beyond touch, by Arja Salafranca

Beyond touch – Poems by Arja Salafranca

I can think of no greater compliment to a poet than to say that you have read all the poems in a volume. Often, I dip into poetry books, reading some poems that look promising, or which particularly resonate, and pass over the rest. I read all of the poems in ‘beyond touch’ by Arja Salafranca.

One reason for this is that their form, characterized by narrative, with closely observed details, sometimes journalistic, allows for easy access, superficially at least. Meaning, however, is just out reach of the lens (a metaphor the poet employs) and left to the reader to divine.

A lot of modern verse is difficult, sometimes difficult because of the profundity of the poet’s thought, sometimes difficult because the poet hasn’t thought through her ideas. Modern poets contort language in trying to make meaning of the world, sometimes using tortuous metaphors and tortured sentences. An opposite phenomenon, famously evident in the works of Cavafy, is to use deliberately ordinary and unornamented language.

Another phenomenon is the absence of context, a style that allows for powerful condensation but can leave readers in the dark questioning “where, what, when”.

‘beyond touch’ tends to rely on plain statement, enlivened by only occasional imaginative figures of speech, and context is clear. So, the idea of being a tourist, an outsider to other’s happiness occurs at the end of a poem that starts with a mundane list of names:

I scurry on, join a group of Spanish women
Excitedly exploring the bullring.
I look at them a tourist to their joy.

– The English cemetery

All the verse is, for me, at the very least interesting, and at best, moving. Part of my fascination lies in the way the poems keep their distance, actual and emotional, from their subjects. Passion is evident but kept in check.

In the poem, Dachau, for example, the poet adopts a professional stance in contemplating the horror the concentration camp represents but struggles to keep the horror from breaking through her defences.

Days later, and I can’t look.
I thought it had not affected me.
Walking around, taking notes for a story,
taking photos of a place that is not beautiful,
listening to a guide tell us of the horrors.
Only once, alone in the cement corridor
of the VIP prison unit did I feel it,
what went on there.
And I almost ran towards the light
coming from the door ajar at the end of the corridor.
– Dachau

Some of the poems in the book are about photographs or paintings, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of the poems are verbal photographs, slices of time, decisive moments, or realistic paintings. In the way that expert photographers do, the poems present the external face of things hinting at the internal life in the light of the eternal.

A man, having his head shaved,
Highlighted by the dusk of early evening.
All around him, gathering darkness, except his head,
This small stall, lit by phosphorescence,
Haloed by a weird greenish purple light.
A flash of colour.
I drive on.
– Joburg pix, not taken

The poet is compelled to observe, to seek illumination, whether the subject is anonymous or deeply personal:

Later I turn over,
To look at your face in
The darkness, lit up by the light
Falling from your skylight,
There’s the soft curl of a smile
Around your mouth.
My eyes probe yours,
But we say nothing.
– The Way

I have only quoted snippets, because the power of the poems lies in the cohesive stories they tell – or photographs they take – whether they deal with the pain and pleasure of love, or the alienation of not quite belonging, especially in traversing nationalities.

I look forward to Arja’s next volume.

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