The David Krut bookstore on Jan Smuts is an intimate setting, and the venue was full to overflowing when I attended on Saturday afternoon September 30 one of the bookstore’s Word Art at 151 events.
This was the launch of Phillipa Yaa de Villiers’ volume “ice cream headache in my bone”.
Keorapetse Kgositsile, Myesha Jenkins and other poets that had inspired Philippa had come at her invitation to read their poems. To quote her Facebook page, the event featured “the poems that made me want to write: (Red Song Keorapetse Kgositsile), the poems that hold my hand and remind me to fight (Memorial Myesha Jenkins) the poems that keep me company on dark and lonely nights (Heritage Day and Inside these Walls by Sarah Godsell and Vangi Gantsho), the poems that remind me of the wealth of life (My Grandmother’s Hymn by Mthunzikazi Mbungwana).
I had never heard either Kgositsile or Jenkins or any of the other, young, poets mentioned read before, and I was impressed, as I was too by some of the verse of the other poets, but I had come specifically to hear Philippa because I had (and still have) her book to review. I made no notes, and this is unfortunate, not least because she is eloquent on the subject of verse.
At the second event, Verse/Vers, the venue wasn’t quite as full, which is a pity. Featured was a tribute to Uys Krige, with poems read in Spanish and Portuguese by Jose Domingos, and French, Afrikaans and English, by actor Grethe Fox. Grethe also conducted, as it were the readings and guitar accompaniment, and ensured the whole thing went off smoothly. After this, three Afrikaans poets read their own work, with Grethe again performing the English translations.
A striking difference between the two events was that in the Yaa de Villiers Word Art event, most of the poetry was in English, whether the poets were mother-tongue speakers of an indigenous language or not. The choice of English for poetry, a language encrusted with the spoils of conquest, still squeezing out small languages, and itself threatened with deracination by its role as international medium of communication, intrigues me. Granted, writers such as Nabokov and Conrad both used English to good effect, and Nabokov’s use of language is poetic in a sense. But I know of no major poet who has not chosen the intimacy of the mother-tongue, though writers of an earlier time like Milton did write some poems in Latin, the literary and academic language for hundreds of years.
Perhaps English is like Latin, destined to undergo radical geographic change that renders the English we now speak archaic. Anyway, it our great privilege in this modern, globalised era to be exposed to literature in foreign languages, translated or understood through formal teaching. For me, closer to home, discovering Afrikaans poetry was both daunting, because I am not fluent and have to fight sometimes to understand fully, and a revelation of the energy, fluidity and creativity a young language grants its users.
Such creativity was displayed by the four poets who read, Johan Myburg, De Waal Venter, Rene´ Bohnen, and Corne´ Coetzee.
During her reading, Corne´ Coetzee was overcome by emotion and couldn’t finish reading her own poem on the murder-rape of two young children. This is the first time I have witnessed such emotion: the writing of the poem usually establishes some distance between the poet and the subject matter. Here the poet reprised the feelings about this almost unspeakable event that had led her to write the poem in the first place. And as I write, “Almost unspeakable,” it strikes me that the poet must speak it, that the burden must be borne.
While language differentiated the two events at David Krut, what was common to both is the poets’ modernity and focus on the local. In English or in Afrikaans, South Africa of the here and now gave birth to this verse. In the Afrikaans poetry, South Africa is a place both beautiful and repulsive, urban, gritty, and inescapable. There is no longing for an imagined pastoral past.
For example, here is a small taste of the Afrikaans poetry, from Rene´ Bohnen:
JOZI OP ‘N RIFF
hierdie hoer is my bruid, my blydskap en my babel sy is
‘n roggelrooi gedig op ‘n sebra se lyntjiesrug in haar
innige hande hou sy bosse staalpapawers en haar dye
glinster goud by elke skemer snelwegbrug
this whore is my bride, my blessing and my babel she is
a rattle-red rhyme on zebras’ black and white lines in her
intimate hands she holds posies of steel poppies and her
thighs glisten golden at the freeway crossings