Voices of the Earth

Whatever else one may say about Antjie Krog, there can be no doubting that she is an extraordinary, versatile, provocative and messy poet. She messes with proprieties both sexual and political, she shoves shit and semen, and much besides, in your face, she refuses to give up trying to speak the voices of the land, she risks sentimentality everywhere, and she continues to be both publicly personal (right down to details about her husband’s member) and very personally public.

This is another way of saying that Krog traverses many areas from which English-speaking South African poets (Esaps) have largely retreated. She dares to blurt and splutter, and to speak with a sincerity and seeming naivety of yearning which Esaps find mostly impossible, since their voices tend to be lofty, or acidly satirical, or simply too smug, alternating between the cocksure and the obscure.

Krog shows that Afrikaans poets can still write from a position of indigeneity – they remain rooted in the country in a way that Esaps seldom are. In fact, the moment Krog’s own lyrical songs of love for the land are translated into English, in Down to My Last Skin, they suffer a terrible loss: English cannot carry these songs; stores of its semantics are almost bare of the Afrikaans treasures of longing and regret. The textures of the two languages are most ill-matched at precisely this point: the metaphors and the loving diminutives of (be)longing.

Krog has guts, or perhaps the protection of fame, to constantly risk absurdity. There are moments when she achieves it, too, such as her lyrical cries, in Kleur Kom Nooit Alleen Nie, for a great oneness and a final homecoming in Africa, when just around the corner, in another poem in the same series, she describes her own nausea at what one might call the great unwashed shit in Africa – in this case a toilet whose mouth is sinking at an angle and filled to the brim with ordure. But the next day she’s singing for the Oneness of Africa again.

This is Krog: messy and contradictory. She is by turns fierce, emotionally voluble, furiously ambivalent about masculinity, then suddenly evoking an erotiscism so powerful it throws you across the room and leaves you feeling desperate.

About those who work at the “new barcounter of identities” she will say: “I am tired of their indecent haste to brand everyone … in the end we all have a stinking pile of identities in our laps” (from Kleur, my translation). She will ask: “Will I always be white … is colour the all-determining factor, no matter how I love.” Yet, in the same volume, she will sing to a black child a plaintive wish that Africa will become “yours mine ours”.

For me, a devilish contradiction remains undetected here: trying to force a singularity of belonging in Africa, as Krog so earnestly does, is no different from the singularities of identity dished out at the “barcounter of identities”. If Krog wants to resist the tyranny of reductive labelling, then she must also resist reducing Africa to a non-existent sentimental uniformity.

Kleur Kom Nooit Alleen Nie is nonetheless a volume which shows all Krog’s gifts, now pushed to even more daring limits. It is a bruising engagement. In Afrikaans, she is the closest thing you will find to a local Yehuda Amichai. I cannot do justice to it here.

If you are really serious about reading Krog’s poetry, you will have to read it in Afrikaans. Down to My Last Skin, a selection of Krog’s work drawn from more than 30 years’ work (nine volumes), will give you only fragmentary glimpses of a very large body of work.

As Krog concedes in a preface, the translation of her poems is a precarious exercise. While many of the translations are fine (including excellent contributions by Karen Press, Patrick Cullinan and Denis Hirson), a good number of them carry the shadow of the Afrikaans prominently in the awkwardness of their compounded nouns, love-infused diminutives and concatenated word-clusters typical of Afrikaans poetic diction.

But all this doesn’t detract from the simple fact that Krog is one of South Africa’s most outstanding poets, with a range of vision and a diversity of technique that inspire wonder. A poem such as Country of Grief and Grace, for example, regardless of problematic nuances of translation, carries across such direct passion, such uncluttered and beautifully ren-dered pathos about our country and our lives, that it simply has to be read. In any language.

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Leon de Kock was recently awarded the inaugural South African Translators’ Institute award for outstanding

Translation for his English rendition of Marlene van Niekerk’s novel Triomf