SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
Poetics: A Step Away from Us
1. South Africa, June 2000: Driving into Cape Town on the N1, the main roadlink to Johannesburg, the visitor passes acre upon acre of slum-packed shantyhouses, the Cape Flats, legacy of apartheid's forced evacuations of the cities. Smoke from grass-fires pouring through corrugated tin roofs smudges the sky for miles. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s, township kids used to stone passing cars on their way to the airport; more recently entrepreneurship has taken over, in the form of wackily inventive aluminum-scrap sculptures - windmills, freight trucks, beasts of the field - sold roadside. Following apartheid logic the shantytowns vary from destitute to shabby-suburban according to residential demographic: Africans mainly in the former, so-called Cape Colored - a unifying misnomer for ethnically mixed descendants of slaves imported from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia - occupying the latter. Then, with the flat-topped bulk of Table Mountain frowning to the left, you skirt the dramatic ridge of peaks separating downtown from the outlying districts and pull into view of a crystalline international city center sheltered between the arms of the mountain range and the blue Atlantic of Table Bay.
2. That drive, from the Flats to the downtown Bowl, offers a perfect kinetic image of the First World/Third World faultline - apt term? - running throughout South Africa. In the dead center of the Bay lies Robben Island, where for thirty-odd years black political prisoners, including seventeen-year veteran Nelson Mandela, were sent to break up limestone in a quarry. It's since been turned into a national heritage museum, with ex-inmates providing guided tours of the prison yard and cell block where Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and other African National Congress leaders spent their years in confinement. Museum guides are former prisoners. The motto over the prison gates: Welcome to Robben Island / We Serve with Pride.
3. Nearly a decade after South Africa's democratic transition, the collective utopian ardor lit by the 1994 elections has cooled. The challenges that lie ahead are stark: eight million people without running water, as many as one in five infected with HIV, the majority in need of basic housing and services. Most South Africans have put aside expectations for immediate transformation (though not for responsive government) and have settled in for the long haul toward a less inequitable society. The drear acceptance of an economic agenda based on attracting foreign investment by any means necessary, combined with the steady drumbeat produced by ideologues for globalization (corporations of the world, unite!), has tended to drown out (but not extinguish) voices for an alternative vision of the country's future.
4. At the same time, a certain giddiness still obtains at the symbolic level in having to deal with this strange new composite public sphere. National television in South Africa - introduced for the first time only in 1976, the year of the Soweto riots - has been given an appropriately impossible mandate, to broadcast in all eleven official languages, with integrated diversity fully on display. The result, at least initially, seems to be a lot of black boy/white girl anchor teams co-hosting the news and peppy mixed casts on teen music shows. As with much of the rest of the world, Hollywood product clogs the airwaves, yet tellingly the majority of what's selected for South African TV features interracial friendship and romance. The best thing on TV may be the long-running prime-time soap called (in Zulu) "Isidingo" ("The Need"). Set in a fictional township outside Johannesburg, it tracks multiple plot-lines involving a wide array of characters enmeshed in every type of complicated circumstance, personal and political, all of them indirectly traceable to the challenges and sea-changes of the New South Africa. With its overt acknowledgment of the damages and attractions wrought by class, race, and generational differences, "Isidingo" is the closest thing South Africans have to a national campfire.
5. Interracial romance is prominent, too, on the streets of the cities, with many couples walking hand in hand who fifteen years before would have risked imprisonment for doing so. In Capetown's waterfront mall, largely indistinguishable from any mall in the United States, trendy teenagers of all colors hang out at internet cafes while local hip-hop plays in the background. The structural irony inherent in a post-apartheid yet still neocolonial society has, as a matter of course, soaked into every pocket of civic culture; it is the lingua franca of the urban press. (The emblematic scandal capturing media attention in June 2000 involved investigations into charges that the all-white South African cricket team had engaged - shades of the 1919 Black Sox - in rigging their games.) But the national irony is forward-looking in the case of many black intellectuals; we talked to a former student of my mother's, a Ugandan who lives in the Eastern Cape with his Xhosa wife, who is trying to set up an independent technical-education institute for the rural poor in his district, but is frustrated by bureaucratic hassles and corruption (many of the former "homelands" are still being administered by puppet officials from the apartheid era). White irony, on the other hand, seems too often caught in helpless stasis between a kind of cold hedonism and millennial resignation. Nothing captures this particular mood better than J. M. Coetzee's DISGRACE - so expertly written that the ash it leaves under the tongue upon finishing almost seems like a communion.
6. Our Robben Island guide was strikingly without any irony in his demeanor. He spoke dispassionately about his prison experience, explaining what was worst about it (psychological warfare conducted through false letters from loved ones) and detailing the physical hardships, but his focus throughout was on the solidarity of the inmates, their unwavering prison discipline, their commitment to the struggle, inside and out. White poet (and now Treasurer of the South African Communist Party) Jeremy Cronin shows a similar sureness and near-lightness of spirit in his collection Inside, poems written while he was serving a seven-year sentence for illegal organizing in the 1980s. One poem gets its title from a Zulu saying: "Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang" ("A person is a person because of other people"); another, dating from 1975, before Cronin's imprisonment, is titled "A Step Away from Them." It begins casually, as befits its model:
and ends this way:
Just as Cronin learns
from and transforms O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poem within
an almost unimaginably different context, a post-apartheid poetics may,
similarly, have something to offer to the way we conceive of poetics in
a world-dominant, world-heedless North America.
This site designed and maintained by Chris Alexander
Copyright © 2005
Copyright for individual works returns to contributors upon publication.