The history of intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon: a review

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The history of intimacy: Poems
Gabeba Baderoon

Kwela, 2018

It is heartening to see the proliferation of high quality poetry collections on the local literary scene, publishers like uHlanga Press, Modjaji Books, Protea Book House and Dryad Press leading the way. The history of intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon – “[a]n exquisite new collection from one of South Africa’s finest, most treasured poets”, according to Nadia Davids – is the only poetry volume published by Kwela Books this year, but one which is a most welcome addition to the plethora of distinguished South African poetic voices. It is Baderoon’s fourth after The dream in the next body (2005), The museum of ordinary life (2005) and A hundred silences (2006). She is also the author of the monograph Regarding Muslims: From slavery to post-apartheid (2014).

At the beginning of her literary career, Baderoon received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry. The jury described her voice as being able to find “the poetic in the ordinary with a fine sense of locality and space”. They noted that Baderoon “weaves political and social issues into her poetry without sloganeering. Her work tackles a wide range of themes, astutely shifting the focus from the outside to the inside.” These remain her strengths as she takes us on a poetic journey of note in The history of intimacy.

The shift described above is beautifully captured in poems like “Axis and revolution” and “Stone skin”. In the former, we find the following lines: “In the door, I am a reflection/ on reflection, gleaming/ against the facing windows, seamless/ turning, turning// outside into inside, opening/ a dark glint of entry to your house./ Through glass skin,/ I am inside, invited in.” And in the latter: “In the castle the statues stiffen/ with perfection. Outside the stone walls/ the Senegalese immigrants hold out their hands/ full of roses and good fortune.” These “gestures”, we are told, “are not aesthetic, are not silent.” Only “the stone wall keeps in its place [at night]/ and outside, the silence, the growing silence”. Local history is encapsulated in the skin of stone, and the present moment of the foreign immigrants is alive in their skin and gestures of hope, commerce and exchange.

In “A prospect of beauty”, the poet wanders through the streets of Cape Town, “through the old silences of the city”, as “the air thickens with history” and “the city glints white and hard as bone” at sunset. “Poetry cannot be afraid of this”, the lines boldly proclaim as they recall the atrocities of the past and the bones of slaves buried under the streets of “white and hard” architecture above. Poetry also finds a way to navigate a global history of injustice as, “The port cities sing of other horizons. Ships turn the curve of continents and the past … Languages string the docks together./ Leiden, city of suffering,/ Cape Town, Camissa, place/ of sweet waters” (“The port cities”).

The poet, trembling “at the door/ between language and music” (“Promised Land”), observes butterflies “fluttering/ like fragments of midnight/ to our feet, then rising again” (“Black butterflies”), and listens to “the stories of the ghosts of slaves who crossed/ the mountains two centuries ago and are still hiding” (“Koggelbaai”). These cannot be easily articulated: “Now I am one of the dead./ I pull myself to Hangklip on a cord of names. I hear them sing in the throat of the sea,/ the long, blue throat of the sea” (“Hangklip”).

The book opens with “Poetry for beginners” and the startling description of a novice poet asking in an evening class how to write to her imprisoned boyfriend. The question is met with laughter, and the young woman retreats into silence. The poem continues: “and I think of her for years/ and what poetry is// I think this is my origin/ where poetry is risk, is betrayal// and the memory of the first question/ how not to be alone”. Later on in the collection, we encounter the poem “Effective immediately”, in which the poetic voice struggles as much against the strict rules applied during prison visits as with finding a way to touch “through the bars” (“Poetry for beginners”).

The concepts of risk, betrayal and memory are integral to the collection. In “Focal length”, distance of space and time exposes that “[f]olded, hidden, forgotten,/ memory doesn’t come to me straight”. In “The word” and “The law of the mother”, when parents entrusted with the brutality of intimate violence fail to comfort the girl child, there is no one but “shame” to turn to: “if everything you are/ was born of that breaking,/ is a subset of breaking,/ is broken” (“The law of the mother”). It is only when the poet begins to write and attempts to reclaim the girl’s sense of self, “On the page appeared my bones/ and my memories/ and at last I stepped again into my body” (“The word”).

Other questions about identity persist with their necessary urgency: “Why do we all hate our ID photos/ Our faces without spectacles hair tucked/ behind ears eyes too wide the moment/ our identity, identity is being made” (“Tell me what you see”). Who are we in the face of specifications which do not seem to be able to reflect us, which are often intended to undermine, if not crush, what we believe about ourselves? What happens when our own desires betray us? “It was the first time I admitted to myself/ I loved the skin of white boys … I never resolved the mess of it, the way/ want is desire/ and lack at the same time”. The poem, “Surface”, probes further: “Does it matter there were no names/ for whiteness”.

In the intimacy of knowing another, we are confronted with the fact that, “Search as you will, you’ll never find/ all of me. Some splinter/ of light will elude you, stay” (“Axis and revolution”). In the family, the forces of history tear at the fabric of belonging: “Born in the new place [the Cape Flats], I was their ghost child,/ a grief growing/ older and older. … I forgive them their slow love/ of the place,/ of me” (“The Flats”). The titular poem, “The history of intimacy”, addresses the question of, “Mother, how do I write about you?” but also seeks out in history “the intimate and inverse/ but unknown to each other”. How do we face all these layers of complexities embedded in the everyday, in objects like a plank with “Non-Whites Only” and “Whites Only” spelled out on opposite sides? There are no simple answers, but Baderoon’s poetry does not shy away from attempting to forge an understanding, on a broader political scale and in the intimacy of our souls.

In “I saw you walk toward something”, a tribute to the late National Poet Laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, one of the most moving poems of the collection, Baderoon writes: “You taught us that a border/ is a place of yielding or refusing to yield,/ for after refusal might lie a new country. And the line runs through the land,/ the mind, the skin.”

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