Tag Archives: poetry

Review: Zikr by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

saaleha-idrees-bamjee-zikrZikr is the debut poetry collection of the writer and photographer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee. Once opened, it is not a book you will want to close again easily, unless for a moment of silence to contemplate the beauty of what you have just read before you return eagerly for more.

In interviews, Bamjee talks about how the poems grew out of a deep sense of longing and loss, most poignantly expressed in poems like After a Miscarriage, or My World Today with the opening sentence “No babies yet”, or We Are Building Your House which ends with the lines “I have cleared a space in my mind, child / in my waking hours, and in my heart. / We are framing your memories, and waiting.”

Infertility, death, devotion and what it means to be an independent woman in a world of traditions are the major themes of this delicately woven volume. Its fabric is durable enough to hold the heaviest of struggles. One of my favourite pieces in Zikr is the prose poem Women on Beaches which includes the lines “The first bathing suit was a wooden house wheeled into the sea. They used to sew weights into hemlines. Drowning was a kind of modesty.”

The title of the book refers to “the remembrance of God” and some of the most powerful poems in the collection capture moments of exquisite spirituality: “My hands / are not big enough / to grasp prayer, / my tongue not loose enough / to utter them” (I, the Divine).

With Zikr, Bamjee establishes herself as a poet of grace, allowing readers to find solace and strength in her words: “I won’t pack sand around your heart. I will fill your mouth with zephyrs. / I will leave a bomb in your hand and quietly close the door.”

Zikr

by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

uHlanga, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 June 2019.

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with Nick Mulgrew

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with her publisher Nick Mulgrew at EB Cavendish

Review: London Undercurrents – The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

London UndercurrentsThe Thames runs through it. North and south of the famous river lie the “hidden histories” of mostly forgotten women. London Undercurrents brings them vividly back into our literary consciousness in this remarkable collection, written and compiled by two of the city’s female poets. Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire researched the past of these two geographical spaces located around the natural aquatic divide and retrieved from its archives the voices of women who have occupied them throughout the ages: “Woke up to find / I’d lived here half my life. / Felt the pull of community. / Began to dig. Began to sow.”

From Catherine Boucher, who upon marrying William Blake learned “to sign my own proud name”, or a young pupil who remembers being taught by Mary Wollstonecraft – “this woman who drove us towards / betterment in spite of ourselves” at the end of the 18th century – to a mother whose heart “still leaps / when police sirens call” and she remembers her son, a victim of gang violence in the 1960s, the poems in London Undercurrents capture the lives of women from diverse backgrounds, all sharing a city away from its usual spotlights.

Reading, we witness a street seller enticing passers-by to buy her cheese in 1575, discover what it must have been like for a fourteen-year-old to become an apprentice laundress in the 1890s, or we march along concert goers on their way to see the Sex Pistols in 1977 and are told to “take a good look”: “We’re pretty in black, / mother, daughter, sister, Punk.” What emerges through these evocative and accessible poems is a unique urban chronicle that is a joy to engage with.

London Undercurrents: The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River

by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 7 June 2019.

Review: Secret Keeper by Kerry Hammerton

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper
Kerry Hammerton
Modjaji, 2018

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

[…]

The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).

The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).

In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.

[…]

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

Book marks: The Leonids, The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties, Cats

the-leonidsThe Leonids

by Isobel Dixon

Mariscat Press, 2016

 

Isobel Dixon is one of South Africa’s finest poets. This year she published a collection of poetry, Bearings, and The Leonids, a pamphlet containing seventeen poems devoted to her mother who died last year. The exquisite pamphlet is a tribute to a beloved mother and to the family she nurtured around her. It opens with the vivid, sensuous impressions of “Notes Towards Nasturtiums”. The poems contain striking images of everyday life, memories of love and kindness, all infused with the pain of loss. Dixon takes us into the heart of her family home, celebrates the closeness she shares with her sisters, recalls her parents and evokes the intimate moments when they both passed away. Reading Dixon you are constantly reminded of the power and beauty of language, how it can blossom with the generosity of simple, gorgeous kappertjies. How it can preserve that which is most precious, long after it is gone.

