Absent Tongues by Kelwyn Sole, Cape Town, Hands-on Books, 2012
Philosophy ends where lyric poetry begins – in paradox. Religion also begins in paradox, which makes it the uneasy companion of lyric poetry. The central paradox of religion is sacrifice, wherein death engenders life. The central paradox of lyric poetry is described by the genderless Ariel (I won’t say Shakespeare!) in its song to forlorn Prince Ferdinand:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
These beautiful lines (the two “doths” notwithstanding) describe a process, the process of nature metamorphosing, by means of words, into art. Three factors, then, are at play, forming a triangle, the necessary structure for metaphor to occur. According to Aristotle, “the use of metaphor … is the one thing that cannot be learnt from anyone else, and it is the mark of great natural ability”. A poet like Kelwyn Sole has this “natural” ability in abundance; a poet like Ezra Pound, by contrast, has very little of it.
In Ariel’s song, nature is represented by bones and eyes, organic matter; words are self-evident (there are 35); art – the apex of the triangle – is represented by the song itself, its form and its content. The threshold images are “coral” and “pearl” because they, paradoxically, merge nature and art. The outcome is “something rich and strange”: three abstract words are the closest Ariel can get to the truth, which is about as close as anyone can get.
For Ariel (let’s keep William out of this!), the sea, which is continuously giving and taking away, is a symbol of the creative/destructive process. In the late sixteenth century, the verb “to suffer” had strong connotations of dying, which suggests that this process, rather like religious sacrifice, is a kind of dying-into-life. What I find interesting about the poems in Sole's volume is the way they resist the epiphanic (or transcendent) structure of most lyric poetry; they don’t form an apex, the sense of two becoming one; they stop of short of lyrical orgasm, so to speak; instead the three points are given equal, restrained value; and the outcome is a kind of restiveness. It’s not all peaches and cream being a white male poet in Africa.
What, then, does the sea bring to Kelwyn Sole?
Don’t trust any harbour. Already
those reflections that match each boat
turn restless, yearn to fracture:
each wave beyond the quay dishevels.
I who have no instinct for bad weather
– scudding wind, nor gale – turn
watch a late evening ditching sun
that gasps lunges out to drown
in tides of creels lost, and plastic bottles.
You contrive strong, dark fingers
through your hair. Time to head home:
beside you there’s me and a nervous sea
bereft of the small white globes of gulls
now trying to outrun dark. A door shuts.
We’ll pass our time in tepid rooms
that dissemble light: making dinner
then making love till we lie
in tandem, fork to spoon. Who
cannot guess which one of us
will take their sleepless turn tonight
to part the curtains, start, to see
unblinking stars begin to swarm
suddenly implacable as bees
above the black void that was sea.
According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, the sea is a paradoxical archetype of uncertainty:
Everything comes from the sea and everything returns to it. It is a place of birth, transformation and rebirth. With its tides the sea symbolises a transitory condition between shapeless potentiality and formal reality, an ambivalent situation of uncertainty, doubt and indecision which can end well or ill. Hence the sea is an image simultaneously of death and of life.
Sole’s poem, in my opinion, speaks partly to this definition. The mood of restiveness (I won’t say “uncertainty” because this is a condition the poet seems to have come to terms with, if not – in the postmodern sense – come to celebrate) is established in the opening statement: “Don’t trust any harbour.” Forms become formless as the light changes, or the wind picks up, or the eye blinks. It’s an illusion; and words, the poet’s tools, are verbal illusions. Sole’s imagination, as I have suggested, does not strive to create a whole that is something other than the sum of its parts or, as Coleridge put it, “shows itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”. He has the skill, the gift, to achieve this, and he might have done it had he lived in the English Lake District two hundred years ago, but not now, not in South Africa, 2012.
The persona and his friend are walking along the beach as the sun is setting. He is positioned between her and the “nervous sea” – a triptych. Personification is one of Sole’s favourite poetic devices, often in the form of transferred epithets. Because we are inside the persona’s head and not his friend’s, the exchanges of feeling – “nervous”, “bereft”, “yearn” – are between him and the world out there. When the friend is engaged in this way, the transference is not in terms of a thought or a feeling (a mood), but an external image – her hair. It is offered to the sea: “each wave beyond the quay dishevels”.
