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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Book Launch: Unlikely by Colleen Crawford Cousins

IMG_0036Modjaji Books and The Book Lounge are delighted to invite you to the launch of Colleen Crawford Cousins’ debut collection of poems, Unlikely.

As the publisher, I’m particularly thrilled to bring out this collection. Colleen Crawford Cousins was my first Modjaji matron, and she is my very dear friend. Her writing is strong, deeply felt, full of life, humour and shining intelligent clarity. It is my enormous honour to be Colleen’s friend and publisher and to bring her work into the light.

“Wry narratives, stored for decades, distilled and reclaimed fleeting feelings and feelings made to last in their weird word forms, meet and fitting.” Joan Metelerkamp

“In acutely observed poems, imbued with surprising geographies of imagery and tinged with irony, Crawford Cousins maps out the spaces between immensity and confinement, where people struggle with each other and themselves for a sense of fulfilment and belonging.” Kelwyn Sole

Unlikely front cover

Unlikely is a collection of poems by Colleen Crawford Cousins written over decades of reading and writing poetry. The collection is a distillation of a quiet, powerful voice that is an offering of love in a world and life that has been filled with light and anguish.

Colleen Crawford Cousins returned to South Africa in 1991 and began to live in the Afterwards. She consults nationally as a trainer, facilitator, writer and editor. She has been published in New Coin, Aerodrome, African Writing online and Stray. She is also the author of A Hundred Furrows, the Land Struggle in Zimbabwe 1890-1990 and a co-author of Lwaano Lwanyika, Tonga Book of the Earth.

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday 2nd March 2017
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: The Book Lounge, Corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, Cape Town
  • Guest Speaker: Colleen Higgs
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine
  • RSVP: Book Lounge,, 021 462 2425

Book Details

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Book Launch: How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers

How to Open the DoorThe National English Literary Museum and Modjaji Books are delighted to invite you to the Grahamstown launch of “How to Open the Door” – poems by Marike Beyers. She will be introduced by Robert Berold.

Lonely, lovely and lyrical, Marike’s poems tell a uniquely South African story in a uniquely South African voice.

“Here is a distinctive new voice in South African poetry. Marike Beyer’s writing is both simple and highly complex at the same time, delicate and tender and hard and angry. She brings her own unique perspective to the old themes of family, home and identity.” Kobus Moolman

Marike Beyers lives in Grahamstown. Her poems have appeared in New Coin, New Contrast, Loop, Ons Klyntji, Aerial and Tyhini as well as a few anthologies (The Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology; The Ground’s Ear; For Rhino in a Shrinking World). She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rhodes University. She acted as judge for the Dalro prize and the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize upon occasion. In 2011, she had a chapbook of poems, On Another Page, published by Aerial Publishing in Grahamstown.

Marike Beyers

How to Open the Door
Event Details

  • Date: Tuesday, 15 November 2016
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: National English Literary Museum, 25A Worcester Street, Grahamstown
  • Guest Speaker: Robert Berold
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine
  • RSVP: Matshoba Zongezile, NELM,

Book Details

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PE Book Launch: I’m the Girl Who Was Raped by Michelle Hattingh

I'm the Girl Who Was RapedMichelle HattinghFogarty’s and Modjaji Books invite you to the Port Elizabeth launch of I’m the Girl Who Was Raped, a memoir by Michelle Hattingh. The author comes from Port Elizabeth, so she is back in her home town talking about her incredibly courageous book.

“Compelling, clear and beautiful writing on such a necessary topic. She shatters rape myths on every page.” Jen Thorpe, gender activist and author of The Peculiars.

“Many people think middle class women are magically immune to rape or that if they are raped their easy access to the resources they need will be everything they need to recover completely. A book that discusses the cross cutting nature of the pain all women must feel when a man rapes them can only be welcomed in a time when communities across South Africa struggle with high rape rates.” Kathleen Dey of Rape Crisis

More about the book:
That morning, Michelle presented her Psychology honours thesis on men’s perceptions of rape. She started her presentation like this, “A woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read …” On that same evening, she goes to a party to celebrate attaining her degree. She and a friend go to the beach; the friend has something she wants to discuss. They are both robbed, assaulted and raped. Within minutes of getting help, Michelle realises she’ll never be herself again. She’s now “the girl who was raped.”

