An infinite variety of form: AK Horwitz review

there-are-two-birds-at-my-window copy

There are Two Birds at my Window by Allan Kolski Horwitz, Dye Hard Press, Johannesburg, 2012.

When you scan the title of this volume, you make an important discovery: the personal pronoun is unstressed, and that is the key to appreciating a remarkable poet. The stressed parts are the two birds and the window. The birds symbolise the world and the soul; the window is the threshold, the veil, where art and nature merge. Horwitz is a poet of what Keats called “gusto”, that is a recognition of the necessity of opposites, as binaries (the world) and as paradoxes (the soul).

The first poem, “Mzansi, my Beginning – Mzansi, my End”, alludes to Allen Ginsberg – another Jewish poet a long way from his spiritual home in the desert where you lose yourself to find yourself. It is a lacerating insight into the foibles of South African society as well as a declaration of love for and commitment to the “rainbow” nation. I put “rainbow” in inverted commas because Horwitz’s spectrum is reflected off oil stains on tarred roads and cracked window panes. What I particularly love about this poem is its demotic English:

yo what a mix masala what a grend vibe
jirrah you’re kwaai mzansi
don’t make me skaam
you know I love you too much
kiss and don’t talk

When I think of my pedantic school teacher persona correcting my pupils if they say “with regards to” instead of “with regard to”; or “please may you” instead of “please will you”; or “by all means” instead of “by every means”, this poem reminds me that language is in flux, that usage determines grammar.

The above quotation also gives you an idea of the ambivalence in Horwitz’s attitude to the country of his birth. The poem has an antithetical structure: what he still dislikes about his country; what he continues to love about his country:

you make me babbelas with your mandela mania
your fifa frolics your renaissance that revives the begging bowl…
but hey mzansi
you make me jump at your october jacaranda jozi streets

I doubt if there are “a million Trotskyites” in South Africa, but this poem is worthy of them as it is of all South Africans who are genuinely concerned about the shocking disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

The poem refers specifically to Ginsberg’s “America”, and what makes them different is more interesting than what makes them similar. In Ginsberg's poem, the egotistical “I” is strongly present. Horwitz, as I have already pointed out, almost never – outside his love poems – stresses the personal pronoun. Another difference is that Ginsberg’s attempt at ironical humour, his self-mockery (“When can I go to the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”), doesn’t quite work for me, but Horwitz frequently makes me grin:

but you blast that vuvuzela one more time in my ear
and I’ll moer you

Ginsberg isn’t the only Jew that Horwitz commemorates. There is the holocaust survivor, Roman Frister, the film producer, Woody Allen, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, the great late romantic composer, Gustav Mahler and, possibly, the Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda. The poet’s Jewish heritage gives the book the texture of a palimpsest, with his Jewish narrative as the subtext, most of it partly erased but emerging strongly in places, for example, “Mount Zion”, the Biblical City of David. This poem tells the story of how a Nazi officer forced a Jewish prisoner, a tailor, to sew a shirt for him from parchment: desecrated scrolls of the Torah. But the tailor gets a kind of revenge:

                      the Jew-tailor selects passages that curse
                                  five-thousand year diatribes
                                  cross the desert

The Nazi wears the shirt at a fancy dress party to honour Hitler, unaware that he has been dressed in “abject surrender”. The terrible beauty of this poem is the way it presents past, present and future as a continuum:

King David rides the trains
harp wailing
hair torn tunic soiled with faeces
David rides the trains
sings to the Nazis
and the Nazis proudly wear their Torah shirts

                            as they pull the levers
                            as they pull the pins
                            as they pump in gas and release their dogs

               King David sings
                                         and the psalms
                           robe the Jews in sad pitiful hope
                                                      of an after-life

It is in the Jewish subtext, it seems to me, that we find the bird of the soul, the brown wooden bird that looks a bit like a hornbill – only a bit:

                      for human art
                        follows the forms
                          of cosmic creation
                                             [“Ancient Secrets of Turmoil”]

One of the most soulful poems in the collection is “Dead Sea Vibration” where the poet is lifted:

                      with the sheer whisper
                                                of dove’s blood
                                    in the shaded

The poem ends:

                                  now I feel my head rise again
                                    blood lifting the spirit
                                      making dust hope
                                  and I feel the blessing
                                    am one with the blessing

I know I’m a bit anal when it comes to punctuation – I am an English teacher, after all! – and I tend to see the deliberate omission of commas and full stops as gimmicky; but Horwitz can write poem after poem without so much as a dash – and the sense never falters. It shows how intimately he understands the rhythm of syllables, the locating of lines in a given stanza, and horizontal double-spacing.