We are a third of the way through the poem before we realise that the persona is talking directly to his friend as they abandon the looming darkness and head for home. But even in the assumed security of an abode, behind a shut door, the rooms “dissemble light”. The poem’s direct approach and the conceit of the fork and the spoon (though not the free verse) remind me of the metaphysical poets. This is effective erotic humour. The word “tandem” has connotations of riding. The fork, now, is male, the spoon is female. No need to elaborate! When we see a fork and a spoon together, the friends were “making dinner” before “making love”; the third item of cutlery, made even more starkly present by its absence, is the knife. This is how the poet generates restiveness.
He also generates it with one of his favourite leitmotifs, the window – a threshold combining and separating the inner and outer worlds; a space where poetry happens: “to part the curtains, start, to see”. Sole almost never resorts to rhyme, certainly not end-rhyme, but here he uses it most effectively.
In his eponymous poem, Sole describes another threshold:
So, standing here, stranded
between my house and yours
I am starting to notice
the almost-music that rises
from out the veld around me,
when I’m scarcely on the watch
for what I want to hear.
In lyric poetry a threshold is paradoxical, a point which simultaneously holds together and keeps apart two different spaces, or objects, or moments in time. For example, midnight is a threshold because it is neither morning nor night while, at the same time, being both morning and night. Poets love twilight for this very reason: it merges light (life) and darkness (death). There are even threshold words, like “buckle” (see Hopkins’s “The Windhover”), or “stiffen” (see Eliot’s “Gerontian”), or “still” (see Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). But Sole won’t allow his thresholds to become sites of transcendence; instead, with words like “stranded”, “starting”, “almost”, “scarcely”, they generate restiveness. Here is one more example, “as I chink the curtains”, from “Everyday”:
Don’t ask me now
which one I am –
the one inside:
the one outside:
Restiveness is in the very title of this book: Absent Tongues. The phrase effectively gathers Sole’s main themes: history, politics, love, nature, and words. In nature where “tongues” really are absent, where there is no consciousness, no “irony” or “remorse” (“Bird”), he locates truth: “Truth shakes its feathers / curves away in flight” (“Bird”). And he finds solace:
Thank God at last
a bird starts to warble
its sweet nonsense
beyond my vision.
But in the human world of awareness – awareness that we are going to die, awareness that the poor will always be with us (and, unfortunately, the rich), awareness that yesterday’s oppressed are today’s oppressors, awareness that you need light to cast a shadow – we are constrained to ask:
…and what has flesh to do
in the mistakes it makes
with language? (“Breathings”)
and to confess that “I hold my tongue tight / just like you, and you” (“Learning”). Contradicting this, of course – back to irony – is a collection of beautiful (with a few lapses) poems (present tongues!), which have every justification for making the erotic assertion: “My tongue’s turned bread. Eat” (“Breaking Bread”).
Sole’s anti-capitalist poems frequently focus on the need for shelter. The subject matter alone makes these poems restive, but so does intertextuality. For example, in “Tin Roof” there are two ironic allusions to that most reactionary of poetic geniuses, Philip Larkin: “Squatting its grey toad weight on the land”, and “I’ll call high windows into being”. And in “Not a Poem on Behalf of the Poor”, the reference to billboards recalls Dr T.J. Eckleburg in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
Snagged between horizons
by those enormous beings
painted in two dimensions
with arms that terminate
in soap or handshakes.
The political poem I most identify with is the angry confessional, “Outsiders”. When Sole deals directly with politics his diction becomes much less metaphorical:
How I wish I could say:
this is past. But I can’t,
for the words
here at the edge
of my tongue hold no future
or my country; they won’t tip
over, and with relief be lost.
Many hundreds of my fellow Zimbabweans suffered, and even died – from these so-called xenophobic attacks. Sole, as a white male South African, could so easily have stretched the poem’s title to include his own predicament; but he does not; he takes responsibility, describing himself as “Just another lickspittle / of [his country’s] languages”:
of the windows of
my private life
for the words
here at the edge
of my tongue hold no future
for my country.
