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Fiela's Child

Dalene Mathee

University of Chicago Press, $10.95

by Peter Anderson

Fiela's Child is a nostalgic book. Nostalgic not for the past, but for a future already abandoned by history. Ultimately, it makes the appeal of a suppliant to a vanished power. On the one hand, it is quite empty; on the other, strangely moving.

Originally written in Afrikaans, Fiela's Child was first published in South Africa in 1986 -- a year memorable, if that is the term, only for the imposition of a second State of Emergency, one of the apartheid government's final attempts to crush the popular uprisings which had spread in wave upon wave through the black townships since the mid-1970s. A deadly time, it goes without saying. Many of us inside the country could not escape the feeling that the stranglehold of the minority white nationalist regime could only inexorably increase. Given the context, then, Fiela's Child is a minor miracle. Minor, because, good as it is, the level of writing nowhere approaches the cool postmodernist brilliance of, say, J.M. Coetzee. A miracle, because, counter to the mainstream, Fiela's Child avoids the predictable indictment of the indefensible, the moral reflex so indispensable to the novel under apartheid (compare almost anything by Nadine Gordimer, or even the work of black South African "township" writers in English -- short, perhaps, of Njabulo Ndebele's Fools) and instead offers hope, an extension of our humanity.

If, one day, long ago, somewhere far away in the Cape Colony as it was in the last century under British rule, when elephants still roamed the deep and misty forests of Knysna, when wild ostriches which with a single kick could tear a man open from his belly to his chin still ran free on the plains, when "brown" people could own and farm the land that had not yet been reft from them -- if one day at such a time, a child appeared at the door of a lonely woman who took him in and cared for him, and soon grew to love him over and above her own children, then an enigma certainly remains. Who was, or rather, who is that lost child? Is he Benjamin Komoetie, the last son of Fiela Komoetie, despite the fact that he is "white" and she "brown"? Is she who loves him, whether she bore him or not, therefore his mother? Can it be that a bond exists, greater than blood and the law? Or does he "belong" to the cruel, ignorant and scheming white woodcutter, Elias van Rooyen? Is he himself none other than Lukas van Rooyen, the child who disappeared into the forest long ago?

Dalene Mathee's use of a malleable, fantastical, allegorical mode allows her implicitly to claim that if history is fiction, (as it certainly was under apartheid, when I, like every other South African child, was taught to see in the marshalling of "facts" a teleology of the Afrikaner nation) then fiction is history. History is only another narrative, but narrative as such must not be underestimated. At core in each of us is a need and desire for narrative, which always revolves around a myth of identity, for it is ourselves we seek in reading. And if history like any other story can be re-written, re-visioned, re-invented in a more pliable, playful way, employing fairy tale, parable, gossip and the facts equally, then so can we.

Fiela's Child envisions, invents and promotes an alternative "white" identity, one which affirms its bond of love with a matriarchal Africa. What validates the translation of the novel into English is the fact that white racism is not completely confined to South Africa. It is possible, for instance, that some whites in America might gain in humanity if they could say with an open heart: "My mother is Africa."

Fiela's Child is thus strongly Fiela's story, much more even than Benjamin's or Lukas's story. What we remember is the plucky, dauntless, industrious "brown" woman, Fiela, her defiance and almost endless resourcefulness in the face of the iron-hard racist patriarchy of 19th century South Africa.

Undoubtedly, any acutely ideological critic could flay Fiela's Child with a razor. Why does Fiela privilege the white child over her own children? Is Dalene Mathee herself subtly supportive of white superiority? What difference does a change of heart make if the power structure remains intact?

But the power structure of apartheid is not intact; it is at present in the process of total collapse. History, pace postmodernism, is a perpetually manipulable story only after the event, since the event itself is decisive -- which is what makes it history. That the white fall from dominance in South Africa is irrevocable is suggested in a remark made by Nelson Mandela in December, 1992: "The white population is very much concerned about the foreshadowed changes because they are a minority and are wondering what their position is going to be."

Not the special or privileged child then. For this reason, I cannot help but see Fiela's Child as nostalgic for an unattainable future. It is as though 1986 was both too recent and too late. n

Goodnight, Gracie

Lloyd Schwartz

University of Chicago Press, $10.95

by David Gewanter

In Goodnight, Gracie Lloyd Schwartz describes his own portrait: "the head a small nebula,/'nebulous' in its rusty cloud of hair and beard." Nebula (mystery) is punned as nebulous (vague), then made precise in description -- such is the talent of this urbane, teasing, and mournful poet. Schwartz jokes about his "art nouveau body": most poems show him all ears, shrewdly rendering the boasts and unknowing confessions of his speakers. In "House Hunting" we hear a would-be seller murmuring:
I've got another couple coming back tomorrow.
I don't want to pressure you (I like you), but
you want the house, you'll have to decide soon...