The vexed question, what is poetic form, comes now to mind. To my classes of secondary school children I distinguish it from content. This is a necessary simplification, since form, in the Aristotelian sense, can also be defined as essence. Some academics distinguish between fixed form and organic form; some conflate form with voice, others with style. So I’ll put it in inverted commas. There is an almost infinite variety of “forms” in these poems. Consider this, for example:

He welcomes her home
They sit together at the dining room table
They eat together
They cannot speak
They go to bed
                          [“Finding the Right Thing”]

And this:

                      He cannot move
                      He sits in his house and cobwebs grow thick
                      The grass grows thick
                      His lips stiffen with disuse
                      His hands lie fixed at his sides
                      He cannot move in the hole
                                                [“Death and Reality”]
I am reminded of Ladybird Books, reading level 2, for example:
                      The old man plants the seeds
                      He waters the seeds
                      The turnip seeds grow
                      One turnip grows
                      The old man says
                      I want some turnip
                      For dinner
                                  [“The Enormous Turnip”]

The child’s “form” is transposed and trans[“form”]ed by Horwitz. It is the verbal equivalent of Roy Lichtenstein making paintings out of comic book pictures. We could call it Tot Art or Totism!

Horwitz writes a lot more about other people than himself. Notable South Africans include Chris Hani, Steve Biko, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Ingrid Jonker. The poem about Jonker is one of my favourites. It is angry, confused, loving, and deeply sincere, the sincerest elegy that I have read or listened to, for South Africa’s most famous Afrikaans poet. It is entitled “White Horses Flecking Ingrid” (notice the brutal onomatopoeic suggestion) and it reminds us that she has been abused – by men – as much in death as in life.

In his blog, Aryan Kaganof, with the novel in mind, says: “i haven’t yet read a white writer adequate to the task of appropriating the trope of manners to the real situation we live in. this would require an heroic feat of self-(de)construction and i doubt any of us yet have those tools.” Well, I don’t know if Allan Horwitz has written any novels, but I declare that his poetry is adequate to that task. His “form” is guided by the two birds at his window, one of wood, one of stone:

                      the birds at my window sing and sing
                          day and night day and night

                              inside me

Notice: the personal pronoun is unstressed. To paraphrase the great Persian poet, Rumi, Horwitz’s persona has disentangled himself from his selfish self. This has freed him to write about the wretched of the earth with compassion, and the Brett Kebbles of the earth with a mingling of disgust and pity:

I stood there
Almost one in the morning
Early spring
Chill in the air
And saw him slumped in his big Merc
Engine idling
Blood draining out of him

Occasionally he can be vicious, like his characterisation of a supermodel who “wears a pout as long as her legs”, but his viciousness is nearly always mitigated by humour, as in “Comrades in Arms” and “Naming”: “a zero grade dictator gets a country”. Horwitz is never dogmatic, never self-righteous; but he has a strong sense of right and wrong, which is governed by the socialist ideal of material equality for all people. Jesus would approve.

He doesn’t have kind words for heartless bureaucracy. When I started reading “Red Ants” (there is a typo in the fifth stanza, “pour” should be “pore”), I thought the poem would be about soldiers:

The red ants come in the morning
they find the people asleep in their beds
the red ants hammer on the doors

But it turns out that they are local government officials:

and while they work the red ants sing:
pay your rent! pay your lights!
pay everything and we will disappear into the walls

And the bitter ending of “Census”:

standing in front of the enumerators
it was almost like being famous
this being counted as if you counted

What about his love poetry? Here the ego is necessarily quite strongly present, though when he uses the “I” it is usually lower case; or he writes in the third person; or he directs most of the attention to the “you”:

You spun out your threads
Hands arching in the air
Voice jumping from detail to detail
You described old women and old clothes

In general I find the love poetry less absorbing than the social and spiritual poetry. I start looking around for the birds!

Instances where a word or an image haven’t worked for me are very rare. I’ll give just one example. In the poem “Ocean Mother”, the second use of “just”, and the description of sea’s breasts as “wavy”. It makes me think, incongruously, of tassel tossers.

As volumes of poetry go, this is very long, 155 pages, every page a gem. I believe that poetry reviews should always print at least one poem in full so that the reader can get the total experience. So to end, here is one of my favourite poems by this “non-white white” poet. You need light to cast a shadow!



          shadows of branches
                                  how they dance
                        a white curtain

                    dark branches gracing the white
                        charcoal come to play
                      spilling across the milky window
                    behind them


                    tree and window
                      ghost life under lamplight

                  windy night
                              dream shadow dance

                          shows itself
                  branch on white

                  branches of moon brighten
                                   the curtain dance

                  dancing yellowy light
                  before between and past midnight