Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ingrid de Kok - Other Signs (2010)

Ingrid de Kok. Other Signs. Kwela / Snailpress, 2010. ISBN 978 0 7957 0397 3.

Reviewer: Joan Hambidge

The accomplished English South African poet Ingrid de Kok’s new volume of poetry is a must read packed with complex and seemingly simple poems. The poet regards her muse as a male figure and argues deftly why this is the case. Her poems grapple with losses, uncertainties and death; hence the muse should be a male figure (“My muse is a man”, 51). Entitled Other Signs, her fifth volume, the reader is positioned as a decoder in semiotic terms. The poems deal with political issues, remembrance of things past, history, ecology and reflect on the importance of poetry in a complex world. This is poetry in the space of the private (longing for a child, reflections on the importance of friendship) and the political domain. (De Kok’s poem on Bishop Tutu in a former volume will always haunt me as an riveting poem on violence and our responsibility to forgive).

In the acknowledgments we read (and decode) that some of these poems appeared in earlier versions. De Kok’s poems are well balanced and deftly constructed.  There is an interplay between poems in this volume of an “inward gaze” ("At the Rembrandt House, Amsterdam”, 56) where the poet focusses on the arbitrary sign or unexpected twist, namely the dog sleeping for over four hundred years. “Married late” (38) with the repetition of “I married early, then I married late” stresses the importance of form. The incessant obsession with words is magnificently demonstrated in “Wings” (31):

Wings, you see, it comes back to wings,
not lace, not gossamer thread
intricately spun to contain a world,
but burnished angels, their unfurled wings
words that hide or shelter, or lean forward into song.

Emily Dickinson’s famous poem on the gossamer thread is neatly encoded in this ars poetica and “On the hour” (24) the “unidentified sweet foreign blossom // insinuates into the uncertain morning” stresses that the poem happens whilst we dream or think about something else, a notion that reflects on Auden’s views of poetry.  “All things considered” (15) analyses human indifference. Maybe we should know as the rabbi “to know what is enough” (The rabbi speaks to the wind”, 14):

Give us this day
give us this life 
give us the key

“The owl and the swan” (55) appeared on Litnet and is dedicated to Antjie Krog and John Samuel. The poet addresses Krog’s desire to be an African and to listen to the messages of birds, whilst swans represent an European consciousness.

I am an African, I believe in the messages of birds

The volume is hailed by the former poet laureate of America, Robert Pinsky, as a “vision of her country through the lens of poetry”. An outstanding accomplishment published by Kwela and Snailpress. And the male muse? There is a primacy of sound and language that sings to the reader.

[This review has been published in Cape Argus before.]