Intimacy here is bartered for equity. No poet since Marianne Moore has listened more keenly than Lloyd Schwartz, and few as kindly. His speakers seem not so much victims of his irony as they are crimped by life:
"I had a stroke -- can you tell? Let's not talk about it..."
("Crossing the Rockies")

"I wasn't very pretty, or `bright'."

"I didn't want to hurt you; I just didn't care."
("Pseudodoxia Epidemica")

Hesitant, brooding, funny, Schwartz ushers us through a world of testifiers, which opens to the luminous presence of Gracie Allen (comedian George Burns's partner). Gracie stands like a Virgil before the Gates of Malaprop: she never gets it right until she gets it wrong -- or is it the opposite? "Don't rush me. It isn't easy to make up the truth." Her blunders invite chaos, but an invisible hand saves her, comedy outwitting tragedy even at the end of life: "If you ask me a question and I don't answer, don't be nervous. Just take your hats off."

Schwartz's title poem, we begin to understand, attempts a most difficult project: the comic elegy. Only a poetry of his peculiar music -- the flats of conversation voiced in the sharps of wit -- could manage this. By such swerves and twists of tone, Schwartz keeps sentimentality at bay. His other challenge is to push his conversations past inventive "society verse," to meet the darkened quiet that surrounds our talk. Goodnight, Gracie does this through questions:
My arm won't straighten --
Can't reach that grapevine hanging there.
My fist won't open.
How? When? Why? What? Where?
("Dead-Battery Blues")

In "Simple Questions," the poet prods his dying father to speak, "to recover enough of his mind to/help my mother endure his release":
Are you in pain? Is there anything I can do?

Do you know me? Do you know who I am?

Questions pile on questions. Like the opening to Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III, the seeker grows panicked and unsure before the vast and threatening silence; Schwartz's father seems as much a cipher as the "questionable shape" Hamlet meets at night. Indeed, Goodnight, Gracie's last scenes are played in a (Queens) graveyard, Yorick appearing as "Skulnik," member of "THE YIDDISH THEATRICAL ALLIANCE."

Schwartz reads us the carvings, each stanza pictorially representing a tombstone. He works better with speech than stone. His sad-happy plots, the dual mask of "centripetal" loss and "condensing" creation, extend for us the circle of experience, a circle T.S. Eliot thought to be "closed on the outside." In the quirky state of Gracie, that circle can include the dead, so long as the dialogue continues. At the end, even Schwartz's father learns the play:
"Do you know me? Who am I?"
"My son."

"Is there anything I can do?"

Siren Songs & Classical Illusions

Jascha Kessler

McPherson & Co., $12.00

by David Gullette

Jascha Kessler has written a book of fifty short stories loosely based on or echoing ancient Greek and biblical characters and situations. It carries the ponderous title Siren Songs and Classical Illusions and is accompanied by a sort of glossary of "Attributions" that reminds us of salient facts about Proteus, Calliope, Iocasta, Kronos, Esau, et. al. Your first instinct might be to turn away, as you would from any vapid intellectual parlor game. But that would be a mistake. Kessler's tales of a boozy Mohawk Valley prep school teacher, a dying heiress in Taos, a travelling flute repairman, a wunderrebbe singing in a Borscht Belt temple (to name a few) can stand on their own as deft, gemlike, sometimes hallucinatory visions of contemporary life.

So why bother with all this Graeco-Hebrew scaffolding? Because there's more going on here than mechanically erudite parallelisms between the ancient and the modern.

There are various ways to answer the question, "What do our lives today, real or imagined, have to do with lives, real or imagined, in the distant, fabled past?" If you're a Jungian you think that to be human is to have your cerebral cortex hardwired with Archetypal Masterplots and Stock Characters, and that any dreamer now is all dreamers who ever were. If you're a modern ironist like James Joyce, you plop your Jewish Ulysses down in turn-of-the-century Dublin and re-present Cyclops as a drunken anti-semite hurling an empty biscuit tin down the street at the fleeing pacifist, Leopold Bloom, which is either a way of showing how pitiably meager the modern world is compared to The Glory That Was Greece, or a way of saying that all the heroes in the history of the world have really been banal and domestic, like us.

