A review of Prunings, by Helen Moffett

Prunings by Helen Moffett, Uhlanga Press 2016

Western Cape academic, author, publisher, editor and, yes, poet Helen Moffett has produced one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books of poetry I have come across, symbolic of the innovation of South Africa’s post-1994 wave of women poets.

Don’t be misled by the title, Prunings, as I was initially. This is not a volume about austerity and no such theme ties the poems together. “Pruning” means the editing process, and the prunings are edited-out parts of poems, normally left out but here deliberately retained in the printed volume and indicated by being struck through thus: left out. Leaving out, deleting, cutting back, tends to be viewed as essential to the poetic process. Keats urged poets to “load every rift with ore,” and that means poets have to ditch words, lines, stanzas and whole poems to ensure the final product is sufficiently refined to qualify as poetry, whose essential characteristic in modern verse is condensed meaning without prefatory throat-clearing.

Fittingly, the volume starts with these untitled lines:

[no. It’s a failure.

I keep on in the hope that one day

I’ll figure out how to write this.]

Hence, in Moffett’s “The Blind Woman Touches the Tip of the Elephant’s Trunk” the first lines have been struck through because, presumably, the editor Nick Mulgrew thought them mundane:

I. It is not possible to write about the Taj Mahal.

Instead, this prefatory list:

Mosquitoes and touts buzzing in the pre-dawn queue,

the miasma of a drain somewhere,

the dainty female soldier briskly frisking us.

flagstones still cold,

walkways and lawns and cloisters,

a gate, and then a second arch:

and through it, gathering light,

the sight that buckles the knees.

But doesn’t the poem need those two lines, or some of the information about those two lines, to establish place?

Elsewhere too, it seems to me that the striking out may be necessary, but that the line or poem needs to be refashioned to take that into account. For example, the second line of the following excerpt is left with a single word, “alone” after editing, which now bears a greater weight of meaning than it did before for being so orphaned.

Then I spot the possible predator:

alone, but no less a threat for that

as he plods along the beach.

One human male.

Also, sometimes it seemed to me that the edited poems could have been placed, on pages opposite the versions with struck-through text, so we could read without distraction.

These are minor points, and the literary conceit, in the sense of concept, works to draw the reader in to the thought processes behind the poetic creation as well as the editing process.

The leaving-in of edits has the effect of a conjuror who shows some lesser magic tricks to fool you into thinking this is really how magic is done. For if distillation is one of the elements that defines poetry – and if modern poetry has one rule it is that there are no rules except self-imposed ones – another is authenticity, the discovery by the poet by looking inward of real feelings as opposed to those we put on display for others. This is evident throughout the volume, whether the topic is travel or former lovers – about whom Moffett displays a wicked observational humour. Yet in the poem Missive, other elements of our fragile and evanescent relationships are pinpointed too, and the humour helps mitigate any sentimentality that might arise about the poignancy of remembered sensuality and love. I reproduce the poem in its entirety:

Missive

Your hair needs a cut,

though it’s thinning now;

looking down from a balcony and

spotting you unexpectedly,

I see the tender swirl

of scalp emerging at your summit;

and am plunged back onto a bed,

drowning in your hair as it pours down

on either side of my face, your

fingers pushing it away

from my mouth.

 

Your hair was longer than mine then.

It will never come back.

This, incidentally, is presented without any edits, and could be taken as proof that, as Keats observed, “… if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”.  Other, heavily edited, poems in this volume I found as forceful and freshly imagined.

Not all the poems concern Moffett’s focus on personal relationships, and even those that do often reflect that she inhabits a literary world, as several poems attest, including the amusingly affectionate tribute to the eccentric late Tatamkhulu Afrika, of one our finest poets.

Some of her poems, such as the Taj Mahal poem cited earlier, could be seen as a form of higher journalism, or travel writing, poetry creditable in its own right, as Douglas Livingstone showed, despite this age of public display of the personal. Verse that is more lyrically confessional is not necessarily more effective than verse that captures the poet’s feelings, or rather emotional conceptions, while it appears to focus on external realities. And while some of the poems are deeply private, and testify to grief and loss and joy, a critical consciousness is never far from the surface. Moffett doesn’t just dump feelings on a page. These are carefully crafted, with a high regard for nuance and meaning.

The prunings idea of the volume itself is a gift to young poets, a peephole into the editing process, and since writing verse is a participatory art, it would benefit us all to think hard about the implications of editing, as presented so graphically in Prunings. Interesting for me personally is that Moffett accepted extensive intervention in her poetry by an editor, even though it was not unilateral but by a progress of negotiation: I would baulk at this, preferring to wield my own pruning shears. All we would-be poets should have the humility to be edited by outsiders.

Finally, as much as it is integral, don’t let the literary conceit of Prunings stand in the way of getting to grips with the particular, rich humanity at the heart of Moffet’s poetry, edits or no edits.

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