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Praise for Joan Metelerkamp’s Burnt Offering

Burnt OfferingBurnt Offering, in particular has been much on my mind this week, as has Joan Metelerkamp’s poetry for all sorts of reasons. One of which is that I have been working on the Introduction to Joan Metelerkamp for the Poetry International website.

Kelwyn Sole, in an email to me this week, wrote that in Burnt Offering he found “some of the best lines I have come across in SA poetry.”

The next issue of New Coin, the poetry magazine published by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University, carries a review of Metelerkamp’s latest book, Burnt Offering. The review is written by Brother John Forbis, a poet himself. You will be able to read the whole review in the June 2010 issue of New Coin, but for now, here is an excerpt of the review, with permission from the editor, Crystal Warren and from the author of the review.

How dare I! How dare I try and finish her ideas, her sentences! How dare I try and interpret or re-interpret what she’s trying to say! How dare I try and dissect her book! Joan Metelerkamp can speak for herself with more distinction, passion and grace in Burnt Offering, her seventh collection of poems, than I could ever presume to do.

Certainly her craft is magnificent as usual. Every word is chosen meticulously. Her imagery breathes, sometimes “gasps” like when she sits “down to write—

the words seep, leak

like the bad breath of a shrunken man

wrapped against the weather.

I can see and smell her metaphors and similes as if they are characters in her own psyche. Even her line breaks, end stops and enjambments are interesting. I can tell that she works as hard on her poems as she claims in this book (and many others before this one).

But, I don’t feel I would be doing the book justice by focusing on her technique. It is so organic to the feel and evocation of her poetry. It plays more of a supporting role to what William Carlos Williams lobbies as “no ideas but in things”, the “thing” that a poem is.

The best poetry is not thesis but engagement. Words and images are not declarative but they are vivid intimations of meaning. Burnt Offering warrants multiple readings, not to plumb its depths but to be drawn into the intuitive (feminine?) vision of what poetry can be. I am invited to“take it, take it in”.

Finally, an excerpt from the introductory talk which Gillian Carter gave in Knysna at the launch of Burnt Offering held at Wordsworths there in February this year.

Joan’s true vocation turned out to be motherhood and poetry and she won the Sanlam Award for literature in 1991 (awards for motherhood being less public). Joan has had poems published in South African and international anthologies; she has taken part in festivals and poetry readings locally and overseas, including Poetry Africa in 2005.

Apart from receiving awards for her poetry, she has judged poetry competitions, written poetry reviews and edited the literary journal New Coin for four years.

Burnt Offering is her seventh collection of poems. The title, Joan tells us, comes from one of the poems included in the cycle which comprises the collection’s central section. This cycle explores the labours of the medieval alchemists – heating and burning, transformation of passionate intensity, – the search for an enduring element. But the phrase ‘burnt offerings’ will also have for many readers the connotation of sacrifice, funerary ashes even. There is a way in which Joan’s offering of such intensely personal biographical poetry to an unknown public is a form of sacrifice.

Some of you may know Joan personally or be familiar with her poetry. You will be aware that Joan offers the reader of her work, not mere entertainment but a challenge of relentless honesty, and our engagement is essential. The discrepancy between the expectation with which we engage with a poem and the reasons for which the poet created the poem, evoke a tension – a form of dialectic, moving us towards understanding.

Because of her training as an actress and her integrity and sensitivity I can promise you that you will be captivated by her reading. Joan is the perfect guide for this journey, whose route combines the mundane, the simple daily experiences of life, as well as its moments of deepest emotion with an examination of the very process of poetry, testing the validity of poetry as a touchstone to clarify meaning. Part of the task Joan sets herself is to discuss the nature and purpose of poetry as we see in the book’s first section. I feel that Joan’s poetry is always a journey, an odyssey – not just the obviously narrative works that conclude this volume, but also those in the central cycle (rooted in anguish, but viewed with detachment, alienation even), which are stepping stones marking a progress, drawing us into her ever probing questioning: `What is true; what endures? What is matter and what matters?’ And `Can poetry be of any use in this search?’ Using more or less her words, Joan, like her alchemists, does not want to end up with the same stuff she started with, the residue of the time before.

Her poems are an exploration of the known, the commonplace and a space probe, launched to test what seems unknowable.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    April 1st, 2010 @14:39 #

    Joan, nogge yster.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    April 1st, 2010 @15:04 #

    by jove, I think he's got it! That first para of helpless frustration is so much mine too, as I wrote and discarded and wrote and discarded again. In the end I settled for:

    "... 'carrying the fire' enthrals like grand opera; Metelerkamp’s words mesh and metaphor and metamorphosise into arias, and trying to describe or write about the work is like trying to convey music with words...[and later]... Burnt Offering is poem as threnody, as lament... "

    I'm soooo looking forward to reading the Forbis piece - Crystal, my subscription is uptodate, I hope?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    April 1st, 2010 @21:27 #

    At Rhodes they used to call Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist the "Conversationist" because people couldn't stop talking about it. That's what Meterlerkamp's poetry is like. It is so densely nuanced you can spend hours discussing each group of lines.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sophy</a>
    April 1st, 2010 @22:30 #

    And what a great way of disguising dyslexia ... :)

  • Sven
    April 2nd, 2010 @09:40 #

    Don't joke Sophy. I once spent five days straight analysing, discussing and unravelling new layers of meaning in the title of Horencia Bustleby's Sing me a colostomy, then twice on Tuesday... before realising I'd been holding the book upside down.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    April 2nd, 2010 @11:50 #

    @sophy - but not of disslexia :-P


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