But if you're Jascha Kessler, you're a bit cagier about your intentions, although you tend to drop a lot of hints. In "Hermes" (whose devotees, says Kessler, included rogues and thieves) our narrator, a jet-set con-man driving an aging Aston-Martin, says things like, "I am neither alive nor dead. I just happen to be here." And: "Everything has been known." And: "The past doesn't exist, and there's too much to remember, once you begin to discover it." Which leads us to wonder, does Kessler mean all time is one, all consciousness one, all human life a closed loop of repetitions? To which the narrator seems to reply (referring to the rich American couple he's about to fleece, although he might as well be speaking of his readers):

My way is to send signals on several frequencies, part noise, part sheer redundancy. They pick me up but they cannot tune in. Making for confusion at the subliminal. Fatigue; then more havoc. I can work faster when they're unaware they can't even discriminate what it is.

That's Kessler's charming, infuriating Dance of the Veils. His signals are mere shimmering suggestions. For instance, every story has some vestigial clue that ties it to its title myth. In "Proteus" it's a small sailfish caught off Baja, whose "big blue luminous eye" looks up at the narrator, "intelligent." In "Dafne" a woman declares her ineptitude for sex: "My legs are like logs for the first ten minutes, like dead wood." In "Telemachos" the narrator buys "a heavy double-reflex Bear bow marked down 60%" that breaks in half the first time he tries an arrow in it.

These are not exactly "retellings" of old stories. But then what are they? I'll leave the answer to that vexing question up to you. Because I'm going to recommend you buy this weird, unlikely book and read it, slowly, a story or two at a sitting. Classical "illusions" and Po-Mo intertextualities aside, these tales of "modern" life are wrought in surefooted, versatile prose by a master storyteller with an unerring eye for the telling detail.

Tasker Street

Mark Halliday

University of Massachusetts Press, $9.95

by Fred Marchant

Very often in contemporary American poetry, poets (or their speakers) present themselves in an implicitly heroic mode. The stance of the poet towards his or her material gets characterized as courageous, unflinching, fierce, etc. And it is almost a convention of reading those poems that one is not supposed to notice how the poet's stance makes him or her look like a rather special creature, a Promethean.

What is so refreshing about Mark Halliday's work in general, and Tasker Street in particular, is that he has no patience or truck with any such pretensions about the poet as a semi-divine bringer of fire and light. His stance toward his subjects is thoroughly and deeply democratic. The person implied by his voice is neither hero nor anti-hero. In fact, he is at pains to avoid both poses. Or, rather, he seems to recognize that both stances are poses, and as such can be greeted with an element that is altogether too scarce within poetry of our time: a delighted, open skepticism about who or what a poet is, or does. The only thing that seems certain in this stance is that Halliday has refused to accept the mantle that guarantees the poet's special self-importance.

We can see this in the opening of "Seventh Avenue":
Late Tuesday afternoon the romantic self weaves
up Seventh Avenue amid too many lookers, too many
feelers: romance hates democracy;

how can you be so great and golden inside
if your trunk is shouldered among other trunks
block after block, block after block--

you can't help glimpsing an otherness in others
that is not just surface: they ache,
their aches ache away north and south all Tuesday
in murmurous torsos like yours....

It is worth noting that this poetry is composed out of the poet's sense that he really is equal with the people he sees. This means he is neither above nor within them, nor seeing into their futures, nor imaginatively appropriating their pasts. They are first and foremost others, and he can sense their ache. But the crowd of people and aches argues against any Romantic absorption. Toward the end of the poem, Halliday's speaker asks: "Who's Wordsworth for any extended period on Seventh Ave?" If there are any seers at all, he answers, they are "seers only//for seconds." After that, "the steak, taxi, buttocks, headline/and wallet resume their charismatic claim to be what counts." Halliday is suspicious of these claimants too, charismatic as they might be. But the poem springs out of and dramatizes a poetic sensibility caught in a welter of varying claims and desires. This, it seems to me, is living the questions, and the poem ends with a personified Seventh Avenue grinning at the speaker and saying: "You want that? How does it feel to want?"

