Saturday, September 12, 2015

New poetry collection explores redemption through 'shared remembering'

My poetry book, Unfettered Days, was released during National Book Week 2015. In this work, I continue to grapple with private and public concerns and to build meaning through exploring the particular, to examine specific moments and "small details" of life. The book, which builds on previous works My Rainbow and Connexions, is obtainable at the Melville branch Bookdealers (

This 'Afterword' was written by cultural practitioner and outstanding poet Lisa Combrinck:.

Frank Meintjies’s latest poetry collection comes at a time when South Africa is no longer immersed in the euphoria of the immediate post democracy peri''od. The seams of the nation state are fraying at the edges. The narrative of truth and reconciliation no longer carries the weight it did in previous years. The imagined community of a united people no longer holds sway. Instead, even official sources now speak of a “nation in the making.” ....  There is an acknowledgement that much needs to be done to address the current dominant consciousness of South African people and the economic realities facing the poor and downtrodden.

Under current circumstances, the poet ought to pose questions; and the beauty of living in an ostensibly and demonstrably political democracy is that it enables “unfettered” thought, and ‘free’ time to contemplate individual and collective direction.

In “Unfettered Days” Meintjies’s approach is modest, seemingly tentative – as if engaged in free thought - yet skillful and highly successful in interrogating the times, the truths of his own life and others who people the shared landscape as well as intimating to bigger realities. His poetry creates a space in which readers can breathe and be themselves.

Meintjies writes poetry that probes and poses questions. He describes both urban and rural landscapes and their people, zooming in on little details with the eye of a camera. He outlines what appear to be seemingly insignificant observations but these provide the reader with an intimacy that leaves an unease yet also, strange as it may seem, a feeling of deep fulfillment. In foregrounding these close-ups, the poems reveal new meanings beneath the surface. These small revelations are what give the poetry great inner strength and resonance.

In the poem “salt in crevices”, (the first of a series of poems about the landscapes of childhood and youth) the poem ends with a description of “a dried blood drop” which spreads out, forms a thin membrane / that I hold / as I doze off, sitting up”. What resembles throwaway lines ends a poem where the memory of the past lingers on and still haunts the present. One wonders if this is what history has bequeathed new generations as it writes itself in blood. Or is history a dried blood drop in the cultural imaginary of the persona and by implication the people as a whole? The endings of poems often have that sense of mystery that remains, which is at the heart of his poetic craft. One is left with the view that it is not the Devil that is in the detail, but goodness, godliness, sacredness, what Paulo Freire would call a humanizing evocation.

A sense of small, revealing truths is embraced in the titles of poems such as “a small detail” and “rough draft”.  Taking a close-up look in one poem, he conveys the humdrum of township life where “we know every pavement slab / as it knows us”; and in another poem about his mother he concludes that there are “so many places to visit / in the heart of the woman / who visited so few places.” In this way he conveys the experiences of those who have been dispossessed through apartheid, and yet he also transmits the richness of life and a defiant possession of a different kind.

Yet the poet also acknowledges that memory itself is partial. In a poem titled “memory” he writes: “i grasp my forgetting” and “i remember what i choose to / or what is chosen / by my misfiring mind…”. In a different poem, he writes about “half-told stories played & splayed / rumours, memories, paranoia, writhing / the shapelessness of old truths & new amnesias”. In these poems a very personal moment of looking at the past also becomes a national preponderance, conversation and quest to understand a reality that is fraught and fractured, hoping that by relooking at the past one can begin to “create anew”.

He also confronts realities head-on when he critiques how the black consciousness of the past and its ideology of liberation have become appropriated; and he parodies the symbols of the new blackness. In a poem titled “night of the xenophobes” he exposes those behind the violence against foreign nationals who “punch, knock, slap” and who “burn all rules” and stamp out the truth.

The persona of the poem punctuates his experiences as the subject of these stories with a small letter “i’ as indeed the entire collection is devoid of capital letters. The use of lowercase suggests that the individual is only a small part of the collective and can get lost in the big scheme of things. This is further strengthened by the tendency to describe solitary figures in the landscape; in the poems one comes across a “thin dog”, “a small child”, “a man in his wheelchair / by a small fire, alone / in the stirring sturdy city” and “an old man trundles along / tugging a laden trolley…”. All these solitary figures add up to uncover a reality that has been painted over and is a painful indictment of the years of freedom. Yet these figures together are also a sign of life, endurance and resilience. Female figures are often strong as in the poem “unfettered woman” and in the poems “resolve” and “redihense” that offer the possibility of togetherness so that “together we are genuine, we laugh, we stalk small truths, stoke small fires”.

The poem titled “birds of africa” is a fitting tribute to the diversity of birds on the African continent but is also a commentary on the kinds of personalities that dominate the African political and cultural landscape. One identifies readily with the narcissistic, self-absorbed and seemingly subservient ostrich as one does with the other birds in this poem. The poet sheds tears but as in other poems, this moment of weeping is released and redeemed through a smile.

His lyrical images are often startling and beautiful as he describes the music of the late Zim Ngqawana as producing “a sea, a flow, a warm wind / over the savannah / in your eyes”; in a poem titled “refiloe” he describes the expression on a woman’s face in a photographic exhibition as one of “finding & naming / your continent of dreams & rainstorms & harmattans” and elsewhere the sunrise “sprays its lines, pulses / forging circles that float like bubbles…”.

The landscape is often one which is inscribed with human presence with “small human drawings surfacing on a land mass” and “sweetmeats” that “print sharp colours” while the blossoming of flowers produce “blotches, backdrops, broad strokes, lines on verges”.  He writes the land as the land writes him. In a poignant tribute to the passing of Nelson Mandela, nature itself is an artist bringing rain to the plains and healing to the heart where “little ribbons of grace sprout / the fingers or rain / write / deep tracks in my sand”.

The poet also becomes a historian immersing himself in the history, that others choose to sideline from the mainstream and naming those whose history has not been named. He asserts: “i am khoi”, “i think of stuurman / i meditate on the lion of gamtoos” and “i am a survivor”. Out of “the shapes, drawings, symbols, silences”, jetty he seeks the stories and the dances that make sense of human lives. Welts The poet becomes witness, provides testimony for or new generations and the poem becomes a thanksgiving. 

Each revelation offers the possibility of redemption as individual and shared remembering brings something vital back, provides for a reclamation of that which has been lost or trampled on, and enables a restoration of direction.

In the words of Ben Okri from a lecture he delivered in April 2015 at UNISA in Pretoria, “There can be no true renaissance till a people have faced the absolute truth of their condition. Till there has been an unflinching stocktaking, a self-truth-telling, a genuine estimation of failures and weakness, of strengths and possibilities too. It is a natural trait for human beings to lie to themselves about their inadequacies, to lie to themselves about their achievements. But we cannot rebuild on a false foundation. This is why we need our awkward truth-tellers…. And our truth should include not only our external conditions, the evidence of our societies, but our inner conditions too, our will, our psychic and cultural strengths.”

Meintjies’s poetry without fanfare and bells and whistles quietly defies the South African temptation to tell lies about themselves, about ourselves. Instead, his mission is that of the excavator, an awkward truth-teller, a path-finder, the poet at work whose grappling with words reveals real truths and the will to move forward based on that which has been brought to light.

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