Review: Landscapes of Light and Loss by Stephen Symons

Landscapes of Light and LossStephen Symons is a versatile wordsmith. His work has appeared in numerous publications locally and abroad. A writer who is as comfortable with prose as he is with poetry, Symons knows how to invite a reader on a journey of discovery. You never feel alienated when following in his literary footsteps, even if the topics are unfamiliar or difficult to confront.

Landscapes of Light and Loss is the follow-up to his luminous debut poetry collection, Questions for the Sea, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize and received an honourable mention for the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.

Published in the Dryad Press Living Poets Series which is gradually building up an impressive list of titles, the author’s latest offering is as rewarding for the reader as his previous volume. Words, like water, can wash over you and create inner landscapes which offer solace and understanding. Sometimes you stand before them in awe. But Symons never attempts to dazzle with virtuosity. His poetry seduces with understatement.

Landscapes of Light and Loss opens with a shattering poem about climate change, one of the most pressing issues of our times. With the prefix “re” in “rediscovered” in the last stanza of Crows are Building Nests of Stone, Symons signals the momentous historical period we have brought about with our carelessness: “We have rediscovered the secret of fire / and slowly, / like a father ageing — / fields scab as the earth forgets rain, / the seasons have wasted to heat and bone. / Everywhere skin is flaking to ash.”

Love and loss mingle in the collection which is interspersed with moments of heart- stopping tenderness, as when the lyrical I speaks about “my children” who “have lived too few seasons / for mortality to take root, / they only know music / composed of light and awe, / choruses with no beginning or end” (Every Bone Knows Its Place), or when dreams are narrated in Three Dreams of Salt: “In my first dream your ankles wear a hem of salt / as if they had just returned from an empty beach / before it is combed by dawn.”

The reader’s senses are awakened with such lines as: “He imagined that a new book was what clouds, or perhaps a sunrise smelt like” (The Passing). Or: “The sea, / warm as / an infant’s bath” (Durban Surf).

Poems of remembrance bring a personal and political dimension to the collection. In Buffelsbaai, a conversation turns to the violent past and the men around a braai “run their talk / down / the evening’s spine / and feel history’s vertebrae / beneath its skin.”

Landscape of Light and Loss ends with a plea – “I wish I could make / every morning windless — / a sunned attic” – and another stunning image of calm: “like the meniscus of a pond / trembling under an insect’s weight.”

Landscapes of Light and Loss

by Stephen Symons

Dryad Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 March 2019.

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