As a result of Halliday's stance toward his material, his poetry is tremendously credible. It is aware of both the poet's stirrings and the world's intractable otherness. We get from his work a sense of the real, not only in terms of subject matters, but also in terms of the consciousness through which that subject matter is mediated. His is not, however, a "realistic" art if realism is taken to mean a clear window on a certain something out there called "reality." Halliday's realism is a much more complicated proposition about what is real or true. Tasker Street's first poem, "The Truth," tells us that "The truth was there, beside the road/ but you never looked straight at it." Thus the opening lines of the book present the poet not as seer, but as misser, or near-seer. "The Truth" continues to spin through a variety of memories of moments when the speaker thought the truth was near but somehow missed. The poem concludes with an interesting, generous set of reflections:
there must be a reason why
now and then you get this feeling that the truth

was right there
though you kept looking a few degrees north of it,
never saw it head-on.
You were only human.
And you did keep looking, didn't you? (Let's give
credit where credit is due.)
"That's true too."

"You were only human" at first appears to be a rationalization, but beyond the banal consolation it offers, it has a truth of its own. The speaker is really only human; he is not an oracle. Moreover, the last line, despite its ring of the banal, also resonates with great meaning in this context. It speaks to the idea that there are multiple truths, that there need be no single or dominant truth, and perhaps that each genuine truth is somehow shaped by and functions within the consciousness that contains it.

"The Truth" implies that Halliday's work is in the American tradition of pragmatism, the idea that truths are relative, contextual, and plural, and that veracity is measured by experience and consequence in the world. Toward the end of Tasker Street Halliday presents a poem which articulates his pragmatism and at the same time teaches us how to read him. "My Strange New Poetry" begins:
In my strange new poetry the lines will be black
and long. They will be dense with not ordinary life
but the wiry vitalism of a guy in a Pirates cap
heaving a pink rubber ball against the side of a drugstore
at midnight. There will be sentences but not
only, not always, not just properly, some stray dog
will skitter through the torn fence beside the polluted river
to half bark half growl at kids in a metal dinghy.
What Halliday says here characterizes his book as a whole. His is a poetic sensibility open to the truth straying into view. His is a poetry that credits as worthy that which is wholly other, that which is not wholly under the poet's dominion, that which has its own life and mind. Halliday embraces Whitman's expansiveness, but jettisons the self-inflation. He has Williams's openness, but abandons the avant-gardiste's pose. Toward the end of "My Strange New Poetry," Halliday says that "it's a thickness/and a dark kind of living in the words/...that soon I put/right on paper, next week, or sooner than that." The procrastination in those last few words serves to make sure that this statement doesn't get too grand for its britches, and that makes one believe in it. 

The North China Lover

Marguerite Duras, translated by Leigh Hafrey

The New Press, $19.95

by Melanie Rae Thon

Spare and erotic, The North China Lover is not merely the story of The Lover retold: it is a haunting transformation of Marguerite Duras's original vision, more tender and more terrifying, more devastating because it is more humane.

In pre-war Indochina, a wealthy Chinese man meets an adolescent girl on a ferry and offers her a ride in his limousine. She's poor and white, a child, but they are bound to each other from the start, "shut in together, in the twilight of the car." The lover is "more solid" than he was in the first book, "less timid facing the child." The balance between them has shifted. Though the child still can be cruel, she's too vulnerable to be callous, too immersed in her own desire to pretend she wants the Chinese only for his money.

Crossing one boundary allows the child to cross all others. She loves everyone too much: the man, her beautiful friend Hélène, her brother Paulo. It's dangerous, living this way. Despair and insight come with passion, the child says, and it's true: fears intertwine; one threat exposes another. Thanh, her mother's chauffeur, is the only one to refuse her. "He says inside him he has the fear of killing the men and women with white skins, that he has to beware."

His words echo. All her life the child has been tormented by her older brother, Pierre, afraid of what he'll do to her and Paulo if he finds them together. She imagines being killed by tigers, or a stranger, or a brother -- she asks the lover how he would kill her at Long-Hai, and he says, "Like a Chinese. With cruelty on top of killing." These fantasies have a terrible logic. There is a place where desperation and desire collide, where the fear of being destroyed and the fear of being abandoned are one.

For those who live inside this novel, love is forbidden: the love of a grown man for a child, a mother for a brutal son, a sister for a fragile brother. But Duras's people transcend judgment. The mother tells the Chinese man, "You ought to know, Monsieur, that it is sacred even to love a dog. And we have the right -- as sacred as life itself -- not to have to justify it to anyone."

Originally written as notes for a filmscript, The North China Lover is elliptical, sometimes eerie: the child "dissolves in the moonlight, then reappears." The "I" of the first novel has stepped out of our way, has become an eye instead, lingering on a hand that seems "charmingly crippled," or on the "fabulous, silken flatness of the delta." Again and again, the eye focuses on the skinny body of the child, so we can never forget how young and small she is.

