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Kelwyn Sole reviews Joan Metelerkamp’s new collection, Now the World Takes These Breaths

Now the world takes these breaths
In the lastest New Coin, the 50th anniversary issue, Kelwyn Sole reviews Joan Metelerkamp‘s 8th volume of poetry. The review is a lengthy engagement with Metelerkamp’s work. It is republished here with permission of the author and the editor of New Coin.

Joan Metelerkamp Now the World takes These Breaths (Cape Town: Modjaji Books, 2014) 61 pp. ISBN 978-1-920590-53-6

Kelwyn Sole

The use of ambiguities, playing with language and giving oneself licence to explore those half-articulated states of subject-identity where the subject is either dissolving or reforming in a continuous state of flux, is an important recognition of the way in which, at present, female subject identity is formulated.

– Helen Kidd

In an article published a number of years ago (‘The paper city: women, writing and experience’), poet and critic Helen Kidd speaks about a variety of feminist poetics “based on observations of how women interact together and how, in conversation, threads are dropped, picked up again, sentences unfinished and then reformulated later on”, which are derived from those “creatively used moments which women find for themselves feeding babies at dawn, feeding babies at dawn, between flights of stairs at dusk …. or all the other varieties of making that accompany domestic moments… .” This is, in my opinion, a useful prism through which to begin viewing to the poetry of Joan Metelerkamp. Even as her style does shift and evolve between collections, such a constant weaving of themes and shuttling between connections can be seen in the shifting patterns and reiterations in her poems. These interweavings are sometimes fraught, sometime radiant, but always ineluctable. The subject matter of individual poems may sometimes make this more obvious, as in the poem ‘Giving away’ in this collection; where the actual task of sewing is described in minute particulars.

Joan MetelerkampJMany critics have commented on the feminist aspect of Metelerkamp’s oeuvre which is, of course, crucial to an understanding of her project. Her remark in a 1992 interview with Colleen Crawford Cousins that she wants “to move into the realm of the brilliance of men, but on my own terms. I want to be recognised as a woman and for whom I am. … I want to say “fuck you” at the same time as saying “accept me’…” shows an impulse to inhabit, and rupture the distinction between, both male and female spheres. So it is no surprise that this collection is, as usual, imbued with insights which would interest feminist critics. The connections drawn between women are insistent (most obviously here in the poems which deal with the narrator’s daughter’s wedding), and males are outsiders to such processes, even as they are part of the family circle:

… on a day like this they went down to the rock pools.
The bride and her mother, took off their clothes, thigh deep
The bride swam. and after her dip, from the rocks.
her mother watched remembered the ancestors for a moment
washed off their backs
(‘Pools’)

The last two lines of this poem are ambiguous: the two women are bonded in a relationship that is simultaneously stretching back into history, and immanent only in the moment.

There is at least one moment when the desire to counteract the commanding male voice is enacted, in a situation where grandfather has upset granddaughter. The speaker:

…stands on the hill in the chill
tells her eighty four year old father
to fuck off – why has it taken so long
she follows her weeping daughter
sophistry she has heard her eldest brother
sophists fuck off she yells back at her brother
too late! Why in the name of need
has she kept denying her own kow-towing
history family story what reason can she concoct ….
(‘Angry cow’)

Males are resisted, explicitly, for their selfishness and narcissism (‘First words’). In line with one of Metelerkamp’s concerns, in ‘The cake!’ men ironically have to play a subordinate learning role and learn the value of women’s work, despite their seeming intellectual accomplishments.

Metelerkamp problematises female interactions as well: such may embody somewhat watchful, careful and occasionally difficult relationships, if shot through with moments of illumination and merging. However, the interrelationships of love and comfort stretch to male-female in a number of poems, despite the fraught nature of familial relationships. In her poetry, social connections are overwhelmingly concentrated within the extending circles of the family: these can be fulfilling, but in many poems individuals seem to be transfixed by family obligations. The family is simultaneously a place of charity and empathy, and of command and suppression. It follows that the integration of the poet’s consciousness with the cycles of human and familial relationships are often jagged, and any comprehension or grace is constructed out of bits and pieces – out of cycles of alienation and desire, care and sundering. Given the often painful personal events explored in Metelerkamp’s earlier volumes, memory is easily called forth, and the interlinkages of past and present implicit in family life confirmed, for good or ill. On the one hand, there is a repeating sense of isolation and confinement; yet on the other, the poems are permeated with a desire for fulfilled experience in the face of banality and loss. Any sense of wholeness is wrenched out of psychological, epistemological and ontological dissonance, and freedom searched for in the face of restrictions imposed by self or others:

