A Poet That More People Should Know: A Review of A Book of Rooms by Kobus Moolman
- Title: A Book of Rooms
- Author: Kobus Moolman
- Publisher: Deep South
- Number of pages: 98
- Year of publication: 2014
- Category: Poetry
To get a glimpse of the innermost spaces of A Book of Rooms, one must be cognisant of how creative works come into being. There are works that spring wholly from the poet’s intention to produce a specific result. To achieve this, the poet treats the material, adding to it, subtracting from it, emphasising an effect here, toning an effect there, keenly juggling the laws of form and style, all the while working towards the intended, ultimate end. This is a scenario where the poet is aware and is in control of the creative process.
However, there are other works that flow from the poet’s pen. They can flow out incomplete or eerily perfect. These works seize the poet, spring out as geysers, and the poet has no control over what the mind feeds to the hands. The poet is compelled by an impulse far greater than the desire for conscious control. Here, the artist is subordinated to the magic spell of an alien will.
The original version of A Book of Rooms was written as part of a 2010 doctoral thesis in Creative Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, entitled Autobiography of Bone. As such, A Book of Rooms is a product of years of chipping away at the stone of memory, looking for tangibility – it is poetry with the individuality of a sculpture in a park, poetry with the singularity of a great work of art.
The cover of the book is an oil painting, ‘Grahamstown residence room with red curtains’ by Andries Gouws – who describes himself as ‘a bald Dutch-South African Buddhist-Calvinist bourgeois painter’, an artist of ‘small meditative paintings of unremarkable topics such as interiors or feet’. The collection begins with an epigraph from W, or the Memory of Childhood (1975) by George Perec:
Even if I have the help only of yellowing snapshots, a handful of eyewitness accounts and a few paltry documents to prop up my implausible memories, I have no alternative but to conjure up what for too many years I called the irrevocable: the things that were, the things that stopped, the things that were closed off – things that surely were and today are no longer, but things that also were so I may still be.
A Book of Rooms is a novelistic poem. Conceptually, the collection is divided into chapters using the journalistic guideline for writing factual news stories. However, instead of the Five Ws and one H (Who, What, Why, When, Where and How), the collection limits itself to ‘Who’ (six poems), ‘What’ (ten poems), ‘Why’ (twelve poems), and ‘When’ (seven poems). This does not portend incompleteness: ‘Where’ is the ‘rooms’ and ‘How’ is interwoven with all the other threads of the novelistic poem.
Stylistically, the verses are rendered in long, margin-to-margin lines that are alternated with shorter lines, of less than five words. This is done consistently throughout the collection, creating an uninterrupted flow of memory, dreams and recollections.
The ‘Who’ introduces a nameless, young South African man who has a hole in his heart and whose legs are impaired. The book is a journal of his dubious, fleeting, insufficient life – his recollections, dreams, and reflections – in narrative verse. The first poem under ‘Who’, ‘The Room of Maybe’ (p 13) begins:
back of a house in Greyling Street there is a room that comes in
and out of focus
as he slowly moves his head There is another room before this
and even – of this
he is certain – but it is so indistinct that only a small wooden bed
with low sides
remains embedded in his memory
This is cinematographic writing, one that creates images of both the physicality, ‘the room is rectangular and on its longest sides opposite each other, there are two doors’ (p 13), as well as the psychological state of the nameless narrator:
The bed is high and when he knees at the side
at night to pray
(Our father who art in Heaven forgive us our Trespasses) he
presses down with his
forearms onto the mattress and lifts his knees high off
the ground so the small
crawling things with feelers and claws cannot reach him (p 14).
‘The Room of Growing’ (p 18) gives us a glimpse into the family environment the nameless narrator has grown in:
Through the wide window he catches his father drive off every
Friday night in his
brown Ford Cortina XLE (Big 6) with blinds in the back of the window
And he wonders
Where his father goes And why his father does not go with And
why sometimes he
wishes his father did not come back
The narrator is a young poet. After doing schoolwork, he writes long poems:
… in this position he
writes a long poem
which his mother copies out in her best handwriting and frames
about a race of men
with eyes all over their body instead of skin and plastic flippers
where their feet should
be (p 20).
The narrator is also a terrified young man. In ‘The Room of Rural Teaching’ (p 27) the howls of horribly thin dogs haunt his animal dreams. He is terrified of his room, where he sleeps alone, and ‘there is nowhere to hide then or run away to, as he was a child, and the only way he survives is to pray to God’ (p 29).
