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Guest Review: Saunders On Noakes

Cape Town


The poetry in Kate Noakes’ previous books, Ocean to Interior (Mighty Erudite 2007) and The Wall-Menders (Two Rivers Press 2009), has been described as ‘sensuous and vivid’, ‘rich in detail’, ‘elemental’, ‘imaginative’, and (by Gillian Clarke) as ‘loving the world’.  The sensitive observation and formal skill that elicited these comments are there again, with added vigour, verve and economy of expression, in her new collection Cape Town. 

Having for a short while worked (and written poetry) abroad myself, I marvel at how well Noakes catches in one hand the vivid impressions of being a stranger in a strange land, whilst with the other she keeps a firm grip on technical matters of form, lexicon, sound effects, emotional tone.  She opens with a prologue poem, ‘Hirundine’, which invites us to read the rest of the book as emerging from – and always returning to – a delicately-expressed yet unapologetic awareness of her identity as a temporary resident, a migrant who has flown south.  This disarming first move makes it possible for the poems to sustain their surprise at the onward rush of new experiences, all senses on alert. 

Noakes’ sense organs are always unjaded connoisseurs of colour, aroma, pattern, atmosphere, of connection and dissonance of one kind or another.  In this book they are also able to detect the kinds of social and political realities implicated in ‘the fateful convergence of… peoples’ that is South Africa.  Noakes’ use of an extract from Mandela’s inaugural speech, in which this phrase occurs, as an epigraph for the book lets us know at once that we need to understand this work as engagĂ© – though, as we realise almost as quickly, as much with the demands of poetry as with the challenges of politics. 

One of the astonishing features of the book is the high energy which rarely flags in the quality of attention any more than the range of subjects.  Many of the poems inhabit the natural world with a witty or bemused intimacy;  and many others commemorate momentary but memorable encounters with people.  There is so much to see, wonder at, be disturbed by, from Cape wildlife – ‘The Snoek’, ‘Baboon’, ‘Guinea Fowl (helmeted)’, ‘Hadedas’, ‘White ibis and egrets’, ‘A stone curlew for you’ and two poems about the near-extinct Quagga – to the origins of apartheid (‘The Hedge’) and a sideways look at dictatorship (‘The dictator’s eyes’ and ‘The dictator’s last days’). 

Sometimes the poems do reportage (‘Flower-sellers, De Waal Park’, ‘Central reservation equinox’), successfully and satisfyingly – not a word wasted, the images clearer, for excluding extraneous details, than real life, the adjectives doing their basic duty of differentiation.  So, for example, ‘southern’, ‘leafless’ and ‘proud’ (of tropical flowers) are the three adjectives in the first three-line stanza of ‘Central reservation equinox’;  there are none in the second stanza, and just a pair – ‘red acrylic’ – in the last. 

More often, though, the reporter is part of the subject under scrutiny, as in Razor Wire, which is quoted in full here:

I walk the razed section of the city / looking at brown grass, bricks, concrete. // Plastic bags tatter against the chain link. / The late afternoon sun cuts the air slant. // A man thrusts his hand through a gap, / braves its metal thorns to shake mine. // It’s soft, unexpected from the grazes / on his arms, his face, the missing // chunk of his nose. / Here, here, my sister, welcome.

This understated self-reflection – which we may miss because it’s the opposite of self-absorption – functions as a leit-motif that guides how our own attention is directed towards the people and things that deserve to be noticed, with enjoyment (‘Espresso, or the best cup of coffee in the world’), suppressed horror (‘Burying the Hydra’s tooth’ – about finding a puff-adder in her waste-basket) or bloody-mindedness (‘Green and yellow blanket man, Long Street’ – about being hacked off by a beggar’s daily importuning on her way to work).

The way the poetry works is also without self-conscious flourish – the command of sentence length, line-break, enjambment, definite and indefinite article, the spare deployment of adjectives and adverbs, the compacting of metaphor and simile in exact phrases, all the small-scale but telling craft-work of poetry, is consistently meticulous and impressive.  It also manages to be supportive of the overall project, to tell the story of a visit, framed by two beautiful poems in couplets, ‘Waking up in fairyland’ and ‘Going to bed in fairyland’.  The only poem I thought had a density, perhaps even a self-consciousness, of expression that made me think more about the poetry’s construction than about its purpose was the very last poem in the book, the coming-home epilogue ‘Shabby land-song’.  Well, there’s probably a poetic truth in there too – home is ‘another place’ where the poet already ‘knows the name[s]’ of things, is more knowing as a poet than she was in South Africa.

The word that was used of the (entirely secular) work I did abroad was ‘mission’, and this now seems to me to be an appropriate word for Noakes’ book, its mission being to bring home to us how various the world is, how colourful, difficult, urgent, risky, impossible and delightful living in it can be for the short time we visit it;  and how it conjures from us, if we are both lucky and as skilful as she, a fresh and matching eloquence.
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