REFLEXIONS: READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE
Poetry’s eye loupe: A way to leap home
Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period. What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online? In this series, Reflexions: Reading in the Present Tense, established and younger writers and other creative artists will reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Henk Rossouw who considers the poetry collection Transcontinental Delay by Simon van Schalkwyk.
If not for the pandemic, I would be rereading Simon van Schalkwyk’s Transcontinental Delay on a plane going back to South Africa. The book’s evocative cover, of a rain-streaked window looking onto a plane wing jutting out into the high clouds, reminds me of the strange and lovely moment, last time I flew home, when a choir stood up in the aisles just before the descent to Cape Town and sang acapella. Unable to travel since March last year, stuck in the United States where I teach for a living, I have turned to Transcontinental Delay. This book transports me. With the restless music of its lines and fresh imagery – “Meanwhile, the ocean / ducks and falls like a penguin” – Van Schalkwyk’s debut collection has renewed my pleasure in reading, in the conversation between silence, memory and place that his poetry offers, at a time when many other books I have only half-read have done nothing to assuage the social isolation of lockdown.
I first came across van Schalkwyk’s incandescent poems by chance. He emailed me last October to ask permission to reuse a few phrases from a newspaper feature I had published years ago about Pippa Skotnes’ exhibition Curiosity CLXXV in a poem of the same title he hoped to include in his forthcoming book. He sent me the poem. I was struck by its daring.
At first, the poem is an ekphrasis of the objects accumulated over 175 years of UCT’s history and curated in the Skotnes exhibition, curious objects such as “a stiletto shoe with a bit of skull / stuck to the sharp heel” and “a whale’s ear.” Then, as the poem ends, it suddenly moves “[e]lsewhere,” shifting to “the contents of a rudimentary hunting lodge” that “waits in a museum in Tromsø,” in Norway, with “23 blue foxes, 36 reindeer, and 22 polar bears, / the heads of hunted nomads cast in plaster.” The poem’s last words have an ironic tone: “Recovered treasures.” Without having to spell it out, the poem links the colonial thinking behind the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities that was all the rage in sixteenth century Europe, to the destruction of the natural world in our time.
In the leap at the end, Van Schalkwyk’s poem startled me into pleasure – exactly what I needed in my pandemic-induced torpor, after months of hardly leaving my flat in the US. I emailed van Schalkwyk back to say how much I admired his writing, and began to read as many of his poems as I could find. New Contrast had published his poem “Seawall” last winter, as the first wave of Covid-19 escalated. The poem speaks of “a threnody of tides and traffic, cargo” near the sea wall, and of missing “city walking /… monoxide, crowds, the flower seller’s booth”. (I miss walking in Cape Town, too). In The Johannesburg Review of Books I discovered “Cast,” a poem rooted in an early memory of fishing on the Atlantic coast that lets its unforgettable imagery unfurl in rhythmic language. It’s worth quoting the poem’s opening lines:
The narrow path is grazed with sand-swept grass,
sun-bleached driftwood, camel-thorn, parched aloe.
Hissing melkbos deadens as they pass
palindromes of spoor where nothing follows.
Like many of van Schalkwyk’s poems in Transcontinental Delay, which head into the Cape Fold mountains or go on long hikes in Wales and Bolivia, “Cast” begins with the rhythms of walking. The first line opens with the iambic rhythms of Wordsworth strolling the Lake District, but then suddenly shifts at the line’s end into the trochaic emphasis of “sand-swept grass.” The lines capture what it’s like to walk with poetic attention, where your eye flits from object to object, settling for a moment on “sand-swept grass,” before moving onto “driftwood, camel-thorn, parched aloe,” all the while accompanied by the rhythm of your feet. Rereading “Cast,” a sign of delight, I am still impressed by “palindromes of spoor,” as it condenses into just three words the way that spoor are almost like a language, script left behind by an animal in the sand.
“Cast” amazes me with its music; as a reader, I feel like “a guitarfish, gasping on feldspar”. Then the poem builds up to an unsettling sense of complicity, when “[a] man hauls in a small, pale-bellied shark … and then brings down / the denticled body hard against the shale”. Among the onlookers, “the distant boy who walked away,” who becomes the poem’s speaker as an adult, still “pays witness to the murder” of the shark. Soon after, when I first read through Transcontinental Delay, I realise that in the book’s arrangement the next poem after “Cast”, titled “A Question for the South Atlantic Ocean”, also ends on a note of complicity and witness:
Somewhere in town, colonial statues
disclose their laundry of shadows.
Across the square,
the window-blinds are drawn.
