EXTRACT: Navigate

Three poems from the new collection by KARIN SCHIMKE.
Karin Schimke

ii. not co-opted (From: Praxis – four steps to understanding change)

I give my mouth to no one.
I am the ears of everyone
and of my self. When you
shout, shells tilt. We nod.
We nod, the sea and I. We know.
We know. We lose ourselves in froth.

I will not staunch you.

I listen for a half beat,
a breath, and whisper back
the whispers of the waiting
gales. Pen-ink my voice
and silent so; willed to white,
whitened to bone. And flaccid.

 

Weed

those who are footloose
who roam to the ends
of untethered threads
those with battered bags
and make-do those
whose assertions
to place are brief or twee
those who are home-free:

how were they released?

me, i am planted here, awake
and calcifying. my roots ache.

 

What wedding is this?

This morning the mist-veiled
autumn mountain is all ours.

Leucadendrons’ pink muzzles
line the path like dewy bridesmaids
wearing sparkles. An orb-web spider
reigns from the middle of her wagon wheel
turned chandelier by drops of dew
and tufts of light.

What wedding is this?

In the dark bush, above the mist-slicked
rocks of the dry riverbed, moss grows
in the armpits of trees. Seed confettis the ground.
Older promises sweat from the stream’s vertebra,
and the mountain’s crotch smells like buchu and rooibos.

Oh, honeybush, this is not a wedding.
It’s an ecstasy.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read our review here.

BOOK CLUB: Navigate

LOUIETTA DU TOIT is entranced by Navigate, a dense and shimmering collection of poems by Karin Schimke.

Navigate by Karin Schimke

Karin Schimke’s Navigate sits on my desk for several weeks.  I gather, before having read it, that it is a deeply personal work and I intend to engage with it as devotedly as I imagine it was written. But amidst the incessant pulsing of my city and work life, an ideal bookended period of time to do this, does not arrive.

And then I am at the feet of the Waterberg, lounging on a redbrick stoep constructed by my grandfather almost three decades ago. I am here with my closest family on a celebratory weekend away – it’s my birthday soon.  More than we ourselves are able to, the unassuming landscape of the farm holds our shared history and each moment together offers something of this, interspersed with everyday wonder, affection and little traumas and distress.

As always, we move within the structures of this intimacy a little clumsily, but each with a somewhat refined steering method.

We are, perpetually, either finding each other, or trying to.

Navigate finds me here.

my lips blister, my tongue dries.
atonal winds, weather all wall-eyed.

Schimke’s evocative collection is woven on a number of distinct threads. It is a conscious expedition through roots and heritage and the complex, fluid meaning of home and belonging.  The refuge of nature in all its beauty and simplicity. And the becoming of a self – the poet’s finding, nurturing and placement of her voice – as a writer, a daughter, a woman and a citizen.  The implication that these threads are interwoven and interdependent, is strong:  a recognition which I greatly appreciate and resonate with.

A series of dichotomies, as striking as the natural metaphors Schimke employs throughout, appears – between the metaphysical and the earthly, the personal and the public, the private and the communal, the complex and the staggeringly simple.  The need for togetherness and simultaneously, an ever-present yearning to be separate. Together with these binary notions, a question is posed:  which takes precedence?  The answer I find is far from prescriptive – not one.

Instead, it is suggested that navigation, here so skilfully demonstrated through poetry, inherently requires a well-honed, multi-faceted attention and an ability to adapt.  This calls for a resolve to be acutely present in all conditions and Schimke appears willing to be exactly this – not only at the mercy of the “elements” she is faced with, but very much present within them.  She captures the heart of this process in Cleaning the wound:

the trick is to pull off the plaster
and look the wound in the eye
it’s not as bad as you think it will be
it’s just a doorway
a threshold to sweep
and polish and protect

It calls for what I find to be the most striking quality of Navigate– a down-to-earth-ness. The language of Cleaning the wound is both sincerely painful as well as reverent and nurturing. Rejection never emerges as an option. Only a flow and the willingness to receive it fully, to expand and retract, again and again.  In this way, human experience becomes, like this collection of poems, simultaneously tumultuous and beautiful.

