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Nathaniel Tarn

Partly a monologue, partly also a dialogue with Stephen Watson about his The Other City: Selected Poems 1977–1999

David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa.

This piece is 1,250 words or about four printed pages long.

ONE: I am reading your book for the third time. I have always felt that, the more poetry achieves the status of poetry — climbing there out of “verse,” “writing” and such — the more difficult it is to discuss. In the end, the only way to do so is to write an answering poem. In any event, here as ever: the disdain for, aversion and flight from, “scholarly” criticism — except in regard to scholarship. I hope I avoid that as much as possible in the following but I am not sure it can be avoided altogether.
      The overwhelming impression of an elegiac poetry which is a triumph over depression, a depression long as life — my strongest possible feeling of kinship — not, I believe, mere projection. The poet is, always, standing there (being the space of the place which, unlike so many today, he has never left and feels that he will never — someday I have to ask you about this), returning to a childhood which in many ways, and despite all maturations, he may feel he has never outgrown (c.f. 114). And this because it is the essence; the core locus of poetry, where poetry was initially given.
     The long, packed, meditative, minimally-rhythmic-above-speech, lines... which read faultlessly although they seem to be crowded in upon themselves and to sometimes have difficulty breathing (what would become of them away from a South African English [ex-]colonial climate, in another [ex-]colonial climate, American air?). The Wordsworthian atmosphere of “The Prelude” as well as the political personae — below — of a poor “Michael” but, in the Cape Town sense, virtually devoid of all hope.
     “This was his world, there was no other — no other could be home.” (3); “there has to be a place.”(18).
     In another section of the book (which is actually another volume: Song of the Broken String available from Sheep Meadow in the U.S.), your rendering of  /Xam Bushman trance poetry is a deeply-felt and responsible triumph of ethnopoetics, also elegiac in the sense that these aborigines who have become the men in the fog of contemporary Cape Town are also in danger of being disappeared.
     The sheer weight and substance of this landscape achieved in the poetry as a cosmic model. The ocean out there: a below; the mountain (Table Mountain) in the middle; the sky above it all, always offering, as in the German Romantics, a vision of another world. “It was always a sky, the bodiless the end of all love, that was left:......through which she saw briefly......into some world beyond.” (38). At the feet of the mountain, a gigantic city which is part of nature (“...because the town is Nature” Pessoa (20) and which is desperately poor but whose hope lies in the perpetual merging of city and nature in and out of each other, facilitated by the extraordinary position of Cape Town facing the Antarctic.
     A political poetry of the right stamp, where the quiet political voice is so modest and low-keyed as to edge-on to silence, albeit clearly present, the (black) person who carries poverty on his or her back, whose violence against his kin is a desperate weeping (12), who is always walking in the dark towards a job which lies inhuman distances away, coming in and out of fog and mist from the two oceans, Indian and Atlantic, ending up an exile, incognito, among other mists in an unwelcoming Europe (16).

TWO: The Love poetry. The continuing sense of macrocosm/ microcosm as two lovers lie in bed “even as a continent went under, without a whisper, off Cape Point.”(28). The attraction to night, as in Novalis, for there, in the extremity of the possible, the barriers and boundaries of the objects of day are absent. In the second part of “The Normal Chaos of Love” section, the shifting from he to she to they, depersonalizing the affair to some extent to allow the macrocosm its entrance — even as the lovers lie together waiting for dawn “sensing......the mechanism, miles offshore,/ that soundless, tidal, huge, gives us back the day.”
     In the first short-lined part of the section, there is disenchantment with romantic love “the longing that can move through men” (148) but which ends in “the vast diaspora they call desire” when “‘all things possess a sell-by date.’” (46). But by the second part, one is back in elegy with the tale of two loves which, tragically, cannot meet and blend: the male figure unable to move, paralyzed perhaps by the length of his residence; the female figure who has to move, has to get out of this landscape and this polity. Much of such a story is heartbreaking to a male reader: I can conceive of the possibility that a female reader will experience it differently.

THREE: The last part of the book goes deeper into nature, mostly beyond the city, where one senses that you have spent much time.
     Section 4 “A Kromrivier Sequence” provides the books’ deepest, most uninterrupted, sinking into a particular beloved landscape, in the Cedarberg Mountains some 200 kilometers north of Cape Town. It is again a meditation and, like so many meditations among city-folk, it is a battle against impatience. Your poetry which requires deep reflection and quiet sober reconsideration, again a Wordsworthian theme, can arise in stillness only. “Why do I hurry?” (108); “And not before it’s clear once more / why he should be standing here, this far / down the valley floor, this late,” / (106); “still waiting on some other world, inscribed or not, in this one, / here.” (113).
     The search and the discovery  “that beauty was this loneliness / of knowing all one is, is not, / “ (114) while waiting for “......the night, and the oblivion, that nothing will assuage.”(119), becoming more precise, more acute in the only knowledge available: “and it returns to you as you / return, as once your own: the presence of the earth.” (130), an earth which, once and ever again, is home: i.e. “the unattainable peninsula that is this small corner of the world.” (155).
     There is consolation in “presence” but none in religion (spelled out in the Patrick White quote (127), consolation in “immanence”: “And now into this immanence you see / is all that’s left to us, finally / of long centuries of transcendence;” (123) However, all ecologists and most poets know the earth is menaced: in the poem “After reading ‘The End of Nature’” (referencing a book by Bill McKibben), you see the earth, after rain, drinking its last, ever more polluted, waters, drinking them into its deepest and most secret core. Another example of the profoundest “politics” available to a poet wise and invincible.

FOUR:I have everything to learn about South African poetry and do not know your position therein. From the outside looking in, the poetry sometimes seems to suffer from isolation but mainly I am impressed by the strengths which a quality you yourself sometimes condemn as provincialism affords this work. You do claim that Cape Town (perhaps rather than the country as a whole?) is very isolated and often accused of being backward — though you do appreciate the absence of “pobiz” and even a “poetry scene.”
     In any event, more than ever, it is not only important that, wherever we are, we should devote some of our time to translating poetry from foreign languages but also to bringing into our consciousness, by means of another kind of translation, the poetry of  the other versions of English that exist outside the U.K. and the U.S.

Jacket 25 — February 2004  Contents page
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