This book is Michelle’s fight to be herself again. Of the taint she feels, despite the support and resources at her disposal as the loved child of a successful middle-class family. Of the fall-out to friendships, job, identity. It’s Michelle’s brave way of standing up for the women in South Africa who are raped every day.

About the author:

Michelle Hattingh was born in South Africa in 1988. She attended school in Port Elizabeth and studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Stellenbosch University. She went on to do her Honours in Psychology at Cape Town University and now lives in Cape Town. Michelle works as senior online content producer at Marie Claire SA. Her work has been published in Elle SA, Marie Claire SA and Mail & Guardian. I’m the Girl Who Was Raped is her first book.

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday, 12 May 2016
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: GFI Gallery, 30 Park Drive, Central, Port Elizabeth
  • Guest Speaker: Emily Buchanan
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine and snacks
  • RSVP: Fogarty’s,, 041 368 1425

I'm the Girl Who Was Raped
Book Details

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Modjaji authors at the 2016 FLF

The 2016 Franschhoek Literary Festival is around the corner. And we’re delighted that a number of new and more established Modjaji authors are taking part. We have three writers who live abroad participating, they are Charlotte Otter (Karkloof Blue) coming from Heidelberg in Germany, Isobel Dixon (Bearings) from London and Eliza Kentridge (Signs for an Exhibition) from Wivenhoe in the UK.

BearingsKarkloof BlueCheck out the programme and book your tickets soon, you don’t want to be disappointed.

Karin Schimke, award-winning poet and books editor (Bare & Breaking) is chairing a number of sessions.
Sindiwe Magona is one of the celebrities of the festival, and will be specially honoured this year. We published her poetry collection, Please Take Photographs. Wendy Woodward, poet and English Literature academic (The Saving Bannister), will be there.

Poet and performer, Khadija Heeger (Beyond the Delivery Room) is also on the programme.

Beverly Rycroft, poet and novelist, is also on the programme (missing).

Jolyn PhillipsTjieng Tjang TjerriesAnd the last Modjaji writer on the programme is Jolyn Phillips, whose wonderful new book, a collection of short stories, which we have heard has made it onto the Exclusive Books’ Homebru promotion, Tjieng Tjang Tjerries and other stories is on a panel on Sunday at 1.00 with Deon Meyer, Rahla Xenopolous, chaired by Darrel Bristow Bovey.

There are two award announcements on the weekend of the Franschhoek Lit Fest. They are both on Saturday evening. The first is the Ingrid Jonker, two of our Ingrid Jonker past winners are on the festival programme, Karin Schimke and Beverly Rycroft. We have a couple of poets who are contenders for this year’s award: Elisa Galgut (The Attribute of Poetry) and Christine Coates (Homegrown).

And for this year’s Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize long list, we have Fiona SnyckersNow Following You. The shortlist of five will be announced on Saturday night during the FLF.

Bare and BreakingBeyond the Delivery RoomMissingBearingsPlease, Take PhotographsSigns for an Exhibition
Karkloof BlueTjieng Tjang Tjerries and other storiesA Saving BannisterThe Attribute of PoetryHomegrownNow Following You

Book details

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HUGE Modjaji WEBSITE SALE till the end of September only

Book MarkThe huge success of our discount boxes at the South African Book Fair in Jozi made us aware that South African readers are keen to buy books if the price is right. So we’re passing on similar discounts to you our readers who couldn’t be at the Fair. And at the same time clearing our warehouse of some of our older titles. But just till the 30th September there are HUGE discounts on older stock too. If you love a book bargain, you are going to love this sale. Check it out by clicking HERE

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Book Launch: Signs for an Exhibition by Eliza Kentridge

Signs for an ExhibitionModjaji Books, Love Books and the South African Psychoanalysis Initiative (SAPI) are delighted to invite you to the launch of Eliza Kentridge‘s debut collection of poems, Signs for an Exhibition. A poetry reading will be followed by a conversation between Eliza and psychoanalyst Mark Solms about the light her poems shed on the workings of her mind (or any mind).

Eliza Kentridge’s poems are autobiographical, the daughter of two lawyers who fought apartheid. In her twenties she left South Africa for England, where she became an artist. Against the dramatic background of her home country’s history, her focus is quieted, small and interior. With her mother afflicted by a serious neurological illness, she writes about family, love and place, as a woman who vividly recalls her girlhood self, gently and almost incidentally approaching one of the biggest questions: how does one live a life?