Before the wedding
the groom must go to confession –
this his upbringing
requires what shall I confess
he asks what is my sin –
six months it takes
before the bride’s mother
after a week of intense heat
on an afternoon she can hardly hold
her eyes open admits
the response all of it
whatever it is whatever has held
you from your choice what you have chosen
all of it for the life you are given for giving.
(‘Confession’)

Within poems is the constant re-emergence of an inner, chiding, disciplining voice: the main protagonist is surrounded by injunctions that she can imagine equally in the call of a boubou shrike, in her father’s voice over the telephone, or from within. The personal interconnects with (and at times threatens to be overwhelmed by) the thorny emotional bonds of family. Yet these are pictured as necessary, and maintained over long distances. Ceremonies and rituals – such as the wedding that is one of the central thematic foci of this collection – are a way in which these bonds are enacted and maintained (‘Ceremonial’). In one poem the bonds and pledge between husband and wife are shown to have the potential to endure, despite experiences of disaster and adversity (‘Eventually again in the twenty-seventh year…’). Moreover, it is hinted that the complex and problematic nature of gendered relationships is potentially given hope, in that the new generation of women may have possibilities unavailable to their mothers.

The contested community of family is constantly played out against the background of a natural world. Metelerkamp is unsurpassed in terms of her attention and knowledge of the natural milieu surrounding her: in terms of the Western Cape coastal ecosystem, the only other writer of equal stature I can think of is Menan du Plessis in her first novel A State of Fear. The personal, familial and natural are integrated, in a convincing manner. In these recent poems the integration is closely knit into a poetics of inference and echo, and often flow into each other within the same stanza, sometimes within the same line. Denizens of the natural world are a constant presence and, at times, interlocutors of a sense of communion and grace: most obviously the jackal in ‘Long day – long windy day’ (“suddenly a jackal as if from nowhere / leaps out in front of the car. / We have talked. We agree. He doesn’t want to be left. / I want him to be first so he shows me the way.”). However, it is noticeable that in this volume the natural surroundings can take on a more menacing, intrusive, air; illustrated by the intruding boomslang in ‘Who’, and in the tenor of the boubou’s cry in a handful of poems. More than fleetingly, the sense of enclosure and isolation emerges even here.

Nature is never described in the poems without penetrating, or being penetrated by, the poet’s consciousness: the one segueing into the other at times abruptly. There are lessons to be taken from nature, as in ‘Folding’, one of the finest poems in the collection (…subtly, subtly we repeat ourselves like trees / like northern mopanis tracts burnt / trunks like chimneys smoking through the whole bole / we die singly why should we want to be new – / why be afraid / of repeating ourselves – // like folded rhinoceros we collapse / in what’s left of the shade.”). The systole and diastole of the planet’s seasons are linked implicitly to cycles of life and death, as in the title poem of the collection.

Such themes are carried forward consistently through a consciousness always aware of its own uniqueness and vulnerability (“always only one you” – ‘You’). In the social and natural poems, the meditations on repetition, death and birth and the attentiveness to the hair’s breadth instability of being alive are shot through with a desire for both immanence and transcendence: there are moments of intense beauty and the surprise of the numinous. The reader encounters superbly delineated beauty in a number of the poems. Isolated moments – such as return of a daughter, and the tidal feelings of joy, foreboding, aging and reciprocation this occasions – are saturated not only with intense emotion, but deep metaphysical and philosophical meaning (“The first day she remind me who I am, whatever that means. / it means while she sleeps thirteen hours at a time, fourteen, /I sit on the balcony look up and out at the river, the valley, / from the gift she has brought me without authority / I am reading the lily and the bird / from the world she belongs to, will return to – // … we stand for a moment together quiet beside the running water / outside the boubou’s trembling treble terribleweeeep terrible weep” (‘indefiniteness increases suffering’)). At times – as in the collection’s final poem – the struggle the speaker lives with is countered by an acceptance of material and emotional circumstances and the contingency of experience; poems which also hint at a need for disentanglement and letting go (‘Never an October…’). Nevertheless, given Metelerkamp’s questing persona, the reader can guess that such acceptance is likely to be provisional.

