22 December 2009

Every 19th of December

One form of memory presents the past as photography - images of arrested experience. It shows how something or someone looks in the duration of its passage from is to was; it elicits its potential to be (again). And our eye sees this in the precision, or the haze, of a moment.

But what about tradition? Tradition isn't photographically preserved in our mind's eye. It seems more ingrained in our bodies. Yet it can be lost. From one generation to the next, it can fade like a lullaby for years sung soft and certain, then hummed, finally succumbing to silence. How do we save it? While some gestures remain, the words gradually slip away. The underlying reasons have long been unspoken. The intention endures, but reality intrudes because the circumstances have changed - borders crossed and re-crossed, countries departed from and returned to, reinhabited but not as home. Pains have been taken to establish a new life, in a new place. That doesn't mean that everything should be new. To some people, roots are valuable, even essential. Roots can tunnel across the earth from north to south, so strong that should they burrow downwards they would eventually meet at the core. Belief rises from depth as deep as this.

What happens, then, when the believers are gone? Perhaps the idea of the tradition remains, diluted, discernible. Like a break in a bone, a hairline gap that is evident even when the bone has healed. It endures in being passed on in those very sounds that fade and cease. They descend through the stages of articulation, through the layers of our apprehension, to the place where they become a type of memory like but not the same as the halted image: a progressive memory. In this place, we hear the believers' voices when they have stopped speaking. Along the way the words have travelled from is to was; now, in the country no longer new, we appreciate them and thus fulfil their potential to be (again).

Tradition progresses in us as fibres of the roots that stretch from there (the origin) to here (the continuation), and we extend roots of our own. Our words may not sound quite the same as the old ones, they may not be what they were, but they convey the belief that we have inherited and made our own.

17 December 2009

I'm singin' in the sunshine

Lightening the hues of the housework blues,
with a jazzy lilt
and a merry tilt to the chin,
here we go:

Summer sun
you are the one
for me.

Summer air -
from way up there
in the sky so truly hugely blue -
you float down
to me.

Your balmy embrace
soothes my upturned face,
and I'm in love with you.

My flat is clean,
my work is done.
For the next three weeks
all I'm gonna do is have fun.
This afternoon in the gathering gloom
clouds'll pleat,
lightning'll flash, thunder'll crash,
rain will rinse away the heat.

Oh, sunshiny day,
you're the best gift our climate can give;
you make everything wanna live, live, LIVE.

Your balm-y charms
fill my outstretched arms,
and I'm in love with you.

11 December 2009

A mind like a museum, a manner like a friend

One Saturday morning fairly recently, Willem Boshoff stood in the hot sun outside the new part of the Everard Read gallery, talking to a group of attentive-looking people. He mentioned ullage (the amount by which a container falls short of being full) and a Greek poet whose work he felt is instrumental in modern poetry - Constantine Cavafi (or Cavafy). How, on his death bed, the man's last words weren't words but a drawing of a circle with a dot in the centre. The great navel. How he (Boshoff) could not let that image go unrepresented, an urge he (presumably) satisfied in granite.

A few years ago I attended a poetry workshop with Boshoff. In one of the activities, we had to invent the title or first line of a poem and write it down on a scrap of paper. He collected the scraps in a bowl, which we passed around and from which we each fished out a scrap. We had to elaborate on the line in a poem of our own and read it out a few minutes later. My line was this:

When I was nine years old ...

and my poem was this:

I had a pony.
Rust red coat,
growing thick and woolly in winter.
Round brown eyes;
hard little hooves.
Greedy flower-eater.

(Illustration by Nina Aleksander Ristić)

Afterwards, I introduced myself to Boshoff. His huge hand enclosed mine. A warm and friendly touch for a stranger; kind eyes and focused attention. As his creative output shows, he has so much going on in his head, it's mind-boggling simply to witness - as is perhaps the same for him, in a different way.

04 December 2009

A literate pachyderm

(Illustration by Rico Schacherl 30 Nov 2009)

Phrederick was in seventh heaven. The sun was shining. He had finished his chores. His back was against his favourite tree and, best of all, he had Pachydella, Jungle Princess in his trunk. Pachydella was his favourite heroine. She was his only heroine. When he wasn’t reading her latest adventure, he dreamed of her, and in his dreams he was hers. Usually timid and reluctant to get more than his toes wet, with Della he bashes down trees, leads the herd in a trumpet dance, wallows deliciously close to her in the cool river.

Yellowbeak-blueness, Phred’s friend of the bird variety, was also enjoying the book. He’d come across the ellie in this very place some time ago, and been intrigued by his specs and reading matter. His air of concentration and suppressed excitement. Blue had flown to the branch above Phred’s head and started to read as well. The two never spoke; they wouldn’t have understood each other. But each afternoon of rest and shade, each book, drew them closer in companionable quiet.

