Sunday, 19 September 2021

No 121 – Representing Kruger National Park

 


I was conceived
in Kruger National Park. So said my mother, anyway, and she should know – ‘with the moon singing in wild grass/ to a lion’s pulsing roar’, as she put in a poem. Though oddly I haven’t been back to the scene of the crime very often, I realise that willy-nilly I’ve accumulated a number of books on Kruger, and sought out a couple of new ones. So here’s a scratchy and incomplete list of things to read on South Africa’s flagship, iconic wildlife sanctuary.

 ‘Flagship’; ‘iconic’ – the kind of language often bandied about. But flagship of what philosophy, exactly? Iconic in whose eyes? Almost a century old now, the KNP has meant many different things to different people.

 You might as well begin with the KNP’s very first Warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton (1867-1957). English-born, trained at Sandhurst, and erstwhile rider with an irregular Boer War unit called Steinacker’s Horse, Stevenson-Hamilton was first appointed Chief Ranger of the Sabi and Singwitsi Reserves, later incorporated into the KNP. He remained Warden for 44 years. Feisty and stubborn, he spearheaded a shift from unthinking extermination of wild animals to ‘preservationist’ ethics in the face of an often indifferent and dilatory bureaucracy. A competent administrator and writer, two books of his in many ways set the pattern for future accounts.

 The first, a memoir, he entitled South African Eden – an early hint of how a mythology of ‘pristine’ wilderness, of an imagined stable and original state to which the park should be returned and maintained, would come to dominate popular rhetoric and at times deleteriously skew management policy. In fact, the region carved out for the KNP was far from Edenic and untouched: it had been inhabited and used by humans for centuries, despite being malarial, and was all but bare of wildlife when Stevenson-Hamilton started. There were a mere 10 elephants, for example. South African Eden was first published in 1937; the 1993 Struik edition I possess includes a Foreword by his son, and is edited by Jane Carruthers, about whom more in a moment.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s second book is more a study or survey of the KNP’s various animals, entitled Wild Life in South Africa (1947), thereby setting an exceptionally low bar for imaginative titles. Though richly amplified by personal experiences, it had some pretensions to science – there are short chapters devoted to the Orygine, Alcephaline, Tragelaphine, and Cephalophine Antelopes, for example. Four chapters on the lion, but not much on birds, and nothing on vegetation and insects. In a way, it is still marked by the Big Game obsessions of the hunting fraternity out of which the KNP partly sprang. But as Stevenson-Hamilton remarks in his foreword, even short lapses in time are liable to render accepted wisdoms about animal behaviour redundant, even dangerously deluded: ‘towards the end of a lifetime of observation, the student begins to comprehend how little he knows’. Any ‘mental complacency’ can cause ‘irreparable mischief’, especially as humans have ‘such absolute power over the existences of other creatures of the earth’. Nature, he concluded darkly, ‘has her own way of wreaking vengeance.’ Seventy years on, this is more pertinent than ever. One such delusion involved lions: generally regarded as inimical ‘vermin’, they were early on almost eliminated from park precincts – several hundred killed by Stevenson-Hamilton himself – until it dawned that ‘within their proper sphere, [they perform] useful work in Nature’s economy’. It took many more years for insight, experience and research to reveal the similar problems with mass-culling elephants.


 Stevenson-Hamilton’s extraordinary career has occupied a decent chunk of environmental historian Jane Carruthers’ time. Her biography of the man himself, Wildlife & Warfare (2001) is eminently readable. More important, perhaps, is her earlier compact study, The Kruger National Park; A social and political history (1995). This is truly the definitive history, not in the sense that it is the last word on the subject (it is not), but in that it defines the field going forward; no subsequent scholar can validly ignore it. Through meticulous archival research, Carruthers unveils the complex, often tooth-grindingly slow legislative build-up to achieving the declaration of the KNP in 1926, the conflicts between political blocs as power shifted from Dutch/Boer hands to British, the emergent influence of North American park policies, the role of the hunting lobby, of racist land-use ideas, and of government bodies long indifferent to the whole idea. The actual preservation of wild animals for the delectation of non-lethal tourists was only one of a slew of motivations for wildlife reserves in those early days.

