- Title: Questions for the Sea
- Author: Stephen Symons
- Publisher: uHlanga Press
- Number of pages: 81
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Poetry
‘The waves bring back even things we haven’t lost’, a line from Yehuda Amichai’s poem ‘The Seashore’, is the epigraph that opens Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons. This line is to be taken both as act and setting for Symons’ debut collection of poems. The sea is the motif in Questions for the Sea, the poet’s metaphor for self and country, South Africa. The reader is invited, as a surfer or beachgoer, to share in the memories brought back by waves. In this volume, Symons is a performer – because remembering itself is a conscious act – awash with both cherished personal moments and social, dark history.
South Africa – a country with a turbulent history of civil war and apartheid, where colonial battles for control, like the Anglo-Boer Wars, were fought – is the backdrop to some of the musings of the poet. In his travelogue-cum-diary titled London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, Winston Churchill also documents his involvement in the Second Anglo-Boer War, as a young, cavalry soldier. Churchill’s actions during that war garnered much praise in Britain and shot him into fame, but that war should be seen as an index of how British imperialism was cemented in South Africa. This, then, points to the fact that there are usually many perspectives on history, how it is seen by the vanquished and the conquerors and that we all remember differently. What is commendable about Symons’ volume is that the poet-persona looks back on this particular history as it affects an individual in contemporary times. At different points in the book, the poet-persona’s personal moments are the conduit through which the aftereffects of South Africa’s history are expressed.
The pivotal theme in Symons’ volume is transformation. This theme is perpetuated throughout the book. Something always seems to be changing or even a-changing, like the sea, which is ever restless. This trope is present even in the sub-themes of adulthood, fatherhood, memory, family life and war. All these will make the collection accessible to many a reader.
The volume is divided into six sections, which serve as guardrails to a thematic understanding of the book. The first poem in the opening section, ‘The Smell of the Sea (or Losing My Country)’, sets the tone for the book. In this particular section, transcendence is the theme that rings through. Or to put it in different terms, in this section, transcendence is explicated with light and colours as if the poet were a photographer. These two elements, light and colours, are his focus and are artfully curated throughout the volume in such a way as to bring home an understanding of mortality, memory and seduction. However, it is not the olfactory sense that this poem appeals to, despite its suggestive title. In fact, there is no metaphor signifying that. Rather, it is the evocation of memory that plays out as the sensory faculty awakened before it all dissolves, as in a dream.
We learn right from the opening line the type of memory that will be dominant in the poem, that it is not one made of fragrance but, ‘A salted tongue of / memory’, clearing away obscurity or wilful forgetfulness. The undertone to this poem, even though it appears naturally innocent, is South Africa’s troubled history if we pay attention to the acts unfolding in the poem: ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’, and the metaphor used. The history of the country is laid bare as the luminescent witness in the sky strips that history ‘naked and white as sun-fired bone’, as, ‘Its stillness wavers through black trees’. The silence of history echoes in these lines. Losing one’s country or sense of belonging is the tragedy that is brought to the fore as the poet subtly contrasts colours that seem to be the crux of the rainbow nation.
That first poem, just like the one after it, ‘Death of a Surfer’, and the remarkable prose poem titled ‘Dorp’, albeit focusing on different themes, show the poet as a colourist who pays attention to colour and light. He shows a clever attention of colours, black and white, by contrasting the colours to precipitate the indifferent from their position at the height of ease into a gory fall in ‘Far Below’.
In the second section of the volume, the poet expounds the theme of war and its aftermath, its effect both on the collective and the individual in the period of liberation in South Africa. The first poem that ignites this is ‘Call Up, February 1990’. The poem is a direct reference to another significant event in South African history. The setting is the period of the Natal Civil War, the period of the negotiations that abolished apartheid. It was also in the same period that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. What is unique about this poem is the biblical allusion that it foregrounds. The poet adapts the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis 22, but with an alternative ending, thereby capturing the tensions in that moment of South African history. In that period, the poet writes about where fathers must part with their sons as their sons are being conscripted into the army:
Somewhere rams were caught in the fynbos
waiting to take the place of the Isaacs –
but no Angel intervened (p 24).
The poet’s choice in capitalising the word ‘Angel’ is indicative of a promised salvation or liberation that was never realised. Although there are some important details missing in the poet’s alternative version, there is no knife or angel in it, which only serves to further deepen understanding. If the poem were to be a painting, it may as well have been done by the dexterous hands of Caravaggio. Just like the painting attributed to Caravaggio on the same story, Sacrificio d’Isacco, in the Piasecka-Johnson Collection, USA, the promise of salvation is not fully realised as that promise is only suggestive.
