POEM: He

BY HOWARD M-BUH

He is from Comfort. From highlife music and Amens.
He is from black.
From the horizon.
From harmattans that cracked lips and left them wounded.
He is from five.
From strident harangues and needles.
The antepenultimate child, stuck in the middle.
He is from leaves; squeezed and cut and ground.
He is from animals and fruits.

He is from soil, dark as his skin.
From stale palm wine and happy old men basking in familiar insobriety.
He is from taxi honks and diurnal streets.
From refuse bins that housed dead rats and rotting everything.
He is from the headiness of hibiscuses. From the humming of the fridge and the flowing of the stream.
He is from old Hip-hop CDs cracking at the edges. From songs his grandmother sang; songs whose meanings he would never know.

He is from old books. From little lettered-tiles of Scrabble.
From gossipy women lounging in kiosks, twisting braids, and tough boys in dirty dungarees.
He is from laughs, so loud they make the throat sore. He is from melancholy.
He is from hues.
He is from ‘you fools’ and ‘I love yous’.

THE READER: Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto is the London-based Head of Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa Economics at Nomura International. His cogent analyses of South Africa’s political economy have made him one of the most widely quoted South Africa-watchers in the media.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I travel a lot I always have at least one book on me though these are invariably non-fiction or work-related. I’m currently reading The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk which I think provides a useful journalist’s view of the development vortex of institutions and ever-shifting policy landscape. I find development economics one of the most bewildering and fraught areas of economics and the book is a reminder of how hard it is to alleviate poverty through direct scalable interventions without getting some simple foundations in place first like institutions and natural markets.

How do you decide what to read next?

Much of what I read I have little choice over – dry budget or policy documents from governments, tomes from central banks of international institutions which can take up a considerable amount of time looking at many different economies. Autobiographies of politicians are always the hardest to deal with and demand to be glanced at but can be dull beyond the titbits picked up in the press. Helen Zille’s book is a prime example which thankfully had an index to remove the need to deal with it cover-to-cover. But I always try and intersperse my reading with fiction from countries I’m dealing with (Francophone Africa is on my list next and especially Diogo) and “hobby” reading (currently about the technicalities of winemaking!).

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I think reading enlightenment thinkers has had the most profound and lasting impact on me. Smith, Locke, Rousseau and then later Hayek etc. as well as their critics. Whilst I’m somewhat towards the libertarian end of spectrum politically now (a place sparsely populated in South African discourse) it’s interesting to see how one’s views shift over time as you read more and see more real-world problems to deal with. The long-term development path for individual countries in Africa is going to be a battle between enabling governments with appropriate redistribution and governments that strangle development and growth. South Africa may find itself on the wrong side of that dividing line versus other places like Ghana or,most exciting, probably Kenya. South Africa needs to find a base of black libertarian voices to steer it in the right direction. For fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst has had the most profound impact on me. The Line of Beauty has pulled me to read straight a number of his other books.

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

Paper still has its uses when travelling and for whatever reason I think I absorb information better and enjoy it more with books versus computer screens which seem too much like work. Having a massive stack of books also makes for a more interesting home and brings back memories of poking around my grandparents’ library of books – floor to ceiling – that they had. I wonder sometimes what people will surround themselves with when they grow old if it isn’t books! Blogs though are increasingly a more important source of information especially around my two favourite hobbies which is collecting SA modern art and SA wine.

What were your favourite books as a child?

It depends how far back you want to go! I always remember a fascination with systems, engineering etc (of the “Little Jonny visits a building site” type!) from an early age. It turns out I ended up studying economic and political systems every day but the roots are the same! I think a fiction serious I read most assiduously was Swallows and Amazons and the issue of self-reliance appealed to me.  

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Daunt Books in London is a treasure trove of appropriate books for presents even for the most discerning reader and the natty totes the bags come in are still an enduring icon for a present to come in. I think the last set of books I got as a present was for my dad who, as a former captain in the merchant navy, is into anything relating to boats or exploration.

The most useless thing you read at university?

