If you are a reader of poetry, the last thing you should do is heed the instructions of the title of Finuala Dowling’s latest collection. Pretend You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Poems brings together a selection of some of her best poetry from four previous volumes (three of them out of print now) and twenty-two new poems, each of which will make you want to know her work – not only the poetry, but the prose as well. Dowling is also the author of four novels, with a fifth to be published later this year. She is the recipient of the Ingrid Jonker, Sanlam and Olive Schreiner Prizes and is rated as one of the most significant South African poets writing in English today.
Dowling is like the lighthouse on the cover of Pretend You Don’t Know Me. Her words shine a light for souls lost at sea. She has the ability to hold vast expanses of human experience in a few lines, and to make it look effortless. That is what made me fall in love with her work a long time ago, and I was delighted to encounter many of my favourite poems from her older collections here. Her new poems – full of loneliness and sadness, but also warmth, courage and fragile hope – continue to satisfy like no others. Let me quote just one example. In Q&A for an Unfair World, not only the individual sense of helplessness is captured, but our global anguish: “Will this meeting ever end? / No. / What are we saying goodbye to? / Everything. / Is the wrong person in charge? / Yes.”
Through her keen insights and rare sensitivity, Dowling allows us to smile despite all that, and it’s no coincidence that Pretend You Don’t Know Me ends with the word “welcome”.
Pretend You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Poems
by Finuala Dowling
Review first published in the Cape Times on 30 August 2019.