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Review of The Canary's Songbook
Jane Routh, Tears in the Fence, Number 42 Autumn 2005:Previous review of 'The Canary's Songbook'... Next review of 'The Canary's Songbook'... To the 'The Canary's Songbook' page...
... If you want poems that reveal something you didn't know, give you something to think about, try The Canary's Songbook. Karen Press is capable of writing a political poem so affectingly well-made that you need to put her book down for a while, ruminate, and re-read. Part of me wants to celebrsate a poetry of ideas of this quality, such a rare thing; part of me knows I'll have to brush the word 'political' under the carpet and talk instead about poems delicately poised at the confluence of personal and cultural histories.
The first of seven groups of poems in the book marries the personal and cultural through the idea of ancestors. The book's cover quotes it's opening:
Broken bits of the past
find their way into my pocket
bright as the eyes of stray dogs,
pleading and fierce.
Press writes of her relation to her own ancestors in such a way as to show how this relation is both living and insepearable from history:
When I go home to honour my ancestors
they gather round me like hitchhikers
clamouring to join me on my travels.
I say to them what is the best way?
And they always answer
you will show us.
This must be the section that has given me the most enjoyment - I want to quote most of the poems here - laced, as is much of the book, with though-provokers like "Dead children are no-one's ancestors." ('Living children and dead children, 2')
This a way of writing about history that is unsentimental; it bears on the present and future. In the present day, the poems are populated by a wide variety - a poet who tells dinner guests he is writing about corruption, by a dying minister of defence, by 'The personal assistant' ("He's the one to be careful of / the one without the speeches"), a rabbit on the road, and yes love as well as pain.
...Press's forms follows rather than lead the poems. I do not mean that this makes her writing a lesser poetry: metaphor and myth often drives her poems well beyong the political. Here's an example: By coincidence I picked up an old copy of The Guardian in which Laura Barton was commenting on the term 'intimate femicide' to categorise a woman's murder by her partner. She mentioned the statistic that one woman is killed by her partner every six hours in South Africa. I turned the page of Press's book and came to the poem 'Men wear the secret masks' which ends with a couplet you could call political, though drawn through the weft of myth (the last part is quoted) that precedes it:
The woman must never see
the men blowing the flutes.
If a woman sees the bird
become a man, he kills her.
This happens in every house.
There is always an ancestral bird
in the shape of a man
singing in the shape of a flute.
There is always a woman
seeing something that could kill her.
It's not easy to draw small quotations from Press's writing: her poems are richly woven and you do not see where they are going to take you - their endings often surprise. I'd like to quote from the blatantly-titled 'Stop child abuse', but this unblatant poem needs to be read whole - as do so many pieces I'd write about. Like poems from the final section 'Walking songs from Africans abroad' which opens
There's a game we play when we travel abroad.
Looking up from a drink in a bar, a museum queue, a souvenir counter,
we ask, Where are the Africans?
['A Travelling Game']
Not that much of a game, if I skip to the middle of 'At the round earth's imagined corners'
and she says, 'This is home, aren't we the world's brothers and sisters?'
and he says, 'Tell that to the passport officers'
and they laugh, and inside they each feel a little sick,
and on the plane each one wakes at some point during the flight
to jot down a few words in a diary, notes for a song or a poem.
Home, for Karen Press, is South Africa... Ancestors, cultures, influences.
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