Endless books on the underlying theory behind econometrics. Economics should ultimately be a practical social science and learning to derive by hand statistical theories was just too much! Using econometrics to practically analyse the SA economy is a much more hands-on experience.  

Best book on economics you’ve read?

The literature on behavioural economics starting with Richard Thaler (and non-academic books like Nudge) has probably been the most fascinating and relevant I’ve read especially given its use in everything from policy to explaining financial markets after the 2008 crash. It’s an important bridge from the dry theory of micro- and macro-economics to the real world we live in.  This segues into pop economics books like Levitt’s Freakonomics of which most of their explanations of economic phenomena in everyday life come down to behavioural economics.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Reading a lot of dry non-fiction doesn’t necessarily provoke laughs! Private Eye in the UK is normally the most reliable comic antidote to these very serious times we are living through. I suppose the most random book I came across that made me laugh straightaway having found it in a hotel room on a business trip was Carrie Fisher’s autobiography which simply cut through with its candour and honesty to make parts laugh-out-loud funny.  

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

I try to read fiction from the countries I cover to get into the local psyche. Sometimes this works like reading Achebe, Gordimer, Adichie or Coetzee and is useful and insightful. However, this failed spectacularly when I used to deal with Iceland and tried reading Halldór Laxness and came back from one trip there laden down with books. There are now several unopened books on my shelves after failing to get more than a few chapters through the bleakness that is Independent People 

What book do you turn to for advice?

I am a big sceptic of self-help and advice books. They are so often repetitive fluff and it depresses me the number of people reading them on the train every morning. The closet I’ve probably come is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. There are a range of books now coming about the crisis in economics as a profession which are on my reading list which might count as self-help….  

If you could take an author out (dead or alive) who would it be, and where would you take them?

In the South African context it would have to be Nadine Gordimer who always struck – with her quite strength and moral determination – me as someone who I would most want to take out for a nice dinner somewhere with a hushed atmosphere which can sometimes be hard to find in SA! DW11-13 in Joburg is one of my favourite go-to places and would have just the right atmosphere for such a meeting! There is a quiet confidence of purpose to the books she wrote which is captivating.

A book that most aptly sums up the state of the South African nation?

I always find the economic and political books from SA rather depressing. Walking into Exclusive Books I just get confronted with a wall of books that continually seem to say the same things in the same way. They either fall into SA-exceptionalism or are overly simplistic in their characterisation of the issues in SA. This is partly why I’ve resisted calls from people to write a book on SA – it is very hard to cut through prevailing narratives around the situation in SA which are often grossly over simplistic. One book that has stood out has been Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years which cuts through to the underlying currents in the country very well.

The magazines and newspapers you most frequently?

I have to read the entire South African press every day! The most interesting thing I read is probably The Daily Sun which gives an alternative perspective of grittier reality with Tokoloshe stories etc! Whilst I don’t work with The New Age, I think it’s also always worth a read in these times of capture and to know what certain factions are thinking. The most random thing I probably read locally is the SA version of House and Garden which gets physically delivered to London. I really love the SA design scene and it’s also a nice bit of escapism to get the summer edition when it’s the middle of winter in London and is always a spur to book another holiday to SA!

POEMS by Cornelia Rohde

BY CORNELIA ROHDE

Apple, Moon, Fire

Apple and moon are his new words today.
Both round, both as delicious as he is.
One he can hold. One he tries to reach,
lifting his dimpled arm to the night sky.

His eyes land on the headline photo
of a man cycling close to an inferno of flames,
a smokescreen of burning rubber
to defy bomber pilots.

What dat? What doing? he asks.
Fire, I say, to teach him another word.
He doesn’t repeat it. He only insists,
What dat? What doing? over and over again.

I carry him into the California sunshine.
His laughter lights the morning as I push him
on the tire swing his father hung
from a branch of the gnarled pepper tree.

Sirens scream as a small boy
is lifted from Aleppo’s rubble.

What dat? What doing?

