Afrikaans poetry: new voices.
During the turbulent times of the state of emergency in the late 1980s most Afrikaans poets chose not to include the discursive elements associated with political oppression in their work. They chose instead to write poems that dealt with the private aches of the individual and this personal, almost autobiographical, tendency continues, for example, in the work of the poet Danie Marais. Furthermore, since most 'coloured' Afrikaans poets at the time did not find the Afrikaans literary system as accessible as it is today, they were unable to publish their protests against the state machinery that infiltrated all facets of their existence.
The postcolonial moment in South Africa in 1994 not only liberated the country sociopolitically, but also made it evident that many authors had reached a point of political saturation. Evident in literature from the period since 2000 is reflection on identity, and in particular what constitutes a South African identity. Where one finds a poet reflecting on the new South African dispensation, there is emphasis on issues such as farm murders, lack of service delivery, poor education and health facilities--and these are generally discussed from a white perspective. A question that is constantly asked is: have socioeconomic and political conditions improved for South Africans since 1994?
One major advantage for Afrikaans literature in particular since 1994 is the broadening of the global context and the opening of new possibilities for Afrikaans authors, who for the first time are read in English translation. (Previously mainstream Afrikaans authors' works tended to be translated only into Dutch.) This has resulted in a renewed interest in Afrikaans literature and the 'discovery' by English readers of Antjie Krog, following the publication of her internationally acclaimed Country of my Skull. Krog has also started publishing her poetry in English, and in April 2009 was invited to Columbia University to debate with Adrienne Rich on their positions as poets.
Contemporary Afrikaans academic discourse is however still characterised by intertextual dialogue with the continental philosophical traditions, in particular the work of Derrida and Foucault, and postcolonial theory as expounded by Spivak and Said. Efforts are made to include 'coloured' Afrikaans authors and academics in the discursive ensemble of Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals. I have opted to use the term 'coloured' here because of the marginalisation that continues even in post-apartheid South Africa. 'Coloured' intellectuals find themselves in a difficult position: do they belong to the formerly white Afrikaans-speaking community or should they side with the African majority who may only be interested in promoting the interests of African people? During the 2009 elections it was evident that 'coloured' voters felt more at home with the Democratic Alliance than with the African National Congress. It has been suggested that the future of Afrikaans in academia and the sciences may lie with its 'coloured' speakers, rather than with the dwindling number of white users.
Andre Brink in 1990 already envisaged what he regarded as the dominant features of a postcolonial, post-apartheid Afrikaans literature. One essential feature, he claimed (1991:9), would be exploration of the relationship between self and other, and especially the recognition of the self within the other, and vice versa. Nearly twenty years later, in a South Africa after apartheid, it is appropriate to explore Brink's remark, particularly from a queer theoretical point of view. South African society is still predominantly heteronormative, despite a liberal pro-queer constitution. Heterosexuality is still regarded as the norm--the self--whereas queer is still associated with the other. And in her discussion of modern Afrikaans poetry Helize van Vuuren (2001: 48) remarks that "[I]n contrast to the extensive volume of mainstream Afrikaans gay poetry, very little poetry of this kind exists in the South African English canon".
Cheryl Stobie explains that queer strategies aim to "disrupt dominant discourses by means of performativity, the performance of stylised acts which expose the social structuring of gender and sexuality, and hold out the possibility of change and diversity" (2007:16-17). Such alternative readings of discourses "disrupt heteronormative discourse". My reading of the poetry of the 'new voices' in contemporary Afrikaans poetry will be an attempt to contest the prevailing heteronormative (heterosexist?) discourse, and one way of doing this is to divide my essay according to categories based on gender. I am aware that such categorisation smacks strongly of essentialism, but as Spivak puts it: I am working here with rather an old-fashioned binary opposition.... Let us hold on to this opposition, if only as a differance, one pushing at the other so that our discourse may live (1991: 112).
Similarly, the following statement by Michael Chapman needs to be borne in mind: "In procedures of re-positioning alternative or marginalised voices, of course, the critic risks an impasse of race or gender. By assuming a commitment to special black or women's work in which the previously negelected author is perhaps given exclusive prominence, for example, it can become difficult to connect the study to the functionings of the entire society" (1996: 5).
