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


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