Hyphenated worlds – Tania van Shalkwyk’s Hyphen

A hyphen alone has contingent meaning only. As a marker of punctuation, it is a vulnerable, fragile signifier, depending entirely on what it precedes, and what precedes it. And yet a hyphen has the power to create volatile compounds of signification. Hyphens unite words, ideas and objects. In poetry, hyphens help to create double-barrelled volleys of affect and effect: the thing – the ‘world out there’ – brought into imagined being; the feeling evoked by that act of bringing something back into being.

Tania van Schalkwyk’s debut volume of poems, Hyphen, gathers into itself the energy of the hyphen – it brings together many different worlds, and plays textures, temporalities and locations off against each other.

Hyphen confirms what pragmatists, phenomenologists and quantum physicists have long argued: the world ‘out there’ – always a representation, a phenomenon perceived – is a hyphenated concatenation of sense-making by perceptual machines called human subjects. Van Schalkwyk peels back layers of being, revealing a world of scintillating poetic perception standing in for the ‘ordinary’. Elements often presented as entities or categories are shown to be fluid: living and dying, terrestrial locations and oceanic spread, believing in things and sensually bringing the world into being. ‘Gardening’ is especially enjoyable for its recasting of the Garden of Eden narrative and its intimate refiguring of the persona’s separation from her loved one. The compelling ‘Lethe-ward’ eerily mixes states of death and life, the worlds of the past fermenting in the supposed present.

Van Schalkwyk’s work is impressive for its apparent effortlessness. Unlike hyphenated words, in which the separation between the composites is still evident, the poet’s imagery and lyricism allow her to blend rich worlds out of disparate elements in a way that comes across as seamless. A young poet, here performing a debut, she writes with the conceit of poetic wisdom, slicing open and splicing the ‘normal’ with lyrical powers of Eros so distinctive that it’s hard to re-enter the ‘real’ world again unmoved from one’s perceptual axis.

One of my favourite poems, ‘Persephone’s Swim’, shifts from a seemingly ancient first-person encounter to a living, contemporary moment, bringing Persephone and her representation of affect into the reading. The ease with which Van Schalkwyk creates this transition, and makes it work on the level of feeling, is impressive.

Moreover, Van Schalkwyk shows us how poetry persistently breaks through settled boundaries. Sexual, romantic and filial love are shown to rupture time and space, as in ‘My Grandmother’s Art’, ‘Long-Distance Call’, ‘Transubstantiation’, and the lovely ‘Cliché’. In Van Schalkwyk’s hands, natural phenomena such as rain, water and storms bear their provenance in mythology and temporality with powerful specificity – evident in ‘Fresco’, ‘Pietà’, ‘Water’ and ‘Night Rain’.

There are some beautiful individual images that the poet grafts into her descriptions: “this morning [the sky] was the grey silk lining of a kimono, / swishing past the edge of a door” (45),  or the following description of the sky: “the sky is a womb / threading the sinews and tissues of a child” (46), or rain during a storm: “mirrors smashed into spinning disco-balls, the world dances / across a fallen horizon / the waves fall down”.

Van Schalkwyk’s work is built on the idea of the compound effect. Word upon word, line upon line, stanza upon stanza, she carefully creates images that speak to each other and set each other off. Re-reading is part of the pleasure, trying to retrace facets of the mix in the lines and contours of separate poems.

The title incorporates another function of the hyphen – demarcating the boundaries of the separate within the combined. This tension in the hyphen is a conceptual motif in the volume, at once separating and bringing together, and it is evoked movingly in the senses of alienation within community that flow like an undercurrent through the larger sea of the work. The speaking subjects who do seem to be awake to ‘poetic’ undercurrents, the great perceptual mixing of things, such as in ‘Theophany’ and ‘The Electrician’, are either hospitalized or medicated. Read in this light, the opening poem ‘Siren Song’ becomes as much a warning for the speaker as for the reader about the dangers of living on the edge of phenomenological boundaries and existential conjugations.

Thus, as much as we are invited and drawn into Van Schalkwyk’s worlds, we are also potentially excluded – as observers, readers from afar. What better guide to such worlds than someone who is a hyphen of sorts herself: “The hybrid of a Hamburg sailor and a Mauritian artist, born in Africa, raised in Arabia and matured in Europe”. As one of the poet’s personas says in ‘In between’: “I am lost somewhere/in between/the couple and the woman. Neither young nor old. But I have been and I will be.” With Hyphen being such a brave first volume, I look forward to what will still emerge from the hand of this poet.

  • Hyphen won the 2010 Ingrid Jonker Prize for a South African debut volume of poetry in English.