There has always been a certain mystique surrounding the figure of the author or poet; especially those writers who fall under the autobiographical or confessional traditions. Readers scour their work, searching for clues about the real author, often taking every word at face value. However, any undergraduate literature student worth his salt would tell you that, virtually on the day of initiation into the English Department, students are warned against the danger of reading texts biographically – after all, you might just make yourself look silly.
This “rule”, which is often accepted as law without any further interrogation, leads to students contorting themselves in an attempt to jump through a convoluted series of linguistic circus-hoops in ways which are usually stilted, if not entirely absurd. For example, when analysing the work of a confessional poet – Sylvia Plath for example – one is cautioned against assuming that what one reads is necessarily biographically true. So, despite the fact that many of the anecdotes found in Plath’s anthology, Ariel, are mirrored with intimate precision in her ex-husband, Ted Hughes’s anthology, Birthday Letters, the exasperated student must, nevertheless, resort to using terms such as “the speaker”, “the narrative voice” or the “persona”, rather than making the “mistake” of referring to Plath’s voice, which seems so obviously to be her own.
On the flip-side of the coin, among readers outside of the academy, who can get away with never having to read Barthes’ “Death of the Author”, a sort of personality-cult phenomenon is not uncommon with respect to high profile writers – especially when there is some sort of scandal involved, as is the case with Plath and the intrigue of her failed marriage and dramatic suicide. Fans become literary sleuths, combing The Bell Jar, The Colossus and Ariel for clues about the real Sylvia, coming to identify with her in a way which can be possessive and even obsessive; “She’s my Sylvia. Hands off!”
Similarly, I find myself falling into the personality-cult trap when it comes to the work of Capetonian Ingrid Jonker and Olive Schreiner prize-winning poet, Rustum Kozain. On the occasions that I have come across him in person, I have been almost embarrassed to catch myself scrutinising him intensely. What exactly am I looking for? Scars caused by the racial rage he describes in so many of his poems, perhaps? I would expect more of myself after three years of painstakingly conforming to the law that poems should not be read biographically. The ability to separate the poetic voice from the actual poet can, admittedly, be helpful on certain occasions – such as when a conversation with an English lecturer suddenly becomes awkward due to the echo of a particularly raunchy line from one of his more erotic poems popping into your head – but, why then do I still feel this overwhelming urge to read Rustum through his words? I am reminded of Finuala Dowling’s Notes from the Dementia Ward. The anthology is made up of personal anecdotes about love, death and memory that are interspersed with heart-rending descriptions of visits to her mother in the dementia ward. One comes away feeling as if the anthology has told a coherent and intimate story. Similarly, with This Carting Life, one is lead to feel somewhat closer to Rustum Kozain, each poem blending with the next as they paint a picture of a painfully real life.
Recently, the members of the UCT third-year seminar group on Contemporary South African Poetry assembled for a reading by the man himself, Rustum Kozain. I was excited because I’d already written an essay on his work, so I have a fairly good idea of his “major preoccupations” and some questions I’ve been itching to ask. In particular, I was looking forward to his reading of “Kingdom of Rain”, the poem that was the main focus of my essay.
I wrote the essay before the publication of Kozain’s latest anthology, Groundwork, and looked at the way in which he uses his poetry to deal with the issue of racial rage and the escape from this rage, which is found in recurring still points which transcend politics.
In a buildup to my analysis of “Kingdom of Rain” I showed how Kozain’s other poems deal with explosions of racial rage which are triggered by white women clutching their handbags as he walks by – a topic about which he rants in more colourful language in his essay “Fuck colouredness and the coloured voice” – and in response to the general indignities of Apartheid. I then looked at examples of the still points which he seeks repeatedly in his poems. For example, he writes a particularly vivid poem, entitled “Now. I want to wake now”; a Baudelairean projection in which he spends a day sitting apathetically at home, smokes twenty-six cigarettes, stares at a bowl of paperclips and then wanders into the rain until he lands up, somewhat bizarrely, at the home of a woman who, it seems, is a stranger to him. They strip naked and sit facing each other on the bed, knocking back shots of vodka. And in “this silence of vodka” (the still point in the poem) they “feel the knots of (their) lives/ the twists and complications loosen” and then, as they touch:
the nation-state will fade, disappear.
