WORK/Life: Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog by Antonia Steyn

Antjie Krog is the author of the Alan Paton Award-winning Country of My Skull and A Change of Tongue. Her first poetry collection, Dogter van Jefta, was published when she was aged 18; other collections include Mede-wete / Synapse and The Stars say ‘tsau’. The English edition of Lady Anne, a collection first released in Afrikaans in 1989, was recently published by Human & Rousseau in collaboration with Bucknell University Press.

Krog has been an extraordinary Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape since 2004.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing, for me, means to attempt to say the unsayable.

Which books changed your life?

I don’t read books that do not change my life. I expect of every novel or poetry volume to shift something in me so that I am a different person by the end of it.

Your favourite fictional character?

Petrus in Disgrace and maybe a real character such as Teboho Raboko who shouts in his Sefela: “Hail you, fire-speckled giraffe, Hail you quinea fowl, with water tearing upwards from your head.” And in Afrikaans, a character by Eugene Marais: My vaal sussie Gampta, “al wat ek in die wêreld het, buiten my ou ouma.”

What are you working on at the moment?

I try to return to poems. Just single individual and not-thought-about poems.

Describe your workspace.

I write poetry, or the beginning of poems on my bed. They are reworked on paper until they move to the computer. I only got a “study” with a surface exclusively for a laptop and dictionaries when I was around 47-years-old.

The most important instrument you use?

Pencil. Sharp. HB. A4 paper and a Pelikan rubber. That’s for poetry. For non-fiction: laptop and a good chair.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Half-past-four in the morning, for non-fiction. Poetry is like a big shit. It comes when it wants. If you squeeze it back, it will be hard and dry. So you must have “endless” time…

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I once read that a writer’s block has to do with ego, so I work on the ego.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

To sit down. To lift the pencil over the white empty page. To allow it to be a fishingrod lined into the unconscious, touching and lifting out shimmering fishes from below, fitted out to say what you try to say. The hardest thing about being a poet is that you don’t know when it will leave you – just one morning, and it’s gone, that heard-voice coming from you don’t know where. Gone. And as far as I can make out: it never returns.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

I have no advice for younger poets in this technological age – coming from a time where the poem was what mattered, not the poet, her looks, her recipes, her relaxation methods, her self-doubt, his marriages, his Facebook page, agent or public utterances. That is why I didn’t answer some of your questions, those that I thought: jesus, what the fuck?

[Editor’s note: Those questions unanswered included “What do you dislike most about yourself?, “What are you afraid of?”, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?” and “How do you relax?”]

Lady Anne is published by Human & Rousseau.

Author photograph by Antonia Steyn.

What the words know

BY SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK

How many voices are there in Antjie Krog’s Synapse (2015)? It’s difficult to tell. Aside from the shadow-voice of Karen Press, her current translator, it is also possible to discern the faint vocal traces of former translators Catherine du Toit and Ryk Hattingh, the translated and re-translated voices of poets such Martin Versfeld, //Kabbo and Celan, and pastiche or collage-like snatches, snippets, cuttings and clippings of phrases, images, extracts and exclamations by a host of other poets, novelists, theorists and cultural commentators.

This does not undermine the idea of poetic “voice”. Rather, it should alert us to the way that Krog engages with the possibilities and pitfalls of what might be called a poetics of polyvocality and, perhaps more pointedly, with the question of how any kind of voice might emerge from the history of voices by which it has been conditioned.

The impress of history is everywhere apparent in this collection. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Synapse opens with a poetic sequence in which a speaker – most likely the poetic figuration of Krog herself – considers the entanglements between her genealogical roots and her country’s legacy of colonial and racial trauma.

The voice in this sequence seems, perhaps unsurprisingly, timid and uncertain of its place in the world. As she observes the burial of the patriarch, the speaker notices the mood of “offspring [who] stand where we feel we don’t belong/sustained by natal ground in which we have bloomed/for generations”. Yet this uncertainty is hedged by the almost metaphysical fatigue of those who have inherited not only land but also the guilty burden of their complicity in historical atrocity. There is, in the speaker’s acknowledgement that “a sighing thing pours from us from our Afrikaner/conscience our languages our whiteness/ apprehensive bold a resigned dilapidation” a weariness that implies a willingness, at last, to wash one’s hands of heritage—to shuck, like a second skin, all commitments, obligations and connections to land, history, culture and language.