To spend an entire review focusing on the feminist themes and crafting of consciousness in Now the world takes these breaths may, however, neglect other issues, and skew focus away from attention to other important aspects of the work. One thinks of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and the possibility that critics’ constant reiteration of its feminist aspects has caused some to downplay her importance as an innovator of poetic form. In one of her June 1962 journal entries, Plath is clearly aware of her craft being outside the acceptable norms of the day; remarking bitterly that her struggle with “easy poeticisms” in her work only serves to convince bearers of the canonical torch, like Lowell, that she is merely “rough, anti-poetic, unpoetic”. There is a similar misapprehension possible vis-à-vis Metelerkamp. At first glance, some of these poems appear anything but polished, and are grudging with their meaning – thus placing them athwart of the conservative demands of the South African canon. However, closer investigation begins to lay bare the degree of work, of patient effort and crafting, that goes into their artifice. As her poem ‘Penelope’ in an earlier collection (Burnt Offering) makes clear, Metelerkamp’s explorative restlessness, her constant picking and unpicking of threads in her poetry, is deliberate. She is in aspects a process poet, in that her poems both internally and in sequence reveal a consciousness in process, reaching for understanding (as she notes, “not so much that I’ve wasted my life but that it unfolds. / discloses itself like the sun again laid out across my lap.” (‘Here the water sprays way into beyond…’)). These processes exist not only in terms of the manner in which her reader has to work towards meaning in poems, but also in the subtle transformations of her use of poetic form between books, even as her themes remain relatively stable. Thus, if she does at times deal with recognisable themes, her skilled and unusual use of form still set her apart. This is refreshingly different from the easily formed expressions of solidarity and identification in too much South African lyric poetry – including women’s poetry – today.

Any critic who wishes to get closer to Meterlerkamp’s work must engage with the question of form. In this regard, a constant preoccupation for her has been the forging of a style which engages the reader in a process of reading, and which allows for the irruption of the unconscious in its production and reception (“that’s not what I thought I’d write” she says in one poem (‘That side. There…’)). There is a connection of the poet’s consciousness to both the physical and metaphysical in many poems, which may require a poem being read literally and metaphorically at the same time (“even the dress was only partly a metaphor”’ (‘Inside’)). In this volume, there is a use of repetition and run-on lines, a penchant for elliptical and cryptic reference, alterations in tone, and – where themes are dropped then taken up again – slight but always incremental shifts in perspective, which add up to a layering effect in general. Rapid associations are required from the reader as the poems move from the narrator’s inner to outer world, and into relationships, natural surroundings, and familial history. Snatches of conversations merge with recalled incidents, fleeting perceptions, and a swift movement from the mundane to the visionary and back again. The significance of these coruscations of experience, and the uncommon connections between objects, are opened up to the reader for completion.

Abbreviated references and tendential and half-statements occur which, although bearing meaning and often linked to what has been gestured towards in previous poems, are at times incomplete, and require reader participation and selection among choices. For instance, in the poem quoted below, the reader is left uncertain as to the tone and eventual meaning of the poem – is it self-criticism, celebration or self-justification? It can be read in a number of ways, an effect engendered by the intersection of question and statement in last the four lines:

… on the other side of the earth
she is
married to her own life
as only she could be
my daughter –
how could I have loved her
too closely

how could I ever have loved
my mother too closely.
(‘Daughter’)

Metelerkamp may speak, at times, from different systems of cultural signification, and interlay them: such as the speaker’s reuniting with her daughter after separation seen in terms of the Demeter – Persephone myth. At times, the connecting of these may produce a surprising aptness (“… somewhere in the taaibos secret / as Eleusis secular as cycles / sacred as days sinking into themselves … “ (‘You’)).

Therefore, readers are impelled into following where this making and remaking of sound, sense and self may lead. A sense of pressure is built up by the movement through associations, especially given the sense of intense emotion and watchfulness that is a predominant narrator ambience. This causes the reader to follow her perturbations of self, in a panoply of moods: taking shape in an ambience of uncertainty and exploration. In line with the warp and weft of her consciousness, individual poems may act as lenses through which surrounding ones are illuminated and more fully explained. Some poems are so crystalline that they serve to focus and illuminate other poems around them. There are constant skeins of reference between poems: this can be seen, for instance, in the first three poems of this collection, where one’s partial understanding is added to and enhanced by a sequential reading.

Metelerkamp sometimes uses with a shorthand of references, which can only be more fully perceived across poems, or even guessed at: for example, the references to Concord, Lewis Wharf, Lowell and the Freedom Trail in ‘That side. There…’ can only be contextualised through a prior knowledge of New England; while the line “in her kitchen warmth gave me The Gift…” can be read literally: but what about the italics? Is this Lewis Hyde’s book? The reader can only surmise. References in a number of poems are cryptic, due, in part, to their domestic and private meanings:

… deadly poisonous boomslang cruising the dombeya, the wild-pear;
weeds everywhere fleas, mosquitoes, breeding like mosquitoes
in the cesspool-reservoir-pool; blocked loos:
at last the plumber came blocked the passage: stood there
with what we used to call verbal diarrhea logorrhea
going on and on about God till I could hardly stand it
matter not mattering! The plumber! Get through it! Shit! Shit
in the old outlets, hot water geyser completely clogged.

