30 May 2007

Seasonal Fires

Ingrid de Kok's volume of poems Seasonal Fires was published by Seven Stories Press last year. J.M. Coetze provides the blurb on the front cover (illegible, at least to my aging eyes, in this image) and it reads: "No one among the poets of South Africa felt more acutely the heart-pain and shame of life under apartheid, or has notated more scrupulously the faltering joy that came over the country when the weight was lifted." Although I recommend the volume as a whole, here are a couple of poems that I really like because they display how carefully de Kok traverses the intimate and the political in hopes of displaying the variegated ways these intersect in the present and recent past of her native South Africa. You can find a further handful of de Kok's poems here.

The Transcriber Speaks

I was the commission’s own captive
Its anonymous after-hours scribe,
Professional blank-slate.
Word by word by word
From winding tape to hieroglyphic key,
From sign to sign, I listened and wrote.
Like bricks for a kiln or tiles for a roof
Or the sweeping of leaves into piles for burning:
I don’t know which:
Word upon word upon word.
At first unpunctuated
Apart from quotations and full stops.
But how to transcribe silence from tape?
Is weeping a pause or a word?
What written sign for a strangled throat?
And a witness pointing? That I described,
When officials identified direction and name.
But what if she stared?
And if the silence seemed to stretch
Past the police guard, into the street
Away to a door or a grave, or a child,
Was it my job to conclude:
“The witness was silent. There was nothing left to say”?


What Everyone Should Know about Grief

“What everyone should know about grief”
is why I buy the magazine.
Between aerobic virtue on one page
and the thrills of Machu Picchu on another
grief finds its marketable stage.

The living tell their chronicles
of hurt and lost and dead.
In syncopated copy they rehearse
“the cost of rage,” “the comfort of belief,”
in words and captioned movements of the head.

The story proffers help:
advises talking as the healing cure,
commends long walks, and therapies,
assures the grieving that they will endure,
and then it gently cautions: let go, move on.

But everyone knows sorrow is incurable:
a bruised and jagged scar
in the rift of the valley of the body;
shrapnel seeded in the skin;
undoused burning pyres of war.

And grief is one thing nearly personal,
a hairline fracture in an individual skull;
homemade elegy which sounds its keening
in the scarred heart’s well;
where it is too deep to reach

the ladder of light
sent down from land above,
where hands write words
to work the winch
to plumb the shaft below.

[Both Poems © Ingrid de Kok, from Seasonal Fires: New and
Selected Poems
(NY: Seven Stories Press, 2006).]

P.S.: The cover image of Seasonal Fires consists - appropriately given de Kok's sustained poetic engagement with the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, - of a detail from the first in the series of eight paintings by Kim Berman collectively entitled Fires of the Truth Commission (© 1999).

You can find this image and more of Berman's work in the Art Collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. The web page there explains: "Berman's inspiration for the work was the fires that burn on the highveld around Johannesburg - a metaphor for South Africa's "trial by fire" at the truth commission. But just as fire is a symbol of destruction, so it tells of rejuvenation, of arising anew from the ashes like that mythological bird, the phoenix. ... 'Fires' propels us forward, to days brighter - to a nation cleansed and awaiting re-growth."

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