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Review of The Canary's Songbook
Chris Dunton, South African Sunday Independent, 11th June 2006Previous review of 'The Canary's Songbook'... To the 'The Canary's Songbook' page...
Canary's Songbook hits another high note in an impressive year of South African poetry
In an interview for New Coin Karen Press once said 'I'm always trying to state as directly, 'literally', as I can whatever meaning I'm reaching for: Calling a spade a spade.'
Certainly in her new and substantial collection there is the occasional straightforward poem detailing a closely observed incident ('Tannie Lettie plays the guitar') or offering a gloss on one ('Prometheus resigns from the party').
When she deals with subject matter such as globalisation or the refusal to acknowledge the sources of surplus capital she addresses the issue head-on and with a strong critical slant ('Water waits in a raw ditch / at the far end of an endless White Paper'). Outstanding among this group of poems is 'Stop child abuse', a stunning shocker.
Yet throughout the collection her approach is more often oblique. From the first poem onwards ('The sea roaring softly') this is work that is elusive and yet unfailingly compelling: 'Spring-time of the world / when the sun shone / gently on shallow water / Softly something crashes / far away, like a child's cough / when its mother is near.'
It is largely a poetry of whispers, of hints, of indirect statement, yet with cables strong as steel for its backbone. Witness a poem on Press's mother ('The poem each woman poet writes) and another, saturated in rage and grief, 'How her mother prepared her'.
In 'Broken bits of the past' she addresses the need to cement present to the past, to 'settle things, settle them down once and for all'. A series of three poems, 'Knocking songs' - as in knocking on the door - explore the ideas of rooting, access, interconnectivity. Once again, though these are elusive they compel the attention.
There is a strong progression between one poem and the next, a motif in the first picked up in the second, the second providing a motif for the third, like carefully planned stitching. Through this kind of progression an exploration of sacrifice leads, step by step through subsequent poems, to the ingenious ironies of 'Corruption - a lexicon'.
In all these poems there is a finely developed sense of the immanent (common objects hold and might speak the past) and in many a very fine line held between tranquillity and disquiet ('crashes' and 'softly').
Among the longer poems, 'Books' is a lovely piece, absolutely arresting from its opening onwards: 'page 1 / Here you are. Will you go further?' In this riveting poem, the proposition of the act of reading a 10-page narrative - involving a rabbit, a road, a man - generates a remarkably sophisticated and disturbing exploration of consciousness, a set of reflections on the relationship between self and other. At the end: 'If the rabbit is still there / it is by now flecked flesh and blood / staining the paper / Were you there? / Did you come back?'
Another very substantial piece is 'In Jakob's House', a direct address to Jakob, an 86-year-old, a man who still carries Kristallnacht splinters in his pocket. This is a poem on the 20th century, on the relationship between Europe and South Africa (in the latter there are men like Jakob, but 'They read no poetry / because distances are too great between history and a plan'). It is also a poem that ends with difficult, probing questions: 'Who are you loyal to Jakob, / who would you say no to, for whose sake?'
The sense of self and other is central to the collection. Nothing exceptional about this, perhaps, but Press's reflections on the issue are especially engaging.
At one point she proposes: 'Nobody really cares what anyone else's world is like, unless / they're writing a PhD', and then goes on to add: 'It's not a crime against humanity.'
Again, reflections on the work of a female poet are not uncommon in the work of female poets, but Press's observations are wonderfully astringent. The title poem - which, significantly, closes the collection - ends: 'You have to imagine her in the tunnel singing / and the wet rocks shining / and the men retreating safely'. This is beautiful work.
There's just the occasional touch of the precious or portentous ('The place of engraved pain and ecstasy... The place where it is permitted to talk of love'). By and large, though, this is a fine collection. With regard to the fluidity of Press's thought and of her line, the line mercurial comes to mind, but with no suggestion of the superficiality that word sometimes connotes. There is nothing in the least shallow in Press's thought or her poetics.
This has been a very good year already for South African poetry, with especially impressive volumes from Jeremy Cronin and Antjie Krog (whose Body Bereft is a fine collection, one odious hostile review in the Mail & Guardian notwithstanding). Now with The Canary's Songbook we see a broadening diversity of riches.
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