Borders will lift from the earth
and float to heaven already also gone
and immigrants and refugees
are no longer. No more does
anyone wander from here
to there, there to here. No more.
And everyone will be a citizen
everywhere, anywhere, here in this room.”
I track several other still points, which lead to similar ephemeral moments of rapturous escapism that appear in the anthology. All of them, it emerges, are found in the silence of the rain.
It is in “Kingdom of Rain” that we find the most triumphant still point of them all. In the poem a young boy (dare we refer to him as “young Rustum”?), takes a trip up the mountain with his father and brother, which results in him becoming politically aware for the first time. They are denied access to the “Kleurlingkant” of the mountain and the family is humiliated; laughed at by the “bronzed impatient white youth” who pass them by. It is here that he becomes “the child who learns this pain past metaphor.”
But before he is confronted with the “ever-darkening turn of (his) growing up”, he is granted a still point. Within the gale:
Silence. A sudden still point
As the universe pauses, inhales
And gathers its grace.
Then the silent, feather-like fall
Of snowflakes as to us it grants
A brief bright kingdom
This is the unsurpassable still point. The unlikely snow on the Paarl mountain-top slows down the poem and grants a silence so absolute that it is quieter even than the rain.
Now, back to the Kozain reading for the third-years in the Art Block… Rustum finishes his reading of “Kingdom of Rain” and the Q&A session begins. The third years have brought their A-game, posing insightful and pertinent questions to the poet. Suddenly, one of the more sensitive souls raises his hand. Visibly moved, the tears brimming in his eyes, he starts gushing: “I can’t believe you had to go through that, man. That must have been so horrible, being laughed at by the white kids, and the snow, and, I dunno, man…” Silence descends. He hasn’t really asked a question and looks as if he is on the verge of jumping up from his seat to hug-it-out with the damaged young boy he presumably sees hiding behind Rustum’s eyes; the one who was laughed at on the mountain top all those years ago. Another moment of silence, then Kozain clears his throat and says, “Now, I don’t want you to think that there was literally a day when I actually lived through that exact scene which takes place in ‘Kingdom of Rain’. You don’t have to worry about me, that didn’t actually happen.”
There it was, from the proverbial horse’s mouth. “That didn’t actually happen.” Yet still, the poem is personal and powerful, and still, it communicates a deeply human experience which is perhaps enhanced by the fact that we are inclined to hear the voice in the poem as Kozain’s own. This guy in my tutorial didn’t know any of the stuff I knew about Kozain’s other poems – about the racial rage and the still points and the rain – and he hadn’t grappled with the issue of “dead authors” and autonomous artworks; but still, he felt the poem, proving what Rustum had to say next: that it is because the poem is simultaneously his experience and not his experience, that it becomes everyone’s experience, and, in that way, it becomes meaningful.
Barthes, R. 1968. The Death of the Author in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton and Company: London.
Dowling, F. 2008. Notes from the Dementia Ward. Kwela/Snailpress: Cape Town.
Hughes, T. 1998. Birthday Letters. Faber: London.
Kozain, R. 2002. Fuck Colouredness and the Coloured Voice. Chimurenga. Vol. 1. pp.45-47.
Kozain, R. 2005. This Carting Life. Kwela/Snailpress: Plumstead.
Kozain, R. 2012. Groundwork. Kwela/Snailpress: Plumstead.
Plath, S. 1965. Ariel. Faber: London.
Plath, S. 1966. The Bell Jar. Faber: London.
Plath, S. 1967. The Colossus. Faber: London.