Po­ems of in­ti­macy and de­tach­ment

CityPress - - Voices - KATE TURK­ING­TON voices@city­press.co.za

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.

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