 

Taste

Sibongile brings La Foliage’s tony menu,
takes our order for organic beetroot
with hibiscus jelly, smoked cheesecake with garnishes
of sea lettuce and nettle pesto, cauliflower on a bed
of parmesan velouté with crushed chestnut,
Springbok carpaccio with fennel chutney,
naartjie buttermilk dressing, and puffed crackling.
For dessert, fresh strawberries sprinkled with roasted hay,
pistachio, violas, and a scoop of ginger sake ice cream.

He shakes our hands with a smile as we leave.
Off work, he will eat a sheep head roasted golden brown
over hot coals, its lips shrunken into a grin.
He imagines the delicate taste of its eyes,
its chewy ears, the suck and crunch of its bones.

Inhloko isiqokweni: head-on-a-plate. Real food.

BOOK CLUB: Wings of Smoke

CHRISTINE COATES is enthralled by Jim Pascual Agustin’s disturbingly beautiful new collection of poems.

Wings of Smoke

There is something delicate and disturbing about the image of wings of smoke; something light and lovely, almost an apparition, but then the horror of wings actually burning. Jim Pascual Agustin invites ways of seeing like the birds flying in and out of this beautiful collection. The small sparrows (their breath, their wings), the fighting cocks kept under the floorboards of a childhood home, a yellow-billed kite, a seagull, crows, a headless chicken. The feathers of the many birds are both delicate and smouldering, but there are also stones, pebbles to follow, scattered throughout the text; skin, mud, light are all visceral, concrete images. It’s the footless wagtail at the end that breaks one’s heart.

In “Stretching the Fabric”, Agustin gathers what he loves under the canopy of this first section. In “Open Air Cinema in the Rain” he walks with his beloved in Sagada, the Philippines Northern Mountain Province. He telescopes from an intimate moment to the bigger picture; the couple are outdoors and yet the reader is right there with them:

We stretch the fabric
between us, plucking
and dropping seed after seed,
remembering the ridiculous
fear we felt when the sound
of hooves on damp ground
invaded our meandering.

Then he reverses it – inside, the outside becomes part of the intimacy:

Now in your room we laugh
at what forced us to hold
hands together. Outside,
a movie plays to a silent crowd
in the plaza. Lightning
competing with the show,
then a downpour.

The delicacy of the images are like painted watercolours, a haiku within the poem:

then a downpour. Umbrellas
like black mushrooms
sprout on the benches.

In “A View of Crows”, inside and outside are again interchanged, but with heightened anxiety, of not being in control, of someone else determining his fate. The minibus-taxi, a satellite hurtling through space, inside is loaded with shadows – then the moment when the poem takes one’s breath:

Then
you notice them, clear from the fog, framed
by the back window: crows.

The space metaphor occurs again where the speaker’s unborn children are cosmic travellers in the womb; contained and safe. In “Sound of the Sun”, the unborn twins are

nothing but quivering
dots of light that came together
then broke apart over and over
in the watery world of ultrasound.
Floating, no, swimming
in your separate oceans,
each as big as a bowl of rice.

The seeing that comes before words, the poet learns new words to explain the world, finds words through experience to make poetry;

Swaddled, a word I never knew
until I held you.

In “Breath of Sparrows” the poet dreams of Mandela as a tree. He wants to ask the name of the tree, but realises there is no need to know, no need to name anything; the wings of the sparrows and their breath say it all:

The breath of sparrows
like his own. There was no need to name
the tree, no need to name anything
at all at that moment. I bid him thanks
before leaving, my footsteps drowning
in sparrow wings.

The wind moves around branches as words come and go along the lines of poetry. This is the poet as master, showing the reader, not spelling it out.

In “Born and Died, Lived”, a portrait of his grandmother, Agustin explores what he knows and what he needs to know, ways he can never imagine her, ways he does; catching a butterfly in a net, a white flag on a wash line, her wings lace, her back studded with diamonds. The pebbles lead the reader to make sense of the images – mud is associated with love; like the grandmother’s skirt or her skin. In “Unbearable” he draws another intimate portrait, again noting what is said and what is left unsaid, with gentle sensitivity.

