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‘What is a voice?’ Lamentation and elegy in conditi...

Maverick Citizen


‘What is a voice?’ Lamentation and elegy in conditions of crisis

‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich, Penguin Modern Classics 2016 Translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait; ‘Nox’ by Anne Carson, New Directions 2010; ‘Job: A New Translation’ by Edward K Greenstein, Yale University Press 2019.

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 the second series of Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood continued to invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. To conclude the series, poet Ingrid de Kok herself reflects on texts that engaged and consoled her during the pandemic.

When lockdown was declared, I stacked up a pile of books I intended to read, books that had been on my “to-read” list for months, even years. You know, “big” important texts I had evaded reading in the past or read so long ago that I had forgotten them; prize-winning novels, which friends felt I should read; a few quirky books I was saving for a relaxed hour or two; poems which I once loved, fell out of love with and thought I might learn to love again.

Then, like many, I became word averse. Except for reading articles about Covid and online news, my reading was inert. My computer held in stasis Johannesburg Review of Books reviews which I usually had read avidly. Our tables became adrift in half-read old copies of the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books and other more rarefied journals. 

When interrupted postal deliveries eventually did arrive, I left the masses of magazines and journals dating back six months shrouded in their white or plastic coverings. No more reading about Donald Trump and his denizens, I declared. No more reading MFA-inspired short stories about identity crises while travelling across “exotic” lands. Did I really care to know more about recent scholarship on the Goths? The cultural history of smells? Metternich?

So, what did I care about? Without consciously doing so, I found myself turning to the elegiac, that disposition which faces loss and destruction and which either questions the very possibility of recovery, or offers consolatory renewal through enduring love, nature and continuity or the rigours of language itself.

I began by deciding to discipline myself by reading the most demanding text in my stash, Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer. For several years I had put off reading it, so distressing did I find the opening pages when I first tried. This time I managed only about 15 pages a day. 

As is well known, in April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded, causing severe radiation exposure to those on the scene, those conscripted to clean up afterwards and many thousands in nearby villages and towns. Untold suffering, death and destruction followed. Huge swathes of farm land and forest remain contaminated. Many people are still in ill health, with a phenomenal increase in cancer rates. A few scapegoats were put on trial, but details of the design of the plant and the technological failures that caused the disaster were covered up. Radiation was detected throughout Europe and elsewhere: the disaster, like this pandemic, had global reach.

In the first monologue in the book, entitled A lone human voice, a newly married young woman says: “I don’t know what to tell you about. Death or love? Or is it the same thing.” Her husband, Vasya, is one of the first firemen at the scene of the catastrophe. Though pregnant, she insists on being with him in hospital where he dies in agony 14 days later. The authorities bury him and others in secret. The dead, she is told, “were public property, belonged to the state.” Her baby girl dies of cirrhosis soon after birth, her liver consumed by 28 roentgens. 

It is almost impossible to read. 

The titles of monologues of those who at the time, and ever after, were affected by the disaster are rendered by Alexievich as parables or country sayings. They include: Monologue on the need to add something to everyday life in order to understand it; Monologue on how we can talk with both the living and the dead; Monologue without a title: a scream; Monologue on physics, with which we were all once in love; Monologue on the symbols and secrets of a great country.

In a book Greek in its dramatic range, the author gives voice to a choir of the agonised, how they suffered, endured or justified the events. It is a record of tragedy upon tragedy, generated by broken science, mismanagement, callous bureaucracy, and statist disregard for lives. 

A stern corrective to any feelings of victimhood or fear I harboured during the pandemic, it was also a salutary reminder of the way national priorities, self-interest and venal political manoeuvring often eclipse citizens’ interests, even – or maybe especially – in calamitous situations. A former director of the Institute of Atomic Energy in Belarus says, “I believe in history, the judgment of history… Chernobyl is not over. It has just started,” and the chairwoman of a Committee of Children: “Sometime in the future we will understand Chernobyl as a philosophy.”

This is lamentation at its furthest extreme, a requiem at a nuclear funeral pyre, descent into an underworld where almost everything is destroyed and nothing can bloom. Alexievich offers no comfort, no prospect that the world can easily renew itself. Lives are wasted. Redress is unavailable or denied. Lies are perpetuated. Nature struggles to regenerate. 

But the apocalypse also admits acts of kindness, bravery in the face of mismanagement and chaos, courageous truth telling, thoughtful analysis, commitments to carrying on with life. There is the writer’s unflinching notation of suffering and its causes. There is a fragile return to the surface through language, albeit to a still irradiated surface.

Simultaneously I began reading an annotated translation of the biblical book of Job by world renowned linguist Edward L Greenstein, sent to me by my brother. He knew that I had always been compelled by the great poetic biblical account of Job’s fortitude, as indeed have many writers, including Robert Frost, who argues God’s position, not entirely convincingly, in his rhetorical play A Masque of Reason.

It made strange sense to read “Chernobyl Prayer” and “Job: A New Translation” at the same time. Both are composed of prayers, curses, arguments and judgments, but one focuses on human injustice, the other on the claims of divine justice. 

Greenstein’s erudite book is based on decades of philological research, his rereading of Job’s defiance informed by forensic attention to the meaning and history of crucial words in ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages. In the preface he writes that in his translation of the Hebrew original he sought “to find an explanation for every word, phrase and syntactical construction”.

I was engrossed by the rigour of this mission and its recalibration of meanings his predecessors had missed or occluded, even though as an ordinary reader most of the footnotes shimmered in front of me like desert mirages. Greenstein himself calls the biblical text “often inscrutable” and also a “wunderkind” emerging out of several textual traditions, antecedents of the book many of us know. 

