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Hoodia - Ghaap News Report


GHAAP by Michael Cope, Kwela and Snailpress, R95

DUNCAN Miller introduces Michael Cope’s collection of poetry, Ghaap, by bringing along a cactus. “It’s not a cactus,” he points out, “this is an example of the hoodia,” the selfsame plant that’s currently causing a ruckus in the patents industry.

Why the plant? The Bushmen (and yes, that is the politically correct term) named a plateau in the Northern Cape after it because it was prolific there, and because they depended on it for hunting: the plant functions as an appetite suppressant and banishes weariness, so vital for hungry days on foot. It is, of course, applauded for its weight-loss properties in the developed world. Miller observes dryly that, “It’s so bitter that you don’t want to eat anything else for three days.”

So why use it as a title for a collection of poems?

You could say that the tension in this struggle for the rights to the hoodia is exactly what the poems in Ghaap encapsulate — the discontinuity between the ancient ways of life Cope calls “the new creation myth”, and the sense of disappointment and loss symptomatic of the 21st century and ubiquitous in its literature. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

The subject is nothing new, even among post-colonial writers, but that is precisely the point: most recently Antjie Krog released her versions of Bushman animal sagas, The Stars Say 'Tsau!', more performance art than poetry, and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s last novel, The Rock Alphabet, deals in masterful and epic detail with curatorship, ownership and love in the past and present.

Cope’s preoccupation with the hand-axe, both for what it is (a skillfully rendered artefact) and what it represents (the definitive development of people), is hard to explain in the cold light of day. It is to his credit that he manages to do so in these few words.

The poems — some of them traditional sonnets — are thematically organised, from the atavistic (Shiny) to the dream-like (Hill of Stone Tools). They range in quality from the unworthy — rhyming “tush” and “George W Bush” — to the celestial, so sublime that the only way to convey their beauty and reach is to reprint one here:

Ancestors at Wonderwerk

The line of them is long. They tread / on my heart. They walk through my bones. /

Their feet pass through my ribs. My head / is as air to them. They walk on stones / beneath me and their limbs are slick with rain. /

It is the rain that sent them and their tread / comes on and on. They carry sticks and pain, / skin and bones, and they, the living dead, / walk through my heart. They tread on it as though / I were not there. They are not here for me / but for the fire from the cave, below / the aeons of dust — below, where it burns free / of change. This is why they come. They go / through my heart to the ash hearth below.

It is surely enough for a poem to affect the reader on the deepest emotional level. But the precision of the sonnet format goes much further than that: it utilises a modern Western structure to contain the loops and repetitions so singular in indigenous storytelling and dancing and living; processes which insist on the primacy of the physical, but take the spirit world as given.

It is the fusion of all we know about the past in factual and archaeological terms and all we can imagine in our secret dreams: this is the African renaissance.

At the launch, Cope lets me hold a hand-axe. It hums warmly on my palm, only itself, mute and tear-shaped and shiny as iron.

“It’s about 600000 years old,” he says wistfully.

I am reluctant to let it go, the same way Cope was in his Duncan Said sonnet: It caught me and I was thrown. — Diane Awerbuck

THE FREE DIARY OF ALBIE SACHS by Albie Sachs with occasional counterpoint by Vanessa September, Random House, R150

The Free Diary of Albie Sachs is like a conversation. Whether the book keeps you reading into the early hours depends on whether you’d enjoy a late-night conversation with Sachs on politics, architecture, opera, friendship, youthful idealism, and, most of all, love. Sachs is a born talker and you either find his voice enervating, more gab than gift, or charming, wondrous and heartfelt. For the most part, I fall into the charming, wondrous camp, but then I am a good listener. And who can resist a book that, in its opening pages, claims tentatively to be about happiness?

“I have had to undertake many lonely journeys in my life,” Sachs writes, and each of these journeys has resulted in a book: first The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs; and then The Soft Vengeance of the Freedom Fighter. But this time, on a speaking tour of London, Belfast, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Helsinki, and Moscow, Sachs is not traveling alone, and is not the only one writing the diary. He describes Vanessa September as his companheira, “a Portuguese term so resonant and affirmative, and able to capture the relationship of a couple committed, accompanying each other closely and daringly through life”. In one of the many digressions that make this book like conversation, Sachs explains his choice of words: “‘Companions’ is too weak, ‘partners’ too dry, ‘lovers’ too in-your-face; the English culture is just too unromantic and the American too pious to conjure up what is needed.”

Woven throughout the diary are entries by September, as “occasional counterpoint”, a refreshing change to the usual diary form, where only one voice predominates. Together, the two voices offer an honest portrait of their relationship and two different takes on the cities they explore, from the doorways of Stockholm to the embassies of Berlin. Their descriptions of buildings, like the Reichstag and the architect Alvo Aalto’s studio in Helsinki, are the best parts of the diary. Sachs, older, usually measured, rushes in, trying to swallow the buildings whole, while September, normally the voluble one, takes her time.

The strongest entries in The Free Diaryof Albie Sachs are those on love, and as his relationship with September develops, another diary focusing more exclusively on the subject is surely called for. Their book establishes a brilliant and unusual narrator — the blissful, but honest couple. I hope it’s a voice that continues to survive in South African writing. — Henk Rossouw

Hoodia Cactus