A clutch of promis­ing new po­ets

CityPress - - Voices - CHARLES CIL­LIERS charles.cil­liers@city­press.co.za

You can only be one of the uHlanga New Po­ets once, it seems. Pub­lished by Nick Mul­grew, who of­fers his own po­ems here, the se­ries is in­tended to col­lect and pub­lish the first col­lec­tions of South Africa’s most promis­ing young tal­ents, who will hope­fully go on to greater things.

That makes lit­tle books like these a pre­cious record and a tacit en­cour­age­ment of thought­ful verse in a world in which po­etry (and in­creas­ingly lit­er­a­ture it­self) strug­gles to mat­ter as much as it once did.

I’m told there was once a hal­cyon time when po­ets were more fa­mous than peo­ple who make badly lit sex tapes and marry rap­pers who never let you fin­ish your ac­cep­tance speech. But such a time is hard to imag­ine now.

Hope­fully, uHlanga con­tin­ues and helps to sup­port a cul­ture of po­etry among a gen­er­a­tion of in­tro­spect­ing youth. There’s a lot to like about the col­lec­tions by Genna Gar­dini, Thabo Ji­jana and the 25-year-old pub­lisher Mul­grew.

Gar­dini pulls you in with con­fes­sional ac­counts of her ex­pe­ri­ences (or vi­car­i­ous imag­in­ings) of body-sham­ing, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, de­pres­sion, abuse, de­sire and a pot­pourri of mem­o­ries from dif­fer­ent stages of her life. Much of it is heart­break­ing and dis­com­fit­ing, and will haunt you after­wards.

Ji­jana, too, gets un­der your skin, par­tic­u­larly the poem The thing about Manto and beet­root, where the nar­ra­tor is wait­ing for a man, pre­sum­ably his fa­ther, to walk in the door “stink­ing of en­gine fumes, the/ sleeves of his cor­duroy shirt/ rolled up to the el­bow, his hands/ caked with oil”. In the end, you re­alise that’s not go­ing to hap­pen be­cause, be­side the kraal, “there is now a dune/ of red soil and a white cross;/ the black paint washed away, noth­ing as clean as a name”.

Ji­jana of­fers a mix of small ob­ser­va­tions of town­ship life with deeper med­i­ta­tions on his­tory, cul­ture and per­sonal angst. In his poem about the mur­der of Steve Biko in po­lice cus­tody, he keeps the free verse min­i­mal­is­tic – be­cause he knows the event has al­ready been ser­monised upon count­less times. By sim­ply end­ing with “alone/ he lay on/ the stone floor/ alone”, he lo­cates the per­sonal tragedy of it bet­ter than a more grandiose or sweep­ing verse might have done (and it ties in with “a black man, he/ was on his own”, a play on some of Biko’s own, fa­mous words).

Mul­grew’s po­ems are more quirky and play­ful, charm­ingly of­ten at his own ex­pense, such as his ad­mis­sion at the dis­com­fort he felt at be­ing as­sumed gay by a stranger, when he isn’t. In many ways, his po­ems are diary en­tries about ex­pe­ri­ences, thoughts, small lessons and wry satire at the ab­sur­dity of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety.

He pokes fun at things like arm­chair ac­tivism, self-dep­re­cates his own rel­a­tive priv­i­lege and, in the ti­tle poem, pokes holes in the idea that all of hu­man­ity is some­how com­plicit in its own de­struc­tion. No, he points out, “some of us are more/ at fault than oth­ers” … be­cause “some peo­ple don’t/ drive V8s in cities or com­ment on News24/ or racially abuse peo­ple at beer fes­ti­vals or/ picket gay mar­riages ob­vi­ously”.

On the strictly tech­ni­cal side, there’s a part of me that’s still a bit old school when it comes to po­ems. I want them to feel like po­etry, to have more rhythm, me­tre and clearly dis­cernible struc­ture; to use more fig­ures of speech, more im­agery and more metaphor (and yes, hor­ror of hor­rors, maybe even the oc­ca­sional rhyme).

Gar­dini does this most of­ten, and Ji­jana is also at his best when his po­ems fall into a dis­cernible rhythm. At times, some of the verse can come across more like prose bro­ken up into lines and la­belled po­etry. All the same, the col­lec­tions seem to work. These young po­ets should have bright fu­tures as writ­ers in which­ever form they turn their hands to. On a day when a 70-year-old ver­sion of one of them wins a No­bel prize, peo­ple will start to look fran­ti­cally for first edi­tions of lit­tle books like these from decades be­fore.

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