lauren-beukes-read-her-latest-book-bostik-book-unb-57The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

by Lauren Beukes

Bostik South Africa, 2016

 

One of the greatest gifts you can give to a child is to nourish their imagination. The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties contains twenty “ridiculous rhymes” about creatures living in the land of Unbelievia. Children from around South Africa were asked to illustrate the rhymes written by award-winning author Lauren Beukes. The best twenty drawings were chosen for this delightful book. Kids will love the funky texts about The Oogle, The Gulpsome Squidge, or The Vampire Bunny who “might give you a fright if you spot this critter stalking your garden at night. It’s got s fluffy tail and fangs and wears a red cap. But don’t be afraid, don’t try to escape! You see, this bunny vamp only sucks carrot juice. Except on its birthday, when it slurps chocolate mousse.” The awesome illustrations by their peers will inspire many more flights of the imagination.

Download here for free: The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

jane-bown-catsCats

by Jane Bown

Guardian Books/Faber & Faber, 2016

 

Sharing a life with felines is fascinating. Jane Bown, the Observer photographer who died in 2014, is best remembered for her iconic portraits. This collection of her cat photographs was compiled by Robin Christian who was her researcher and catalogued her archive. Cats includes seventy-six photographs Bown took over five decades, ranging from Jean Cocteau’s portrait with his cat Madeline to shots of the many cats in Bown’s own life. Who can resist Queenie’s trusting face or the impertinence of the three furry beauties on the kitchen counter of Bown’s Hampshire home? She was clearly in tune with the elusive nature of her feline subjects. Cats is a book to melt any cat person’s heart. The only thing which disturbed me about it is a quote by Bown: “Once you’ve owned a cat you are hooked forever.” You cannot own a cat. But they do hook one for life.

First published in the Cape Times, 11 and 18 November 2016.

Book review: Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons

questions-for-the-seaQuestions 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.

Questions for the Sea

by Stephen Symons

uHlanga, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 October 2016.

invite-questions-for-the-sea

Silver linings: Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

StrangerThe thing with poetry is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. I do not know many people who read it for pleasure. Nowadays, poetry certainly seems to be an acquired taste. I often abstain myself, prose being my staple food. But every now and then a poem or, if I am lucky, an entire volume comes along that makes my heart swell with gladness. Sihle Ntuli’s Stranger is one of those gems. The author asked me to review his debut poetry collection. I do not know why, but I am delighted, and honoured, that he did.

Divided into six parts, Stranger offers a glimpse into contemporary South Africa from the perspective of a keen observer with a distinct, edgy voice. Ntuli might be only in his mid-twenties, but his sense of perception is sharp beyond his years. From the first poem to the last, the reader is drawn into the kaleidoscope of his world and its vivid patterns. In “kwa mashu f section bus stop”, commuters’ souls are whisked away to places where they attempt to make a living, “as billboards block the sun”, feeding their impossible dreams. The distinction between the crushing greyness of daily existence and the possibility of a golden life of opportunity features in other poems, such as “friday”. Here the moving opening lines:

 

in between creases on foreheads

living has folded thoughts

into blankets and sheets

unfolded in dreams

 

to lie down to pillow talk

to walk behind grey matters

to watch brain revolving around desires unfulfilled

 

my grey life upon eyes

the all-seeing eye

 

the sun losing colour when it dies

the aggressive night

black blood protrudes

moon blows cold wind on wounds

the heart weighing tons upon tons

 

living life like it’s golden is expensive

it costs a lot to be virtuous and true

 

Ntuli writes about the reality of the South African township and being a young man in contemporary South Africa, but his vision goes beyond. He captures universal moments of hardship, the kind of poverty which does not only manifest in material lack, but also in the soul, which longs for beauty and is confronted with despair instead. “monday” chronicles the exhaustion and hopelessness of the everyday which is hard to overcome: “the phrase ‘things change’ / speaks only to those who expect to get returns” and the “spoon through your chest” brings out both “blood and beauty / as you love and feel pain in the same colour”.

