Questions for the Sea, the debut collection by Cape Town-based poet and graphic designer Stephen Symons is the latest exquisite offering from the independent local publisher, uHlanga. The sea, questions, light and poetry: an irresistible combination.
Divided in six parts, Questions for the Sea opens with poems about death and memory: “the ashes of dreams, / too fine for remembering // settle over a moonlit bay / and shimmer / into forgetting.” A surfer drowns and death comes to him “in a whorl / of cobalt and white.” A lover recalls the map of a beloved body: “And here I lie, / closer to fifty, / still lost within its darkest territories.” A couple visits a dusty dry dorp: “All this place comprehends is a vertical sun and a deficiency of clouds. Every house burns at the stake and every surface has long forgotten the taste of dew.”
Symons captures life’s instances in words which evoke all senses. The poetry is subtle, seductive, soothing – even when it tackles pain and loss. Or war, a tough theme to handle in any art form. The second part of the collection comprises of poems about conscription. “Call Up, February 1990” speaks about the biblical Abraham and Isaac, ending with these quietly shattering lines: “There, just the firm grip of sons’ hands / and the impatience of engines.” In “Wordless (Township, 1990)”, a man is “shot through in the dark, just twenty kays from my childhood”. In “Letter Home”, young men are “cleaning rifles, / or licking lies into envelopes.” A visit to the famous battlefield of Spioenkop in the poem by the same title ends with “light splintered / and still twisted, deep into the flesh / of this country’s history.”
The third and fourth parts of Questions for the Sea return to the intimacy of loss and love. Adultery is a theme: “the circumference of his lie / weighing down his finger” or “Over a stove / untruths are being told by a wife / of an afternoon spent / with a friend.” As is parenthood in poems like “Emma”, “Sleeping Son”, or “Fathers Are Mostly Absent”.
The penultimate section of the volume focuses on place. In meticulously crafted stanzas Symons travels across the Cape Peninsula and beyond, illuminating our longings for beauty and meaning.
The stunning titular “Questions for the Sea” forms the last part of the collection and includes snippets of seaside images and human existence as traced through the hours of a day and a night. In “16h30”, we witness the beach “stunned / by a day’s worth of heat – ”. Just before midnight, the poet asks: “Do you feel the ceaseless rubbing / of bone and timber / that lies wrecked / beneath your skin, // held under by a black tonnage / beyond maps / and human claim?” And finally at midday, we are left with the question: “How are these words / more or less / than prayer?” I do not know, but they are.
by Stephen Symons
Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 October 2016.