Friday, 1 June 2012

The Grass is Singing

I believe that there is a political crisis going on in South Africa. A populist politician, with questionable personal morals, is president. There are attacks on the freedom of the press and artistic expression - legislative ones from the executive, literal ones from individuals with no formal connection to the government acting ultra vires to preserve the 'honour' of the president. Whilst the pattern that is emerging might so far resemble Putin's regime more than Mugabe's (though there are similarities), the South African constitution is robust in defence of liberty, due process and accountability. So far, at least.

Its survival will depend on the speed with which the country progressively realises the economic, cultural and social rights of its poorest citizens - in a society that is still far too unequal, and where wealth and power are highly concentrated and unaccountable.

Out of this context, I welcome a poet with a remarkably direct and personal voice, who writes about life in South Africa as it is now, with no false distinctions between the political and the personal. Karen Press's poems show what can be done when the whole of a person's being is deeply engaged with the world around them and then channelled with wit, openness and compassion into poetry.

Therefore, I find it surprising that on the blurb on the back of her new book published by Carcanet, 'Slowly, As If', the South African Sunday Independent is quoted as saying 'It is largely a poetry of whispers, of hints, of indirect statements...' when I find poems with titles like:

Your Saddam
Cyrus Vance Sat on my Couch
Statistics South Africa Says
Hotel Rwanda, 1 January 2006
Monument to the South African Republic
she gave birth while prison guards tortured her and laughed.

The only explanation is that South African poetry today is characterised by didactic agitprop and that by comparison Press's work is positively Anglo-Saxon in its obliquity. The evidence for this comes from a book I bought a couple of years ago called Beyond Words, at an evening of South African poetry at the Contact Theatre, Manchester. The poetry was read by the authors themselves. I open that book now and I come across lines like this:

When Europe cuts up the continent into little pockets of its imperialist want....

My hearts percusion flows to my feet
As they play notes on the ground
At once linking past and present
soul and sound

I am attracted to the image of a continent being cut up into little pockets and I love 'my heart's percussion' but the poetry goes on to become about something - a thought, an interpretation external to the experience - rather than presenting something from within the experience or perception, summative as opposed to an enactment. Not all of the poetry is like this by any means. There's a wonderful poem by Lebo Mashile called God Blues for Mama which presents a marxist view of religion i.e. one that respects the beliefs of proletarians ("Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people" as Marx himself wrote). Mashile writes:

God never runs, Mama said
He died on a cross
Papa was cross
She bled from her head

God never hides, Mama said
She's at church every night
Close to him
The Lord lives inside

This poem doesn't seem too far away from Press's. She writes from personal experience and isn't afraid of the prosaic:

The chapter recounts how Stalin phoned Pasternak

Nor of the abstract and rhetorical:

Would he stand up inside the mask of his freedom
and burn his own fine-tuned tongue
to keep one of them warm?
(Pasternak's Shadow)

Thankfully, she has a capacity to keep the latter grounded in the former. For instance, she has written an evocative poem about when the Berlin Wall came down:

The red velvet kaffeehaus chairs are worn through,
the patrons are worn down with coffee and cigarettes
and the children they had when already somewhat mature,
slumped over wrinkled copies of taz at the pre-war wooden tables


History wants to
get its hands on this city
all over again.

(Over There,  Berlin, November 1989)

Her poetry reminds me of D H Lawrence and of Ted Hughes because of the way she is present in it living and breathing poetry. Certainly, she writes about nature and is capable of lyrical beauty because of an intense focus on an external natural work which affects her strongly:

Slowly the water lightens but there's black below,
and a silver shadown folding each bright ripple in -
the deepness and memory of the lake

it clings to, for the sky is far away
and blue without conversation
(Love Songs for Lake Como)

Sure, there is uneveness in her work, but a sense of complete engagement pervades almost everything she writes.

She might refer to South Africa as 'the dead republic' and think it's MPs 'clink clink clink/ like chocolate coins in the President's pocket' but the vitality of her work demonstrates that she still hopes, and that democratic sentiment in South Africa is strong:

Some people say
that what you're doing now
simpy confirms what your politics were
all along

I'm not one of them -
I think, Stalinism and the sneering shadow flitting across your eyes
notwithstanding, that you had something to fight for,
something greater than clothes and a car
more lithe, more radiant inside its own skin,.
You were so beautiful then.
(Do you Love Yourself Like This).

I should add that she also writes about love and the relationship between the soul and the material world:

The soul must be the bones
since they're what lasts
forever and ever, stark and serene.
Where else would a soul want to live?
(Three Meditations on Immortality or Are we nearly There Yet?)

In other words, she is a profound poet as well as an energetic one. There's a poem in the book called Be bear, which I think pretty much sums her up:

Be bear, the doctor says, be crane
and tiger and golden pheasant, be monkey and dragon.

Fold in and open, gather and strike

and attack, when necessary attack
or soften and fall, become a dragon
becoming a folding pheasant.

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