The narrative in ‘The Room of Impressions and First Appearances’ (p 35), in the ‘What’ section, begins to explore the narrator’s sexuality. He is wearing his favourite ‘brown Harris tweed jacket that belonged to his grandpa’:
The jacket is his favourite because it makes him look older than
he really is and
serious, and because coming back in the bus from the National
Schools Festival in
his matric year, the girl with the red hair, who had a boyfriend
waiting for her at home
the girl who had shown him how to kiss with an open mouth and
a wet tongue (his friends
called it French-kissing), had said that all the writers she had
seen in pictures (and other
intense people like security branch policemen) always wore
jackets like that
This girl would influence his decision to be a writer, and inspire the most visual, most acute description of his space in ‘The Room of Independence’ (p 39). A Book of Rooms also shows the narrator’s failure as an adult to live up to an idealised ambition, in addition to his sexual fantasies and the specificity of his recollections.
A Book of Rooms tells of a room facing Burger Street and the provincial offices of the Department of Transport, and in that room:
There is the same
old pine desk with four drawers with unopened NBS bank
statements and old
school exercise books he had bought because the girl with the
red hair, who had a
boyfriend waiting for her at home, had told him that all real
writers keep notebooks
for their profound thoughts and ideas But since he had never
had any profound thoughts
and ideas (or the discipline to be still and listen for them) the
books are still sealed
in their brown paper wrapping In the drawers there also dry
Bic pens (only black)
blunt pencils (Rexel HB) and dog-eared photographs and love
letters on perfumed
paper from all the girls who could not love him the way he wanted
with their lips and
their hands But who wanted to be his friends instead (p 39)
The world is transported into these rooms only through windows, memory, and reflections. Like in the notes of Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, where Jung relates his dreams of anxiety, in which things that are small become large, a tiny ball at a great distance grows steadily into monstrous and suffocating object as it approaches. Jung explains that those dreams were overtures to the psychological changes of puberty, and he links them to a psychogenic factor: that the atmosphere of the house was beginning to be unbreathable.
The narrator’s ‘The Room of Dreams’ (p 51) details dreams where ‘eyes with heavy footsteps follow him’. In his sleep, ‘a man appears with no eyes in his head’, a man with ‘eyes all over his feet instead, and his feet as large as a loaf of unsliced bread’, a man ‘who looks like someone who visits dreams all the time’, ‘carrying an extraordinarily big bundle of lies’. This man grows lighter and larger as he moves until he is large as a mountain, until the dreamer is overwhelmed by the weight of everything around him and must wake up and sit on the bed.
The narrative arc of A Book of Rooms ends with ‘The Room of Absolute Whiteness’ (p 98):
a louvred window that faces onto a flat sky that runs left
to right and back
again All day All night Even on public holidays When the wind
is not there
The sky deserted Blood stalled in his little engine Just the small
sounds of cooling
from the contraction of his muscles and his nerves and his brittle
There is a louvred window that overlooks a car park (Residents
Parking Only –
Vehicles Parked at Owner’s Risk) (No Hawkers Allowed)
A window that
is not able to remember anything Day in Day out From one
moment to the next
The way the eyes of the dead forget forever everything they ever
saw Or ever once remembered.
But what gives the collection its singularity is its stubborn obsession with ‘place’. The place are ‘rooms’, and these rooms are psychological rooms as opposed to physical rooms, though their physicality remains tangible.
Writing about ‘place’ in a critique of Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poetry chapbook, the literary critic Keguro Macharia describes place as that which ‘is generated as individuals interact’, and that:
To be a poet of place, to write ‘while trying to stand on that place’ one is writing about is difficult labour. One attempts to inhabit and describe scenes of making and unmaking, to stand while being undone.
Moolman’s poetry expands Macharia’s conceptualisation of place, using ‘rooms’ as the warp and weft for weaving a tale of a young man with a hole in his heart. It is a daunting task, one that confuses the reader and might even intimidate the fallow mind, but which invites and enriches those who are willing to take a walk through the collection, to engage with it as a psychological inquiry, as an attempt at sense-making and speculation.
A Book of Rooms won the 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, a prize that owes its existence to the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF). Kwame Dawes, Director of the APBF, was effusive in his praise of A Book of Rooms, saying:
Every time we bring attention to the wonderful poetry being written by African poets today, we are enacting something quite important for African literary arts, and Moolman, whose poetry I have followed for a number of years, is a poet that more people should know. Our hope is that in some small way, this prize will aid in that larger effort.
Moolman has published seven critically acclaimed collections so far, and has won multiple awards, both within and outside South Africa. None of these collections are currently available in Nairobi, Kenya. Yet, reading A Book of Rooms has lit in this reviewer a desire to obtain the other six collections. Indeed, Moolman is a poet that more people should know.
Photograph: ‘Loom’ by premasagar
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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.