In “A Note on (Not) Translating the Names of God” Greenstein explains that the names used to denote the deity – YHWH (Adonai) El, Elohim, Eloah, Shaddai – “connote power, not goodness.” His scholarship makes it possible for him to question the received wisdom about Job – which, very simply put, is that Job argues against unfair treatment, but then surrenders to the superior judgment of the deity. This view is replaced by a philologically based and convincing literary argument that Job is much more determined, much less cowed, than in the versions that have come down to us. This Job does not recant, repent or capitulate. Given the gravity of the theme, it is a radical rereading.

God’s attempt at ruthless domination of the discourse, the faulty disputations of Job’s companion-commentators and Job’s own deeply argued resistance can be read as a dramatic debate about the logics of punitive power and the poetics of righteousness. The translation reveals the deep chasms and perilous rocks that earlier versions placed in the path of understanding, and the way misreading can service religious, institutional and cultural interpretive control.

As you can tell, neither of these books was bedtime reading and during lockdown I needed simpler fare as night fell. I segued into detective fiction, to be comforted in the usual way, by resourceful detectives, Byzantine crimes, unlikely or obvious solutions. 

And after John le Carré died I returned to his stylish spy novels, including the first two which I had never read before – Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I marvelled at his grasp of how lies and secrecy sediment personal, political and national life, the elusiveness of self-knowledge, the limits of loyalty. Perhaps after all, his interest in the imprint of power and the rubble it leaves in its wake connect in an angled way to the stories of Job and Chernobyl.

I also read numerous other novels, many of which in retrospect also seem to be laments or meditations on power and powerlessness. I reread the austere The Death of Jesus, the last of JM Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, and was moved again by its unblinking evocation of loss and its caution in offering explanations where none seems to exist. What does it mean to be an orphan? To be a father? Why does one person love another? Who can tell another’s story? How unstable is memory?

I read Patricia Lockwood’s subversive No One Is Talking About This, I read Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. I read C Pam Zhang’s “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. And I reread Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to check if after 60 years I could recognise what had so influenced me and others of my generation.

Then I stopped. Only reading poems became possible from then on.

The pandemic, in which so many people suffered losses, also coincided with my own sorrows, the ebbing of the lives of my partner Tony Morphet and my brother Kenneth de Kok.

In his last months Tony took to reading or reciting by memory poems he had always loved, by Wyatt, Pope, Heaney, Lowell, Herbert, Cavafy, Bishop. At the kitchen table I would read him other favourites, some by friends such as Yvette Christiansë, Douglas Livingstone, Antjie Krog, Tom Raworth and the irrepressible Ron Padgett, and some by poets he knew less well, such as Rukseyer, Darwish, Tsvetaeva, Seferis, Szymborska. We did not avoid the saddest of the poets, the saddest poems, but we also laughed at the wit and satire of others. There was comfort in sharing the rhythms of remembered words.

At the same time, my brother and I were also exchanging poems. He sent me a collection of poems he had written about our childhood. I introduced him to the remarkable nature English poet John Clare. And in the last weeks of his life he sent my sister and me a haunting lament, The Shadow of the Magnolia by Italian Nobel prize winning Eugenio Montale, his favourite poet. 

The poem begins with the shadow of a magnolia lying “less thickly” once the purple buds have fallen. At the end of the poem the one who sang (perhaps the poet, the speaker), as he dies, miraculously throws himself, “a mullet leaping out of the water”, into the sky.  How could I not read the final word, “Farewell” as a message from my brother? And how could it not remind me of Catullus’ great elegy (101) with its famous last line “atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale” (which can be loosely translated as “and forever, brother, hail and farewell”)?

So with a heavy heart I reread Nox by the classical scholar and poet Anne Carson. An ambitious fold-out poem, fragments in a box, it was made as an epitaph for her brother who died in 2000 and whom she had not seen or heard from in many years. Nox is, among other things, a meditation on the meanings of each Latin word in Catullus’ poem for his brother. Composed of family photographs, memories of her brother, sections of his letters and diaries, Carson’s book is interleaved with extracts and translations from dictionaries and other lexicons.

Carson reflects allusively on Herodotus, the relation of history to elegy, whether life and loss are translatable, and about her own recourse to ancient texts and their possible meanings. She implicitly asks us what remembrance is and does. “What is a voice?” is her question. She judges that Catullus’ diction “at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turn all its leaves over, silver in the wind”. Her own poem turns leaves over; it reminds me of a concertina. 

Perhaps Montale, Catullus’ Italian descendent, not only consciously concluded The Shadow of the Magnolia with the word “Farewell” but also inherited what Carson identifies as Catullus’ strange mourning festivity. In the final moment, Montale’s mullet, language itself, leaps as if in celebration, clear from the water.

“Primo deinde postremo” – “First then finally.” I was grateful to find these dictionary entries in Carson’s book and they provided the epigraph for Sister Ship, a book of poems I wrote for my brother just before he died.

First then finally; for the last time, after everything else:” perhaps this is a farewell others have also offered their loved ones in this painful time. DM/MC

Ingrid de Kok has written six collections of poetry, including “Mappe del Corpo,” translated into Italian by Paola Splendore. Her poems have been translated into nine languages, are widely anthologized and are taught in many countries. She has read at major national and international festivals and has been awarded residencies by several universities, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and DAAD. Among the awards she has received are a Sala Award, a Herman Charles Bosman Prize and in 2019 the Ritratti di poesia from Internazionale Fondazione Terzo in Rome. She has a manuscript in waiting.


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  • “In the final moment, Montale’s mullet, language itself, leaps as if in celebration, clear from the water.” This is what poetry aspires to. What an insightful collation of readings and reviews.

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