As I am flung about, and taught, and held by Schimke’s dexterous wielding of harsh, methodical memories alongside deeply tender, redolent imagery, I am reassured by the grand coexistence of things which appear at first to be mutually exclusive.  This is the flood of the world.  The poet’s (and my) experience swings from an openness and delight to a shrunken, unanchored state and back, as does her sense of self and voice, her craft and her conviction within it.

The second section of the collection is prefaced by:

and now my mouth is small and hard
and now my tongue’s a fossil
now my lips are bone on bone
my chest’s an empty vessel

and she agonises in Taped Beak:

over and over
christ this chorus bores me
i’m doing whatever the verb
is for litany and grass grows
over my feet     i am that woman
that white that wash that
i am my own thick black
censor lines my hushing
terrorist up-shutter

Aside from the poet herself, the character of her father (the immigrant) is the most consistently present, whether as an explicit, literal subject or employed as a metaphor.  Schimke’s reflections on her father start off as a harsh, almost desperate disconnect, evolving through this exploration into something full and tender.  In parallel, her creative voice awakens, hesitates, expands and settles.  The father figure then becomes a marker on the map: the more foreign and inaccessible he is portrayed to be, the more tumultuous the conditions, the more untethered the poet appears.  But as we are granted a deeper access to and understanding of Schimke’s universe, a spaciousness grows around her father and around the poet herself.

We sweated.  You measured. You planned.
When I shifted my weight, you cursed.
Boredom grew.  I needed to pee.
My hands uncramped themselves.
My mouth excused me.
You shouted.  My fingers swore.
Relief is enough breath for one last stand.
You grabbed me by the hair

Retracing one’s steps also means deepening them.  I know this well.  But I also know and read again here that ultimately, through the process of revisiting and seeing, the old, deep traces of where we come from become less dire, less violent and less separate from where we are, here and now. This is indeed, on every implied level, a navigation from a state of Myopia (the title of the opening poem) to an uncomplicated belonging when the collection closes, intimately – My feet were at home in your lap.

Navigate – a most appropriate title for the narrative arc of this collection – offers neither injunction nor resolution.  Instead, it is an always tender and rarely sentimental telling.  In this telling a process emerges, divided into the four phases of the poet’s personal navigation.  These phases are not clinical, but emerge in the moment to moment unfolding, as do the beautifully crafted poems.  The resultant coherence is gradual and unforced.

Schimke writes her own trajectory amidst the elements, passing through conditions of chaos and turbulence, desolation, a palpable impasse where nothing moves, with eyes shut tight, waiting, and then into something akin to redemption, conjuring up an image of her standing, simply and gently, exactly where she is – in the eye of the proverbial storm.  The introductory verse of the final section signals this pause and arrival:

i knew no goodness till i’d trawled
the sky of his forehead for the bitter stars
and found none

It is a homecoming:  to the deep, safe waters of the other and the self.  And it is in this way that she can lay claim to the contours of her own voice:

I dream in
the alphabet of dance
where consonants
have fur
where vowels bleat
where vague
and precise
are the same
impossible
achievement.

It may be worth considering to what extent one’s response to a literary work stems from a kind of confirmation bias – do we simply read into it what we wish or need to see?  Can we put it down to that old chestnut of the right thing at the right time?

Perhaps it is really a matter of this:  one true thing, at any time.  To me, this is the birthplace of poetry, of art.  It is born in a non-exclusionary exploration, in the artist allowing the force of the flood.

Encouraged, I tug my thoughts back down to earth.  As I read, I try to couch my response in terms as basic and true as the pale cement joining the red bricks, the rarely seen Piet-My-Vrou calling to its mate. It is late autumn and the Limpopo sun is modest now, casting the shadow of a wild olive tree over my hands and across each printed page which I trace and turn.  I am feeling more, wanting more.  I am reminded to open and soften towards my own experience, my people, every moment – so often met with judgement and apprehension.

The voice of the poet is not glorified here – life and art are very much merged, becoming together.