1.1 What is a new voice?
In a lecture delivered at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in 2002, Louise Viljoen explains what she regards as a "new voice" within Afrikaans literary discourse. Firstly, it refers to an author who has published a book for the first time--which is the point of departure of my essay. Secondly, she points out that black Afrikaans writers could also be regarded as new voices because since the 1990s they have felt able to become part of an Afrikaans literary system that is more accessible, even inviting, than before. Thirdly, when an established author publishes a book in a genre new to him or her this too is an example of a new voice.
1.2 Themes in Afrikaans poetry (1998-2003)
Bernard Odendaal (2006: 105-48) delineates the following major themes in Afrikaans poetry published in the period 1998 to 2003: marginalisation versus popularisation of poetry; the use of non-standard Afrikaans; the issue of an Afrikaans and especially a South African identity; nomadism and migration; cultural pessimism; ageing and mortality; gender issues; a new type of resistance; autobiographical writing; concerns about the environment and global warming; and a religious tendency. These themes are still prevalent in Afrikaans poetry up until 2008, but in the work of Loftus Marais, for instance, there is a strong intertextual rivalry with the Afrikaans poetry canon.
2. Overview of first collections published since 2000
Two collection of Afrikaans poetry published in 2000, Zandra Bezuidenhout's Dansmusieke [Dance tunes] and Christine Barkhuizen-Le Roux's Dimensie [Dimension], were published by the newly established publishing house, Suider Kollege Uitgewers. Martjie Bosman made her debut in 2001 with Landelik [Rural], whereas in 2001 clergyman/politician Allan Boesak published his ... tot sterwens toe: liefdesgedigte en tralies [... until death: love poems and prison bars], and the novelist Riana Scheepers made her debut as a poet in 2001 with Met die taal van karmosyn [In the language of crimson]. Another first volume of poetry is that of Ronel Nel, which appeared in 2001 as en die here het foto's geneem oor vanderbiljpark [and God took photos over vanderbijlpark].
In 2003 Ilse van Staden's highly acclaimed Watervlerk [Wing of water] was published and in the same year Marius Crous made his debut with Brief uit die kolonies [Letter from the colonies]. Sarina Donges's In die tyd van die uile [In the time of the owls] appeared in 2004 as did Johannes van Jerusalem's Eros ontbind [Eros unbound] and Carina Stander's Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg [The mangrove will fly again] in 2006. Gilbert Gibson made his debut in 2005 with Boomplaats--the title refers to a place--and Danie Marais published his In die buitenste ruimte [In outer space] in 2006. In 2007 Andries Bezuidenhout published Retoer [Return], and Bernard Odendaal produced Onbedoelde land [Unintended country]. In 2008 Loftus Marais and Ronelda Kamfer made their debuts with Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters [All stand closer to windows] and Noudat slapende honde [Now that sleeping dogs], respectively.
3. The milk of human kindness: White women's voices
3.1 Zandra Bezuidenhout
The Afrikaans poetry scene since 2000 has been dominated by new female voices, from Zandra Bezuidenhout in 2000 to Ronelda Kamfer in 2008. Bezuidenhout's Dansmusieke provides the reader with a nostalgic perspective on the life of a young girl, and contains several poems dealing with family relations and the death of a parent. "Groet" [Greeting] is written from the perspective of the daughter who accompanies her father on a visit to her mother's grave. The collection is divided into four sections: "paringsdans", "tongdans", "bloeddans", "ringdans" [coital dance, tongue dance, blood dance, ring dance] and the poems have a strong lyrical and musical quality. Eroticism is downplayed, despite the titles of the sections.
3.2 Martjie Bosman
Bosman is preoccupied, as the title of her collection suggests, with the rural environment and gives a commentary on nature and ecological issues. Odendaal (2006: 117) remarks that in Landelik there is a strong sense of belonging to South Africa, Africa and the world in general. Her awareness of the environment is evident in the poem "Ontmoetings" [Encounters] where reference is made to the dry land, burnt to ashes by a winter veld fire. "Lady Macbeth" is an exploration of the relationship between black and white women in South Africa, particularly the culture of compassion and the sharing of food. The speaker, however, ends by asking: "Die melk van menslike deernis / maak my weerloos: wie sal die mes / van geweld teen die ander vel?" [this milk of human kindness / makes me vulnerable: who will use the knife / of violence against the other?] .