The shadows of the statues disclose colonialism’s dirty laundry: I recognise this metaphor’s power. The last two lines, then, become the question of the poem’s title: Who, behind the drawn window-blinds, is refusing to look at the “laundry of shadows”? To his credit, the political questions that van Schalkwyk asks are subtle. This gives me, as the reader, more space to ask the questions for – and of – myself. By placing “Cast” and “A Question for the South Atlantic Ocean” side by side in his book, Van Schalkwyk opens up a conversation between the two poems, not only for their ocean imagery but also for their questions about violence. Does turning away from the murder of an animal implicate oneself? Why a town’s refusal to see its shadows?
One of the unique things about lyric poetry is that each poem in a collection exists on its own as an individual experience of art. At the same time a book as a whole brings these experiences together: the arrangement of the poems becomes an art form, too. With Transcontinental Delay, the pleasure multiplies. I read each poem for its own sake, lingering for a time on a page or two, and then also get to read the poems horizontally, in conversation with each other, as with “Cast” and “A Question for the South Atlantic Ocean”. For that reason, I see why van Schalkwyk has the book’s first poem, “Inner Workings,” stand outside the four main sections, which are titled by place and the passage of time: “South (the Cape) (1977-2001),” “West Country (2002-2004),” “South, Again (a Deadzone) (2005-2014),” and “Floating Points (2014-2020).” As if standing outside the narrative created by these section titles, of a restless speaker leaving South Africa and coming back, the first poem “Inner Workings,” becomes a lens or eye loupe for all the poems that follow.
“Inner Workings” unfolds somewhere at the edges of Cape Town, at a “place of scrap, / of bits and parts,” where Lyle repairs watches and his friend Bob “would set some Holden panel van’s heart / to beating, with pliers, wrench, and oil.” The poem invites you to consider “the anatomy of clocks, their inner workings, / the gears that made them tick” that the speaker’s grandfather Lyle studies like “some high priest of time”. Faced with “the disappearing world of their garage,” the speaker of “Inner Workings” at first refuses to let go of Bob and Lyle. In their world “even the dust motes / had weight, reliable substance, gravity,” and he must resist their erasure from memory. This is deeply moving. Van Schalkwyk trusts the reader to find the emotion in the poem’s imagery, rather than instructing me what to feel – the mistake of much poetry I’ve read.
When the speaker peers through Lyle’s “old eye loupe,” long after his grandfather’s death, he still sees in his mind’s eye the “worn teeth of wheels and tourbillons, / escapements, complications” of the watches that Lyle fixed. Van Schalkwyk’s diction is precise and beautiful: a tourbillon, which means “whirlwind” in French, is a rotating mechanism that counters the effects of gravity when the watch is stuck in position. The poem itself is like a tourbillon, gradually moving the speaker from the gravity of his loss into seeing that Lyle’s presence gave him the emotional mechanisms, the “inner workings,” in order to write poems. With the poem’s beautifully ambiguous title in mind, I think of William Carlos Williams’s statement that a poem is “a small (or large) machine made of words”. And so, with the complications of the speaker’s feelings revealed by the eye loupe of the inward gaze, the watches and clocks of “Inner Workings” become a subtle metaphor for the inner workings of this poem – and of the book as a whole.
Movement unifies Transcontinental Delay, from the tiniest “escapements” inside a watch, to the sudden shift to the ecological at the end of “Curiosity CLXXV”, through to the travels in other countries that take place later in the book. Even on a sentence level, Van Schalkwyk’s metaphors transport me with their leaps. This is apt: “metaphor” stems from the Greek word, metapherein, which means “to transfer”. The “bright wheels and cogs” of the clock parts in “Inner Workings,” for instance, were “[s]pread carefully across the dark matter / of folded velvet” as if “space junk, defunct satellites, / mere debris.” That leap from the small to the vast, from the velvet to the solar system, repeats on a different scale, from inward to outward, in the very next line of the poem: “Some way away, / at their bare junkyard’s edge, / a spooked mare bolted through an open field.” There are many such breathtaking instances in van Schalkwyk’s stunning debut.
Over the last few months, as I wait and wait for it to become possible to fly back to South Africa, reading Transcontinental Delay has been like leaping home. DM/MC/ML
Henk Rossouw is an assistant professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, in the United States, where he co-directs the Creative Writing Programme. Xamissa, his book-length poem on Cape Town, was published by Fordham University Press in 2018. The African Poetry Book Fund included his chapbook The Water Archives in their 2018 box set New-Generation African Poets: Tano. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, New Coin, and Boston Review, among other places. He grew up in Cape Town and studied at Wits University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Houston.
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