Krog does not seem willing to allow this to happen. In the course of her opening sequence, and in the volume more generally, she will revisit, frequently with bitter and resentful irony, key moments in the almanac of her memory. She will remind us that her entailment to land originated when Paul Johannes Delport “spread out/the gold coins/in payment for the farm” but she will undermine the legality of such ancestral claims by acknowledging that he also acceded to the role of “Baas” once he had “signed the purchase contract”. She will nevertheless reflect on the volubility of her love for land and landscape, marveling at how place “could always snap my skeleton into language/coil me into voices”. At the same time, however, she will concede that the land’s fructifying potential lasts only “until a flamescorch of longing slashes it to neverstubble”. In “like before”, she recalls “a vignette / at the big dining room table of an intimate accord” where “without fuss I slip into my usual place and the word//privilege doesn’t once occur to me” before subjecting those who might have enabled her own childish ignorance to a rebuke of startling and syntactically convulsive apoplexy:

I once walked out as your child, your white beneficiary child
Across the yard’s wide expanse of lies because look
A host was under our heel a world
That bled: I carry with you that which now breaks
through a hedge of blood and vengeance

For Krog, then, the prospect of turning away from or surrendering one’s obligations to the past is deeply undesirable, even unethical. She seems intent, instead, on subjecting her own personal history and memories to revisionary interrogations designed to extract confessions about the lineaments of the historical atrocity that has been committed and, consequently, to identify more clearly her own complicity therein.

In doing so, Krog acknowledges the presence of a burdensome historical legacy in her own contemporary moment. As poems devoted to youthful relatives suggest, she also appears to insist on its continuance into the future. Even as she celebrates her love for a newborn nephew in “junior”, and even if she imagines that he might “share his sandwiches/with black friends and learn how thinly white alone rattles”, she remains “aware that [she is] discriminating –/why will he escape the deluge of hatred that’s heading his way?” Similarly, while she remains proud of a niece who always does her best – “her absolutely / bestest best” – she undermines the meritocratic impulse of narratives that cajole children into believing that they are exceptional by adding the bitter proviso that “doing your best will make you / unhappy for with this for the rest of your life”.

Is it historical injustice that prompts Krog’s guilt? Is it guilt that obliges her to subject even her closest relatives to such stern rebuke? Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) Krog does not reserve judgment for her own kin. Following Martin Versfeld’s observation that “The world as food is the world humanized”, Krog reminds us (didactically) that “feeding people is a moral deed//a resurrection.” Yet if she is struck by the idea that sharing food with family is an uncommon privilege, she proceeds to suggest that guilt-ridden acknowledgment of such privilege is not enough, that “resurrection begins with the bread and the butter/and the man at the open door’s mouth of a shared world.”

Yet Krog also seems pessimistic about the possibility of attaining such a “shared world”. In “The Bushman”, for instance, she reminds us of the curiously intimate kinship between landowner and serf, and their mutual culpability in violence meted out against landless others “too wild to rehabilitate”. From her clandestine vantage point “in the mulberry tree” the speaker here recalls how her ears were “paralysed” by the sounds of “a scuffle dull thuds on cement   orders/finally flesh lashes and a cry” before “Pa says don’t set/foot on my farm again”.

Krog is well aware of the links between violence and property and she knows, too, that the violence directed at the bushman’s body is augmented by the language used to consign him, implicitly to the category of “animal”. It makes a certain kind of sense, therefore, that she should direct her argument (and her agony) against a linguistic legacy—the “jawbone of hate” that remains intimately tied to what she calls a “syntax smeared with old blood”. Though everywhere apparent in Krog’s work, this argument is clearly displayed in poems wiling to introduce, without interpretive parsing, languages that lie outside the dominant ambit of English or Afrikaans (“servants [sic.] talk” , “the snail as chimera on the sleeping subaltern cheek”). Any possibility of a “shared world”, these poems imply, depends less on polyvocal or multilingual aptitude, nor even upon hybridized or creolized forms of speech, but on a willingness to allow other linguistic worlds to share the white space of the page.

