Friday, February 1, 2013

Ingrid Jonker - Black Butterflies. Selected poems (2007)

Ingrid Jonker. Black Butterflies: Selected Poems. (Translated by André Brink and Antjie Krog)Human & Rousseau, 2007.

Reviewer: Joan Hambidge


Years ago I read an interview in which the renowned poet, James Dickey, admits succinctly that he finds Sylvia Plath’s poems pathetic. How dare he! I thought indignantly at the time.

Lorelei-Jonker has been known to make an impression on many young Afrikaans readers, and even more so, on many young poets. Amongst others, she had had a great influence on Johann de Lange’s Waterwoestyn. For years I’ve been teaching a psychoanalytic course entitled ‘The Poem as Wound’ on the poetry of Jonker and Plath. At the back of my mind was the poet Johan van Wyk’s view that Jonker’s dates of birth and death formed the Jonker-text. Through the years she had gained god-like status in Afrikaans after Mandela read ‘Die kind’ in parliament. Jonker has also been immortalised in documentaries – her poems being read aloud sensitively and beautifully by Antjie Krog.

I am now where Dickey found himself with Plath in the Eighties. I can’t any more. I have supervised the final dissertation on the archetypes in the work of Jonker, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. What is Jonker? What is myth? Where, damn it, is the text?

Very reluctantly I started  reading this collection. However, is has been done so astoundingly well by Brink, a novelist who in his day had tried his hand at committing a few poems, and Krog, a foremost poet. On the back cover Mandela is quoted as saying that Jonker had been poet as well as South African, artist as well as human being. Amid despair, she celebrated hope and new possibilities.

Few poets do a good job at translation. Johann de Lange is an exception: he proved his talent for translation with his recent collection of translations of Wilma Stockenström poems. Like the translations of Stockenström, lines such as ‘I shall tell him that you have not died’ (p. 86) give  new life to Jonker in this translation by two sensitive readers: one who’ve known her personally; the other one who’ve seen and admits her influence.

As would have been expected, the true Afrikaans sensibility of Jonker could not be translated. Because of this, ‘code switching’ takes place. The following poem, for example, carries both English and Afrikaans in its innards:

Two hearts

Two hearts I have
the one pumps blood
and the other really looks like
an appelliefiekosie
or a paddatjie   (p. 111)

The strong sexual innuendo would have been lost had ‘frog’ been used. Some words and concepts remain untranslatable. ( And ‘paddatjie’ is not, by the way, a word to describe a girl’s secret little place; it’s ‘parratjie’, if I remember correctly.)

Some Jonker poems are easier to translate; others, especially the ones about love and death, move into a dark unconscious space that does not surrender easily to the translated word.

The collection contains an extremely revealing and sensitive essay written by Brink about their stormy relationship and Jonker’s youth. This doomed relationship led to one of the most creative unions in Afrikaans, although the personal distress – especially Brink’s – has never fully been quantified. Ted Hughes could only silence the rumours after Birthday Letters presented his side of the story. Sylvia Plath is not seen as an angel anymore, indeed, Janet Malcolm shows in The Silent Woman that Plath is not viewed in a singular sense – there exists different versions of her – like a matryoshka doll.

Brink tells of Jonker’s relationships with Jack Cope, Uys Krige and others. He tells of the abortion that would remain with her for the rest of her life, especially seen against the background of her life-long sense of rejection and abandonment.

How ironic when she writes: ‘To stow myself away like a secret / in a sleep of lambs and of cuttings’ (‘L’art poetique’, p. 94), this while being continuously kept awake by all these interpretations, films, translations and analyses. She shares the fate of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Lady Di: people keep on projecting themselves onto these figures and turn them into symbols.

‘Kantelson’ becomes ‘Tilting Sun’ (beautiful!) and there are several troves for poetry enthusiasts . One would have expected to find the original Afrikaans poem next to the English version in order to compare the two. (Obviously, the collection was meant for an overseas audience.)

The poems have been superbly translated. The introduction is startlingly honest and all of my resistances and moans have been demolished by Brink’s contribution. I’m seeing Jonker with new eyes. The introduction points to her obsession with mirrors; to writing as reconfirmation. As a matter of fact, one could buy the collection just for the insightful essay. (In less flattering terms, I could have thought about Jonker as a borderline disorder personality type.)

Rightly, Brink point out the shortcomings in past translations  of Jonker done by Plomer and Cope. Brink and Krog could also count on Ingrid de Kok’s advice.


There are remarkable poems in this selection and to transport a poem from one language to another, from one chora (in Kristeva’s definition), is a difficult task. But the translators convinced me:

Bitter-berry daybreak

Bitter-berry daybreak
bitter-berry sun
a mirror has broken
between me and him…

My personal favourites are:

“My embrace redoubled me” (p. 114), “Lullaby for the beloved” (p. 115), and of course: “The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga” (p. 85).

A lecturer in modern poetry could design a course on the exemplary work done by translators from Afrikaans to English. Johann de Lange’s recent translations of Wilma Stockenström’s poetry entitled The wisdom of water with the Jonker-translations would be essential texts.

I recommend this selection for all Anglophone readers. There are apt footnotes for the non-Afrikaans reader, but obviously we all understand the word “bokkie” or “meidjie”, nie waar nie?

Don’t sleep

Don’t sleep, look!
Behind the curtains the day begins to dance
With a peacock feather in its hat (p. 63)

[This review has previously been published in Scrutiny 2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa, Volume 13, Issue 2, 2008.]