 Above all, Carruthers decisively debunks the myth that Oom Paul Kruger was the lonely, heroic and forward-thinking advocate for the park. Not only was his interest in wildlife confined to the consumption of biltong (as Stevenson-Hamilton snorted), legislatively he had virtually nothing to do with it. The naming was a manoeuvre of nationalistic politics, no more. Less space in the book is devoted to the period after 1926, and unlike the warden/ranger accounts, remains focussed on what people were doing, rather than on animal behaviours. Especially important is a chapter on Africans’ presence and role. Far from being simply ejected from the KNP, though some two thousand were, local communities had always lived there, criss-crossed it, and derived a living from it (suddenly transformed into ‘poaching’ and ‘trespassing’). And some continued to live and work there.

Over the years, as the KNP became increasingly organised, visited, managed – a massive enterprise over an area the size of Belgium – many rangers came and went, and a number wrote memoirs. Their style became increasingly generic, rather like the nineteenth-century hunting accounts of which they are descendants, a mix of self-deprecating derring-do encounters with dangerous animals and pragmatic ruminations on management policies. I’ve by no means read all of these memoirs (including one by the appropriately named Kobie Kruger), but I have a couple to hand. The earliest is by one of Stevenson-Hamilton’s own colleagues, Harry Wolhuter. He too had been a youngster in Steinacker’s Horse in the Boer (sorry, South African) War, some members of which had plundered (poached) big game themselves. It’s interesting how soldiers and hunters at the time migrated and transformed themselves into a ranger elite, quasi-military to this day. Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger (see what I mean about unimaginative titles?), published in 1948, celebrated (also) 44 years of service under Stevenson-Hamilton: ‘no superior officer was more loyal, kindly, and considerate to his subordinates’. (In fact, that superior officer often confessed himself enraged by subordinates he considered naive idiots, but he was nice to Wolhuter in his Foreword to the latter’s Memories. He approvingly noted Wolhuter’s ‘tendency to understatement’, which also seems a constant feature of the ranger mode.) Richly endowed with small and competent line drawings, Wolhuter’s book drifts from lively narrative about his earlier life, war effort, and induction into game preservation, to chapters more strongly centred on individual species or groups of species, observations on behaviour leavened with laconic accounts of hair-raising encounters with cobras, lions, buffalos, etc.


 By 1995, when ranger Bruce Bryden published A Game Ranger Remembers, the world (except book titles) had changed enormously. The structure of the memoir, though, remains similar: a farrago of chattily delivered anecdotes devoted to experiences the ordinary citizen will never have, some clustered around particular species in racy chapters. As the blurb has it: ‘there is a great deal of shooting, and a fair amount of running away ... extraordinary characters ... hilarious mishaps ... and throughout, a great love and respect for both the wilderness and the creatures that inhabit it.’ But the modern ranger is also a scientifically trained ecologist (Bryden began his career doing lion research). Instead of shank’s mare and the occasional horse he has Land Rover, Bell 205 helicopter and R1 rifle at his disposal; he has to wade through as much dull administration as adventure; and he spends not a little time killing off animals perceived as overpopulating or being a ‘problem’ in and around a now ferociously defended park. Primary of course among these difficult animals is the elephant – a matter of deeply conflicted emotions to a man who loves elephants but is obliged by KNP management policy to slaughter large numbers of them. He defends the strategy of culling, even as he is contemptuous of armchair policy-makers – as was Stevenson-Hamilton. Pragmatic, tough, knowledgeable, determinedly humorous in the face of danger, with a conventional denial of stylistic flair that is itself a point of conscious stylistic choice: that’s our contemporary ranger.

The ranger memoir partakes not a little of the narrative techniques of fiction – and of course there are novels involving the KNP, too, though I don’t know of many centred on it. One I glanced at as part of my book, Death & Compassion, was a fairly trashy novel entitled Elephant Across Border by Colin Burke (1968). The border in question is the Mozambique-KNP boundary, which has ever been vexed (especially the northern frontier around so-called Crooks’ Corner). The international border had been carved right through resident human communities as well as traditional animal migration routes (the KNP, for all its size, is hardly a coherent ecosystem). The novel is set at that transitional period when fences were poor, poachers overlapped with so-called professional hunters, and the ranger was just becoming the new hero. In the story, the KNP provides sanctuary for a great elephant tusker, one of those which a certain class of macho posturers did – and still do – find it somehow satisfying to blast into oblivion. And of course the KNP features strongly in Deon Meyer’s thriller, Blood Safari. Know any others?