“Eliza Kentridge’s luminous Signs for an Exhibition is not so much a collection of discrete poems as a single continuous work that acquires increasing rhythmic and semantic power with each passing page. The poet’s agile movement from demotic utterance to perceptual fragment to tantalizing narrative moment do nothing less than create the startling illusion of having entered the fluctuations of another person’s intimate memories. This is a remarkable first book.” Siri Hustvedt

“Kentridge’s poems offer a direct line to her childhood and teenage years when she was ‘stapling the pages of myself together’. They are studded by sparks of metaphors and by a lightness of tone, a lack of melodrama.” Megan Hall

“These poems are beautiful… like reading a piece of blue sky” Dominique Botha

Eliza Kentridge

Eliza Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1962. She studied English Literature at Wits University before moving to England in the late eighties. She has worked for three decades as an artist, exhibiting in South Africa, England and the USA. She uses paper, fabric and clay to make work that revolves around glimpsed narratives and words – a sort of poetry. Now she outs herself as a writer, reverting to her original childhood plan. She lives with her family in a small waterside town in Essex.

For a Mail & Guardian review of the collection read here

Event Details

  • Date: Monday, 21 September 2015
  • Time: 6:00 PM for 6:30 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Road, Melville, Johannesburg
  • Guest Speaker: Mark Solms
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine and canapés
  • RSVP: Love Books, 011 726 7408, 011 726 7408

Signs for an ExhibitionBook Details

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Why we do what we do – a few thoughts about publishing poetry – post FLF2015

no matter how thin the spineModjaji Books generally publishes collections of poetry that have spines – no matter how slight, because that is what booksellers want.

We care what booksellers want because poets want their books in bookstores. They especially want their books in the stores that don’t care about poetry.

Our distributor/marketing people want to sub everything we publish to all the bookstores they work with.

We want to keep our distributor happy, we want to keep the poets happy, we want to keep the booksellers happy.

(The bookstores that don’t really care about poetry will return a great deal of the poetry they buy, all bought on SOR – sale or return. Pardon me if none of this is poetic.)

Poets want their books in bookstores because that means their book is really real.

We don’t usually publish chapbooks as debut collections because we consider the Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize.

We publish slim volumes of poems because these are taken more seriously by ‘the poetry establishment’.

The ‘poetry establishment’ takes slim volumes more seriously than: collections which contain the work of several poets, chapbooks, online publications, e-books, oral poetry.

Remind me again, who is the ‘poetry establishment’?

As publishers we consider everything we can, including publishing online, on phones, in pamphlets, as posters, on T-shirts, but so far we mostly stuck to the tried and tested technology of traditional book publishing on paper.

I find myself wincing when I hear poetry described as “content” and reading poetry described as “consuming” and publishing anything being described as “content delivery”. Is it a generational thing?

There is nothing more enlivening, nothing fresher, nothing that affects me as deeply as hearing a wonderful poet read her work. I’m thinking today of Jackie Kay.

Google Jackie Kay, google her reading “Fiere” - there are quite a few options on YouTube.

You’re welcome.

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Book Launch: Beyond Touch by Arja Salafranca

Beyond Touch e-inviteModjaji Books, Dye Hard Press, and Love Books are delighted to invite you to the launch of Arja Salafranca’s new collection of poetry, Beyond Touch. Deirdre Byrne will be in conversation with Arja Salafranca. Arja will also read from her new collection.

Arja Salafranca’s new poetry collection offers portraits of people on trains in England, as well as recounting the experience of being a stranger in Spain, where she was born. She treads warily on the icy streets of London, but returns years later to have a life-changing epiphany while rowing on the Thames. Her incisive, photographic gaze penetrates the lives of people, from an Indonesian woman in the sea to a child begging in Johannesburg. Yet the poetry is also personal, as it traces the slow but inevitable unwinding of a relationship. And then there’s an erotic intimacy, where love goes beyond touch.