Krog suspects the fissures that this prospect of shared linguistic living might produce. Citing Gayatri Spivak’s suggestion that “radical alterity – the wholly other – must be thought through imagining” she recognises that “the founding gap in all act or talk” might well be insurmountable. Krog’s “ESSAY ABSTRACTS re: Synapse” nevertheless hopes that translation, as both the “extension and radical precondition of comprehension”, might emancipate us from ghettos of “maimed and disfigured syntax.”

Translation, a technique closely associated with forms of linguistic and cultural violence, seems fundamental to Krog’s poetics. It is helpful, then, that Karen Press foregrounds the collaborative rather than the violent provenance of the her task in a translator’s note at the end of the volume. “The poems in this collection” she explains, “are the products of an intricate conversation between poet and translator, conducted through drafts, queries, suggestions, revisions, requests, new suggestions”.

Press’s postscript is a welcome addition to a volume that, as its Afrikaans title suggests, is centrally concerned with Mede-weteor “co-knowing”. A similar desire for “co-knowing” might be found buried within the etymological depths of the collection’s English title: Synapse may be traced back to the Greek σύναψις , meaning connection, junction, (σύν syn- prefix + ἅψις joining, < ἅπτειν to join) and, in its now obsolete form, it was a genitive noun meaning, simply, “connection”.

Whether Krog succeeds in forging such connections remains open to debate. Her contest with language culminates in a severe interrogation of the communicative and formal conditions of poetic language itself. The arresting visual patterns of poems such as “innerforce”, “inventory of my poetic bankruptcy”, and “Memory” attest to her attempt to sculpt, mold or, perhaps, to violently hammer the disfigured syntax of language into some kind of shape. Krog’s interest in the possibilities of poetic shape links her work to avant-gardist traditions of surrealist and, more pertinently, concrete poetry. The argument, for these precursors as for Krog herself, is that language is not a transparent medium of communication, nor is it the repository for “meaning”. Instead, by foregrounding the materiality of the medium quality Krog hopes to “assume a total responsibility before language”.

Regarded as an artificial material, language becomes an object to be broken up, recombined, moulded, hammered, bent, shaped or smashed together like willfully discrete atoms in the in the Large Hadron collider of Krog’s will. Unlike the atom-smashers at CERN, however, she continues to hold out hope of finding some unifying “God-particle”. Until she does, we will probably

keep poring over the grain of gurgling dove choirs
myopically deknow(ny)ing that our slimefleshed lives want hearts
the colour of universe devotion –

Whether this means that “(we ought to be exterminated/as sensedeprived hatewithering greedshitting boxes of/willing fuckals)” is another matter entirely.

Synapse is published by Human & Rousseau.

Lights up in sound

BY SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK

Local audiences familiar with the poetry of Antjie Krog may experience a sense of déjà vu when reading Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems. The volume reprints, with occasional revisions, a number of poems originally collected in 2000’s Down To My Last Skin. The reason is simple: Skinned is the first of Krog’s poetic works to be launched in the USA, and the volume is intended to introduce a significant body of poetry to a new, trans-Atlantic, audience.

The thematically-driven arrangement of Skinned foregrounds Krog’s long-standing commitments to subjects such as familial intimacy, South Africa’s colonial and contemporary history, and the body. Additionally, as the welcome inclusion of poems derived from /Xam narratives, praise poems, and griot songs from across the African continent attest, the volume also showcases her more recent interest in the pitfalls and possibilities of translation.

The shadow of translation arguably falls across all of Krog’s work. In the prefatory note to Down to My Last Skin, she admitted that she felt “alienated from the translations” of her poems into English, even as she “longed to interact as a poet with South Africans who do not read Afrikaans.” Skinned demonstrates Krog’s willingness to engage with the ambivalent impulse that drives her work into the zone of translation. At the same time, however, her attraction to the translated (and the occasionally untranslatable) word might equally imply that she has never been entirely comfortable in any language.

This may account for the unsettled and unsettling nature of her voice. Krog’s poems are characterised by a devotion to the closely observed, intimate, frequently harrowing confessional detail, as much as by their suspicion of language’s ability to bear the substantial, and seemingly obligatory, weight of authenticity demanded by the codes of poetic witness or testimony. It is for this reason, perhaps, that she sometimes yearns “for that precise moment in which / a poetic line lights up in sound // when the meaning of a word yields, slips / and then surrenders into tone.”

