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:

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.

POEMS: Returning Home and On Writing


Returning Home

I put on my small house
like a blanket
or a skin which expands
to make rooms, floors, windows

the space inhabits me with each breath
security in the flow of my blood
between the walls, a kettle placed
on the kitchen tops of my bones


On Writing

I left the strawberries
in a bowl to macerate.
That’s what you do
with strawberries,
macerate them.
Strange word – I always think
it means to chew,
a giant gobbling children
with his macerating jaws.

Actually it just means
I’ve sprinkled castor sugar
on the berries, and now
they sit softening,
and I sit
with my notebook
open in front of me.

I’ve macerated myself for years
in the words of other poets;
before I eat the berries
I must soften, dissolve enough to at least
pick up the pencil,
write some words of my own.

POEM: The Stove


She is old
and grey
yet her warmth
brings us closer in winter
Her hot voice
fills the kitchen
even the pots
love her touch
I was raised by laughter
taught how to walk
in the yellow shoes
of her radiant smile
After the kitchen floor grew
She was the first to move out
She was old
and charcoaled with humility
Now we no longer laugh anymore
and she is a painting
on the walls of my memory

Sound lines


In the blurb to his new collection, Stranger, Grahamstown based poet Sihle Ntuli describes himself as “a soft spoken stranger whose main concerns are blackness, love, morality, and music”. And all of these aspects of his personality are to be found within its pages.

He may be “soft-spoken”, but much of his subject matter is the resolutely hard reality of everyday existence, especially that of the friends, family and acquaintances of his upbringing in the Durban township of KwaMashu:

the sneezing sound
opening           closing
and away their souls go
they get on
they travel to find what they can 

the pavements are made cold
by bodies starved of the city’s pulse
(From ‘kwa mashu f section bus stop’)

This is a world inhabited by “kings and shebeen queens”, where a man accused of a crime “grips the floor for dear life” as a vigilante mob drags him away while “onlookers look on /…/ doing nothing”, and “eyes scream eyes scream and eyes scream”. There is a tough, even brutal, honesty in Ntuli’s treatment of these themes but it is never cased in sensationalism. Indeed, the subtle understatement – even bleakly playful quality – of much of his language adds a power and resonance that angry rant would miss.

Ntuli chooses his words deftly, aware of the cumulative effects of sound and repetition, of assonance and alliteration, as here:

the sun losing colour when it dies
the aggressive night
black blood protrudes
moon blows cold wind on wounds
the heart weighing tons upon tons
(From ‘Friday’)

He delights in the wit of musical puns too, as when (in ‘jazz’) he writes of “davis taking mind miles away / benson takes you back / masakela and the coal train…”

Or here:

scars on the days
without saying
my veins love you
through vein    you’re so vain
you suffocate me
(From ‘poem dropped then duct taped’)

The “stranger” of the book’s title could, of course, be any or all of the numerous characters who appear in the poetry, but the main one – the one for whom the whole collection seems to be a search – is probably the poet himself.

In ‘gospel gold’, for instance, he glances back to the generation before his own and notes, with maybe a hint of sadness, that although in “those days everybody wanted to be a poet /…/ nowadays everybody wants to be a dj”. Yet there is something of his own intelligent voice to be heard throughout, persisting despite life’s inevitable distractions and this is hopeful:

you lose beautiful
you win ugly
the sounds you make
the music you play
i could hear myself thinking
if you let me
(From ‘volume’)

There is both honesty and personal courage expressed in the pages of Stranger. It is never easy to write of private doubts, fears or concerns but when these are approached with sensitivity and a committed love of the best language to articulate them, as well as with meticulous editing, the result can be, as it is here, a genuinely admirable piece of literature.

This is Ntuli’s first poetry collection but I very much hope it will not be his last.

Stranger is published by Aerial Publishing.