3.3 Ilse van Staden
Watervlerk is the first volume of poetry by Van Staden, who has won all the major poetry prizes in Afrikaans for it. According to Odendaal (2006: 122) the title is intended to suggest the juxtaposition of two worlds: the aquatic and atmospheric. In comparison to angels, human beings are called "handvlerkiges" [those with hands for wings] who can merely write about heaven while confined to earth. Most of the poems in this collection are short, impressionist pieces on a range of topics such as fish, fossils, the coelacanth, metamorphosis and death. The last forms the gist of a poem entitled "Bekenning" [Admission], with the opening line: "Ek is nie bang vir die dood nie" (38) [I do not fear death]. Death is seen as a thoroughfare to a dream-like state, or a holiday planned long in advance. "Death is an illusion" [Van Staden's title] continues to develop this theme: "Daar is geen anderkant nie, / net hier / en hierdie woorde teen die muur" (59) [There is no other side, / just here / and these words against the wall].
3.4 Sarina Donges
Mortality, and in particular the death of a parent, is also one of the themes in Donges's In die tyd van die uile. This theme is often combined with strongly religious sentiments, and meditation on the role of God in human suffering. A central poem in this regard is "Brief aan God, Hoogleraar in Pynen Letselkunde" (49) [Letter to God, Professor of Pain and Wounds Science]. God is portrayed as an academic, whereas the speaker's friend, Johann, is a student of pain and death but unable to die, and experiences excruciating pain. The speaker asks whether God could not make an exception in this case and make the examination paper easier so that Johann can pass his "hoeveelste hereksamen / in Sterfkunde" [umpteenth re-examination / in the Science of Dying]. In the poem "Thanatos" (14) there is again, as the title suggests, a preoccupation with death and with Lethe's ship, always departing on time.
In the poem "Die dood as minnaar" (18) [Death as lover], the figure of death addresses a dying woman. He has an all-consuming erotic desire for her body, despite its being old and disfigured by cellulite and stretch marks. "Vir die nekroloog" (19) [To the necrologist] is written on the death of the Afrikaans children's author, Elsabe Steenberg, her death described in terms of the writing process. The poem ends with the deceased's being compared to a book that will no longer be read.
Donges's collection ends with a cycle of poems called "Briewe aan 'njong digter" (65-8) [Letters to a young poet] and is based on Rainer Maria Rilke's book of the same title. In this cycle the poet considers the art of writing and how a young poet should approach the art and craft. The solitary art of writing poetry is compared to the work of monks and the young poet is admonished to avoid certain themes: "Vermy die liefde eers / en algemene temas, / fokus op droombeelde / en gedagtes wat verbyvaar/ soos wolke, trek die laaie / van herinnering oop / en as al u skemas/ soos kaartehuise stort, / roep dan die skatkis / van u kinderjare op" [Avoid love at first / and general themes, / focus on dream imagery / and thoughts that float by / like clouds, open the drawers / of memory/ and if all your schemes / tumble like houses of cards / then call to mind the treasure chest / of your childhood].
3.5 Carina Stander
In contrast to the minimalist poems of Van Staden, Stander's poems are characterised by an abundance of baroque imagery. The first section of her collection, Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg, focuses on the Waterberg, where she grew up; the second section deals with sociopolitical issues such as sexual violence against women. The third section contains love poems, and in the fourth section the poet deals with spirituality and Christianity. The second section is a contemporary response to Ingrid Jonker's famous "The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga" (1988: 27) and opens with a poem entitled "Die kind is dood, maar sy haal asem" (43) [The child is dead but is still breathing]. The subheading of Stander's poem suggests that the poem was written for a victim of an AIDS rape. (1) She presents the experiences of the rape victim in imagery pertaining to the child's environment and culture. In contrast to this is the poem "Halflyf" (45) [Half-length] with its reinscribing of figures from folk tales such as "Hansel and Gretel" into a contemporary setting.
A recurring theme in Stander's poetry is that of travelling, particularly through Africa. Poems describe experiences in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. The poetic discourse is interspersed with words from the languages of these countries. The presentation of the countries is often combined with descriptions of erotic encounters between husband and wife, and imagery from the natural environment is used to describe their passion.
Angels, nature, exploring the continent, a yearning for the past and an almost 'New Age' reverence for life have been the major thematic concerns in the work of white Afrikaans female poets since 2000. In contrast to their male counterparts, their work is not characterised by an obsessive emphasis on sexuality and the body. One misses the strong voice of an Antjie Krog, since the poems tend to be too overtly sentimental.
