Stigmata for my father
Lyric poetry draws heavily on memory and, as the classic form of the elegy shows, memory can be especially potent when allowed to coalesce around the loss of a loved one. It is as though the absence of that person becomes a space into which memory rushes and which memory fills
Two new collections, Denis Hirson’s Gardening in the Dark (Jacana) and Isobel Dixon’s A Fold in the Map (Jacana), deal at least in part with the death of a father and both are suffused with the work of memory and the work of mourning. The poetry becomes a memorialising act.
Hirson’s father, Baruch Hirson, was a political activist who was jailed for a decade in 1960s South Africa. That is the first absence, which Hirson has been working over in books from The House Next Door to Africa (1986) to his collection of essays, White Scars (2006). Two other works, I Remember King Kong (the Boxer) and We Walk Straight So You Better Get Out the Way, draw on his childhood, when his father was in jail, and are specifically works of memory. Each is composed of a series of utterances that begin with the phrase “I remember —”
After Baruch Hirson was released the family went into exile in Britain and Denis Hirson later went to live in Paris. Here are the lineaments of another absence—separation from his homeland. This “long-distance South African” watches with joy, and also with a deep sadness, the release of Nelson Mandela on TV. The final absence of Hirson’s father, after death, seems in these poems to focus and in some ways to contain all these other absences.
Hirson moves between long-lined poems such as the opening Island (a journey with his father on the day HF Verwoerd was shot) and prose poems like the powerful titular poem, and then on to poems with shorter lines and more stanzaic organisation.
Yet the voice remains constant: it is contemplative, tender, poignant. The rhythms are easy, barely varying between the pages clearly set as poetry and the justified paragraphs of the prose poems. These easy rhythms and the uncluttered language make the volume exceptionally readable: you are almost through it when its emotional freight hits you.
From the consideration of his father and his death, Hirson spirals outward taking in other figures, from his mother (“her merciless giving”) to his daughter asking pointed questions (“Do you know what lasts forever?”), and, behind them, grandmotherly ghosts. In between there are vivid moments observed in quotidian places such as the metro; against them, like hard jewels, are The Legend of the Mother’s Heart and The Alder King, works with the density and obliquity of ancient tales.
Dixon’s collection also deals with absence from her homeland (she lives in Britain) and with her father’s death. The first part of A Fold in the Map, which repeats some poems from her earlier volume, Weather Eye (2001), recalls a South African childhood from a faraway elsewhere, contrasting life here and there, often evoking the textures and shapes of this country or calling up simple but potent memories of family life.
The mood is sombre but wry, for the most part, and the poetry moves from observation or memory to metaphor in a silky glide. The strength here is that of precisely recalled sensations and feelings, the traditional work of memory in poetry.
But, in two marvellous poems in this first half of the volume, metaphor trumps memory: in Gemini and She Comes Swimming, there is a beautifully controlled surrealism that shapes and narrates internal states.
“Below my heart hang two pale women, / ghostly, gelid, sea-horse girls,” Dixon writes in Gemini. “— I must decide / and feed the lucky one.” In She Comes Swimming it feels as though all the longing for home, for a practically subconscious “Urworld”, is compressed into this extraordinary sequence, as “She comes swimming to you, following / da Gama’s wake — // — On, southwards, / yes, much further south than this”.
The second part of the volume, titled “Meet My Father”, returns to simplicity and directness as the poet returns to meet her father’s death and its aftermath.
Not just the fact of the death, but the process of it, the places and faces of it: the “endless, polished passageways” of a hospital, the matron whose smile is “A line slit with a paperknife”; the “ornery women” around “this ravaged territory” that is her father’s dying body.
Here the neater, more constrained and worked forms of the first part of the collection give way to utterances that are more open, usually more irregular, couched in the murmur of ordinary speech.
Dixon’s father comes alive in descriptive fragments, like the flowers that bloom from his ashes. As in Hirson’s collection, the freight of memory and love and loss coalesce into profoundly moving elegy; these are “stigmata for my father / and his panel-beaten heart”.
Isobel Dixon is at the Fair’s Literary Forum, interviewed by John Maytham, on Saturday June 14 at 12pm