I wish I’d said … Vol 5: book review

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I wish I’d said … Vol 5
Edited by Johann de Lange and Prof Nxalati CP Golele
Publisher: AVBOB/Naledi
ISBN: 9781776172412

Buy the book from Graffiti.

Unless we are suffering through a natural disaster, war, famine or pandemic, grief in the everyday is usually deeply personal. In the last three years, however, the world has been in the throes of grief on a global scale. COVID-19 and the resulting worldwide lockdowns initiated a process of communal mourning that is long from over. Many of us have turned to art for understanding and solace during this time. Art can provide both, on its creative and receiving ends. And perhaps no other art form can capture this wonder as succinctly as poetry.

The AVBOB Poetry Project began in 2017, and since then, in the words of AVBOB’s CEO, Carl van der Riet, “has expanded its reach as an essential archive representing our shared experience”. Many thousands of poems have been received since the inception. A significant number of these have found their way into the AVBOB Poetry Library, which is available online, and into the five volumes of poetry – I wish I’d said … – published as part of the endeavour. The first time I read one of these anthologies, I was surprised how much it meant to me. And now, engaging with the latest, the fifth volume in the series, gave me the renewed feeling of belonging that I’d sensed with the previous reading. What I find most admirable about the scope of the project is that it celebrates mother tongue voices in all 11 official languages (all translated into English), as well as archival material from the Bleek and Lloyd collection and Isaac Schapera’s The Khoisan people of South Africa (1930). When you read the books, you feel South Africa lamenting in a polyphony of voices that flood your heart and soul in a single sound of sorrow, and of hope and unity.

The 11 sections of the book in the official languages include poems commissioned specifically for the anthology and the six winners of the AVBOB Poetry Competition in each category. The collection opens with a poem that immediately struck a chord in a way I did not expect. Hendrik J Botha’s “Soms is wonde drome” (Sometimes wounds are dreams) is dedicated to Gisela Ullyatt, a wonderful poet herself, who passed away from cancer in the early days of the pandemic. I did not know her personally, but our lives touched briefly through a project, and the fact that we were born in the same year made me feel strangely vulnerable. Seeing her name again – Vir Gisela Ullyatt (1977–2020) – reinforced this vulnerability and brought with it the anxiety that often accompanies it. We are all mortal. Or, as the editor-in-chief, Johann de Lange, tells us in his introduction: “Remember, we are all in this together.”

If nothing else, the pandemic was a stark reminder of this inevitable fact of life, or rather death. It took me a long time to page past Botha’s lines dedicated to Ullyatt – lines about wings, dreams, silence and pigeons (one featured on the cover of her acclaimed debut volume of poetry, Die waarheid oor duiwe, which was published shortly before her death). Staring at the original poem and Douglas Reid Skinner’s translation, I could not help getting lost in the memory of another loss which so many of us felt in the local literary world when the formidable publisher Nadia Goetham passed away during the pandemic. She died just before COVID-19 vaccines became available to South Africans. We were too late to save her. But, as I eventually continued reading through I wish I’d said …, I was comforted by the variety of poems celebrating the vaccines and the many lives saved through them, as well as the contributions and sacrifices of our health workers.

In “Ukumka kombhali / The departure of a writer” (translated by Mantoa Motinyane), Zolani Theo Cata-Qeqe expresses what it means for the community to lose a writer, but also what their work can mean to others: “Umkile umbhali,/ Imkile ingcaphephe,/ Umkile ungqondongqondo,/ Umkile umabonakude … Nanamhla oko imbewu yakho inabile” (The writer is gone,/ The expert is gone,/ The intellectual is gone,/ The one who sees far is gone … Even today your seed has spread).

“Each poem included in this anthology embodies the triumph of crafting powerful emotion into something lasting and durable,” Van der Riet notes in his introduction to the book. Whether you are witnessing a tribute, loss, overcoming, devastating grief or secret never shared – “Ek het niemand ooit vertel van my aand/ by die reservoir of dat die water so kil/ soos skroot was nie” (I’ve never told anyone about my evening/ at the reservoir, or that the water was as chilly/ as scrap iron), from “Torrabaai / Torra Bay” by Tom Dreyer – you cannot remain untouched. You share in the accounts of others while you connect to your own grief, and survival. As in Zandra Bezuidenhout’s “Geen verbinding / No connection”, I know exactly what it means to lift a phone’s receiver “om ’n veerbeelde gesprek te voer,/ maar die toonlose gesuis/ beaam jou afwesigheid” (to feign a conversation,/ but the toneless hiss/ confirms your absence). It is a challenge to penetrate the silence and emptiness that death and other losses – such as changing circumstances, different stages in life, age, sickness, break-up or violence, among others – leave behind for us to cope with, and yet every poem in this anthology illuminates aspects of our lives with beauty and insights, and encourages us to live more consciously, to appreciate the treasure that each and every life offers.

Van der Riet writes that readers “will find words within the pages of I wish I’d said to remind you that you are part of a community”. The third volume of the AVBOB anthology is mentioned in Mahlatsi Maqwenjo’s “Phatlalatšo ya phahlwana ya mohu / Distribution of the deceased’s property” (translated by Goodenough Mashego) as one of the items that a relative chooses to pick from the inheritance left behind by the loved one. They have their love of literature in common. This is how the seeds of the AVBOB Poetry Project are spreading.

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  • Antjie Krog se "Die sterre sê 'tsau'" het 'n mens bewus gemaak van die Eerste mense se digvermoë in 'n taal wat toe net gehoor is.
    Dit sal meer as interessant wees om ChatGPT se verwerking van emosies in konteks rondom rou en verlies in die 1800's te sien. Is dit dalk een van die uitdagings waarvoor die KI nog nie gereed is?

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