One of post-apartheid South Africa’s contributions to global culture is an affirmation of ubuntu* – an indigenous concept which emphasises the folded-togetherness of human being. Karen Press’s new collection, which finds poetry in subjects as diverse as Jacob Zuma and the war in Iraq, is mindful of our collective failure to put this principle into practice at a local or international level. Poetry is not innocent of this failing: “Forgive us, people digging through your bombed houses […] for finding metaphors inside your torn shirts and/ bleeding dogs./ Forgive us, captured American soldier, if we […] find in your half-formed logic/the voice of a machine still being tested for defects”.
The poems speak of helplessness and longing, of failed love, statisticians who wish they could turn their data about the unemployed into loaves and fishes, fathers anguished by their children’s “exploded” bodies “even if they have locked their women inside houses and windowless clothing”, and grief for the lost beauty of heroes like a “former warrior” who “once had to try to survive/ death by wet bag torture’ and now drives an ‘arms-deal-payola 4×4”. Of a desire to empathise even with dictators, the troubling and “eagerly spilling” sympathies that “ambush” you. Of baby birds who watch their parents “rip” the “red hearts” out of figs and the contamination of the natural world by the deeds and metaphors of a humanity “strutting heavily forward flinging arms wide/ across cities seas deserts forests feathers fins fur flesh/ preparing to vaporise all things bright and beautiful”. Of things “every woman knows”, like the moment “when honour [..] starts to take […] what it wants”.
The work has obvious feminist, Marxist, postcolonial and ecocritical leanings, celebrating the “unloved and magnificent” woman who gives birth “while prison guards tortured her and laughed” and remarking upon “the nature of capitalist consumption, its riches and its punishments”, the ravages of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and the exploitation of animals and the earth. As painful as many of the poems are, the tone is occasionally lightened by moments of humour (“Being told you’re made of stardust is not helpful as you sit holding a parking ticket […] You are stardust that parked in a loading zone”); allusions to popular culture; a celebration of travel and flanêrie; and a (not entirely ironic) affirmation of the possibilities of science (“I love science, it radiates more imagination and longing/ than all the love poems ever published”). The poems show a fascination with cities, with dance, with domesticated animals, with ordinariness and small lives: “One of the uses of useful plants/ is to take less water than useless plants/so that the useless plants can survive”.
To my taste some of the poems (and indeed the collection as a whole) could be sparer; there is perhaps too much space given to the “sad little poems” that “poets write to themselves/ when they’re sitting at windows on hot nights/ unable to write/anything worth calling a poem”. But there are many insistent and powerful poems in Slowly, As If that bear repeated reading and contemplation.
* Mark Sanders explains that the dominant Zulu formulation of this concept, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” means “a human being [umuntu] is a human being through human beings [abantu]”); Sanders, Complicities: the Intellectual and Apartheid (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), p.120.