On Friday evening poet Antjie Krog is to receive her third Hertzog Prize, and two weeks later the UJ Prize for 2023, winning the latter against a formidable field of novels. These are for her latest collection, Plunder, translated into English as Pillage, by her long-time collaborator and veteran poet in her own right, Karen Press.
The simultaneous appearance of Pillage perhaps detracted from what has become more apparent with time, that it was an auspicious event to be celebrated as well in what poet Alan Finlay recently described as the “asphyxiated” world of English poetry. It is trite that the translation of poetry is the most difficult task in all of literature, and Press has delivered work of great richness and value for SA poetry in general.
Krog, who turned 70 at the time of Plunder’s publication, has now been at it for more than 50 years, ever since she drew attention as a schoolgirl with an angry missive against apartheid. Since then she has remained an icon for feminists and race activists, a poet travelling the world and revered by the Afrikaner establishment — the Hertzog Prize is conferred by the staid SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns — and by the #MeToo generation alike.
Even more salient is that settled as she is as a pillar of SA literature there is not all that much new about her preoccupations as a writer, or even the styles she has been nurturing for decades. And yet, her latest collections are her best work, with a coeval youthful freshness and maturity well worth the trouble of the devotion needed to read poetry.
Nothing is perfect, of course, and the title is awkward. Evocative it may be, but Krog has tried to explain that it does not so much have to do with the primary, political-restitutive associations of the word than her pillaging for the sake of poetry of a lifetime of resources lived by her and others. If it does not sound convincing, nothing stops the reader from spinning the title their own way.
English readers would do themselves a favour by reading Pillage in conjunction with the magnificent compendium of her early best-translatable poetry, Down to my Last Skin. Some of these were by Press, others by Krog herself. The latter are competent, but a careful comparison will show what Press brings to the party: a poetic Krog spirit of her own. While she is as faithful as she could be to the original, she comes up with assured solutions that pillage the rich resources of English.
Stylistically, I have always believed Krog to be a curiously self-limiting craftsperson. She obviously has great technical command of her mother tongue, but at the time of her debut just after the Sestiger revolution of modernist renewal when free verse was loosed upon the Afrikaans world, she appeared to some critics to keep to a straightforward stridency with a sometimes adolescent edge (“once I belonged to the ones on fire”). Those were the days of littérature engagée, and it was felt that her poetry would soon age when history disengaged itself from its angry young people.
Well, it hasn’t. Part of it is because what critics may have marked down as obsessions — fighting racism, domestic suffocation, female repression — are still very much matters to be obsessed about. A depressing realisation from reading Pillage together with Down to my Last Skin is that while a changed world allows sports stars to publicly revolt against demeaning patriarchs, on the ground and among the disempowered little has improved.
Her lifelong engagement with the body — the female body, her body — has expanded into new poetical territories, with a section devoted to Baubo, the Greek goddess of female grotesquerie and exhibitionism. It has now segued into dealing with the ageing of the “faltering, female form” too, in turn chiming with poems about the enduring difficulties of conjugal love as one grows older. And yet, what also remains is the defiant celebration of female power of the younger Krog — “Get it into your noggin: God has got tits and a cunt.”
But if it were to be true that she works within constrained stylistic parameters, she has shown a genius ability to exploit such narrow beds and nurture them to growing fruitfulness and potentiality. If anything, it means that while her conceptual range has expanded even more, the poems remain as accessible as ever, the one aspect of her writing that has made her such a one-woman activist force.
Within the limitations of free verse she has become so dexterous with sound and some very startling imagery that even when she nonchalantly puts some prosaic language on the page — “one is glad so many are woke but why are their lives so virginally narrow” — it does not seem less poetical than anything else. Poems about loss and dying will choke you up — “oh death hold her, while we still reach out for her ankles”.
Her latest volumes show a greater elaboration of environmental issues and a favourite poem of mine is Timeline Through the Garden, the time aspect referring to our geological history. This kind of thing has been done to exhaustion by others, and the pitfalls are many: enumeration, historicism, overawedness ... but what emerges is pure delight in life and growth — “a freefall of spores”, “our hero, the flying fish”, the “cupped hands of secrets” that are flowers — with the obligatory reference to human malfeasance added as a coda that will not spoil the pleasure, “death mumbles on the other side of the elderberry fence / when it happens, we simply spread as a new virus”.
Overall, Pillage should be celebrated as a collection of the here and now. The misleading title notwithstanding, and apart from those mentioned on gender-based violence, there are poems about #FeesMustFall, the death of Desmond Tutu, a dialogue on the white gaze versus the black gaze, a daughter in jail in Israel, poverty, the country falling apart ... Our poets laureate seemed to have made the institution one of silence on or even unwitting connivance in our current menu of miseries.
No worries, though, Krog is our unofficial poet laureate, and more than equal to the task.
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