Beyond Touch is a profound and evocative voyage of discovery towards self-realisation, surrender and an exhilarating “rush at life”, to the ultimate destination of an unexpected and achingly tender love. Arja Salafranca is one of South Africa’s finest contemporary poets and this collection deserves to be widely read and celebrated.”
- Michelle McGrane

There has always been a sense of separateness in Salafranca’s poems – even alienation – from the experience the poet carefully observes. While language allows the poet to record the world, capture it like a photograph, it also succeeds in creating an othering. Yet there is a shift in intimacy in the latter parts of this collection, surrender, perhaps, to an experience that evades the eclipse of words.”
-Alan Finlay

“Arja Salafranca proves here that the most effective poetry is always direct, concrete and singular. And, above all, frank. Even if it makes us flinch in recognition. Even if it leaves us slightly devastated. Certainly different.”
- Kobus Moolman

Event Details

  • Date: Tuesday, 09 June 2015
  • Time: 6:00 PM for 6:30 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Road, Melville, Johannesburg
  • Guest Speaker: Deidre Byrne
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of wine
  • RSVP: Love Books,, 011 726 7408

Beyond Touch
Book Details

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Poetry in South Africa – New Coin 50th Anniversary issue

New Coin 50th Anniversary issueGary Cummiskey, the editor of New Coin asked several people to write about the state of SA poetry as they see it. One of the people he asked was me. So here’s my take, I urge those of you who are interested in poetry in South Africa or in the world at large to subscribe to New Coin and in particular to order this copy from the ISEA.

The other participants in The State of South African Poetry: A Symposium are Mxolisi Nyezwa, Kobus Moolman, Kelwyn Sole, Dashen Naicker; Raphael d’Abdon, Lesego Rampolokeng, Colleen Higgs, Denis Hirson, Haidee Kruger, and Allan Kolski Horwitz.

As the publisher of Modjaji Books I don’t want to discuss the state of South African poetry at a macro level. What I want to do is to invite you to look at the Modjaji Books and Hands-On Books poetry lists. As of the 30 June 2014 we have published 27 new collections of poetry. All of these titles can be seen on our website where you will see the range, depth and variety of voices that we have published since 2007. Our very first title was a poetry collection, Megan Hall’s Fourth Child; it went on to win the Ingrid Jonker prize in 2008. Since then Beverly Rycroft was also awarded the Ingrid Jonker prize in 2012 for her collection, missing. We have had our poets receive other prizes and honours. Phillippa Yaa de Villiers won the 2011 SALA poetry prize and she is the Commonwealth Poet for 2014.

However, what I’m most proud of is that Modjaji Books has continued to publish and sell collections of poetry in a tumultuous and uncertain period in publishing and in a time of economic downturn globally. The rewards that poets receive for writing their poems and publishing collections are not monetary, but rather the same rewards that poets have enjoyed for centuries, the sense that there are readers who are hungry for their words, their images, the articulation of something that speaks to others. The unexpected emails and letters, the selection of a poem to be studied in schools, the invitation to read, the look on the face of someone in an audience listening to the poet read – these are some of the small, rich rewards for poets, apart from the making of the poem itself.

One of the threads I’ve tried to pick up in publishing collections has been to push the publishing boundaries of language and identity. For example Life in Translation by Azila Talit Reisenberger, Bare & Breaking by Karin Schimke, and Beyond the Delivery Room by Khadija Heeger – all feature poems in more than one language and in different varieties of language.

Another thread has been to interrogate ‘what is poetry’, for example, in Malika Ndlovu’s book – Invisible Earthquake: a woman’s journey through stillbirth – a book of poems, journal entries, essays and resource lists.

Investing time and money into publishing poetry is a somewhat odd enterprise, it is not at all rewarding financially, but somehow it seems necessary for me to do this work. Part of why I started Modjaji Books in 2007 was to claim space for voices that would not otherwise be published, and the voices that particularly concerned me were the voices of women. I will not go into a long argument explaining what I mean, those who know what I mean, know already. Those who don’t can go and research this and read about the feminist politics of publishing argued by much more sophisticated and scholarly writers. I saw that something needed to be done, so I have tried to do it, and I will continue to do this as long as I am able.

It is strange to me that something like poetry is such a contested space, but it is. And so I find it important to enter that space and open doors which were firmly shut. And if it wasn’t for Modjaji I fear many of those doors would still be firmly shut.

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Kelwyn Sole reviews Joan Metelerkamp’s new collection, Now the World Takes These Breaths

Now the world takes these breaths
In the lastest New Coin, the 50th anniversary issue, Kelwyn Sole reviews Joan Metelerkamp‘s 8th volume of poetry. The review is a lengthy engagement with Metelerkamp’s work. It is republished here with permission of the author and the editor of New Coin.

