Words sparkle in Jen­nings’ hands

Cape Times - - BOOKS -

SPACE IN­HAB­ITED BY ECHOES Karen Jen­nings Loot.co.za (R239) Hol­land Park Press

RE­VIEWER: KA­RINA M SZCZUREK

AU­THORS like Mar­garet At­wood, Na­dine Gordimer or Jeanette Win­ter­son im­press with their lit­er­ary chameleon na­tures.

Their craft is writ­ing. Their tools – an empty page, words, punc­tu­a­tion – might seem sim­ple. But they as­tound with the ver­sa­til­ity of their use.

Their ta­lents and imag­i­na­tions do not fear rules or bound­aries. They bend forms to ac­com­mo­date the mul­ti­fac­eted ob­ser­va­tions and ideas that come alive through their cre­ativ­ity.

They are no cookie cut­ters. Whether it is po­etry or prose, fic­tion or non-fic­tion, lit­er­ary or an­other genre, these writ­ers rise to the chal­lenge of ver­sa­til­ity and de­liver ex­cel­lence.

South African au­thor Karen Jen­nings, cur­rently based in Brazil, is only at the be­gin­ning of her ca­reer as a word­smith, but is show­ing all the signs she is des­tined for the kind of great­ness the writ­ers men­tioned above have achieved in the course of their lives.

At 36, Jen­nings has al­ready pub­lished Find­ing Sout­bek (2012), which was short­listed for the Eti­salat Prize for Lit­er­a­ture.

It was fol­lowed in 2014 by Away from the Dead, a short story col­lec­tion, and two years later by a touch­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work – part mem­oir, part novel – Trav­els with My Fa­ther.

Jen­nings’s short sto­ries won the Africa Re­gion prize in the Com­mon­wealth Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion and the Maskew Miller Long­man Award.

They have been fea­tured in pub­li­ca­tions around the world, along with her po­etry.

A few of these poems have now found a home in Jen­nings’s el­e­gant de­but col­lec­tion with the evoca­tive ti­tle Space In­hab­ited by Echoes.

In­spired by the var­ied tran­si­tions in her life, the poems in­cluded in the vol­ume trace the im­pact of change on the young woman’s tra­jec­tory.

The book is di­vided into four parts, each of which fo­cuses on an as­pect of the lived pri­vate trans­for­ma­tions, whether ex­pe­ri­enced in re­la­tion­ships, or through mi­gra­tion across con­ti­nents fol­lowed by the adap­ta­tion and in­te­gra­tion into a new coun­try, or through the peo­ple who ac­com­pany her on her path.

Read­ers fa­mil­iar with Trav­els with My Fa­ther will re­mem­ber that Jen­nings fell in love with a Brazil­ian sci­en­tist work­ing in Cape Town soon af­ter her fa­ther died of can­cer.

The cou­ple were mar­ried and Jen­nings de­cided to re­lo­cate to Brazil to be with her hus­band when he re­ceived a job of­fer in his home coun­try.

In the poems of the first two parts of Space In­hab­ited by Echoes, Jen­nings records the process of fall­ing in and out of love, its in­se­cu­rity and long­ing, and the heat of de­sire.

The col­lec­tion opens with the sen­sual poem set at the height of sum­mer, Jan­uary: “By night­fall we had re­moved / our clothes, slipped / into a pool thick as breath, / no longer able to dis­tin­guish / be­tween our­selves and the wa­ter.” Even­tu­ally, the lovers emerge and break apart: “And in that sep­a­ra­tion / was held the mem­ory of to­mor­row; a re­hearsal for the heat to come.”

Jen­nings is a sto­ry­teller. She chooses her im­ages and the nar­ra­tive links with care.

In Morn­ing Alone, one of the lovers is still asleep be­hind a closed door, the other wait­ing: “But for me there is no day un­til you / wake, de­spite the fad­ing light, the hours few.” The two lines are per­fect ex­am­ples of how Jen­nings cap­tures the frag­ile ten­der­ness of a re­la­tion­ship.

The poems are in­ti­mate and deeply per­sonal, but like all good po­etry they hold univer­sal truths. In a piece like A Study, Jen­nings tells the story of life’s evo­lu­tion on our planet only to jux­ta­pose it with what it would mean not to be able to ex­pe­ri­ence yearn­ing and heart­break, the loss we all feel when a loved one has left our warm em­brace.

She writes about the end of a re­la­tion­ship with equal in­sight, how some­times dis­il­lu­sion­ment takes over and prom­ises spo­ken with con­vic­tion no longer ap­ply, “Just words from a chill sum­mer / as sod­den as the boat bot­tom / in which we rowed and rowed, / our eyes on our watches, and the land.”

Or con­sider the ex­quis­ite lines from the poem Phonecall which lend the col­lec­tion its ti­tle: “How strange to find / af­ter years of love that / what re­mains be­tween / us is only / space in­hab­ited by echoes / and the peo­ple we / once were.”

An echo is qui­eter than the orig­i­nal sound it fol­lows. And po­etry has that abil­ity to dis­til and de­liver the most es­sen­tial of im­pres­sions trav­el­ling through the space of mem­ory.

In the third and fourth part of the book, Jen­nings con­cen­trates on the move to an­other coun­try and the at­tempt to find be­long­ing.

The flat the new­ly­weds rent is on the 17th floor. With its mer­ci­less heat and for­eign ways, the city feels con­stantly un­fa­mil­iar.

In her dreams, Jen­nings is haunted by her pre­vi­ous home in the Cape and strug­gles to ad­just to her new re­al­ity in We Came to Stay: “I didn’t do as well / as ex­pected. / Not with change, / the shared house, / a new lan­guage.”

To nav­i­gate the “dark river” of de­pres­sion and alien­ation which fol­lows is ex­tremely tough, not only as an in­di­vid­ual but as a cou­ple. In Let Me Go, Jen­nings speaks of “my fail­ure to come home”.

And in Sur­vival, we find “a genus of fish, / com­pelled to adapt / by ex­ile, stark iso­la­tion / and rar­ity of food // is able, by push­ing / aside its gills / and re­lo­cat­ing its heart, to swal­low its vic­tims / whole”.

Some­times that is what it takes to make a liv­ing in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

To­wards the end of Space In­hab­ited by Echoes, Jen­nings turns to the im­por­tant fig­ures in her life to face the weight of in­her­i­tance and fam­ily se­crets, and brings a sense of clo­sure to a process of be­com­ing.

As an au­thor, Jen­nings is al­ready de­liv­er­ing on the huge prom­ise of her early suc­cesses.

Words sparkle in her hands. Read­ers of her work can ex­pect to be en­light­ened in all pos­si­ble ways.

The poems are in­ti­mate and deeply per­sonal, but still hold univer­sal truths

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