Violence and loss are linked, the brutality and pulse of street life exposed. Occasionally, to cope you hope for escape, take some pill or other substance: “mind coming to age / life and bland taste / less trouble”. That substance can be love; no matter, as long as it alters your consciousness and your ability to feel. The mind wants to flee the desolate, hostile world. The wish to tell it like it is, though, is clearly there – the need to separate illusion from truth. Ntuli reads the world, its delusions and dreams, and tries to navigate the difference.

At the same time, he offers moments of unbearable tenderness, as in a phrase like “silence in your eyelids”, or my favourite poem of the collection, “the walls”:

 

the everyday

should not seep

through           the walls

 

it is behind these walls

that truth undresses

then lies

 

Grief is palpable in many poems, captured most poignantly in a few lines in the last stanza of “late”: “early morning / dressed in black / the sun rose / our flowers on top of caskets / the late as candles”. His images are striking, definitely not easily forgotten, thus his words do not die on the page but continue a life of their own through the associations they awaken in the mind of each and every reader who immerses herself in them.

The title of the collection resonates throughout, but is most strongly captured in “the stranger”: “towards him / they throw adjectives / the suffocating symphony / the injustice / words slant to one side / lying”. Race, skin colour, otherness, and contrasts between ordinary lives lived in obscurity and silver linings shining on the horizons whether in words or sunsets bring with them a palette of visual impressions which Ntuli makes us reconsider. Nothing is just a colour: “i sit on the side silently / living life like it’s silver / as the lining is blocked by the roof”.

Recurring in the collection are references to music. It is in the rhythm of every poem, “between jazzy notes without words”. Like music, the lines are meditative, haunting, thought-provoking. They help us negotiate the world, “moved by thoughts that have no rhythm”. But unlike one of his narrator’s contemporaries who seem to be more interested in being DJs rather than poets, as many in the struggle were (“gospel gold”), Ntuli carves out his creative space in words. His is a new struggle: for his own voice, for the recognition of his reality and vision.

 

Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

Aerial Publishing, 2015

 

Review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
books2015
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Relevant
Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

Delightful
The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

Exquisite
The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Life-changing
Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.

wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something

This is not a review, just a Fan Letter of Admiration Addressed to You in Public.

I became aware of somebody called Nick Mulgrew about one-and-a-half years ago, perhaps two. The name definitely stuck by the time I read his award-winning story “Turning” in Adults Only. I knew about his connection to the literary magazine Prufrock, heard that he wrote poetry. Then earlier this year, I got involved in Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) and met Nick in person. First impressions: fiercely intelligent, funny, unassuming. Young.

We were entrusted with co-editing Water, the third SSDA collection of stories. The anthology includes twenty-one pieces from across the continent, among them this year’s finalists and the winner of the competition (still to be unveiled). We began the task and my first impressions of Nick only intensified. Multi-talented, wise, and sensitive were added to the list. He was a revelation to work with. Punctual, understanding, and extremely cooperative. What seemed like a daunting task, turned out to be pure inspiration (I learned so much from Nick!). We also had a fantastic selection of writers to work with. And the stories! I can’t wait for readers to dive into Water. You will find some absolute stunners in there. With SSDA, Rachel Zadok set out to give prominence to the versatility of storytelling in Africa. She was adamant that it’s not all gloom and doom. Water proves it unreservedly.

myth-cover_20150830A while back, Nick embarked on another literary adventure by becoming the editor of uHlanga, the hottest poetry publisher on the block, with three debut collections out this month. His among them: Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage, Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes, and Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together. I got it yesterday at Sindiwe Magona’s launch of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (published by another newcomer, Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers) at The Book Lounge. Before bed, I wanted to dip into it and ended up ditching Jack for the entire collection. Unputdownable.