4. The 'Other' speaks: 'Coloured' Afrikaans voices
4.1 Allan Boesak
In 2001 the collection of poems, . tot sterwens toe: liefdesgedigte en tralies, by the anti-apartheid cleric Allan Boesak, was published by Human and Rousseau, one of the mainstream Afrikaans publishing houses. The publication of poetry by a well-known public figure is aimed at exploiting the loyalties of his or her followers. Human and Rousseau publish Afrikaans poems by the ANC politician Mathews Phosa and the poorly-written attempts at versification by the Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyer. Boesak's autobiographical collection contains photographs of himself and his wife Elna, and several of the poems are dedicated to his wife whom he asks to be his love and his Valentine ["My Lief, kom wees my Valentyn (11)]. The collection is sentimental and riddled with cliches. One section contains poems written in gaol during 2000, and is reminiscent of the prison poems of Breyten Breytenbach, although Boesak's poems are more oblique. He misses his wife and his books, and as a constant reminder of her love he has stuck a photograph of her behind his cell door (19). He is uneasy with his fellow inmates who are constantly bickering about religion, pseudophilosophies and politics. Whilst incarcerated on charges of misappropriating Scandinavian donor money, the poet starts to question his Christian faith. In one of the poems he describes an exercise break in the courtyard and compares himself to St Peter at the palace of the high priest (32). It is in this state of mind that he realises that he has been silenced in this new, alienating environment: "My tong le lam / my mond is skuurpapier / my siel is nerfaf / ek lag met grond tussen my tande" (32) ["My tongue is lame / my mouth is sandpaper/ my soul is abraded / I am laughing with sand between my teeth"].
4.2 Ronelda Kamfer
In her writing Kamfer (born in 1981) explores issues of identity and gender, as well as commenting on the sociopolitical reality of living in contemporary South Africa. The title poem of her collection Noudat slapende honde--alluding to the expression 'let sleeping dogs lie'--provides the reader with comments on identity and in particular that of a female, 'coloured' Afrikaans-speaking South African. The poem also delivers a scathing attack on white South Africans, who suddenly want to embrace and accept her: "Noudat ek net mense sien / en my tekort aan kuns en kultuur / my harregat gemaak het / nou's ek goed genoeg / om deel te wees van die stelsel" [Now that I see only people / and the fact that my lack of art and culture / has made me hard-arsed / now I am good enough / to be part of the system].
In the poem "vergewe my maar ek is Afrikaans" (32) [forgive me for being Afrikaans], the poet lashes out at the Afrikaner establishment, represented by old men with "creepy, lang grys baarde, lang sokkies" [creepy, long grey beards, long socks] and who believe that "kaki go wif eweryfing". The establishment and its extended apparatus the police were formerly seen as the "Boogie Man"; now, expressing her new understanding that the Afrikaner establishment has lost its political power, she is brave enough to proclaim: "ek praat julle taal / ek eet julle kos / ek bly in julle vaderland / ek drink julle wyn / ek sing julle musiek / en liewe ooms, ek,ja ek, ek vry met julle seuns" [I speak your language / I eat your food / I live in your fatherland / I drink your wine / I sing your songs / and dear uncles, I, yes I, I make love to your sons]. Jabu Terre'Blanche, the adopted black son of the white neighbours, is quoted at the end of the poem as an example of the fusion of racial identities. His reference to his "two-toned" shirt is significant, conveying the message of the poem. Kamfer finds herself in an in-between space, between black and white.
In Kamfer's collection there is also a revelation of the realities of growing up as a 'coloured' female in South Africa and the extent to which life has not improved for most people under the new democratic dispensation. A significant poem in this regard is "Pick 'n Pa" (24): the title alludes to the supermarket chain Pick 'n Pay. The speaker enumerates the different types of fathers that she knows of: jobless ones, imprisoned fathers, drunkards, those that hate their children, beat their wives, rape their daughters or who are depressed owing to their circumstances. Her own father is unknown and the impression is created that she believes he might be one of these types.
A poem such as "goeie meisies" (43) [good girls] is an indirect comment on life on the Cape Flats, and the position of young women in the community. The poet uses words from the Cape Flats vernacular, as she does in other poems in the collection. It is, however, a pity the publisher did not include a glossary or footnotes.
Despite the hardships of living on the Cape Flats and trying to find one's identity as a 'coloured' Afrikaans-speaking woman, she concludes that she remains standing ("ek staan nog steeds" (47)), which, ironically calls to mind the closing words of the one of first major novels in Afrikaans, J C van Melle's Bart Nel (2004), where the rebellious white Afrikaner nationalist, after having suffered hardships, is able to proclaim that he is still standing and secure in his own identity.