This dense collection is nothing if not heartfelt.  Schimke’s poetry leaves me with a sense of fragmented completeness and in this contradiction, a freedom.  A testament to the myriad elements of what it means to be human, each in their mundane and dramatic, exquisite and distressing way, I close Navigate in the comforting fold of a sentiment expressed by Gustave Flaubert – ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’  Yours and mine.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read three poems from the collection here.

Author photograph by Paul Reeves.

THE EDITOR: On women’s stories

As the aftershocks of #MeToo continue to reverberate around the world, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS reflects on the role of social media and publishing in the sharing of women’s stories.

Alexander Matthews

Days after revelations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually preyed on dozens of women, actress Alyssa Milano invited women to respond with “Me too” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault. Respond they certainly did. According to The Guardian, #MeToo was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours on Twitter while there were more than 12m comments and reactions to the hashtag on Facebook in 24 hours.

The viral campaign not only highlighted the devastating ubiquity of inappropriate – and in many cases downright predatory – behaviour towards women. It also illustrated how social media can be powerful platforms to share stories, giving much-needed oxygen to previously-hidden narratives, and becoming catalysts for listening and support among those affected as well as their friends, families and colleagues.

The sharing of these stories have emboldened many women who – fearing indifference, recrimination or retribution – had remained silent until now. New allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled against a number of MPs and ministers in the UK, for example.

As I followed the aftershocks of #MeToo reverberating around the world, I started thinking about home. South Africa has a long, inglorious history of silencing and marginalising women. Sexual violence remains rampant, with many perpetrators going unpunished.

While fiction, memoir and poetry don’t have the power to stop the violence or destroy a patriarchy that cuts across race, class and culture, these modes of storytelling can, however, inspire change and connection and facilitate catharsis, healing and solidarity.

Recognising this, in 2015 radio presenter Nancy Richards established a dedicated Women’s Library in Cape Town through the NGO she founded, Women’s Zone. In addition to more than 1000 books (everything from self-help to fiction), the space at Artscape hosts panels, launches and workshops.

Richards says, “Not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.”

A decade ago, Colleen Higgs bravely launched a woman-focused publishing press. Since then, Modjaji Books has published 16 short story collections, 21 novels, and 41 books of poetry – ushering new voices into the public consciousness – often books that mainstream publishers have deemed too risky to take on.

Encouragingly, those mainstream publishers appear to have increasingly diverse lists. Some of the most buzzed-about books of the year were by women writers of colour – and dealt with gender issues head-on. I’m thinking of the memoirs by writer/activist Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and outspoken feminist academic Pumla Dineo Gqola (Reflecting Rogue). I’m thinking of Kwezi, Redi Tlhabi’s heartbreaking account of the woman who accused our president of raping her. And I’m thinking of Business Day journalist Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times.

New Times is about a female journalist in Cape Town at the dawn of our democracy. When Rossouw was asked at her recent launch why she had chosen fiction to explore this epoch instead of memoir (after all, she was a journalist in the same place at the same time) she said: “The stories we don’t write are always more interesting than the ones we do.”

She explained that – paradoxically – writing fiction gave her the freedom to write the truth.

The risks of speaking out remain too great for some women, particularly when their abusers marshal considerable power and influence (as they often tend to). I was reminded of this when I discovered that a friend of mine had walked out of her high-powered job at a major brand because she could no longer bear being sexually harassed by her boss. She was advised to sign the nondisclosure agreement and accept the hush money she was offered – because her lawyer assured her that the company’s all-powerful legal department would crush her if she didn’t. She could see what lay ahead – an exhausting lengthy legal battle, her reputation shattered, with scant support from those in her industry with whom a relationship with this brand is more important than sticking up for what is right.

One day I hope she writes a novel about it. Because we need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: that in the age of equal rights, misogyny is alive and well. It might be more sophisticated and less obvious – but through bullying, manipulation, cover-ups and collusion – it is rife. Shining a light on it won’t make it disappear, but it will contribute to the groundswell of desperately needed change, as we work towards building a truly non-sexist society.

Visit www.womanzonect.com to find out more about the Women’s Library Cape Town.

This column first appeared in WANTED magazine.

REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.