Joan Metelerkamp Now the World takes These Breaths (Cape Town: Modjaji Books, 2014) 61 pp. ISBN 978-1-920590-53-6

Kelwyn Sole

The use of ambiguities, playing with language and giving oneself licence to explore those half-articulated states of subject-identity where the subject is either dissolving or reforming in a continuous state of flux, is an important recognition of the way in which, at present, female subject identity is formulated.

- Helen Kidd

In an article published a number of years ago (‘The paper city: women, writing and experience’), poet and critic Helen Kidd speaks about a variety of feminist poetics “based on observations of how women interact together and how, in conversation, threads are dropped, picked up again, sentences unfinished and then reformulated later on”, which are derived from those “creatively used moments which women find for themselves feeding babies at dawn, feeding babies at dawn, between flights of stairs at dusk …. or all the other varieties of making that accompany domestic moments… .” This is, in my opinion, a useful prism through which to begin viewing to the poetry of Joan Metelerkamp. Even as her style does shift and evolve between collections, such a constant weaving of themes and shuttling between connections can be seen in the shifting patterns and reiterations in her poems. These interweavings are sometimes fraught, sometime radiant, but always ineluctable. The subject matter of individual poems may sometimes make this more obvious, as in the poem ‘Giving away’ in this collection; where the actual task of sewing is described in minute particulars.

Joan MetelerkampJMany critics have commented on the feminist aspect of Metelerkamp’s oeuvre which is, of course, crucial to an understanding of her project. Her remark in a 1992 interview with Colleen Crawford Cousins that she wants “to move into the realm of the brilliance of men, but on my own terms. I want to be recognised as a woman and for whom I am. … I want to say “fuck you” at the same time as saying “accept me’…” shows an impulse to inhabit, and rupture the distinction between, both male and female spheres. So it is no surprise that this collection is, as usual, imbued with insights which would interest feminist critics. The connections drawn between women are insistent (most obviously here in the poems which deal with the narrator’s daughter’s wedding), and males are outsiders to such processes, even as they are part of the family circle:

… on a day like this they went down to the rock pools.
The bride and her mother, took off their clothes, thigh deep
The bride swam. and after her dip, from the rocks.
her mother watched remembered the ancestors for a moment
washed off their backs

The last two lines of this poem are ambiguous: the two women are bonded in a relationship that is simultaneously stretching back into history, and immanent only in the moment.

There is at least one moment when the desire to counteract the commanding male voice is enacted, in a situation where grandfather has upset granddaughter. The speaker:

…stands on the hill in the chill
tells her eighty four year old father
to fuck off – why has it taken so long
she follows her weeping daughter
sophistry she has heard her eldest brother
sophists fuck off she yells back at her brother
too late! Why in the name of need
has she kept denying her own kow-towing
history family story what reason can she concoct ….
(‘Angry cow’)

Males are resisted, explicitly, for their selfishness and narcissism (‘First words’). In line with one of Metelerkamp’s concerns, in ‘The cake!’ men ironically have to play a subordinate learning role and learn the value of women’s work, despite their seeming intellectual accomplishments.

Metelerkamp problematises female interactions as well: such may embody somewhat watchful, careful and occasionally difficult relationships, if shot through with moments of illumination and merging. However, the interrelationships of love and comfort stretch to male-female in a number of poems, despite the fraught nature of familial relationships. In her poetry, social connections are overwhelmingly concentrated within the extending circles of the family: these can be fulfilling, but in many poems individuals seem to be transfixed by family obligations. The family is simultaneously a place of charity and empathy, and of command and suppression. It follows that the integration of the poet’s consciousness with the cycles of human and familial relationships are often jagged, and any comprehension or grace is constructed out of bits and pieces – out of cycles of alienation and desire, care and sundering. Given the often painful personal events explored in Metelerkamp’s earlier volumes, memory is easily called forth, and the interlinkages of past and present implicit in family life confirmed, for good or ill. On the one hand, there is a repeating sense of isolation and confinement; yet on the other, the poems are permeated with a desire for fulfilled experience in the face of banality and loss. Any sense of wholeness is wrenched out of psychological, epistemological and ontological dissonance, and freedom searched for in the face of restrictions imposed by self or others:

Before the wedding
the groom must go to confession –
this his upbringing
requires what shall I confess
he asks what is my sin –
six months it takes
before the bride’s mother
after a week of intense heat
on an afternoon she can hardly hold
her eyes open admits
the response all of it
whatever it is whatever has held
you from your choice what you have chosen
all of it for the life you are given for giving.

