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.

EXTRACT: Mzansi Zen

An excerpt from ANTONY OSLER’s new book.

Antony Osler

The news tonight is a recital of collapsing infrastructure, financial mismanagement and violence. It feels as if we are sliding irreversibly towards a precipice. I am overwhelmed by discouragement.

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of things as they are, I can’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of all this? Here is the only thing I know how to do – I get up from my chair, I take a deep breath, and I walk beyond argument into my Zen practice. When I am here, I sit very, very still. Then, without looking for any particular outcome, I let myself down like a plumb line, inch by inch right into the very heart of my discontent.

It is dark in here. Completely dark. I wait. And I wait. I listen – past what the voices are saying, tuning into the voiceless. The words grow softer, less insistent. The blaming subsides. And the fear. Faintly, in the far corners of my ear, a sweet and unnameable singing … slivers of blue sky appear, and possibilities – the healing balm of a wider, more forgiving, view. Once more I inhabit the sacred ground where my connection to the world is restored. From here I can open my eyes. It is true we have bad governance. It is true we have great music. It is true that my heart is beating and that the cat is sleeping in the apricot tree. It is true that the small boy at the corner of the supermarket in town has no shoes. Now I know that I am facing home. And from here the direction is straight forward and right ahead – right into the arms of the world.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! 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 the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

FICTION: Funky House Won’t Save Your Life

BY LAILA LE GUEN

“Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you since eight! Are you OK?”

Joyce’s voice sounded strained on the other end of the line.

“I’m so sorry! I’m on my way. I wasn’t feeling too well this morning but I’ll be there within the next hour.”

Joyce would know what “not feeling too well” meant. She would understand. Though what if she didn’t?

Stop this train of thought. Now. Take a deep breath, don’t let the tears roll out. Deep breath in…and out, just like in the YouTube yoga videos.

 

After the call, Rebecca leaned against the wall in the entrance hall, her palms flat on the cold surface. She looked down at the pointed high heel shoes that were already pinching her toes and distractedly straightened up the pencil skirt she had selected to match with her purple headdress.

She closed her eyes to visualise the journey to All Saints Cathedral, a trick her therapist had suggested at their last session. Exit Ngumo estate, take Mbagathi Way, go straight on at the Kenyatta Hospital roundabout, drive all the way down Valley Road and take a right to enter the church’s parking lot.

Breathe in, breathe out.

It wasn’t working. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest as she pictured horrible images of drive by shootings and falling trees and a chandelier crashing over Joyce’s radiant smile. Great, now she was shaking.

Time to go, shaking or no shaking. She picked up the pastry box from the kitchen counter and rearranged the pink ribbon that had been artfully wrapped around it; that was an image to hold on to. Traffic was dense but nothing unusual for lunchtime on a Saturday. She played an upbeat funky house mix in the car, the kind of music that usually lifted her spirits, but today the mist that was hanging over her head wouldn’t dissolve so easily. The cake was nestled in the passenger seat like an accusatory sign.

It was meant to be her home-baked, personalised wedding gift to Joyce and Patrick. The night before, she had carefully traced the initials J + P in chocolate sauce on top of the perfect vanilla frosting. When she was done, she had cocked her head with a smile of satisfaction. But right now, she had a sinking feeling that something was going to go wrong.

What if Joyce didn’t like the cake and suddenly decided that they couldn’t be friends anymore, that she didn’t need all this inexplicable drama Rebecca always brought into her life?  That would be such a disaster.

Keep your eyes on the road. Eyes on the road!

 

Her internal monologue didn’t let up until after the ceremony, when the emotion of seeing two of her best friends married submerged her. At least her teary eyes weren’t out of place here among the crowd of friends, relatives and colleagues assembled to celebrate the union.

 

The music was blasting in Joyce’s mum’s living room, the reception now in full swing after a heavy meal of lamb pilau and the obligatory series of tedious speeches. Joyce had insisted on having the reception at home in Kilimani, partly to save money, partly to craft an intimate gathering rather than a show of married bliss at some fancy resort.

Rebecca imagined floating in a sea of velvet. She danced furiously to extirpate the destructive thoughts out of her body.

The December holidays were around the corner, which meant facing long weeks of solitary lesson planning for the following semester. She tried to imagine what her students were doing but she had a hard time picturing what their homes looked like or where they might be going during the holidays. Joyce was going to be away in the Seychelles on her honeymoon and Nairobi would be at its quietest.

Everything faded at the end of the year, the litany of “It’s December” ringing in everybody’s ears as a shorthand for “Let’s get away and forget about work until next year”. She should get away too, forget about it all.

 

Over the eight years of their friendship, Rebecca had wondered many times about the nature of her feelings for Joyce. They had once taken a trip to Nakuru together, a “girls’ weekend out” as they called it, and in the spartan hotel room, Rebecca had flashes of what their lives would be like if they were to move in together. As Joyce was tying her headscarf for the night, Rebecca had wanted to stroke her cheek, place her hand in the small of her back and pull her into an embrace. Instead, she made a lame joke about the receptionist’s thick accent.

 

She caught Patrick’s eye at the drinks table. She could see that he was feeling hyper, high on life and a little booze. Joyce was chatting with a group of her mum’s friends, flailing her arms in the air in a familiar gesture of excitement. Maybe she was telling them about their honeymoon plans.

