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A talent to watch.

Naude, Charl-Pierre. 2007. Against the light. Pretoria: Protea Book House. 131 p. Price: R120,00. ISBN: 978-1-86919-184-9.

I accepted the offer to review this book under the apprehension that it was a collection of stories. As it turns out, I wasn't far wrong. Against the light is a set of mainly narrative poems divided into ten sections, and it tells a compelling story. Beginning with memories of childhood, and tracing episodes from South Africa's torrid history and perplexing present, Charl-Pierre Naude's debut in English is a welcome event.

Each of the poem-clusters bears a title. The first, "Getting Home", contains two poems recalling moments from childhood and early adulthood. It gets the collection off to a good start. The more explicitly narrative poems in Against the light use their narrative momentum to good effect and are undoubtedly the best feature of the collection as a whole. "The Visitor", which recounts a surreal but entrancing encounter the speaker has with a female German hitchhiker in Namibia, is the pick of the collection for me.

Against the light is characterised by its use of startling images, and for the most part relies on fresh phrasings and unusual metaphors, but the collection is not without the occasional bathetic moment, or lapse into linguistic laziness. What is an "azure beach", for example ("The Visitor")--the only weak moment in a memorable poem?

Naude's authority--his ability to command the reader's assent--also falters occasionally. Is it so that "To give a name to something / is to breathe life into it" ("How I Got My Name")? I would have thought the opposite. Moreover, certain pronouncements, though bold-sounding, are opaque--or even void of discernible sense: "As for wisdom, / we know it ends in nothing. / Unless it hasn't arrived yet" ("Attributes").

"Against Love" is a strong but flawed poem: by turns bitter and wry, its ending, in which the speaker imagines a pair of estranged lovers entombed forever on a sea floor, warrants rendering in full here:
 We are sleeping at the bottom of a sea.
 Our faces are looking in opposite directions,
 two profiles embossed on separate coins.
 Out hair that would lift in the breeze of the present
 is now minted on the wind of eternity.
 We are a lost treasure.
 The ship tan aground in foul weather.

 But one day, on a clear day in the distant future
 two skin divers, a boy and a girl,
 two beautiful lovers in the shallow water,
 will discover you and me again
 with their brand new bodies
 and retrieve us

 from this forgotten wreck.

The extract serves as an example of all that is good and bad in the collection as a whole. To start with, the poem itself is too long: the extract quoted above is a mere fragment, and takes the form of a disjoined coda to a poem that is bewildering in its range. And, despite the richness of the imagery, its ability to draw the reader in, one feels compelled to ask, would there be wind at the bottom of the sea? "Currents of eternity" would surely be more apt. And why is "day" lazily repeated in the eighth line of the extract quoted above? Yet the erotic pun "skin divers" and the exhilarating notion that a love affair that has sunk to the ocean floor can be rediscovered as sunken treasure by a future love-struck couple are striking indeed.

Naude is at his best in wittily describing carnal acts. Take the ironically titled "A Solemn Affair", for example: "She mounts him like he's a motorcycle, / under a hay cover ... And kick-starts him tenderly". He, on the other hand, is "the prize-winning gardener" pushing "a porcelain wheelbarrow ... that squeaks and wobbles and / seizes up halfway".

Perhaps the most serious weakness of Against the light is the constant demands the collection places on its readers. I sometimes felt that I was being tossed about on a stormy sea, assaulted by wild waves of images. The poems are too often constructed in a helter-skelter manner, and are breathless in their execution. It is as if Naude is intoxicated by the richness of his poetic imagination, and too frequently allows his linguistic inventiveness to run away with him.

Inevitably, I am expressing my own taste in poetry in these remarks. And yet I cannot help but feel that in an era in which the genre has been pushed to the margins, it is poetry's ability to draw in the reader's attention, and to hold it in a concentrated fashion in order to reveal the hidden dimensions in the everyday, that will serve the genre best. To achieve this, discipline above all is required.

Finally, a word about the publishers. I have long admired the boldness and tenacity of Protea: this small publishing house has for some years published titles that more commercially minded houses pass over: among numerous other titles, new poetry collections by Stephen Gray and Leon de Kock, Gray's translation of Jules Verne's Star of the South, a reprinting of Malvern van Wyk Smith's Drummer Hodge: the poetry of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, and now this first collection in English by a promising new poetic voice. If Charl-Pierre Naude is able to tame his rampant virtuosity, he will become a talent to watch.

Reviewer: Craig MacKenzie

Department of English, University of Johannesburg
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Title Annotation:Against the Light
Author:MacKenzie, Craig
Publication:Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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