Within poems is the constant re-emergence of an inner, chiding, disciplining voice: the main protagonist is surrounded by injunctions that she can imagine equally in the call of a boubou shrike, in her father’s voice over the telephone, or from within. The personal interconnects with (and at times threatens to be overwhelmed by) the thorny emotional bonds of family. Yet these are pictured as necessary, and maintained over long distances. Ceremonies and rituals – such as the wedding that is one of the central thematic foci of this collection – are a way in which these bonds are enacted and maintained (‘Ceremonial’). In one poem the bonds and pledge between husband and wife are shown to have the potential to endure, despite experiences of disaster and adversity (‘Eventually again in the twenty-seventh year…’). Moreover, it is hinted that the complex and problematic nature of gendered relationships is potentially given hope, in that the new generation of women may have possibilities unavailable to their mothers.

The contested community of family is constantly played out against the background of a natural world. Metelerkamp is unsurpassed in terms of her attention and knowledge of the natural milieu surrounding her: in terms of the Western Cape coastal ecosystem, the only other writer of equal stature I can think of is Menan du Plessis in her first novel A State of Fear. The personal, familial and natural are integrated, in a convincing manner. In these recent poems the integration is closely knit into a poetics of inference and echo, and often flow into each other within the same stanza, sometimes within the same line. Denizens of the natural world are a constant presence and, at times, interlocutors of a sense of communion and grace: most obviously the jackal in ‘Long day – long windy day’ (“suddenly a jackal as if from nowhere / leaps out in front of the car. / We have talked. We agree. He doesn’t want to be left. / I want him to be first so he shows me the way.”). However, it is noticeable that in this volume the natural surroundings can take on a more menacing, intrusive, air; illustrated by the intruding boomslang in ‘Who’, and in the tenor of the boubou’s cry in a handful of poems. More than fleetingly, the sense of enclosure and isolation emerges even here.

Nature is never described in the poems without penetrating, or being penetrated by, the poet’s consciousness: the one segueing into the other at times abruptly. There are lessons to be taken from nature, as in ‘Folding’, one of the finest poems in the collection (…subtly, subtly we repeat ourselves like trees / like northern mopanis tracts burnt / trunks like chimneys smoking through the whole bole / we die singly why should we want to be new – / why be afraid / of repeating ourselves – // like folded rhinoceros we collapse / in what’s left of the shade.”). The systole and diastole of the planet’s seasons are linked implicitly to cycles of life and death, as in the title poem of the collection.

Such themes are carried forward consistently through a consciousness always aware of its own uniqueness and vulnerability (“always only one you” – ‘You’). In the social and natural poems, the meditations on repetition, death and birth and the attentiveness to the hair’s breadth instability of being alive are shot through with a desire for both immanence and transcendence: there are moments of intense beauty and the surprise of the numinous. The reader encounters superbly delineated beauty in a number of the poems. Isolated moments – such as return of a daughter, and the tidal feelings of joy, foreboding, aging and reciprocation this occasions – are saturated not only with intense emotion, but deep metaphysical and philosophical meaning (“The first day she remind me who I am, whatever that means. / it means while she sleeps thirteen hours at a time, fourteen, /I sit on the balcony look up and out at the river, the valley, / from the gift she has brought me without authority / I am reading the lily and the bird / from the world she belongs to, will return to – // … we stand for a moment together quiet beside the running water / outside the boubou’s trembling treble terribleweeeep terrible weep” (‘indefiniteness increases suffering’)). At times – as in the collection’s final poem – the struggle the speaker lives with is countered by an acceptance of material and emotional circumstances and the contingency of experience; poems which also hint at a need for disentanglement and letting go (‘Never an October…’). Nevertheless, given Metelerkamp’s questing persona, the reader can guess that such acceptance is likely to be provisional.

