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.

POEMS by SS Dheda

Deadly Companion

Often my mind and I discuss you.
How time would be endless if you were not there,
how I would be different if you did not stealthily enter
through the backdoor of my hustled thoughts
and hide behind the curtains of my flaws,
or if you had not totally burnt through
all my other traits and remained like the sole
firefly buzzing through a night sky
of dark thoughts.

Concentrating on your being when I am in
solitude and amidst the clobbering clownish crowds,
I find that you alone are my philosopher,
my friend, my enemy, my companion, my problem,
my strength; my weakness.

Demolishing all bonds that tie me,
creating invisible impenetrable boundaries
around me, I am caged- in here- in
this dark, endless infinite room with you;
as simply as a prisoner and a timid constantly
dripping tap.

 

Old Things

I tried new things
but the carcass of the old things
took up too
much space

REVIEW: Salt

CHRISTINE COATES reviews the new collection by Louella Sullivan.

Salt by Louella Sullivan

A slight volume at just 35 pages, Salt is a delicately woven account of pregnancy and birth. Louella Sullivan’s poems are honed to their elemental value – each one a grain of salt. Giving birth is universal; we are all born, many women have given birth, and yet this journey is profoundly intimate. The image of salt is used throughout – salt of the sea, salt of tears, the saltiness of uterine waters, the embryonic sea.

Birth is regarded as both an inner and an outer journey; it is a journey to selfhood, a separation, when the child lives “beyond her fingertips”. The mother sees herself as a pilgrim on this journey. And ultimately, as the poet Cecil Day-Lewis noted, a letting go:

Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

Sullivan describes birth as transformational, a rite of passage, a threshold to cross, transmuting from one state to another. The poet embarks on the journey consciously, willing the conception –

After I lie still, my hips tilted upward in prayer
Willing you across the threshold
You are eager to be born
I am impatient to meet you.

Yet the path to motherhood leads a woman very close to death. Once pregnant the poet experiences herself being underwater, being unconscious, turning inwards, merging, there is a blurring of boundaries. This identification with the foetus and then child is carried through the poems;

I look away
Hold my breath in
So she can
Breathe instead.

Sullivan employs images of creation, of the earth and the universe; the foetus is floating in its own cosmos, in its own world of water. Birth is compared to the geological upheaval of earth at its birth, the fire and blood of creation. Yet pregnancy is also mythological; the pregnant mother is linked to the sacred goddess, to fertility deities. But having given birth, she experiences the goddess being thrown back to earth.

When she forges her way out
In blood and fire
I pass onto her
what remains of me
then fall
like a goddess flung to earth
suddenly mortal.

Woven throughout are the feminine images of sewing, of threading, knitting and spinning. In Feeding time, the image of threads conveys becoming undone and being stitched together again:

Her kneading fingers
knit the threads
frayed from the day
and with her lips
she stitches them lushly
back to my heart.

The pregnant body and the baby within are described as continents that collide and separate, a body with a surface of ridges and furrows that will one day tell its own story:

One day when these scars
(and my hair) are silver soft
I will run my fingers across them
looking for the places where you are still part of me.

The body is both receptacle for the foetus and a surface for writing on, where stories are written and told. I love how the body also becomes a receptacle for language, how the body becomes the narrative and the narrative the body.

Instead I say: I grew you
in there y’know
– him too –
Her silent fingers
on my white scars
I know mommy and these are the stories we told you.

Salt is published by Aerial Publishing. Read four of Sullivan’s poems, published by AERODROME, here.