5. Slipping into the receptive slit: White heterosexual male voices
The heterosexual male voices since 2000 include Allan Boesak (discussed under Black Voices), Gilbert Gibson, Danie Marais, Andries Bezuidenhout, Johannes van Jerusalem and Bernard Odendaal.
5.1 Johannes van Jerusalem
Van Jerusalem's Eros Ontbind is, as the title suggests, a celebration of eroticism. The poems are written in the form of a narrative about a femme fatale figure, Milla, introduced in the first poem. The first poem sets out to describe Milla's bus ride but turns into an erotic fantasy with Milla as the sexual object for several men on the bus. As an attempt to balance this almost voyeuristic description, the speaker decides to meditate, burn incense and forget about Milla, but she immediately enters his consciousness; her mouth, tongue and thighs cause him to forget his spiritual exercise and he ends up sexually aroused (17). Other characters are Henry, Mnemon, Helena and her lover Hafiz: in a long poem a three-way sexual encounter between Mnemon, Helena and Hafiz is described. Whereas the collection has started with subtle and overtly poetic description of erotic love and intimacy, the poet now uses words such as "kont" [cunt], "ballas" [balls], which are contrasted in the next poem with Milla's dream of love (27). The collection is a heterosexual celebration of love, lust and sexual excess and the poet links eroticism and the writing of poetry: "Hoekom / kom 'n man terug / om in 'n vrou te le? / Dis om gedigte / vol liefde te se." (64) [Why / does a man come back / to lie inside a woman? / It is to speak poems / full of love.].
5.2 Gilbert Gibson
Gibson's Boomplaats contains poems about the battle of Boomplaats in 1901 and describes life in the Free State in general. As a medical doctor, he often uses medical terms and includes a glossary. His description of the Free State calls to mind celebrations of the open veld in the earlier work of Antjie Krog and of his contemporary Bernard Odendaal. An example of the medical discourse used by the poet occurs in the poem "die muur" (49) [the wall], which opens: "as jesus vandag betyds van die / kruis kon kom, sou spanne chirurge hom / resussiteer met kollo'ide intraveneuse vog, met / profilaktiese antibiotika en sorgsame ontsmet / van sy wonde." [if jesus today were to be taken in time / from the cross, teams of surgeons would / resuscitate him with colloid intravenous fluid, with / prophylactic antibiotics and careful disinfecting / of his wounds.]. A different facet of religion appears in the poem "inkwisisie" (54) [inquisition] where the Virgin Mary is transposed to the Free State: "en ek verbeel jou / vreeslik vrystaats in die wind, / en ek gis ofjy verlang / na die nasaretswaai van takke / en ofjy weet dat stofstrate nooit / van die voete gewas kan word nie" [and I imagine you/ very free state-like in the wind / and I wonder if you long / for the nazareth-like wave of branches / and whether you know that dusty streets / can never be washed from the feet]. In the poem "op my muur" (84) [on my wall] there is a description of his beloved, who, in contrast to the Virgin, carries a bunch of flowers and wears a dress covered in pearls. Since the description is not erotic, she may represent a real life-like version of the Virgin Mary, especially since she is associated with purity and beauty.