To spend an entire review focusing on the feminist themes and crafting of consciousness in Now the world takes these breaths may, however, neglect other issues, and skew focus away from attention to other important aspects of the work. One thinks of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and the possibility that critics’ constant reiteration of its feminist aspects has caused some to downplay her importance as an innovator of poetic form. In one of her June 1962 journal entries, Plath is clearly aware of her craft being outside the acceptable norms of the day; remarking bitterly that her struggle with “easy poeticisms” in her work only serves to convince bearers of the canonical torch, like Lowell, that she is merely “rough, anti-poetic, unpoetic”. There is a similar misapprehension possible vis-à-vis Metelerkamp. At first glance, some of these poems appear anything but polished, and are grudging with their meaning – thus placing them athwart of the conservative demands of the South African canon. However, closer investigation begins to lay bare the degree of work, of patient effort and crafting, that goes into their artifice. As her poem ‘Penelope’ in an earlier collection (Burnt Offering) makes clear, Metelerkamp’s explorative restlessness, her constant picking and unpicking of threads in her poetry, is deliberate. She is in aspects a process poet, in that her poems both internally and in sequence reveal a consciousness in process, reaching for understanding (as she notes, “not so much that I’ve wasted my life but that it unfolds. / discloses itself like the sun again laid out across my lap.” (‘Here the water sprays way into beyond…’)). These processes exist not only in terms of the manner in which her reader has to work towards meaning in poems, but also in the subtle transformations of her use of poetic form between books, even as her themes remain relatively stable. Thus, if she does at times deal with recognisable themes, her skilled and unusual use of form still set her apart. This is refreshingly different from the easily formed expressions of solidarity and identification in too much South African lyric poetry – including women’s poetry – today.

Any critic who wishes to get closer to Meterlerkamp’s work must engage with the question of form. In this regard, a constant preoccupation for her has been the forging of a style which engages the reader in a process of reading, and which allows for the irruption of the unconscious in its production and reception (“that’s not what I thought I’d write” she says in one poem (‘That side. There…’)). There is a connection of the poet’s consciousness to both the physical and metaphysical in many poems, which may require a poem being read literally and metaphorically at the same time (“even the dress was only partly a metaphor”’ (‘Inside’)). In this volume, there is a use of repetition and run-on lines, a penchant for elliptical and cryptic reference, alterations in tone, and – where themes are dropped then taken up again – slight but always incremental shifts in perspective, which add up to a layering effect in general. Rapid associations are required from the reader as the poems move from the narrator’s inner to outer world, and into relationships, natural surroundings, and familial history. Snatches of conversations merge with recalled incidents, fleeting perceptions, and a swift movement from the mundane to the visionary and back again. The significance of these coruscations of experience, and the uncommon connections between objects, are opened up to the reader for completion.

Abbreviated references and tendential and half-statements occur which, although bearing meaning and often linked to what has been gestured towards in previous poems, are at times incomplete, and require reader participation and selection among choices. For instance, in the poem quoted below, the reader is left uncertain as to the tone and eventual meaning of the poem – is it self-criticism, celebration or self-justification? It can be read in a number of ways, an effect engendered by the intersection of question and statement in last the four lines:

… on the other side of the earth
she is
married to her own life
as only she could be
my daughter –
how could I have loved her
too closely

how could I ever have loved
my mother too closely.

Metelerkamp may speak, at times, from different systems of cultural signification, and interlay them: such as the speaker’s reuniting with her daughter after separation seen in terms of the Demeter – Persephone myth. At times, the connecting of these may produce a surprising aptness (“… somewhere in the taaibos secret / as Eleusis secular as cycles / sacred as days sinking into themselves … “ (‘You’)).

Therefore, readers are impelled into following where this making and remaking of sound, sense and self may lead. A sense of pressure is built up by the movement through associations, especially given the sense of intense emotion and watchfulness that is a predominant narrator ambience. This causes the reader to follow her perturbations of self, in a panoply of moods: taking shape in an ambience of uncertainty and exploration. In line with the warp and weft of her consciousness, individual poems may act as lenses through which surrounding ones are illuminated and more fully explained. Some poems are so crystalline that they serve to focus and illuminate other poems around them. There are constant skeins of reference between poems: this can be seen, for instance, in the first three poems of this collection, where one’s partial understanding is added to and enhanced by a sequential reading.

Metelerkamp sometimes uses with a shorthand of references, which can only be more fully perceived across poems, or even guessed at: for example, the references to Concord, Lewis Wharf, Lowell and the Freedom Trail in ‘That side. There…’ can only be contextualised through a prior knowledge of New England; while the line “in her kitchen warmth gave me The Gift…” can be read literally: but what about the italics? Is this Lewis Hyde’s book? The reader can only surmise. References in a number of poems are cryptic, due, in part, to their domestic and private meanings:

… deadly poisonous boomslang cruising the dombeya, the wild-pear;
weeds everywhere fleas, mosquitoes, breeding like mosquitoes
in the cesspool-reservoir-pool; blocked loos:
at last the plumber came blocked the passage: stood there
with what we used to call verbal diarrhea logorrhea
going on and on about God till I could hardly stand it
matter not mattering! The plumber! Get through it! Shit! Shit
in the old outlets, hot water geyser completely clogged.

