Poems by which to find one’s way home

Other Signs by Ingrid de Kok. Kwela/Snailpress

If there were a disaster and we lost all other literary maps except for Other Signs, we could still find our way home. Technically assured and emotionally charged, Ingrid de Kok’s fifth collection is a work of unrivalled poetic accomplishment. It contains many poems destined to be landmarks of South African literary history, “Today I do not love my country”, written at the time of the xenophobic attacks in 2008, perhaps foremost among these.

The voice of conscience speaks here: not indignant but gentle, compassionate and wise. In the opening poem, “Everyday world”, it is as if a kinder, more consoling T.S. Eliot has returned to revise The Waste Land for our time:

Not the developing
Not the first
Not the third

Not the new
Nor the old
Nor the next

Especially not the next.

Just the same world.

The one we share here and now
and our patient and impatient
ancestors shared; and the world,
world willing, which children
in their smart new clothes
or broken school shoes
will share

The poems in the first section of the collection – “Shards” – are preoccupied with our daily moral compromises. We drink wine and look at the view while thinking of a friend in Darfur; we pull a blanket over our heads while a street child we once cared for languishes in jail; we accept one “small death” because it might, after all, have been worse – “bone beds”/ “craters”. We continue to inhabit our blue planet, “without knowing/ our eyeballs/ will one day swell, dry out and pop/ in a hot oven/ in the centre of the midden/ once called earth”.

The idea that we are only passing through is a persistent one in this deeply elegiac collection, preoccupied with ageing, transience, the fragility of human existence, and the supplanting of one generation by the next. A visit to the Cradle of Humankind finds in the dolomite ridge “a crib that rocked our fallen ancestors, / sedimented eyeless prophets / of the land and weather / and what we would end up doing to them”.

There is no razzmatazz here, nothing strained or overstated. The imagery is revelatory, pointed, exact (one “mossy” night, a star “leaks colostrum light”) and the lines fall in easy, natural breaths. De Kok uses poetic technique – stanzaic form principally, but also rhyme, half-rhyme, internal rhyme, the catalogue of negatives, and musical patterning – as a kind of scaffolding to keep the heavy weight of suffering from collapsing on the reader. Her technical mastery makes the unbearable bearable: these poems about an overheating, refugee-harming, hardened and unequal world never squawk, blurt, harangue or posture in the name of poetry. Like Emily Dickinson, de Kok knows that “after great pain, a formal feeling comes”.

Every last inch of the poet’s self-possession is summoned in the warm and moving invitation that ends “Haraga” (in her Acknowledgements, de Kok thanks Professor Sandro Triulzi for explaining this term, which refers to illegal migrants who have burnt off the prints on their fingertips):

Xeno: foreigner, stranger, guest,
though my country hunts you down,
welcome to my hearth.
My friends will plead for you in court
but there is little we can do
for fingers’ seared memory
and your frontier heart.
Until DNA traces you to
scarred city, dead kin,
this door is open.
Stay out, if you mistrust these words,
or come, however briefly, in.

Such lyrics are pellucid, so apparently effortless that they could only have come after a massive struggle. We get some inkling of the personal cost of this struggle in the exquisitely clocked insomnia poem, “On the hour”, again in the first stanza of “Signatures” (with its complaint of “an irascible year, / insomnia, low-density bones, / road rage, a torpid job”), and in the metapoetic section of the collection, “Vocation”.

Poems do not come easily. In “Notation”, they lie inside, unborn, testing the poet’s patience:

Finally a heavy counterpane
lies on her body implacably.
Can life, can song, break from this weight?
Oh becalmed boat in an unsounded sea,
will some small body ever gasp or shout?

The title poem of this section, “Vocation”, is a memoir of a poetic life. Poetry is a calling, but also a finding, an orientation. Its skill is decoding “[c]hildhood’s morse, all seven senses, / [w]arning flares fired by strangers / my country’s graves, its electric fence”. But there is fear that with age, “things are winding down”; an owl is “watching, waiting, as it must”. You want to call out, comfort the poet, but you know that her ability to plumb these presaging and despondent depths is precisely why the collection is so good.

But there are lighter, witty poems too. “My Muse is a man” is a delightful portrait of a mentor with scrupulously exacting standards:

He’s a critic, a judge and grammarian.
He demands accuracy as well as passion,
abhors emotion on the loose,
“imagination” as excuse.
Glowers over spacing and spelling.

The middle section of the collection, “Wings”, contains personal poems about love, friends and family. These too are beautifully crafted, but so accessible they could bring even the reluctant general reader to a love of poetry. We could, for example, start the poetry-phobes off on “Married late”, with its compulsive, villanelle-like patterning and its utterly true story of a first and a second marriage. Once we have weaned these readers off the novel, we could nurture them with the beautiful see-saw Donne-like conceit of a couple separated by hemispheres in “Gravity zone”; get the group to laugh out loud at “Meeting after much time has passed”, and to shed tears of recognition at a mother giving away her son as a groom to his new wife in “Lifeline”, or a daughter helping her mother in “Last move”.

My favourite from this section is “Coming and going”, in which the dying and the youthful are reconfigured as visitors saying their goodbyes and hellos in the hallway of life. While the dead depart out the back door with “black umbrellas / rushed farewells”, those arriving expectantly at the front

are for a moment silhouetted in the sun.
It streams through her diaphanous dress
and we see the lines of her young body
beneath the fabric, we see his face
with smile lines beginning to form.
And they say hello, hello, we are here here
and they and we think they are here to stay.

They’re not, of course. But these exquisite poems are.