Skinned cements Krog’s local legacy even as it introduces international audiences to a uniquely South African poetic voice. Umuzi’s handsomely produced edition is a welcome addition to a formidable body of work.

Skinned is published by Umuzi, R190, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK teaches in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems by Antjie Krog. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.

EXTRACT: Skinned by Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog
Photo © Karina Turok

every day I treat you as if you were mine

after an eighteenth-century engraving of Table Mountain*

We know that when one crosses the equator everything becomes
Wilderness: white becomes black, good becomes bad, culture becomes
A kind of barbarism in which nothing has a name:
Women throw a tit over the shoulder
Cannibals, winged lions, vulvas hanging down to the knees
One-eyed people bark and snakes stand upright in the trees.
Nobody will ever believe our relief when, one morning, we saw this
Table—something simply so miraculously ordinary in the wilderness
—something so civilised one at last could pin a memory there.
That’s why, when we named it, we didn’t honour any
God or king, but simply threw a big party on the
Southern tip and baptised it ‘Table Mountain’.
Now, listen carefully: because I had named you, I let you
Rise somewhat higher in my engraving—up—like a real
Table. So that with you as backdrop we could throw our arms
Northward, we could stylize your skyline against the wilderness
And, as famous logo, send you home, yes—we learnt
Quickly how the crumbs fall from international tables.
I draw your tabletop neatly—nothing will hang skew.
To the side of the bay I put those who we say call themselves Hottentots.
They eat raw intestines and look! to have his cow give milk, this man
blows into her bloody cunt. One has to know one’s bearings here, or what am
I talking about? To turn you into legend against the wilderness
I pull you slightly more to the front—that’s it, your feet close to shore.
Windeberg and Leeukop, a formal request—please throw your arms open
As if to embrace. To me it looks, and forgive me if I overestimate
Your reaching out, as if you and this continent have groaneth and
Travaileth in pain until you could be delivered into glorious liberty
By the children of God. Every piece of property I number and name
As they rise stepwise against your slopes—say what you want
But we did bring so much order to this place that on my engraving
I can add cultivated gardens blooming in the wilderness. And while
I’m at it, let me show the church somewhat larger in scale. Next to the jetty
There, let’s have the gallows—you never know, you know—this bay
Hangs full of heavily laden ships anchoring at this Place of Name.
For colour I plant two flags flying over order against the chaos.
(Whatever this engraving adds, whatever it leaves out, however wide
One casts the eye or carefully names—the mountain was the forerunner
Of how apartheid and forgiveness were applied against a continent’s clamour)

'prospect of the cape of good hope' plate 199. No. 114. Vol 2 p. 404.Collection of the Iziko museum
*’prospect of the cape of good hope’ plate 199. No. 114. Vol 2 p. 404. Collection of the Iziko museum.

*

litany

here along the long white shadow
where I thought where I thought I’d leave the litany of locust
of locust and death I’ll always hear the litany of sound
here along the long white shadow
where I grab lustre grab honour that once was lustre and white
the truth I’ve heard and how to molest it
that I travel I travel along the corn or chaff of my past
that my past crawls forth on its deadly knees without once looking up
that I claw on my knees claw to that place
that light place that does not want to dim
here along the long white shadow of mortal and molested truth
we buried many we buried without shroud or ritual
many we buried and from the graves it sprouts
the shadow sprouts of lustre, burdock and wheat the locusts of sound
here along the long white shadow
and my past sits so well in its teeth all along
its teeth sit well in the shadow of sulphur and lime it’s time
the time of assassin and shame and tin
I keep slipping slipping out of truth
while next to me along the long white shadow walks the shudder
that I was walks the long white shudder of ash
set me I who keep slipping in the long white shadow
out of time out of random and lies I want slipping from the shudder
along the emptiness of litany and shadow
set me set me from revenge and loss
from ruin set me from the long white scar the lichen and ash set me
free into remorse oh my hand my hand grabs the sheet like a throat

(written in 1996 during the first Truth and Reconciliation hearings and published in Country of My Skull, 1998)

*

Extracted from Skinnedpublished by Umuzi, R190. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems by Antjie Krog. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.