My Afrikaans is sufficient enough to follow everyday conversations, watch Afrikaans soapies and read Die Burger. But ever since hearing Antjie Krog read in her deep, melodic voice from her impressive oeuvre in Afrikaans I have wanted to understand more than just basics. Until that moment arrives, only translations allow me to savour some of the riches of Afrikaans writing. In poetry, these are not easy to come by. Of the few available in recent years in English, Krog’s Body Bereft (2006), Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies (2007) and Wilma Stockenströrm’s The Wisdom of Water (2007) in particular belong to my all-time favourites.
in a burning sea is thus a highly anticipated publication which will hopefully pave the way for more translations. Altogether the anthology features thirty contemporary Afrikaans poets. Alphabetically arranged by authors’ names, the collection takes its title from a poem by Breyten Breytenbach, one of only a handful widely translated practitioners of the craft: “how often were we here / where only silver shadows stir / only through you I had to deny myself / through you alone I knew I had no harbour / in a burning sea”.
The editor Marlise Joubert, author of seven volumes of poetry herself and editor of four Versindaba anthologies (a publication inspired by the annual poetry festival by the same name), asked established poets and newcomers (but with at least two published volumes to their name) to submit ten poems from which a selection was then made for the book.
Among those included are the exciting young voices of Ronelda S. Kamfer (“the bullet nestled in his throat / his mother did not cry / the politicians planted a small tree / and the Cape Doctor tore it out / and flung it where the rest of the Cape Flats dreams lie – // on the flats”), Danie Marais (“On seconds thoughts, Stellenbosch, / you are a violated classic – / a bergie with an 1840s gable / for a hat…”), Carina Stander (“in the weak sunlight / filtering into the kitchen / mothers like calabashes / nattered on knitted goatskin”), and Loftus Marais (“and when i have to stand before Him / i’ll curtsy effeminately / and carefully explain to Him / that my catsuit / (folded in the suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant” – from The Second Coming) who hold more than their own along such greats as Breytenbach, Krog, Stockenström, Petra Müller, T.T. Cloete or Marlene van Niekerk.
Top translators of the likes of Michiel Heyns, often in collaboration with the poets, and the authors themselves made the work available in English. Hardly ever was I aware of reading translations, the Afrikaans poems feeling very much at home in their new incarnations. The originals are presented alongside the English for parallel reading.
André Brink’s introduction gives a short historical overview of Afrikaans poetry and its various trends, placing the selection in context. Most poems included are very recent, with a few exceptions dating back as far as M.M. Walter’s Apocrypha XII (1969): “When Eve clad herself amidst the grove of figs / in fashions by the heavenly Hartnell –”. Some poems had not been published at the time of submission, including Marlene van Niekerk’s eulogy Hamba kakuhle, Madiba.
What strikes one immediately when reading the anthology is how well local flavours mix with global traditions. The anthology opens with a landscape poem by Zandra Bezuidenhout about the last days of summer in the Midi: “the night is balmy with bonhomie / and aromas linger like tongues”. Bezuidenhout’s other poems are steeped in an irresistible sensuality whether she describes the sharing of a fig (“and offer the plum-red sweetness / as token of our bonded state”) or an exhibition by Marlene Dumas (“how transparent the nipple-bud / bleeding in berry-red passion”).
Universal themes are presented along concerns closer to home such as in Martjie Bosman’s Scorched Earth (From Ouma Makkie’s stroke-stricken mouth I inherit / two bitter words: insult and scorn / and the mournful knowing that generations / settled this family land in vain”), or Daniel Hugo’s in memoriam poem to Ingrid Jonker, Escape (“I love walking – drunk on ozone – / up to Three Anchor Bay…everywhere sewage smells / algae, seal vertebrae, mussel shells / a clotted, stinking ink-fish / and – stone-cold sober – you see / at times a poet’s body”), or Krog’s colonialism of a special kind (“people are made ashamed that they have forgiven // because at the deepest level / we respect anger / understand hate / admire revenge”).
in a burning sea gives one an enticing taste of what is happening in Afrikaans poetry at this point in literary history. Not all the poems selected take one’s breath away, but they definitely put one in a mood for more.
in a burning sea: Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation
edited by Marlise Joubert
Protea Book House, 2014
An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 14 November 2014.