious, Surrealism is ideal.
Phyllis Haring tackled her own disturbances, mostly indirectly through scenes that hint at underlying narratives or parable-like promise, but end with no didactic wisdom. In one unpublished poem, “Found Lunatic”, she represented mental trouble more directly:
Is mysteriously full of flowers
And your hands are colder by far
Than last winter’s winter,
You don’t need to pretend any longer.
You can get up and go out.
... I’ll just stay quietly here
And try to collect myself.
... I must have been walking worriedly
Towards that sudden second all my life,
Watching myself in shop-windows, admiring myself ...
YOU MIGHT AT LEAST ARRANGE YOUR LIMBS ATTRACTIVELY.
YOU MIGHT AS WELL STOP STARING AT THE CEILING.
... And I remember childhood,
The long lane at evening, acorns popping underfoot,
Swimming in summer and small boys in trees.
At seventeen there was no-one to talk to ...
WHY DO YOU LET YOUR MOUTH HANG OPEN? CLOSE IT!
And now that the room is so mysterious
This policeman won’t believe a word I say –
You tell him, darling.
I now love and admire animals & birds more than people, children more than adults, am still anti-fascist, and am also anti women’s lib. For me the natural world is far more important than the political or religious, or anything, since it encloses us all. If I have a faith at all, it must be more or less the same faith a tree has, & wish I had the same acceptance of the ills of the world. When it is time to die, I will console myself with the thought that in any case in my life time there is no understanding, pity or love between people and things. So, call me a crank!
Life, and the passage of time,
The days and the nights converging,
And the long tunnel of time. Tell me,
Where are you going, what waits there?
Who dies in the dark there, who dies?
There’s nothing in it for us at all,
Unless you can say to me, “I am going
Here and there, to do this and that,
And I have an appointment with my lover!”
Like this, with only the scream of wires
And the personal idea of a station somewhere,
The silence presses too hard on the head
And heart, and some of us are quietly
Sick on the side. It’s not necessary;
We’re all here, look around, say something!
For God’s sake lift your hat!
See how it feels, getting together,
Getting the low-down on what it all means.
And stop pushing.
What am I but only a particular
Particle of dust, of nothing but blood and bone
Beseeching, searching, wandering forever
Along the delicate snail’s trail your spirit leaves
In passages and doorways, in halls and auditoriums,
And in books and theatre programmes, in love
With whomever has lips to meet one. ... You stare
Solemnly with the eyes of anyone, you speak to me
With the voice of strangers, calling me onward. ...
To what end? What destination? What new death?
But my hands clasp the heavy shadow
Of a faint reality, in the huger shadow of the world –
Therefore I send myself along regretful avenues,
Towards houses with secretive numbers, relentlessly [...]
The earth asks, and receives rain, the benediction
Of rain and of sun, and the population of seeds.
But the worm inhabits the earth, and multiplies itself
And makes merry in the blind earth above which
The birds suspend themselves, aware of the end.
People live on, “with talking/ And laughter, surrounded by dogs and by children”, but they are subject to forces far greater than themselves, and the poem, circling back to the imagery of its opening, turns apocalyptic:
[...] the earth presses upward against their feet
So that they remain upright: but elsewhere
The earth opens and engulfs a city, and perhaps
My brother is hastening towards that city.
– While I, as I lie on my comfortable bed, as the blood
Courses through my hands and my feet, as the blood
Courses over streets and over flagstones, up to the doors
Of houses and cathedrals, over the altars
Of the new religions, over the world, I thrust my thought
Deep into the earth, watching the worm with my mind’s eye:
The worm which devours itself with the beak of a dead bird.
There are times when the skin,
Where it joins down the middle of my back,
Splits open and lets me out –
And I move quietly among you,
Touching the colour of your eyes
And holding your voice in my hands
Like the light notes of piano
Or the soft sounds chrysanthemums make
When being beheaded in gardens. (“Fantasy”)
I’ll set my anger loose upon you
Like a warm, red beast
To beat your head in
With its hoofs of music;
To gore your breast repeatedly
With sharp, distracted horns
Hidden in honey,
As for a sacrifice.
That’s an extraordinarily compact poem, its animal-human conjunction redolent of Greek myth. It is ambivalent about the nature of this sacrifice, if it is one. The language is tensed between “warm” and “sharp”, “set” and “distracted”, the double entendre of “beat”, the grotesque deception of “Hidden in honey”. Yet these antitheses are held together by a robust and careful musicality: the internal echoes of “loose” and “hoofs”, of “beast”, “beat” and “breast”, of “gored [...] horns/ Hidden in honey”. It is a fundamentally mysterious yet forbiddingly powerful drama.
Imprisoned in the profound, close house of the apple,
Astringently contained in quinces, caught
For a season in the polished shell of a walnut,
The sun has gone away for Christmas.
Here’s the moon, and carnivals of crossed stars,
All heaven is festooned everywhere with brave lights
– But the dark leans over everything.
The dark ...
And yet, behold the god returning,
The sun enormously an orange in his hand.
“Astringently contained in quinces, caught [...]”: such a great line! The governing antithesis is ironically counterpointed by the assonance-alliteration of astringently and quinces. The word caught at the end of the line is carefully balanced with Imprisoned at the beginning of the previous line, as well as half-rhyming with walnut in the next. Haring can be as gifted as Yeats in this kind of control, even as emotion spills into broken lines with the advent of “the dark”. Fruitful day returns, powerful as a god, but it is already devilled by darkness.
So many poems cry out for quotation, but I’ll stop with one of her most-anthologised. In “Foetus”, the poet imagines herself in the space of the womb – an inland sea, as it were, where “bones form themselves quietly,/ Turned on a lathe of tide,” and in which a “disconsolate” and “opaque dreaming” prevails:
There is slime everywhere,
There are fishes, and powerful anemones,
And an army of snails softly advancing ...
Spread themselves on my face and on my neck, like fungi,
And my skin crawls, my hands clutch and clasp
The warm temperature of the water.
My head leans on the water, sad as a bell,
Surrounded with silence, with heaviness ...
Therefore my arms cross my heart
And with humility I hope to die.
Phyllis Haring was indeed humble, publishing nothing in the last two decades of her life, dropped from anthologies of South African poetry and never reprinted. But in my view her voice is an unusually powerful and individual one, strangely beautiful in its very gloominess – well worth re-reading.
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