The emotions were threatening to bubble to the surface again so Rebecca went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, staring at her Twitter feed without taking anything in. When she looked up, she saw the nail scissors by the sink. Tuft by tuft, she started cutting her hair in front of the mirror, and it fell down in little bundles on the bathroom floor until half of her head was free.

In a few hours, the house would be silent, emptied of its guests, with the paper plates in the bin and the leftover wine in the fridge the only signs of their passage. And she, Rebecca, would be on her way to a new life.

Taming the mind: Ruby Wax talks to us

WORDS BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
PHOTOGRAPH BY CATHERINE ASHMORE

Ruby Wax has done it all: she’s been a comedian, talk show host, reality TV star, awards evening presenter and actress. And now she’s written a book (her second, actually). Long plagued by depression, Wax decided to learn more about psychology and therapy so that she could become better at understanding her brain, and treating herself.

The more she studied, the sooner she realised she didn’t want to become a psychotherapist. She was, however, inspired to share with the world the insights gained from her master’s degree at Oxford in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. These insights have been distilled the marvellous Sane New World. With gentle humour and a no-nonsense and vivid style, Wax explains how the brain works, why we behave the way we do, and shows how changing our thought processes and behaviour can rewire the brain, liberating us from the destructive power of emotions and recurring thought patterns.

Backed by a growing body of scientific research, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy tackles depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health challenges – but it is of great benefit even to those who don’t suffer from these. Mindfulness draws you into the present, instead of being trapped in the past or worrying about the future. Its techniques soothe anxiety, reduce stress, and improve focus and concentration – helping to achieve a balanced mind, one no longer held hostage by the inner voices and savage self-criticism that can plague us all.

Sane New World is easily digested and wondrously funny — part memoir, part manual to living life in the here-and-now. I chatted with Wax about the book during her recent visit to Cape Town.

What was the hardest part about writing the book?

The neuroscience. Where do you cut it off because it’s so much more complicated? So, it’s deciding how much I could explain, and still get a picture of how it works.

How did you go about doing that – how do you distil what is such a dense subject into something which is accessible?

I don’t know – I wrote probably about everything. And then I started to cut down as to what I thought the public could understand.

So, was the book quite a bit bigger when you were developing it?

Always. I must have written that a 100 times. Hacking, hacking, hacking.

When did you start it?

Two years ago? Probably more.

Where did you write?

Most of it there [in London] but I came here [Cape Town] for a little spurt. I have a house here. I used to have one in De Waterkant; now it’s in Bakoven and it’s pretty sensational. I love this place. I was going to come and write it here renting it but I got the house. That’s all my money, so I hope people buy the book.

When did you first encounter mindfulness as a concept?

I had meditated but I’m not a Buddhist. Then I heard about mindfulness so I was going to try that and cognitive therapy but I was sick of paying for shrinks. So, I thought mindfulness you do on your own – you pay for the eight-week course and it isn’t a rip-off: it’s the real thing. It was so hard but I was so desperate – so I did it.

The book launched really recently. What has the reaction been like to it so far?

It got to number one of the Sunday Times’s Bestseller List and it’s pretty high on Amazon.

It was very interesting how you delve into elements of your own past in sections of the book. How did you go about choosing those experiences, and was it hard to write about the experiences you’ve dealt with?

No, there was a first book I wrote ten years ago called How Do You Want Me and it’s autobiographical but funny – so it was all me. And I was sick of me. But I needed to tell you how I got from thing to thing. I said I don’t want my picture on [the cover of Sane New World]. But I did need to tell you how I got from [where I came from] so I’m “island-hopping”.

Mindfulness is a very positive thing but a lot of what it’s dealing with can be extremely negative – when you think of anxiety and self-criticism etc. And yet there are moments in the book which are hilarious. Do you think humour helps to engage people with a topic like this?

Oh yes, for me. Like Bill Bryson does it. A lot of people can’t do it, and I can’t do what a lot of people can do but I think if they get the joke, they get the concept, it goes in and it stays in. Not many people can do that, but on the other hand I can’t write academically. I can’t remember a fact unless I’m just staring at it.

Which writers do you enjoy reading?

Philip Roth and Saul Bellows; the American writers, mostly.

For you, has mindfulness become easier to practise since you began doing it or is it still the same challenge every day?

Every day it’s a chore because I don’t do it for one minute a day; I have to sit for 20 minutes. It’s always murder.  There are moments when I can feel my breath, then I observe just my thoughts; there’s no right or wrong – it’s just constantly yin yang, you know, they’re pulling, but I can feel that the chemicals go down, just as you can when you work out.

What’s your family’s reaction been to the book?

My son practices mindfulness and he’s now making apps for mental health to do with mindfulness. [But] kids see you as the mother. They say “that’s good”, but nothing is impressive to a kid. A Sane New World by Ruby WaxLike my parents were never proud, I think kids also have that thing – maybe they secretly go “wow”, but I think when blood’s involved, people don’t have the same reactions: they just go “Oh well, that’s what my mom does – she goes to Oxford.”

Sane New World is published by Hodder & Stoughton, R240.

Photograph: Catherine Ashmore