When is poetry prose? When is nostalgia not self-indulgent? When is personal self-reflection a universal experience? These are the questions I asked myself when reading Denis Hirson’s latest book of poetry, Gardening in the Dark. I will do my best to grapple with answers to these questions.
Denis Hirson’s book consists of four sections. Section one contains a number of passages of straight prose, with only two traditionally shaped poems (for want of a better description) at the end. The prose passages deal with events in Hirson’s early life: a trip to Hartebeespoort Dam just after Verwoerd had been assassinated; a newly released political prisoner from his father’s prison visiting Hirson’s family after dark; a reluctant interview with Athol Fugard; a night with a cello player and a dog fight; followed by a multi-sectioned prose piece dealing with the Hirson family’s exodus from South Africa.
The latter piece, "The long-distance South African", begins with details of Hirson’s early childhood, growing up in Johannesburg. The focal point of his first impressions in 1959 is a “tall, iron bookcase” in the passage of their house where “Night after night adults pause … with skew heads, deciphering the titles.” As the years pass, the adults become fewer as some of them “skipped the country”. Hirson’s father was arrested in 1964 by the South African security police, obviously for allowing “subversives” in his house and possessing “inflammatory” reading material.
Hirson describes the absence of his father from their house as paradoxically being a very strong presence: “His shadow dents the cushions of every chair.” Nine years of waiting pass, and it is in 1973, when the young Hirson stands at the decaying garden gate waiting for his father’s arrival from prison: "My father, full length for the first time in years, tipped sleek and alien into our lives, my father whom I have supplanted, coming to hug me.”
Hirson is eloquent in his descriptions of trying to come to terms with the presence of his father after the long years of absence.
“We can talk about anything we want, and for once there is nothing to say at all.”
“I find him motionless in the passage in the middle of the night, nine years of absence strapped securely as a parachute to his back.”
It takes three days for the family to pack up and move their belongings to London. The transition makes everyone aware of “what it means to be a foreign body”.
Years later Hirson watches on a television set in Paris as Nelson Mandela is released from prison, “his myth is in contact with oxygen.” It takes him back to his father’s return from prison in 1973, and he is compelled to phone a friend in South Africa.
“Hello, a friend answers. Are you alright? I squeeze the receiver so hard my hand is white. When a vacuum is broken, air rushes in. I am at the far end of the world, listening to the wind.”
This ends the long prose poem which instigated the questions at the opening of this review. When is prose poetic? When is nostalgia not self-indulgent? When is personal reflection of universal interest?
In answer to the first question: Hirson’s writing is poetic, even in the form of prose. His expressive and emotive use of language creates a depth of experience beyond that of an ordinary passage of prose. It is the quality of writing one would expect from great poetry. In that alone, I think these prose passages can be justifiably called poems.
In answer to the second question: When is nostalgia simply solipsistic and an indulgence of a uniquely personal memory at a reader’s expense? I would argue that nostalgia can often be viewed as self-indulgent. However, when the personal memories of the writer touch on events which had far-reaching implications for a country and its inhabitants, then I believe those reflections are beyond the realms of indulgence. Hirson’s memories recreate a pivotal time in South African history.
This leads me to the final question: when is personal reflection of universal interest? I think Hirson succeeds, in this poem, in making his personal history relevant to a wider audience. It is always valuable to see close-up, intimate portraits of individuals whose lives were affected indelibly by events which shaped a nation. In these circumstances, the specific does indeed give insight into the universal.
So the long prose poem is a definite success. But what of the rest? The last two shorter poems in the first section deal with a mother’s love for her son. Both are tenderly written, although the latter’s allegorical theme of a mother’s unselfishness even when her son is harming her, is heart-wrenching rather than heart-warming. Once again the writer’s skilful language creates a platform for deep reflection.
The second section consists of three shorter poems and a longer prose poem, the titular "Gardening in the Dark". This prose piece is another reminiscence by Hirson of his father: the earliest memories of a small boy being woken up to drive to Durban in a Morris Minor; a boy reading about his father’s arrest in a newspaper; the boy watching his father being sentenced to nine years in prison; visiting his father in prison; an older boy watching his father walk off to teach in England; a man seeing his father again after living in Paris. Here he notes that his father lives more in the past than in the present and realises that not much induces change in England. “In London, change is what you do between tube lines.” And, finally, the poet examines himself as a man who has watched his father die. Hirson’s deep love and reverence for his father underpinned his development into a man: “Through the debris of the woods … I bring him … At our threshold I stand with him, trunk, branch, bud under my skin, growing in his heat and gravity.”
Section three has a series of love poems, even though two are written for friends. Hirson’s tenderness comes through in his examinations of an early unconsummated love in "In the early workshop of the heart": “I took her in the space between my arms but my arms remained empty and faithful to an old astringent fear.”
His tenderness is evident, too, in his "Prayer for a friend who wanted one":
Let him empty his kit-bag of troubles
into the swirl of some river; then Lord,
may she teach him how to receive her.
Section three also contains a series of poems for Adine, who is, or was, Hirson’s lover. Hirson gently traces the passage of their love from his initial sighting of her (in "Lucky Bean") to their parting – whether temporary or permanent (in "The river by day, the river by night").
you will bend down
with the beauty of your face
over me, just as you were
preparing to leave.
The fourth and final section has a variety of poems dealing with impressions of Hirson’s new home in Paris; illuminating moments with his young daughter, as well as another longer prose about memories of South Africa.
In his final poem in this volume, "Granadillas", Hirson’s strengths can be seen at their best. As he watches his daughter “scoop the green spawn/ of a granadilla fruit from a dry, wizened skin”, his memory is triggered to a time when he was looking at a granadilla plant blossoming at his garden gate as a young man longing for real love. Then he’d consoled himself with the thought that “Later … much later my season will come.” As he watches his daughter in the present eating at his kitchen table, he says to himself, “now, there is no time like this clear cool afternoon.”
Hirson has the rare ability to look at immediate events unfolding before him and see beneath the surface to a network of connections between human beings who transcend time and space. His consciousness is the dichotomy between past and present, the superficial and the profound, the temporal and the eternal. Hirson’s mastery of language allows him to imbue ordinary events with a profundity which touches the very depths of human experience.