5.3 Danie Marais
Marais's In die buitenste ruimte is described by Andries Visagie (2007:76) as one of the best debut volumes of recent years in Afrikaans, although the egotism of the speaker, struggling to adapt to life in Germany, tends to become monotonous. Most of the poems deal with the period of about eight years when Marais lived in Germany. Visagie describes the collection as a recent addition to migration literature in Afrikaans. The poems not only deal with life in hyper-efficient, organised Germany (even the clouds march and drill like soldiers (43)) but also catalogue the breakdown of a marriage. As an immigrant worker in Germany the poet attends a reading by a Tuareg poet, Hawad, and during this reading in a stuffy north German lecture hall he realises the sense of camaraderie between them as two African poets: "Beste Hawad / Ek wens jy kon weet/ hoe ek verstaan--verstaan van praat / met 'n koue, nat Novembernag in 'n taal / wat my vrou nie verstaan nie [...] Hawad, ek sien jy weet hoe dit voel / om dooie woorde te slinger na stilte" (67) [Dear Hawad / I wish I you could realise / how I understand--understand talking / to a cold, wet November night in a language / that my wife does not understand [...] Hawad, I see that you know how it feels / to fling dead words at the silence]. Throughout the collection there is a yearning for South Africa and for the close-knit family life left behind. It is whilst he is in Germany that he learns of his grandmother's death (82). A riveting poem in this first collection by Marais is "Aan 'n seegroen kombuistafeltjie erens" (71) [At a sea-green kitchen table somewhere]. It presents the reader with an argument between a man and a woman, which develops into a slanging match of accusations and swearing. The speaker in the poem constantly quotes from, amongst others, Robert Lowell, and it is beginning to annoy his antagonist, who calls him a "drama queen". Yet, after the exhausting altercation between the two of them, he is the one who capitulates and expresses his love for her. Summarising his existence in Germany, he writes: "Ek het onthou hoe alleen ek / vir jare in Duitsland was. / Dit het my goddank bly gemaak / om terug te wees in Suid-Afrika [...] Maar dit het my ook laat dink / aan jou,/ aan ons vreemde nege jaar saam, / aan daai laaste twee ondraaglike maande / in Bremen." (93) [I recall how lonely I was / for years in Germany / made me glad, thank God, / to be back in South Africa [...] But it also made me think / of you, / and of our weird nine years together, / those last two unbearable months / in Bremen.].
5.4 Andries Bezuidenhout
In the title poem of Retoer Bezuidenhout re-examines the history of the white settlers in South Africa who built a castle to keep out those who wanted to steal their property by night (26). In a series of poems he pinpoints certain historical events, such as the death of Steve Biko. As a young white male he was conscripted into the army and in the poem "Mirage" (38) he writes about his experience of Namibia. An interesting device in the collection is the inclusion of sketches made by the poet during his days in the army. In the section "Gomorra" [Gomorrah] several poems deal with life in Johannesburg and the origins of the City of Gold. In a clever poem "Aandete in Brixton" (82) [Supper in Brixton] different kinds of food prepared in the area are mentioned and the poet comments on the social inequalities between suburbs: "Reuke trek hier ver--/ veral die wat bekend is: / vet, murg en vleis / wat van bene afkook, / aangebrande rys, / macaroni-en-kaas / wat 'n harde kors / te na aan die oondelement bak, / beetslaai wat gis. / Iewers word boontjiesop gebrou / en harde eiers blou / in doppe gestook. // Daar oorkant in Melville / maak die sushi bars oop." [Smells waft here--especially those that are familiar: / fat, marrow and meat / cooked off the bones, / rice stuck to the pan, / macaroni and cheese / getting a hard crust / from baking too close to the oven element, / beetroot salad fermenting. / Somewhere bean soup is brewing / and eggs in their shells / are distilled blue. // Over there in Melville / the sushi bars are opening.]. Retoer ends with an apocalyptic poem about life in South Africa called "Dam" (95) in which the image of the dam wall is used as a metaphor to signify exclusion and separation. In a rhetorical question, the speaker in the poem asks: "Sal daar waarskuwings wees? / Sal sirenes loei, benoude stemme / oor die radio mense vra om // asseblief / te / ontruim?" [Will there be warnings? / Will sirens sound, anxious voices / ask people on the radio // please / do / evacuate?].
5.5 Bernard Odendaal
An acute awareness of the dangers of living in contemporary South Africa is one of the major themes in Odendaal's Onbedoelde land. The choice of title echoes the novel cycle published by the Afrikaans novelist F A Venter from 1960 onwards with titles such as Geknelde land [Troubled country], Offerland [Sacrificial country], Gelofteland [Country of the Covenant] and Bedoelde land [Intended country], dealing with the Great Trek and the position of white South Africans in Africa. The pessimistic tone of Venter's novels and the white settlers' lack of faith in the future are echoed in Odendaal's modernised version in what he, in response to Venter, calls "an unintended country".
An unusual textual strategy in Odendaal's collection is the inclusion of a photo of the poet, his wife and his two children (92), which not only suggests the heterosexual coding of the collection but also emphasises the role played by the poet's family in his life, as is evident in several poems. A poem such as "gesinsgedig" (71) [family poem] is an example of this. This poem interacts with the tradition in Afrikaans of the role of the poet as mother and housewife that can be traced back to Elisabeth Eybers and Antjie Krog. In Odendaal's case we have a poem about the father as poet and husband, ending with a celebration of marital love. This is also the theme of "Manhaftig" (73) [Masculine bravery]: "Ons klein bed. / Houtplafon se oe. Die diep nag/ waarin ons val, val. Dan swaaijou been oor my heup,/jou asem tandepastavars. My dooi geslag/ vergroot ontroerd--glip manhaftig in jou gul gleuf." [Our tiny bed. / The wooden ceiling's eyes. The deep night / into which we fall, fall. Then you swing your leg across my hip, / your breath toothpaste fresh. My dead sex / starts to grow thrillingly--slips bravely into your receptive slit.].
