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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 1, 2006

South African poet Ingrid de Kok has written poems about her country's historic transition from apartheid. They include accounts of testimony given to the new South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, childhood memories that reach to the time of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, and images of machinery lifting statues of the old regime's leaders away from their pedestals. A volume of new and selected poems by de Kok, Seasonal Fires , brings together three earlier books, the first published in 1988.

This publication introduces an impressive poet to American readers. De Kok offers, among other things, a vision of her country through the lens of poetry. The social problems and political history of South Africa sharpen a general question for art: How does a relatively privileged artist register deprivation or suffering without emphasizing her advantaged viewpoint? How to avoid condescension, exoticism or mere tongue-clicking? With attention, and imagination:

THE HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD

is a girl of thirteen

and her children are many.

Left-overs, moulting gulls,

wet unweaned sacks

she carries them under her arms

and on her back

though some must walk beside her

bearing their own bones and mash

when not on the floor

in sickness and distress

rolled up in rows

facing the open stall.

Moon and bone-cold stars

navigational spoor

for ambulance, hearse,

the delivery vans

that will fetch and dispatch

the homeless, motherless

unclean and dead

and a girl of thirteen,

children in her arms,

house balanced on her head.

The concluding rhyme of "dead" and "head"; other phrases and sounds, such as "rolled up in rows" and "fetch and dispatch"; the arresting, unconventional images of children as "moulting gulls" and "unweaned sacks"; the heartbreaking yet antic final image of the child with a "house balanced on her head" on a continent where people do carry things balanced on the head: All are part of the poem's imaginative energy.

Simple phrases such as "sickness and distress" establish moral, as well as stylistic, balance. At the same time, the poem's inventive movement and sound, its fresh imagery, convey empathy as an active striving, not a settled or complacent state. The engaged kinetic work of de Kok's language, manifesting the distance between poet and child, constitutes respect for that other soul, vivid and distinct.

(Ingrid de Kok's poem "The Head of the Household" is from her book "Seasonal Fires: New and Selected Poems." Seven Stories. 2006 by Ingrid de Kok.)

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