Phred would have been surprised, but then not, to learn that Blue loved Pachydella too. In his dreams, Blue and Della race through the veld, scattering everyone in their path. They dive-bomb the matriarch. They watch the sunset from the top of the hill and get tipsy on marula fruit. Sometimes, she lets him sleep in a fold of her ear.

To both boys, there was no other creature so wonderful. But would they survive this shared adoration? Who knows? One thing we do know, love transcends all, as their friendship shows.

A cold coming on ...

'I think he feels a cold coming on'
(Illustration by Rico Schacherl 5 Oct 2009)

... That's what we tend to tell ourselves. But should Jason catch a glimpse of himself in one of the freshly buffed shop-front windows, he would see the tell-tale flush on his cheeks, and have to admit to shame rather than illness. For weeks he's been building up the courage to approach his crush, the latest addition to the small law firm at which he works, and today, just now, he came upon her in a carefully staged chance meeting on the way to the cafeteria.
'Hi, Maggie ...' he practically shouted, interrupting her conversation with a friend in his eagerness.
She frowned. 'Margaret.'
'Um, Margaret ... Wanna slice of my salami?' He slapped the stick of salami he'd especially brought to work rather hard into the palm of one hand, making himself wince.
'I'm a vegetarian.'
'Right,' he mumbled. 'Don't worry.'
'I'm not.'
Upon which he turned tail and headed through the first door he could find. It was the main entrance door and led him out onto the street. Now he wanders along in a haze, slapping his head with the salami and muttering, 'Idiot fool.' He sneezes, and sighs. All his hopes have smashed around his feet and are leaving a glittering trail behind him. Which is what Maggie, feeling bad, follows. Poor Jason. He shouldn't give up hope and bury his face in a handkerchief - it's not a cold that's coming.

25 November 2009

The gentlewoman

One of our three dogs followed me all the way down the driveway. She needn’t have. No less loyal but not given to fond farewells, one stayed at the house. The other settled himself near the bougainvillea, the driveway spooling out to his horizon. As I reached the gate, I turned to see the eldest making her ponderous way towards me, tottering like a drunkard on her arthritic hip. I might have driven off without another glance, but on she came. At her age, at 98, I hope to have the same attitude. I hope I can do something difficult without making any kind of a big deal out of it.

Her spirit kindles, still;
each eye an ember
sufficient to sustain the body.

20 November 2009

Further thoughts on the prompt

At first, Byatt’s analogy doesn’t seem balanced, though. As forms of creativity, writing and painting share some characteristics, but not all. We can learn both from an early age. Adults and other children teach us to speak from the moment we use our voice. The teacher may give us brushes and paints on our first day of nursery school. In each process, interesting and unexpected things can happen, be they serendipitous or displeasing. Byatt’s artist uses oils or clay as his tools for producing an image; the writer uses language in the same way.

But we can’t say that in the situation of using language as we have learnt to use it and of using paint as we have learnt to use it, therefore paint = language, or language = paint. Language is a hinge. It joins painters and writers because it’s something they both use, in different contexts. Paint is a separate entity, unshared. While artists also speak, and can write if they choose, writers don’t (usually) paint.

So too Byatt’s medium that becomes second nature to the artist through experimentation is both not quite the same as, and similar to, the writer’s medium of language. The language that the writer chooses to write in is most likely their mother tongue. By the time they begin to write creatively, that language is already, in a way, second nature to them. They’re familiar with it. They’ve used it for years, in conveying meaning for practical purposes. Artists don’t usually paint for years for purposes other than producing fine art. In this sense, on starting to create, the writer has had more practice with language than an artist has had with paint.

But when writers do start writing – novels, poems, essays – they are using language for creative purposes. Then, experimentation helps to hone the writing, and it gradually becomes second nature to the writer. Here language is not only a hinge, it’s also a powerful tool, a producer of image, a way of representing in words what fine art represents in oil and clay. And so here language does = paint, and paint does = language.

The difference seems to lie in the nature of language and the way it’s used. Byatt’s analogy seems unbalanced from a literal point of view, from the view of a writer as a speaker. But it’s balanced from a metaphorical point of view, from the view of a speaker as a writer. Then the painter and the writer are both artists, wielding oils and words however they may desire.

19 November 2009

The prompt

‘A writer only becomes a true writer by practising his craft, by experimenting constantly with language, as a great artist may experiment with clay or oils until the medium becomes second nature, to be moulded however the artist may desire.’ AS Byatt Possession (Vintage 1990)

It seems so logical now, such common sense, but the point these words made was something of an epiphany for me the first time I read them. A light shone on a neglected part of my brain, joined not by a choir of angels’ song but just one voice, the inner, silent one, reasoning that this was the most logical way of making progress with one’s creative writing.