Throughout the collection there is a strong preoccupation with history, the origin of the family, and an analysis of life in the Free State. Most of the poems are set in a masculine, heterosexual sphere and describe events such as conscription into the army, hunting expeditions in the 1860s, and the role of patriarchal figures such as the poet's father, the dominee and his predecessors at the university where he is teaching. Odendaal also comments on the realities of life in the new South Africa and bases one of his poems on a newspaper article that deals with a farm attack (59). It ends with the following disconcerting lines: "'n Vraag na planne vir die toekoms het haar lank laat wag ... / 'Hul't als gevat: my goed, my man ... my land.' En rou gehuil." [A question about her plans for the future made her hesitate for a long while ... /'They have taken everything: my stuff, my husband ... my country.' And wept bitterly.]. Ingrid Jonker's "The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga" has also inspired Odendaal to write a contemporary version entitled "Die kind is steeds nie dood nie" (65) [The child is still not dead]. In it he comments that life has not improved for most black people in the country: references are made to sewerage, diseases, corruption, hunger, homelessness, poor education, the abuse of affirmative action, and the corruption of officials. The poem ends with the child asserting that she will claim what is rightfully hers without relying on permission from her ancestors.
6. The fire-resistant cat suit: Queer voices
Two 'queer' voices in the period since 2000 are those of Marius Crous and Loftus Marais, the latter with his collection Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters. The queer poetry tradition in Afrikaans goes back to I D du Plessis and includes poets such as Phil du Plessis, Stephan Bouwer, Johann de Lange and Joan Hambidge, with her explicit lesbian erotic poems. In commenting on the queer tradition in Afrikaans poetry, Van Vuuren (1999: 287) points out that this tradition is characterised by a transgression of the taboo on the subject: in contemporary Afrikaans queer poetry, eroticism is overt.
6.1 Marius Crous
Odendaal (2006: 142) in his comments on Crous's Brief uit die kolonies [Letter from the colonies] points out that there is a strong politicisation of queerness in this collection. Furthermore, there is, according to Odendaal (126), an emphasis on the transgressive behaviour of the gay man, particularly with regard to gender roles. The celebration of queerness is regarded as a supreme achievement of the postcolonial dispensation. Crous analyses the colonial encounter, the mapping out of new territories and life in a postcolonial society. The colonial official is presented in some of the poems as a gay man who exploits indigenous boys for his sexual gratification.
6.2 Loftus Marais
In Marais's poem, "Die anatomie van M" (20) [The anatomy of M], the reader is confronted by what is described as "polaroid close-ups" of the body of the male lover, which the speaker is trying to reconstruct whilst recalling the bits and pieces that he remembers. The parts of the body that he does not want to share with the reader are classified as pornographic and excluded from the poem. The poem "Daddy" (32) contains a description of the leather-bar gay scene. The object of desire in this poem is an older man ("die paar grys hare op sy bors" [the few grey hairs on his chest]. In this artificially created and exclusively queer environment the speaker and the older gay man engage in intellectual conversation about philosophy ("foucault"), poetry ("thom gunn") and films ("bergman"). The conversation then turns into a discussion of sexual piercing and ends with the question: "het jy al ooit op 'n graf genaai?" [have you ever fucked on a grave?]. Earlier in the poem the older man refers to his "prince albert-ring" and the necessity of this penile piercing for achieving orgasm, which he describes as "die kleindood" [small death]. In doing so, the poet makes a distinct link between death and sexuality and comments on the idiosyncrasies of queerness and its exploration of different forms of sexual expression.