My back seized: lay down on my son’s empty bed, hauled
My body to the old brown couch where he used to lie, cried.
(‘Dry, seedy summer when we returned…’)

The poet has spoken at some length about the manner in which poetry serves, in her mind, a number of different functions: a moment of perception; a process of illumination; a means for making connections; a therapeutic process; a way of “making meaning, of balancing meaning and its lack”; “a process of working things out” and “a tool to contact other people and the rest of the world, your environment, the great creator” (interview with Ross Edwards, 1998). She goes on:

As soon as you write – presumably somebody’s going to read it – so all the voices say you shouldn’t be writing about yourself; but then, of course, you can only write about yourself in a sense – not about yourself, but from yourself. In other words, the self is your only link to the world.

In the same interview she criticises Antjie Krog’s book on the Truth Commission for manufacturing , rather than stating “… the truth … for the sake of a more “interesting” or is it “consumable,” narrative. I think (Krog) misses an opportunity to confront herself”. It is clear throughout her work that Metelerkamp has a high regard for self-confrontation through her poems, and a truth revealed through adversity and a complexity of technique. It follows that statements made by critics that her work is ‘postmodern’ have to be approached with care: her destruction of linear narrative and authorial stability cannot be exemplified as a variety of post-modernism.

In some ways, Metelerkamp’s poetry is increasingly taking on some aspects of a formally self-conscious, and formally ordered, personal diary; using fleeting impressions, conversations, admonitions to self, cryptic comments and quotes as parts of the poems. This is a genre which has long been subversive in women’s hands; where the self may be mirrored and explored; and observations, experiences, meditations and interactions inscribed in a space not constrained by patriarchal overview. While such diaries may and have in some cases been published later, Metelerkamp’s similarity to this style is entirely purposeful, and allows a complex set of emotions, references and events to be set up and played off each other. This forges a particular relationship between the public and the personal through the poems.

The poet makes clear in the Edwards’ interview that “Many of my poems are addressed to other people, most come out of relationships, so they are all about other people. Lots of them have other people in them; but I can never know who I am writing for, if anyone will want to read it…”. While the various connections and disconnections between narrator and poet, and between poem and reader, is a concern in much lyrical poetry, it is especially tangible here, given the poet’s style. The consistency of narrative perspective allows the reader a constant identification of an authorial presence in these poems. The membrane of fictionalisation around events and characters is thin, at times seemingly transparent. This has effects on the reader. Incidents and contexts sketched out in this new collection as underpinnings to poems are frequently congruent with the quotidian lives of many women, as well as the encounters, vicissitudes and emotions that are experienced in relation to these. Yet there are many events and issues described which are identifiably unique to Metelerkamp herself, and which rely on and magnify the subject matter of poems in her earlier volumes. Therefore, in this latter case the reader finds him- or herself in a scenario of intimate contact with the author, where connection between narrator and author is clearly linked through details of biography. I found myself at times adrift between how to recognise and respond to these slightly different – if imbricated – impulses. On the one hand, it felt as if I was responding, through an individual’s poems, to women’s concerns and issues which could be generalised to hold true. On the other, the poems work around very specific details of biography and experience, and tend to highlight the figure of a poet with a unique life story and an individual and family narrative her faithful readers know well.

As a consequence of this, my knowledge of the uniqueness of her biography felt like it was, very occasionally, of undue assistance in my appreciation of some poems. In other words, I was worried in one or two cases whether my reading would not have remained incoherent without such prior knowledge. In a mere handful of poems, such as ‘Teacher’, ‘Bath’ and ‘No wonder’, the full weight of associations remains unclear, and it was only the presence in my mind of poems from previous volumes which were of partial assistance in my apprehension. The danger in such poems is that the nature of her observations and responses may remain too personal. As a result, given the interrupted, cryptic, layered nature of the details and references contained within and between poems, the effect seems to vary from the powerfully associative to the over-enigmatic.

Now the world takes these breaths is nevertheless an extremely powerful and convincing volume, and demonstrates again Metelerkamp’s searching, thoughtful demeanour, emotional intensity and technical skill. It is a must for all who wish to know how contemporary South African poets are responding to the shifting social and psychological landscape in which we live.


Now The World Takes These Breaths

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