Before I buy a poetry book, I have this weird test. I find one or two short poems in the volume and if I like them, I buy it. If there aren’t any, the first few lines I turn to have to be bloody good to make up for the lack of short gems. Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together opens and ends with few-liners. And even the dedication is a poetic gesture of note. I won’t spoil the fun for poetry lovers and tell you what it is, or why the titles of the individual parts of the collection made me smile.

I will share the opening poem:

CONSISTENCY
it’s always the same
sun and it’s always the same
sky

I love its sublime simplicity which says everything about the power of poetry, because, naturally, just as the sun and the sky are never the same to the perceptive observer, every word in a poem in the hands of a true poet is a revelation, every time.

Or watch the seeming ‘blah, blah’ of the first lines of “feature pitch” turn to “… whether it’s expression or provocation / or minesweeping for echoes in this confluence / of galaxies, or inside the thoughts of another person, / one who sits at their computer at seven-thirty … nursing small sadnesses”.

Or the ease of “on watching Notting Hill for the thirteenth time” which ends with “aware giddily of his own unawareness”.

Or the poignancy of “maybe-gay”: “I say thank you in as deep a voice I can muster.”

Or the maturity of “testament”: “a recipe to give to a child who / in a few years might be someone like me / but in many ways better”.

Or the devastating truths of “first readers”, a poem anyone who had their intellectual and physical property violated will relate to.

There are the intimate moments of poems like “eyebrows” (“as you look / and kiss / in all those places that / no one really looks at”) or “a June missive” (“you / were alone as I was”), and the social consciousness of others like “barrier” (“things that would be small knowledge / that would make me morally obliged / to learn small things about him too”) or “Boxer Rebellion” (“… but really this world is too / vast, this past too deep, for us to / ever really know anything about / each other ever”).

And the longest poem “commitment” includes these lines about friendship, “a soft and strange peace to which you / could return sometimes but not rely on. / I think that might be useful to you,” and it is so long because “… my friend is / locked up – that isn’t just a thing you can / condense into another thing nonchalantly.”

At the core of it all are language and our ability to mis/communicate, especially now in the digital age that is revolutionising what it means to be human in a world of global calamities, fraught with the insanity of the everyday.
truism
I. Am. In. Awe.

“and readers will read it and be like,
wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something,”
(“feature pitch”)

He is. And he is only 25. I mean, like, really!?

Book mark: Playing House by Katherine Stansfield

Playing House_book markPlaying House is the debut poetry collection by the author of The Visitor (2013), a remarkable novel about loss and longing in Cornwall at the turn of the last century. As in her rich prose, in her poetry Katherine Stansfield has an eye for everyday detail. Her poems make us pause and consider. Whether describing a cat trying to get to an interesting-smelling morsel under the fridge, the auction of one of John Lennon’s teeth, the recipe for a crisp sandwich, or “raspberries lured to ripeness by the rain”, she moves from the familiar to the surprising and enchants in the process. Her images are clearly defined. The voice is authentic, subtle but strong. The title of the volume comes from “First Place”, a poem about a couple’s attempts at adult life. Full of thought, fun and beauty, Playing House is the real deal.

Playing House
by Katherine Stansfield
Seren, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was first published in the Cape Times on 5 December 2014.

Book mark: Aerodrome Journal Issue 01 / 2014

Aerodrome coverFor the past fifteen months the digital version of Aerodrome has been an exciting platform for all things literary. Immensely pleasing to the eye, it publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and a particular favourite of mine: author interviews. Freshly launched, the first paper issue of Aerodrome is an aesthetic gem and opens with several interviews with writers and artists such as Isobel Dixon, Zapiro, Mary Watson, Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes and Zoë Wicomb. It also offers the best of the first year’s digital content and includes a few specials which will appear online later. A personal highlight is one of the exclusive features: an inspiring interview with Damon Galgut in which he states that you can recognise a real writer by the way they approach language. In this respect, Megan Ross’s short story “The Accidental Colour” and Jane McArthur’s poem “The Girl from Witwatersrand” delight.

First published in the Cape Times on 31 October 2014.