"Ook aan die Kaap geskrywe" (33) [Also written at the Cape] alludes to the title of a collection of poems by the Afrikaans poet Wilma Stockenstrom, Aan die Kaap geskrywe [Written at the Cape], especially the poem that depicts Cape Town as an old woman. In Marais's poem, the city of Cape Town is compared to a "prossie-transvestiet" [prostitute-transvestite] and the entire poem about "Lady Capetown" is written in a camp, almost over-the-top manner. This is one of the examples in this collection where Marais engages with the Afrikaans poetry canon, as he does in the poem "Die digter as rockstar" (40) [The poet as rock star]. In this poem, the poetic tradition in Afrikaans is evoked by the reference to the small chisel in the second last line of the poem--a reference to the famous poem by N P van Wyk Louw. Whereas Van Wyk Louw in 1954 compared his craftsmanship to that of someone who works meticulously with a small chisel ("Die beiteltjie"), Marais sees the poet as someone who has a "fokken lugdrukboor" [a fucking pneumatic drill]. Furthermore, the young poet draws large crowds and sees "punctuation as piercings" [punctuation as body piercings]; he wears "'n studded leather broek" [studded leather pants] and has excerpts from poems by Wallace Stevens tattooed onto his back. Elsewhere, in the poem "Op soek" (42) [Looking for], he compares the poet to a masturbator, a thief and a voyeur, always on the lookout for new material.
The most representative example of the camp element in Marais's work is undoubtedly the poem "Wederkoms" (43) [The Second Coming]. The final meeting with Christ is described as follows: "sal ek my mooi maak/ regmaak / ek sal my sondes soosjuwele dra" [I will make myself pretty / ready/ I shall wear my sins like jewels]. Dabbing himself with "'n parfuum van skande en swael" [a perfume of shame and sulphur] he will approach Christ and curtsey, and then inform Him: "dat my catsuit / (opgevou in die groot tas langs die vanity case)/ fire-resistant is" [that my cat suit / (neatly folded in the big suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant]. Not only is this a satire on the Christian preoccupation with preparing to meet the Maker at the Second Coming, but it also provides the reader with a different slant on being queer. Whereas in the case of a poet such as Johann de Lange, there is constant portrayal of macho men cruising the dark alleys for sexual encounters with equally macho gays, in Marais's case there is sympathy for the often-derided drag queen (in Hambidge 2009: unpaginated). The drag queen is portrayed as defiant, willing to take on God if he has to. This attitude calls to mind the following remark by Camille Paglia (1994: 93): "My model of dualism is the drag queen, who negotiates between sexual personae, day by day.... Queens are fierce, in every sense. Masters of aggressive, bawdy speech, they know the street and its dangers and fight it out without running to authority figures, who would hardly be sympathetic.... Prostitute and drag queen are sexual warriors who offer a pagan challenge to bourgeois gentility."
Contemporary Afrikaans poetic voices are preoccupied with issues such as gender and identity, and with coming to terms with life in post-apartheid, democratic South Africa. In contrast with the voices of the late 1980s, their protest is more intellectual, intertextual (see the reinterpretation of Jonker's poem) and a revisiting of the Afrikaans literary canon. Whereas Afrikaans literature has always been preoccupied with the Netherlands, since the advent of democracy (and as a result of the emigration of young white South Africans) countries such as Germany or others on the African continent are also included in poetic discourse in Afrikaans. The pre-1994 romanticising of the African continent as exotic other is now replaced by an unsentimental perspective. The poetry of contemporary poets is more global, dealing with issues such as ecocriticism, migration, and the formation of an identity and subjectivity in a changing local and global context.
It is difficult to assess first volumes of poetry within the broader scope of a literary discourse since many poets fail to live up to the promise of their first collections and it is often alleged that the true test of a poet's progress is the second volume of poetry. In the case of the poets mentioned above (and it would be immodest to position myself), time will tell whether the exuberance of New Age flights of fancy or the intellectual interplay between a medical discourse and poetry, the baroque musings on nature, or the debate with the canon will stand the test of time.Whereas there was enthusiastic appraisal of Danie Marais's first collection of poetry, critics felt that his second collection Al is die maan 'n misverstand (2009) [Even if the moon is a mere misunderstanding] was too similar to his debut output.
To return to Brink: despite the liberal constitution and the acceptance of gay rights as part of the post-apartheid dispensation, the critical self is still predominantly heteronormative and this position needs to be revisited. Afrikaans poetry in particular is characterised by the presence of several leading gay poets and needs a more queer-centred approach. At present the political issues pertaining to queer politics are not being examined. The voices of white heterosexual males and their phallic obsession with female sexuality need to be examined critically.
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(1.) A reference to the belief that AIDS may be cured if the sufferer has sex with a virgin, which has led to many rapes, even of small children.
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|Publication:||Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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