The technical merits of Symons’ method of delivery lie in his succinctness and in his ‘punchlines’. He uses these to a chilling effect in the poems, ‘On Reading a War Poem before Sunrise’ and ‘Spioenkop’. If there is any iota of hope of redemption, the final verses of these poems are dismissive of peace or liberation, leaving a question hanging about the repetitive nature of history:
brush the words away,
trace the rules of light seeping between the blinds,
let the first accolades of birdsong in,
and wonder how many storms
would scour a beach of sand
until it exposed its granite bones (p 25).
And in that moment
morning hews the incline
to a hedge of stone,
light splintered and
still twisted, deep into the flesh
of this country’s history (p 34).
Domestic life and its attending anxiety are amongst what the poet writes about in this volume. In the fourth part of the book, he dwells more on this as he threads memories of childhood and fatherhood. In ‘Emma’, we witness the poet-persona recount how charmed he was at the birth of his daughter, ‘…a sudden ceremonious cut / frozen in pixels’. The poem is deeply affecting. Like almost every parent, the poet-persona cannot help but freeze this moment in his memory, ever imagining his daughter as an infant. This poem is reminiscent of the award-winning poem by the Nigerian poet, Niran Okewole, titled ‘First Breath’. Although the tone in ‘First Breath’ is chaotic, the similarity between both poems lies in the love and hope the two poems invest in the young generation. This is the gesture Symons seems to make here, a respite from the leading themes in the preceding sections.
The final part of the volume, titled ‘Questions for the Sea’, is fashioned in a style similar to Antjie Krog’s ‘Body Bereft’. It is an around-the-clock chronicle. ‘Questions for the Sea’ evokes idyllic time and a world now lost. Instead of conventional titles, each poem in this section is marked by a specific time. The first poem is ‘16h30’. In it, the poet composes a brilliant, tranquil, seaside serenade that can only be marred by a beachgoer’s nonchalant attitude and by humans’ attitude of indifference to nature:
Beyond the surf
an inflatable dolphin is skipping past gulls –
a plastic punctuation
chasing an unanswerable question (p 71).
The verse quoted above is weightier in the way it is served in the collection because, there, it comes as a ‘punchline’ to the strong tranquillity evoked earlier. There seems to be no answer yet as to when this cruelty against nature will stop. This clearly shows that the ecological crisis of today is only due to the carefree attitude of humans. Symons questions further humans’ role as causative agents in the poem titled ‘05h45’:
What of those days
before this city,
millions of mornings ago,
when the bellies of whales
would have skimmed these roofs (p 77)?
This section mourns the natural world that is now reduced to mere ‘roofs’, ‘streets of barking dogs’ and ‘swimming pools’. The way the ‘time signatures’ of this final part of the collection are arranged is emblematic of the chronology of the natural disaster affecting the whole world. A world is already lost. What will happen when the ocean returns to reclaim her lost territory?
Symons has been praised for bringing a new sensibility to South African poetry. When he was asked a question on English South African poetry in a recent interview, he offered the following insight:
I would say given the nature of our largely divided and insular history, by means of race, culture and language I don’t think there’s a singular type of South African poetry. English poetry is, I think, even further subdivided.
It’s a strange landscape. Polemics, if you could call it that, sometimes verges on the prescriptive, and at other times seems rather conservative.
Kelwyn Sole speaks of ‘[a]n ambience of insecurity and instability’ within SA Poetry which points to that sense of insularity.
I try as a writer, to simply get on with the act of writing, but one does certainly feel the presence of a sense of insularity in English poetry.
A writer is substantively a repository of their society whether they like it or not. This guides Symons’ writing and scholarly work. Stephen Symons, as at the time of this book’s publication, was working on a PhD in African Studies, focusing on the experiences of ex-conscripts of the South African Defence Force under apartheid. The poet is fully invested in the history and memory of his country, and this comes through in his poetry.
With profundity and subtlety, he explores these thematic concerns with calm and awe-inspiring metaphors. Until one reads a Symons poem again and again, the full meaning may not yield itself completely to one, which is one of the characteristics of good poetry. His imagery and metaphors are natural and photographic, which makes Questions for the Sea a very gratifying read. Symons writes with the fascination of a camera and that will endear him to many readers.
Photograph: ‘Kalk Bay seashore’ by Vilseskogen
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