Poems of intimacy and detachment
Beyond Touch by Arja Salafranca 79 pages Modjaji Books and Dye Hard Press R150 recommended retail price
We don’t have enough strong poets in South Africa – certainly not published ones. So when a new book of poetry (yes, it’s a “slim volume”) is published, it’s an important literary moment.
These compelling poems, full of heartbreak, longing and an abiding sense of “otherness”, are divided into four sections. Beyond Indigo deals with the poet’s experiences of travelling to England and Spain. Child in a Photograph examines the lives of others through the lens of the poet’s own sensibilities.
In My Life as a Fairytale, the poems hover in doubt and uncertainty, but finally, in Before the Day Begins, the poet finds love and joy. But because she can never entirely grasp and keep happiness, we know that it will be fleeting.
Although she is drawn intimately into the lives of some of her subjects, the poet always feels apart. She lives the experience of a woman in a pink bikini, sharing embraces with her lover on a Spanish beach, and yet feels “like the voyeur, I am now, here”.
In her poem Retired, although there’s pity and empathy, there’s also something much deeper going on. “It’s not an empty life; there are things to occupy her on this strip of flats near the sea. (Living alone the TV is a friend.) It’s a bit of a sad life, at times, she admits, but not so sad she’d want to go back to working, and tallying up figures for someone else in an office. It’s an okay life at 62. What else can you expect?” Yes, Salafranca is sensitive, soft and compassionate, but, as in this poem, there’s also an angry irony bubbling beneath the surface of many of the poems.
In The Monk Meditates, for example, she paints a vivid picture of a humble, somewhat complacent monk “small beside the huge/benevolent Buddha”.
Meanwhile, in the distance, a poverty-stricken, cowed mother prepares food for her children. “The mother makes out shapes in the ink-black darkness, her rough hands tired as she tries to remember what has been forgotten.” Salafranca has two amazing gifts: the first that of description – you will be immediately transported to whatever location she writes about: a Johannesburg street, an English cathedral, an Indonesian beach.
The second is the ability to stand both inside and aside, to be both participant and observer, so that although she looks and feels with a crystal eye, it is often through a glass darkly. Loneliness and a sense of alienation fill the pages, ironically even when she is at her happiest.
You’ll read these poems, then reread and reread them, drawn back not only to their sharp beauty, but to the poet’s own powerful, intensely personal sense of truth.