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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Other signs: The extraordinary beauty of “most things quite ordinary”

Karlien van der Schyff - 2011-10-18

Untitled Document

Title: Other signs
Author: Ingrid de Kok
Publisher: Kwela Books & Snailpress
ISBN: 9780795703973
Price: R148.95

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

Ingrid de Kok’s fifth volume of poetry, Other Signs, is a masterful collection of deeply contemplative and quietly lyrical poems about journeys, memories, childhood and ageing, offering critical yet compassionate reflections on the world we find ourselves in. The title of the collection comes from the poem “Vocation”, in which a tender, metapoetic journey through a writer’s memories slowly unfolds: “I led myself here,” the poetic voice tells us, “though the honeyguide helped. There were other signs, as there always are” (49). These “other signs” include:

A backpack of songs, a map of words,
Even a rhyming dictionary.
A Bible, ten pens, watermarked paper.
Most things quite ordinary. (49)

By providing the reader with “a map of words” with which to follow the collection’s imaginative journey, “Vocation” accurately conveys a sense of the tone and sentiment of the collection as a whole. The majority of poems in Other Signs are concerned with everyday observations and experiences, with “most things quite ordinary”, from the memory of “your granddaughter’s knees” (60) to the “return of whales every August” (60), to the “colostrum light” of the Milky Way “weep[ing] thinly overhead” (59). However, De Kok’s poetry conveys these everyday observations with such lyricism and skill that even “things quite ordinary” are infused with an extraordinary beauty.

The collection is divided into three sections, titled “Shards”, “Wings” and “Vocation”. The first section is predominantly concerned with socio-political reality and the question of individual accountability. These poems juxtapose the easy excuse of “[n]obody culpable/ [j]ust normal indifference” with the tragedy of a “[s]mall death/ [a]lmost weightless”, “long lines of refugees”, “[f]ires to extinguish” and “[f]loods to manage” (15). The theme of personal responsibility is highlighted most clearly in “Today I do not love my country”, an immensely powerful poem about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2008. The poem recounts the horror of violence made commonplace as a

curdled mob drives people into pens,
brands them like cattle,
only holds a stranger’s hand
to press it into fire,
strings firecrackers through a child,
burns stores and shacks, burns. (17)

Even when faced with the utter failure of kindness and empathy, the poems in this section are not marked by cynicism or anger. Rather, De Kok’s poems gently urge the reader still to believe in this world, “[j]ust the same world/ [t]he one we share here now” and “which children/ in their smart new clothes/ or broken school shoes/ will share” (11).

The poems in the middle section, “Wings”, reflect on childhood memories, family ties, friendship and ageing, as “some memories/ [m]ove forward, pirouette” and “others bow and leave the room” (37). These poems convey the brevity and frailty of human life, as a mother moves to “a smaller house” with “shelves fitted just right”, gradually moving towards “silence and space”, “a place far away/ where daughters can’t help out” (41). Many of the poems in this section are thus deeply nostalgic, but without becoming overly sentimental or maudlin. The poem “My friends in their youth”, for example, focuses on the particular beauty of growing older:

Now, ageing, my friends are beautiful
the way tarnished silver is beautiful.
Individual, well-worn, dented
by daily household use. (45)

“Wings” contains some of the most lyrical poems in the collection, as De Kok represents loss and longing through precise, pared-down imagery and incredible technical skill. The poignancy of loss and vulnerability in “Wings” are balanced with light-hearted, humorous poems about human relationships, as in “The owl and the swan” and “My muse is a man”.

The final section, “Vocation”, brings the different themes in the collection together by reflecting on the poetic enterprise. This metapoetic section moves though “[c]hildhood’s morse, all seven senses”, from a “once breathing house” to a “crumbling roof”, and traces the poet’s emotional journey

Mile by last mile,
As we lead ourselves here
Back to the beginning and the end,
Silence, resting place. (50)

The final poem in the collection leaves the reader with the question: “What was the most beautiful thing you left behind?” This question echoes an ancient poem by Praxilla, in which Adonis describes the most beautiful things that he has left behind as “the light of the sun”, “the brilliant stars, “the face of the moon/ [c]ucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears” (60). De Kok’s poem, however, does not give pride of place to “a heavenly inventory” of stars, sun and moon. As with the “other signs” of the collection’s title, her poem finds its “finest thing” in everyday, ordinary memories: “[y]our mother’s enamel scale, its rusted bowl”, a “[t]ractor’s red pleat” and “[s]mall fish darting between your toes” (60). Indeed, as a whole, Other Signs can be read as a tender and lyrical treatise that pleads the case of “lowly cucumbers, apples and pears” (60), so that a “heavenly inventory” will always include a “vegetable list”; that the list of the most beautiful things we leave behind will always include “most things quite ordinary”.