 


I was particularly taken with the title of Mitch Reardon’s book Shaping Kruger (2012), recognising as it does that various forces – both human and natural – have built the KNP: though it’s big enough for lots of natural processes to unfold independently of (or at least oblivious to) human interference, it is fundamentally an artefact. (He has also written Shaping Addo.)  He admittedly, like the hunters and rangers before him, focuses his 12 substantial chapters on the usual suspects of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ – elephant, lion, buffalo and so on – but he does devote some chapters to otherwise potentially overlooked mammals, including impala and roan antelope. In all cases, anyway, he writes well and illuminatingly. He explains intriguing behaviours; makes specialised and up-to-date research accessible; delves into the unfolding phases and failures of historical management; and has a poetic touch which elevates his descriptions a notch above those tempting clichés. Indeed, he is concerned to disburse the older ideas of some Edenic ideal landscape, in favour of fluid and sometimes unpredictable biodiversity models. The scientific/managerial focus is leavened with just enough rangery personal anecdote to bring it back to real encounter. The book itself is charmingly designed, with pertinent photographs in full colour. In all, I’d recommend Shaping Kruger as a very good place to start reading about the KNP.

 Another decent starting point might be David Fleminger’s Fair Game (2018). Though it’s entitled A hidden history of the Kruger National Park, it doesn’t really add new knowledge to the literary landscape, but for a first-time visitor to the field (or the park) it is certainly filled with short-section nuggets, ranging from the Delagoa rail line to Jock of the Bushveld, from elephant culling to the Makulele land claim. Stevenson-Hamilton nevertheless dominates the historical first half of this 200-page book. The second half is aimed more at the tourist, a what-to-do-and-see overview; though detailed, there are no illustrations and inadequate maps. The book falls a bit uneasily between potted history and guide-book, which explains why publishers wouldn’t take it on, and Fleminger had to self-publish. Still, it’s quite fetchingly written, with thoughtful discussions and rich information.

Finally, at least two recent academic books have taken new approaches to discussing the meanings of the KNP. Leslie Dikeni is a well-established researcher with the universities of Wits and Pretoria, with a pet project of challenging the government’s ‘deterministic’ developmental programme. He extends this interest in Habitat and Struggle (Real African Publishers, 2016) – on the awful uninformative cover the designer has unaccountably added an exclamation mark, which over-dramatises the analytical content. As one might expect from the recirculation of an academic thesis, the book bears an unwieldy subtitle, ‘A study of the outcome of the interface between government, NGOs, managers of natural resources and local communities.’ What the book shows, in effect, is that there are many interfaces, many competing interests and cultural understandings of the KNP and its surrounds that centralised planners brush over. For my literary taste there is unnecessary emphasis on sociological methodology, which I suspect is not as revolutionary as Dikeni claims, nor are his conclusions ultimately terribly exciting. It’s ‘complex’, basically. What’s most interesting is the range of interviewees Dikeni encounters, from ministers to rangers, from local chiefs to park workers. He includes extracts of the interviews themselves, so one can see how Dikeni’s questioning progresses, and get glimpses into the life-stories of multiple actors. Albeit somewhat bitty, these provide the central interest for me.


Jacob Dlamini
is already well-known for his book, Native Nostalgia. In Safari Nation (Jacana, 2020) he produces another ‘social history’ of the KNP. Essentially he picks up the shorter discussion of Africans’ presence contained in Jane Carruthers’ earlier history. He doesn’t radically challenge Carruthers’ foray, but greatly extends it, drawing on a range of previously untapped documentary resources to amplify how Africans were always, and remain, intimately involved in the KNP region. (You wouldn’t believe it paging through no.14 of the Kruger Magazine in which, some ranger recruits excepted, scarcely a dark face appears.) Dlamini expounds illuminatingly, inter alia, on the migrant labour system, which built a rail line, transit camps and some of the main roads within the park, and the growth of tourist-travel and hunting interests within the black middle-class, particularly before formal apartheid. Contrary to common belief, black visitors were never legislatively excluded from the KNP, but they were not enticed by comparatively meagre facilities. Handily illustrated by period photographs, pamphlets and maps, Safari Nation fascinatingly reveals an almost wholly ignored side of South Africa’s history of travel and leisure. It is a period and arena which actually shows, he concludes, that ‘the welfare of whites did not have to come at the expense of blacks’, and ‘the black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation on principle. They opposed injustice.’

 Perhaps the most telling photograph of all in Safari Nation is one of the author standing dwarfed by the massive, jowly, not say Stalinist-style statue or bust of Paul Kruger at the KNP’s Kruger Gate – symptomatic, one might say, of the persistence of at least some myths, parameters and attitudes in the face of change. How to extend the good foundations, then, and shed the unfruitful ones, in our current age of land hunger, pandemics and climate change?

******

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 Lancôme 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.