I am so looking forward to this conversation with Nondwe Mpuma at the Woman Zone Book Club! All readers welcome! Hope to see you there.
My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems by Chris van Wyk, compiled and edited by Ivan Vladislavić and Robert Berold, is one of those literary gems that you will want to have on your bookshelf. Most readers will know Chris van Wyk as the author of Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and its sequel, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, both memoirs published in the decade before Van Wyk’s untimely death of cancer in 2014.
He was a versatile writer of children’s books, autobiographical works and other non-fiction, as well as fiction. As editor of Staffrider, the literary and cultural magazine founded in the late 1970s (in existence until 1993), Van Wyk mentored a whole generation of emerging writers. In 1979, he published his only poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home.
And now, My Mother’s Laughter brings together a selection from the debut volume, also the poems which appeared in Van Wyk’s memoirs, and includes previously unpublished work, showcasing the much-loved author’s poetic talent.
Inescapably, many of the poems from It Is Time to Go Home are set against the socio-political landscape of its time, but even decades later they radiate an energy of awareness and resistance that seems timeless and inspires to action against injustice. My Mother’s Laughter opens with “Metamorphosis”, a poem signalling transgenerational concerns about how historical events such as the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto Uprising influenced and politicised whole generations of South Africans – a young son, “fidgeting around his [father’s] work-worn body / asking questions at his shaking head”, as a teenager trying to make sense of the world “after June 16”, ends up comprehending what was and is at stake: “I nod my head. / I understand.” Despite the horrors witnessed and the struggles which followed, the sense of hope for a better tomorrow does not abandon the poet. One day, he assures, hearts “will throb / to the rhythm of a drum / And all of Africa will dance”.
The political poems are interspersed with tender love poems, dedicated to Kathy, Van Wyk’s future wife. They were married in 1980 and had two sons. “I am happy here; / just being against your navel”, the poet declares in “You Must Never Know I’m Writing You a Love Poem”.
The previously uncollected poems evoke a strong sense of home and community, how the world infiltrates both with its deeply troubled realities, but also how family bonds and friendships as well as commitment can, if not shelter you from the worst, at least allow you to confront it. They are tributes to heroes of the struggle and heroes of the everyday alike. Van Wyk remembers his “ouma’s yard” and how the “black words / on the white sheets” of the books she bought for them were “like coal strewn across a field of snow.” Equally, his “mother’s laughter” sustained the family throughout the harsh winter of oppression.
My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems
Chris van Wyk
Deep South, 2020
Review first published in the Cape Times on 4 September 2020.
‘…A similar sentiment is captured in two exquisite lines of “Two images, after a call” by Nick Mulgrew: “The gentle go gentle. Even in daydreams you cannot wound,/ more the way you left your book unread; cold tea on the table.” The same way these images of loss spoke directly to my innermost thoughts and feelings, there will be numerous others that each individual reader will find touching. Across the different languages, the poems illuminate the universality of grief. And we live in a time of worldwide loss, not only because of the threat to the welfare of the people we know and love, but because our entire way of being is changing on a seismic scale as we enter a period of global transformation and have to cope with the grief that goes with the gradual vanishing of security and vision.
A broken tree, a pillar falling, a mountain collapsing, loved ones going to sleep – these are metaphors often referring to our demise; a “human library” departing features in “It’s time” by Moses Seletisha (second place winner in Sepedi), and life is described as a “paper fire” in “That’s life, my child” by Nolusindiso Mali (original in Xhosa). I suspect that a lot of the beauty of many of the poems’ original rhythms and imagery is lost in translation, but numerous sparks of uniqueness shine through the layers of various languages, as in this delicate line: “Sleep when wounded and accept,” with which Neliswa “Sange.M” Sampi-Mxunyelwa ends the fourth-place contribution in the Xhosa category…’
To read the entire review, please see: LitNet
I Wish I’d Said … Vol. 2
Edited by Johann de Lange and Mandla Maphumulo
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.
It was by chance that I read Musawenkosi Khanyile’s debut poetry collection on a rainy morning, still tucked up in my bed. But it was no coincidence that the juxtaposition of the comfort of my bedroom and the realities described in the volume repeatedly moved me to tears. Unapologetically autobiographical, the poems included in the book trace the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood, from his rural family home, through the township, to the city. A journey undertaken by many, but not often evoked in poetry with such distinct tenderness that it takes your breath away.
All the Places offers you a glimpse into the heart of what it means to grow up with the odds staked against you, but does so without an ounce of self-pity and, perhaps more strikingly, without gratuitous exposure. The subtlety and restraint with which Khanyile approaches his subject matter is remarkable. He captures lifetimes into a few lines and makes you feel, acutely – not so much the difference between the stories he tells and those of privilege, but the common humanity of all our dreams: “In the class without a door, I took the exercise book of a little girl / who smelled of paraffin and looked at the tree she had drawn – / a leafless tree with no bird in it” (A School Visit). When asked what she wanted to be one day, the girl tells him: doctor.
Khanyile himself is a clinical psychologist with another degree in creative writing. But coming from Nseleni, he recalls the gaps in his family home’s walls, the constantly leaking roof, the demeaning trips to the outside toilet, and that in order “to survive the streets that gush out blood / and open into graves” you had to know how to “outrun the rain”. All the Places is dedicated to Khanyile’s brother Zamo: “I left you the dining room floor / and graduated to a bed / after our sister left for varsity” (Find the Truth).
As the collection’s title suggests, many of the poems focus on specific geographical spaces. In Nseleni, Khanyile states “that the goal is to make it out alive.” But even if you do escape and beat the odds, negotiating hard-earned privileges comes with its own challenges. In The World Opens Up, he asks: “What are the side effects of surviving the township?” The titular poem opens with the lines: “All the places he goes to / remind him of where he comes from.” And in Bantry Bay, a man at a guesthouse cries at the sight of the sea: “Why all this sentimentality about what’s not his? / The sea is not his. This balcony is not his. / All that he has is himself – / when does he cry about that?”
A great gift to its readers, All the Places allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes, with compassion.
by Musawenkosi Khanyile
Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 16 August 2019.
It isn’t often that you can delight in a poetry collection in three languages, but Annette Snyckers’s debut Remnants Restante Reste invites you to do precisely that. Writing in English, Afrikaans and German, Snyckers explores the possibilities of translation and creative expansion. Not all the poems included are presented in all three languages, but the ones that are add a magical layer to the poetry as the individual manifestations enhance and augment one another. The author notes: “Where a poem appears in more than one language, the first version is not necessarily the original version. Poems were written in different languages as I felt the need to write them, and all subsequent translations were done by me.” I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy all three versions in meaningful ways, but even if one of them eludes you, the remaining offerings in the collection are rich enough to suffice for a satisfying read…
Continue reading: LitNet
Remnants Restante Reste
by Annette Snyckers
Modjaji Books, 2018
Zikr 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.”
by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee
Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 June 2019.
The 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.
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
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.
The 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
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.