Christine Coates’ Homegrown is an Alcove of Memory and History: A Review

By Richard Oduor Oduku


  • Title: Homegrown
  • Author: Christine Coates
  • Publisher: Modjaji Books
  • Pages: 69
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Poetry

Homegrown is a delicate intertwining of personal memory and national history. Memory has always been regarded a high art, even a sacred one, closely akin to the arts of divination and inspiration. In Homegrown, the emotions of daily life litter the pages with acute specificity. Coates uses narrative and everyday conversational language to weave personal experiences and memory as a way of investigating universal themes. The straightforward verse style and colloquial tone and simplicity radiates nostalgia so pervasive, yet so entrancing, in its effort to hold your hand and walk you through all the spaces the poet has passed through. Indeed, the poet sings, ‘I love to go a-wandering – in the dusty town of Africa’.

 Homegrown is a thin book, 69 pages, with poems that follow a life. The poems transit from one age and space to another, and allow memory, more than anything else, to historicize that life. In ‘Poetry and American Memory’, Robert Pinsky says that the strength of memory is what gives works of art the virtues of depth and reality. In Homegrown, the poem ‘Maps of Memory’ provides a glimpse into how the multifarious images of existence are weaved with grace to form a tapestry that is majestic and fluid:

I trace the threads, the paths lead me back;

memory like hieroglyphs

scratched in sand, paper, stone.

I follow the contours back to childhood –

the tiny ivory elephant in a malachite box,

I trace a crystal enclosed in a gold cage, a little lamp;

the threads mark my place in the world,

lines like letters, scorings on sand and stone

connect me to a doll’s tea set,

to the words of my mother’s childhood book

(p 50)

 

Homegrown is painted on Klerksdorp, a canvas so wide yet so inconstant in its textures. Klerksdorp provides the home, that place where all journeys start. Christine Coates writes of the ‘Old Roads’ out of Klerksdorp, of Jo’burg, of Braamfontein, of Robben Island beyond the sea. We capture scraps of existence, the smashed car on top of a building, and personal histories, ‘I come from a long line of Margarets’.

The poem the collection borrows its title from, ‘Homegrown’, laboriously searches a childhood for the minutest details, in Klerksdorp, a dusty town where the ‘mine dump blows dirt so fine it mixes in one’s cough’. We are introduced, unsuspectingly, to the price all mining towns pay, an ecosystem being transformed by mine dumps, and to prepubescent years lived in awe of a father who when woken from sleep by child play would belt the persona and her sister but who nonetheless exhibited warmth and protectiveness. We are go-carted to the infinitesimal; shown how the flanks of beef and kudu wait for her father to make biltong; hear the hiss of steam and the scream of steel at Umtata station; taken to Titsa Falls, the river of empty boys.

Beneath the imagism, that exaltation of the senses – especially the sense of sight – there are seemingly autobiographical strands. In ‘Kitchen Stories’, the poet writes, ‘I grew up on kitchen stories, grandmother kneading dough, grandfather mending, by moonlight, his gun’. In ‘Home Times’, the poet writes, ‘It is 1965 and I am in the back of a car driving along a dusty road in bushveld’.

In ‘Sounds of School’, we first meet ‘The Girl from Qumbu’, with her trunk, at Umtata Station, on her way to boarding school, where she survives on boiled cabbage, spirogyra and frog’s eggs. This was in the 1940s with rumours of war making the rounds and threats from Hitler. It would be a full six years before this girl from the hills with thatched huts escapes the school. The poem ‘A Diet of Worms’ provides a rare glimpse into high school life, a time of personal transition, and how it merges with national history:

I learnt of Luther and the diet of worms

black people ate fried mopane worms and papa called me

‘a book-worm’. In biology, we dissected earthworms

learned about measly pork and tape worms

Then in Standard 7 a worm got into Tsafendas and told him to

kill

the Prime Minister. It changed the country’s history

It changed my history

Within months a worm activated Papa’s head –

a worm he silenced with a gunshot

(p 27)

 

There is a deliberate effort to map mental and physical transitions through different spaces and time, through happiness and loss – from the dusty town of Klerksdorp, to the east bank of the river Nile, to the ‘Museum in Berlin’. Again we see how these transitions drip into personal and national histories:

In Berlin

There is a glass sarcophagus

Where they keep the

head of Nefertiti.

‘My Nefertiti,’

My father called her.

In the museum in Berlin

Her face is tanned

(p 34)

 

In ‘a poem for the white girl’, there is a retelling of the history of Nefertiti, a historical placement for a white girl to interpret the movement of the bust of Nefertiti from her father’s pedestal in the lounge to the Discovery channel, where her beauty – ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’has been defaced and the bust now ‘lies broken in a box/four large pieces/and one small chip’.

The ‘Four Voices of Marriage’, Paper, China, Silver and Ruby, and ‘Marriage’ are ambivalent: ‘Not wanting it – / I stay for 42 years/ Held inside an eye – I am helpless/ unable to say yes or no – ’

 Like Robert Frost watching the ice weigh down the branches of a birch tree or the mowing of a field of hay, Christine Coates’ poems are pastoral and simple, and grounded in a land that can be imagined and visualized from the images radiating from every single page. In the poem ‘on hearing my friend is to emigrate’ we find this testament to rootedness:

Rooted here

this Cape

this South Africa

I cannot leave even

as loud-mouthed politicians

sound alarms

and sirens shriek

(p 64)

Christine Coates is a poet and writer from Cape Town. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. Her poetry collection radiates richness, depth of introspection, and dexterity. David Barber says in ‘Does Memory Have a Future?’ that ‘the function of memory, that is the power of re-membering, is to bring things back or put things back together, to recover experience and emotion and turn them into forms or fluent energy and intensity’. That is what Homegrown does. The tapestry of the personal and the historical should invite Homegrown to every bookshelf, in both private and public libraries.


Photograph Credits here


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Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works in Nairobi. He is a Founding member of Jalada Africa and HisiaZangu and has published in Kwani? Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja among others. He also contributes to the Star Newspaper.