My back seized: lay down on my son’s empty bed, hauled
My body to the old brown couch where he used to lie, cried.
(‘Dry, seedy summer when we returned…’)

The poet has spoken at some length about the manner in which poetry serves, in her mind, a number of different functions: a moment of perception; a process of illumination; a means for making connections; a therapeutic process; a way of “making meaning, of balancing meaning and its lack”; “a process of working things out” and “a tool to contact other people and the rest of the world, your environment, the great creator” (interview with Ross Edwards, 1998). She goes on:

As soon as you write – presumably somebody’s going to read it – so all the voices say you shouldn’t be writing about yourself; but then, of course, you can only write about yourself in a sense – not about yourself, but from yourself. In other words, the self is your only link to the world.

In the same interview she criticises Antjie Krog’s book on the Truth Commission for manufacturing , rather than stating “… the truth … for the sake of a more “interesting” or is it “consumable,” narrative. I think (Krog) misses an opportunity to confront herself”. It is clear throughout her work that Metelerkamp has a high regard for self-confrontation through her poems, and a truth revealed through adversity and a complexity of technique. It follows that statements made by critics that her work is ‘postmodern’ have to be approached with care: her destruction of linear narrative and authorial stability cannot be exemplified as a variety of post-modernism.

In some ways, Metelerkamp’s poetry is increasingly taking on some aspects of a formally self-conscious, and formally ordered, personal diary; using fleeting impressions, conversations, admonitions to self, cryptic comments and quotes as parts of the poems. This is a genre which has long been subversive in women’s hands; where the self may be mirrored and explored; and observations, experiences, meditations and interactions inscribed in a space not constrained by patriarchal overview. While such diaries may and have in some cases been published later, Metelerkamp’s similarity to this style is entirely purposeful, and allows a complex set of emotions, references and events to be set up and played off each other. This forges a particular relationship between the public and the personal through the poems.

The poet makes clear in the Edwards’ interview that “Many of my poems are addressed to other people, most come out of relationships, so they are all about other people. Lots of them have other people in them; but I can never know who I am writing for, if anyone will want to read it…”. While the various connections and disconnections between narrator and poet, and between poem and reader, is a concern in much lyrical poetry, it is especially tangible here, given the poet’s style. The consistency of narrative perspective allows the reader a constant identification of an authorial presence in these poems. The membrane of fictionalisation around events and characters is thin, at times seemingly transparent. This has effects on the reader. Incidents and contexts sketched out in this new collection as underpinnings to poems are frequently congruent with the quotidian lives of many women, as well as the encounters, vicissitudes and emotions that are experienced in relation to these. Yet there are many events and issues described which are identifiably unique to Metelerkamp herself, and which rely on and magnify the subject matter of poems in her earlier volumes. Therefore, in this latter case the reader finds him- or herself in a scenario of intimate contact with the author, where connection between narrator and author is clearly linked through details of biography. I found myself at times adrift between how to recognise and respond to these slightly different – if imbricated – impulses. On the one hand, it felt as if I was responding, through an individual’s poems, to women’s concerns and issues which could be generalised to hold true. On the other, the poems work around very specific details of biography and experience, and tend to highlight the figure of a poet with a unique life story and an individual and family narrative her faithful readers know well.

As a consequence of this, my knowledge of the uniqueness of her biography felt like it was, very occasionally, of undue assistance in my appreciation of some poems. In other words, I was worried in one or two cases whether my reading would not have remained incoherent without such prior knowledge. In a mere handful of poems, such as ‘Teacher’, ‘Bath’ and ‘No wonder’, the full weight of associations remains unclear, and it was only the presence in my mind of poems from previous volumes which were of partial assistance in my apprehension. The danger in such poems is that the nature of her observations and responses may remain too personal. As a result, given the interrupted, cryptic, layered nature of the details and references contained within and between poems, the effect seems to vary from the powerfully associative to the over-enigmatic.

Now the world takes these breaths is nevertheless an extremely powerful and convincing volume, and demonstrates again Metelerkamp’s searching, thoughtful demeanour, emotional intensity and technical skill. It is a must for all who wish to know how contemporary South African poets are responding to the shifting social and psychological landscape in which we live.

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Now The World Takes These Breaths

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