“Midnight Bugs” surprises the reader; one thing turns to another as the bugs, crawling up on the outside of a window, become the shells inside on a glass table top. “Bladed Spurs”, a childhood memory, where what is heard and what is not heard, what needs to see, what is being seen is remembered. The boy sees the fighting cocks kept below the wooden floorboards of the house, but they don’t see him. He imagines them hearing the family screams and fights, and yet, when the roosters need to see, when they fight, their line of vision is “improved” by the father:

its comb. “It covers an eye
when it flops down too long,”
he explained, “a handicap
in a fight.” The rooster’s heart
against my hands,
the burning heat of skin
beneath feathers
with a metallic shine.

“The Consequences of Seeing” the loon with a mirror tries to capture light in a jar. Is the poet a fool? No, this poet is a master of capturing light in a jar. Agustin, the artist who sees, looks, “grips everyone’s hearts”; his way of seeing acts as the function of poetry, to make us immune to the sudden darkness:

It made her laugh and fall
in love, immune
to the sudden darkness.

In “shadows the shape of knives”, the poet explores loss; what cuts us, cuts into. In “Ghost Train” he again searches for what is seen and what is not:

the strip where the elastic
of my underwear leaves a fine
texture like ghost train
tracks. Neither of us has seen
a coach derail except in movies.

In “Do Millipedes Bleed?” the harsh glare of the light bulb does not blind the poet. When he looks closely he sees. Seeing saves lives:

Then up close I see
it is hunched over
a drop of water,
drinking. Tiny feelers
waving back and forth
in a gentle rhythm

There is anxiety about travel in Cape Town; danger, blackness, teethmarks on leather, knife-cuts on his journey; even the mountain cuts the sky. Here the centipedes are poisonous. The birds that brought joy earlier are now lost, killed against a mesh fence. He has to bury the francolin; what he sees may bring nightmares.

I cover the hole. Sandy soil seeps
between fine patterns of white and gray
feathers, red claws to scratch
the door in my sleep.

The poet is plagued with insecurities, unseen problems as in “With Hazards On” and “Batibat/Bangungot”, an Ilocano myth of a night demon, or the anxiety of who will take care of his family if he dies without insurance. In “Strands of Moss”, written for a poet friend, he worries about unseen things on which one may slip. Yet the silent moss is also moss that breaks free and the reader marvels at the beauty of the imagery as at the brilliant green.

The section “wings of smoke” is a string of prayer flags; each haiku is beautiful, burning. The first is for Tatay, and the image of mud again conveys a memory of love:

feet heavy with mud
shiny bald moon draped with cloud
my teacher’s laughter

The poet explores getting to know oneself in the dark, having one’s wings clipped. Each haiku a shining white pebble tracing the way through the dark.

The last section, “a blanket over each cage”, is a fabric of another kind; things that are covered up, not spoken, what we won’t see, can’t see. The poet explores the fear and horror of war, the contradictions and disparities of society, his own complicity in killing one of the birds he loves. He expresses his deeply-felt frustration as a poet who, like a headless chicken, is voiceless against super powers. And yet he speaks truth to power. The most poignant moment for this reader is “Sticks for Legs”:

A wagtail flicks its narrow
tail feathers up and down
as it shuffles in jerks
on the bricks, like in early
animated movies in black
and white.

And then one realises the wagtail has no feet/claws:

On sand, it would leave
no more than dots,
navigating an invisible maze
on the ground.

And yet, like a maimed soldier, it survives in midst of danger. Poetry helps this poet survive in dangerous times.

Included under this blanket is “Grandfather Exhales”, a poem of loss. The images of butterfly, skin, petals link back to his grandmother. The white stones lead to hope; the stones and the soft breath, like the breath of sparrows earlier, when Mandela died.

Agustin’s ways of seeing; the delicate balance of life and death, the fine line between light and dark, finding beauty in tragedy, light in a bottle all demonstrate that sometimes the most tragic things provide the artist with beautiful subject matter. Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is a thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

For this reader Agustin is one of the finest poets writing in South Africa today.

Wings of Smoke is published by The Onslaught Press.