Reading mel's journal

May 02, 2003 17:48 # 11503

mel * throws in her two cents...

At a certain distance from hell

91% | 2

Tears in poetry are always artificial: they are made up of words, and maybe "real" tears are made up of words as well that tell us when it is appropriate to cry and when not. We are controlled by: "grammar: /Sounds that were made before" (64). Nothing in life or poetry is "original": we left the origins behind long ago. What is important, though, is whether the artifice of poetry can seduce the reader to laugh and to cry; that is after all why people read poetry: to be transported by sounds made by a poet. All the mastery of words in the end is wasted, if the music and the symbol does not reverberate with the experience of human beings.

That Patrick Cullinan is a master of his craft is immediately obvious, and something I never doubted from the first poems I saw as one of the editors of Ophir many years ago. It is refreshing to read a poet who can write well after wading through a lot of half-formed South African "poetry" which "ex-presses" itself by throwing at the reader self-indulgent and undefined emotions in badly chopped up prose. His mastery is shown to best advantage in his versions of poems by Mandelstam, Phil du Plessis, and above all the great poetry of Eugenio Montale.

Cullinan is at his best, when looking at nature and its cruelty. The shock produces lines like these in "Vultures": "Look close. Then go. / Walk into the heat. / Look into the light as though / All light has just begun" (29). But there are also a lot of merely idyllic verses, celebrating the "fat in the land" (26) and the "murmur of [black] men at the fires" (65). All too rarely does he see "His shadow swim below: the dream he fears?" (46) or observe, as in "Sir Tom", "the awful nonsense raving, Hell seething in his head" (115).

History is not, as Watson seems to suggest in his introduction, the history of Europe and European history in South Africa: "the smell of old power" (59), the obsolete gesture and ritual of the "Billiard Room", Cullinan's abhorrence of it; and that is about all of the history I can detect in a volume of poetry. Where an African past emerges on the horizon, as in "The Walls of Naletale" it is experienced as "something alien" (32) a moment where one knows "something more than fear, / Dread perhaps, the first slow creeping edge / Of mystery: / Cold-blooded awe." (32f) Africa is, if at all, a history which has been ruined.

What is missing in this history is the resistance against this ruination, because that resistance threatens the very "culture" which feeds the verse of Cullinan. If there is a dark shadow falling over Cullinan's verse, then it is the anguish of one who must fear for his own and his future: "It is not death I fear / But the thought that birth will stop. / I fear the end of my people" (35). What is described here as the fate of an anonymous tribe embroiled in the battles of the post-colonial age is the fear of a white tribe somewhere at the Southern end of the continent. The absurdity of the "white" "Exiles" from the "equator" is an absurdity which is not unthinkable for those who are at home in an English-speaking colony to the South, and it is that self-recognition which makes this poem so poignant.

The eye of Cullinan, which like Le Vaillant's, tries to make the country "real", ends up by normalising the outrageous and the gigantic in such a way that it can become the food of the temperate tea room, however much Cullinan may be scornful of the colonialists' "perpetual tea time" (37). True, Zoo Lake is part of the South African reality with its "Black families, / so well dressed, / it seems they come instinctively / to act a dream of middle class" (61). True, one needs to remove the myths of the "club-footed or one-eyed" monsters which populated early and later colonialist phantasies, and it is healthy to make people understand "that men in skins" ... "are men like us, have names: / Confused, they love and hate" (54); yet the eye which is unable to see greatness and achievement for fear of going overboard belittles humanity. It is easy to be restrained, when one prunes one's verse of all real suffering and emigrates into the metaphysical; and it is easy to be "realistic" when one subjects one's surroundings to the procedures of Procrustes. But then, we all can only see, what we were made to see, what we can comprehend (55).

Cullinan may have learnt some of the technique and the mastery of words from Dante, but the vision of the hell in his immediate neighbourhood has escaped him. One only needs to compare Wopko Jensma's "Johburg Spiritual" or Serote's "Johburg City" with Cullinan's "Johannesburg November" to experience the distance of Cullinan to what after all is the reality of South Africa. Rarely does he reflect -- at least in a very general way -- the horror happening outside his door, as in "Grammar": "Somewhere outside they break a man's face / Slowly. Now the face has no eyes, / No country. The tongue / Is pulled out: I must speak." (64) I am not holding Patrick Cullinan's "upper middle-class English-speaking South African" (Watson) background against him, but reading Dante in Oxford may give one a view more than a little removed from the hell in Kayelitsha and Pollsmore Prison, which can appear as Purgatory (Watson) only from a distance.

love will not hurt if it is not hurt by me

May 03, 2003 00:04 # 11514

oxygenius *** wants to know...

Re: At a certain distance from hell

Eh ... Blllllaaaah???

No offence meant, but: Do you always post your school's referates in here? 8-O

cu, w0lf.

Metal has no laws. Metal is the law.

May 04, 2003 14:26 # 11576

fallenangel *** replies...

Re: At a certain distance from hell

This post was deleted by request of the author.

"you're mighty brave in cyber-space, flame boy!"

May 05, 2003 09:45 # 11624

oxygenius *** is unsure about...

Re: At a certain distance from hell

Actually, i dont have any goddamn clue what she's posting about - it looks so out of place, i dont know ...

Maybe some images would help ;)

.. or maybe not starting directly in the middle of an abstract thread of thoughts. that works for me, at least ;P

cu, w0lf.

ps: yeah, i _could_ write like i'm thinking - but i bet for hell's frozen ass nobody would understand ANYTHING (actually, it's empirical proven that nobody DOES).

pps: but maybe i'm just missing some "referencing material" also called "links", which spice up any 100-liner

Metal has no laws. Metal is the law.

This post was edited by oxygenius on May 05, 2003.

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