excerpt: Intimate Stranger
Intimate StrangerA WRITING BOOK
By BREYTEN BREYTENBACH
archipelago booksCopyright © 2009 Breyten Breytenbach
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePOETRY IS THE BREATH OF AWARENESS
"However much you feed a wolf, it always looks to the forest. We are all wolves in the dense forest of Eternity." This was written by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, the man said softly as he stroked the silver fur of the animal crouched in his arms. The animal pricked up its ears, then strained to look back at the dark copse of trees where shadows moved as if alive. As if alive and waiting to move out into the open.
Listen, this process called poetry is an exercise in imagining memory, and then having that memory snare and cherish imagination. Yet, every poem is and will be a capsule of territory in the perpetual present tense, a vessel taking on the ever-changing colors of the sea.
Poetry is the breath of awareness and the breathing thereof. I even mean this literally, for underlying the flow and the fall of verses are 'natural units' of consciousness sculpted by rhythm, by recall, by movement reaching for the edges of meaning and of darkness. One could illustrate by averring that the poem is a membrane, rippling, thrumming; reminding us that we are breathing organisms continually translating the space around us, continually translating ourselves into spaces of the known and thus drawing circumferences around locations of the unknown. From this one could extrapolate that the practice and process of remembering/evoking/awakening events and our selves lead quite naturally to questioning the polarities of other and I, to writing (and un-writing) the self, and toward rewriting the world. The boat changes the water.
Poetry is also the wind of time and thus the movement and singing of being. An old poet friend of mine-now coming to the end of his life and cold to dying, the earth lurching under his unsteady tread as he hides his eyes behind tinted glasses to soften the glaring (maybe the gloating) look of Dog Death sniffing closer-told me the other day that whatever memory and understanding he has of himself, of the route and the roads traveled, of seas navigated, of big H history, he knows through the resonance of a clutch of poems.
"If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn." (Stanley Kunitz)
For when you hold a poem to your ear you hear the deep-sound, the movements we are part of, conveying not so much a literal meaning as an existential sense. It constitutes the spinal chord of remembering. And it reminds us that remembering is movement.
Yehuda Amichai once claimed that poetry was the last art form meant for the single human voice to communicate in a totally free fashion across boundaries of tongue and of time. Nothing could be more personal and nothing could be more selfless. It may be described as a Way of Telling (off) the Self. He might as well have added that it is also the first form, the most ancient chant of daybreak, fragile and indestructible. It conveys no power (except the non-power of freedom and free-fall); it normally doesn't give access to privilege or to status. Alles van waarde is weerloos, the Dutch poet, Lucebert, wrote. "Everything of value is defenseless." And the defenseless should be held cupped in the heart.
Over the ages contexts fade to a palimpsest, references become interpreted to an utter corruption of the original intention, the religion within which the poem lived like a fish in its ocean or bathtub of unsolicited understanding will have disappeared, the music to which it was set no longer exists -and yet this thing, this harmless but explosive mining metaphor and tool tracing the texture of living, this frail bark-the poem-comes to us down the ages in an instantly recognizable shape. As drunken boat. I am the beloved addressed by Li Bai in his Middle Kingdom lament all of these many centuries ago; the deep-sound comes to me through the mutation of a tongue of languages. The poem survives unadulterated because poetry partakes of the how it is to be alive, not the because or the therefore.
It is, always, a homage to all those alive at the time of reading it-written in the possible tense, not the past or the future imperfect, but the perpetual might-be: when it functions fully it will bring a tongue-exciting beauty and appear as effortless as water seeming in a well. And curiously, it is as always an epitaph, drenched and darkened by an inkling (and inking) of death as certain and as enlightening as dawn; it will be water smoothed by wind which came from nowhere, waiting to be drawn by Charon's oar. And the voice will remain encapsulated in its form the way wind is born from nothing. The poem is crypt, or just a hollow in the ground, where the swaddled remains of rot-darkening flesh has long since perished but where the voice is kept alive. The poem is the phone booth of the ancestors.