At another point in the poem he writes: “words about bodies are just paper”. But he saves most of his venom for those in power: “co-authors of six words / who can I find to blame?”
In my opinion Sole is not at his best with his somewhat fragmentary minimalist poems, which pack the middle of this collection. However, I have to make an exception for the following four-line, single-sentence gem:
Hopeless is a word
that seeks no cover for itself –
it sits outside the blanket
of the sentence, and shivers.
Of his love poems, one of them is so stunning that I will not desecrate it with commentary. Here it is in full:
Your nude leg flung out
lengthens the line
of the chair’s
a declivity of lawn
evaporates into mist
– snatched glimpses of a forest –
squirrels, tiny desperate miners
with the terror of foreknowledge
clutched within their paws,
run across the grass, seek to larder
up their future in the crannies
of the earth. A wind bites,
hints at the rancour of snow:
we gaze at them through glass.
There is a coincidence of sunlight
here: with my bare skin, and the scent of you.
* * *
Give me your palm
before I’ll even think of making love to you –
I must be sure which of your lines twists
or peters out before it should –
your union line, your mount of Saturn ...
is what you said, in your nakedness,
bending further towards the mirror,
your spine a declared rosary of bones …
and I started thinking to myself -
as you later picked up in your slim fingers
cigarettes and keys, chased the wrinkles
from cast-off jeans by filling them
with the presence of your body, leaving
just an undertone of musk
to expire in my room –
that I want beyond all else
to enter someone who looks outside
herself constantly, looks at a world
to exceed the right omens
she thinks would augment herself –.
* * *
It will not be you.
Now that you’ve taken the accustomed body
I thought I loved back home, through the streets,
onto the trains that multiply your distance,
through doors that use their keys as weapons,
eyes locked behind
though I still conjure up the wen
next to your lips, the small tattoo
on your neck newly shining
through heavy shutters
of blonde hair,
(yes, I see all of you, nearly …)
I can no longer bear to look at,
or to imagine,
is what is in your hands.
Amherst – Hove
I’m not sure if the occasional lapses in grammar and punctuation in some of the poems are deliberate, but they too make a small contribution to the overall restiveness of this anthology. In the book’s epigraph, from a Congolese poet, my school teacher’s mentality makes me wonder what a difference a comma after “besides” might make. The word itself can mean either “in addition to” or “apart from”. It crops up again in “Outsiders”:
Piling up besides
And in “Tin Roof”: “an expectation at least / about a future” (my emphasis). English prepositions are a bugger! In “Everyday”, the anxiety of the property owner is made restive by the reader wondering whether the “quails”, “gulps”, and “swallows” should lose their terminal sibilants. The first section of “Cape of Good Hope” is an unremarkable depiction of the subject, prosaic, using only double-spacing as punctuation. The second section, which brings in the persona, is more interesting, but now double-spacing gives way to the occasional, seemingly random punctuation mark. For example, in the first paragraph there’s a comma after “backyard”, but not after “knuckle”, “somewhere” etc.
On rare occasions, dotted about the book, imagery becomes a bit congested:
Till sunset drowns
the air we breathe
the sky we watch
with gobbets of fiery oil (“Everyday”).
The wind politely bends,
quite heedlessly (“Real Estate”).
Fires are borne out of the wind.
The soul of the dead grass stirs,
but has nowhere to run. Stones
congratulate themselves, lulled
by an earth that forgives
only their hardness (“Grass”).
There is an unpredictability about free verse, which also makes its contribution to the collection’s restiveness, nowhere more so than in the very first poem, “A Stammer that Passes for Language”. A complex relationship is portrayed in the shocking conceit of a head-on collision. However, the effect is undermined at the end when the reader is presented with the macabre image of the persona driving home with a severed arm or leg in the passenger seat:
picking through strewn wreckage,
looking for a limb to recognise,
hoping to take it home.
These are just a few minor reservations, nit-picks really, of a superb collection of poems – a significant contribution to the literature of South Africa.