Duras is re-imagining her own work, giving directions. In a footnote, she tells us Hélène has died of tuberculosis. In another she says the actress who plays the child can't be too pretty. "Beauty doesn't act. It doesn't look. It is looked at."

The effect of these details is surprising. They don't distract us. Our awareness of Duras's process only pulls us closer. We are with a woman trying to reveal the experience at the center of her life, participating in her fierce desire to get it right.

Marguerite Duras knows the lover is dead when she begins the second novel. She's learned that the people of Sadec loved him for his kindness and simplicity, that toward the end of his life he was very religious. He's become human and real to her in ways he wasn't when she told her story the first time. In the introduction, she says: "Writing this book made me deliriously happy. The novel kept me a year, enclosed me in that year of love between the Chinese man and the child."

The final section of The North China Lover is a list of suggested shots for the filmmaker that reads like a poem. The story unfurls one last time, and we see everything quickly, in bursts: "The straight monsoon rain and nothing more, that straight rain across the entire frame. Straight, like no place else." The lovers are absent but seem to move in the white space, between the images, between "a day of a different blue" and the surface, the "skin" of the dark river "very close up." Like Duras, we feel a sense of awe and joy, plunged into the world of the child and her Chinese lover again.

City River of Voices

Edited by Denise Bergman

West End Press, $9.95

by Kate Rushin

City River of Voices, edited by Denise Bergman, is a poetry anthology of 48 women and men who have lived or worked in Cambridge, MA. This wonderful democracy of poets reminds us why we love city life, and how, by addressing the problems of our cities, we are taking care of ourselves and our increasingly fractured and interdependent future world.

Many of the poets represented in this collection are well-known around the Cambridge/Boston reading circuit and from the days of the once-flourishing poets-in-the-schools programs: Ted Thomas, Sharon Cox, Marjorie Agosin, Robin Becker, Chris Gilbert, Li Min Mo, Alan West, Martín Espada, Kathleen Aguero, Susan Eisenberg, Jane Barnes and Diana Der-Hovanessian. There are also poets new to writing (or writing in English) and poets better known by their day jobs.

Two common criticisms of poetry anthologies based on location are that either the perspective in the work is so insular that it is of limited interest to "outsiders," or the themes are so disparate as to create a hodge podge, thrown-together effect. Denise Bergman, by exploring the theme of the city, and through her thoughtful selection of poems, skillfully avoids any sense of arbitrariness or parochialism. Although Somerville, Harvard Square, and Roxbury inform the poems, the poets also bring their personal and group histories from Brooklyn and Buffalo, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. City River of Voices gives a good sense of the fact that the Boston/Cambridge poetry scene is not limited to one school of poetry or one neighborhood.

"The city is a book" declares Ruth Lepson, where as Marla Zarrow writes, "Languages mix it up /in the shoving wind...." English is spoken here as well as French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Rosario Morales warns us not to rob ourselves of "the joy of writing all our words, of the/ sound of your Mama's voice, my Papa's voice, of the smell of the/kitchen on the page." The grandmother in Li Min Mo's poem admonishes us along with her children to "...find your/ own stories,/ your own American song."

There are poems of public spaces: the alley, library, ball park; the boarded building and the empty lot. They speak of children, work, unemployment, trash, homes, homelessness, and money. There are apartment buildings and landlords but no talk of condominium associations. These are poems of the streets and subways and our brief encounters with each other's fears, needs, expectations and plans, where, according to Barbara Ann Blatner "tempted to speak/ we do not/ speak."

Bill Holshouser observes, "As I grow older, I see the city grow more/ fragile." These poems do not ignore or simplify the problems of the cities, the clashes between people and cultures. In these times of evictions, drugs, guns, hate crimes, and people who don't know any better than to shudder at the word "city," Sharon Cox refuses to allow the us/them dichotomy, "I've been on both sides/ and the edge/ one son killer/ one son dead."

The poets of these poems are witnesses to injustice, violence, and despair. Yet they retain, at least, Leigh Donaldson's "half a hope" that people can meet across the differences of race and class and color and language. The city dwellers resist and persist. "Mrs. Baez", Martín Espada tells us, "Serves Coffee on the Third Floor." Pierre Valentine exhorts "...those simple folk/ Who believe in trees and Spring/ Never give up, until you find/ Your/ Blanche St. thing."

These poems mean and matter in the spirit of Muriel Rukeyser who believed that poetry is "a way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world..." and the spirit of Audre Lorde who reminds us that "Poetry is not a luxury." This is a book to be read and talked about, a book to be used as we come together to grapple with ourselves and each other "living for the city."

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