Poem is process. Of course it is also a product: the budding of a moment in time defined by whatever environment and sensitivities hold sway when it comes into being. The poem is thing indeed-one should never underestimate its thing-ness. But then, I'd submit that thing is process. That is why I say it is written in the possible tense, because it is a take in progress, a visible and audible mouthing of the combat against death and nothingness, and a statement (or station) in becoming.
Can one be known, identified, pointed out as 'poet'? The function, as old as rocks, is there for all to see. The poet dances with the void as partner. S/he is a shaman, a priest-if you'll admit that priests fornicate, lie, pilfer, and can be hopelessly politically incorrect. Naturally, Reader-Poet, I cannot vouch for your priestly fornication, I have not smelled the hem of your dress, but I would wish that political incorrectness (maybe 'insubordination' is a closer term)-in other words, the rage to remain consciously and critically alive with all senses alert and true to the shifting light-would find in you a proud protagonist.
In Afrikaans the shaman would be sieketrooster, wondmeester, geneesheer-meaning 'comforter of the sick' and 'master of wounds' and 'gentleman of healing'. The poet-shaman uses deep-sound as primeval exorcism to console and confirm the known but also to destroy certainties, perturbing particularly the comfort of moral make-believe. He will put up signs as inscrutable and ineffable and brave as rock paintings exposed to the glare (and the gloating?) of time's wind. The poet makes manifest the magic in which we still live, even in a globalized, post-modernist world. We will always have with us the open-ended, the beyond and the before, the cruel and the knowing, the warmth of seeing-which-is-making, the deep breath of our mountains, our human way of becoming part of the stars when the bottom of the boat gives way, and then the reverberating nothingness and dark light of space that cannot be sounded.
I suggest that you have to let this fire of beauty run through you. What's left is the ash of the poet's craft in which all fire will be remembered embers to be recalled and read like runes and stones and bones still smoldering in the streets of wind and water, so beautiful and so bleak. These are the poet's remains we hope to return to; that, and the grace of his continuing without certainties but with the writing ear ever alert to the profound echoes of human commerce ...
Now I pause to wonder what it would be like to be a poet in South Africa now, in that country where I no longer live, six years after Mandela triumphed and two years into the presidency of Baba Mbeki. The answer, I expect, may depend to an extent on the language used. But it is again becoming urgent to turn and look into the hungry eyes of the question ...
What I would have liked to detect would be a voice totally of its place and time but not 'South African'-neither in inflection nor pretension or excuse or even preoccupation-that is, not South African in the wishy-washy querulous and whimsical way we've come to expect and experience. I'd love to see clarity of line and depth of feeling and resilience and truculence, and a nearly reckless insistence upon the qualities of excellence. I'm looking for resistance to bullshit, to the sweet and simple fodder of feel-fine moral fat making all too easy distinctions between 'good' and 'bad,' to the drone of slack triumphalism, to the worm of apocalyptic despair, to the insidious barbarism of mediocrity justified by the hocus of an 'egalitarian' ethic or other self-indulgent 'post-colonial' dirges, to the gentle art of forgetting the past, to the thundering silence of finding extenuating circumstances for our cowardice, to new hegemonies of taste and to new depths of lying and the ass-like adherence to bovine orthodoxies-be they of the so-called liberation variety ...
I'm listening, I'm listening. (Ah, what a fool I am!)
memory is a space: slide away death's lid and lower yourself to walk about in landscapes of recollection, the pulsating dimensions of view and of breath
perhaps my eyes will no longer be of the best, colors be more brash, distances more intimate, and those birds are they crows or bats? is heaven of ceramic or fluff or of flesh?
and that wind soundlessly weeping through hollows and crowns- how to return to the place which I have always borne like a grave rhythm under the skin?
could it be my imagination or have I truly forgotten?
Excerpted from Intimate Stranger by BREYTEN BREYTENBACH Copyright © 2009 by Breyten Breytenbach. Excerpted by permission.
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