Nativism and the Interlocutor

By | 1 November 2012
The gypsy siguiriya begins with a terrible scream that divides the landscape into two ideal hemispheres.
It is the scream of dead generations, a poignant elegy for lost centuries, the pathetic evocation of love
under other moons and other winds. The melodic phrase begins to pry open the mystery of the tones and
remove the precious stone of the sob, a resonant tear on the river of the voice. No Andalusian can help
but shudder on hearing that scream. (p. 305)

The poet reread that endnote to Garcia Lorca’s poem ‘El Grito’ at the back of the Penguin edition of Christopher Maurer’s translations.

Then he returned to reading that poem by Lorca, the poem that bore – to use an English cliché – an uncanny resemblance to one he had written many years before, when he had been writing with a belief in the redemptive impulse of language.

He couldn’t remember having read the Lorca poem before, but he must have as the parallel between the two poems was too great to be coincidental, besides, he had certainly read the book years ago. The poet had to admit to himself that he could easily have forgotten reading the Andalusian as he had almost forgotten the writing of his own poem, and not merely his writing it, but that it had ever been written.

The poem of his that he’d had in mind was part of a series that he had worked on over the course of a decade. Yet he had – it seemed to him – completely effaced that work from his memory. That this erasure, this forgetting, had been so successful filled him with an anxiety that caused him to go to the cupboard in which he stored the boxes containing his paperwork, the two decades of his so-called writing career. In the past he had regularly disposed of his papers, the drafts and notes that led up to the poems themselves, but, perhaps only since he had begun effacing himself, he had started storing most of what he wrote, as if storing evidence for a pending legal battle.

Looking through the file that contained those poems, he found the one he’d had in mind. It was a poem in three sections, the last of which seemed to emulate Lorca, the second of which – and he did clearly remember the scene of writing it – describes the morning when he crossed the road from the university where he’d been studying at the time, to walk down to the bank of the river. The night before, or it could have been several nights before – he wasn’t entirely clear on this – he had been working as front-of-house at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and had witnessed a dance performance by Aboriginal people from the Central Desert.

Standing at the waterside with the sounds of their dancing and singing still in his head, noting that at the water’s edge there were a number of dead or dying jellyfish, to him the riverscape was animated in a way it had never been before: the jellyfish seemed small, disembodied hearts, throbbing weakly with the rhythm of tiny incoming waves, while beneath them the sand, extending down and out into the depths of the river, was the famous red dust of the Outback. As he looked up beyond the Old Brewery site, which he knew to be an Aboriginal sacred place and which, when he had first arrived in the city, had been the scene of land-rights demonstrations, and beyond the low arch of the Narrows Bridge, out towards the modest city skyline, a phrase that he would use in the poem came to him suddenly – unbidden – and struck him as ‘pure thought’.

In that thought there was the “unspeakable word” he had heard so many times in his childhood that it filled him with an inexplicable fear, an intimation of traumatic dissolution, the immediate and intense fear of being attacked.

Being there beside the river, confronting in his mind what he would later characterise as the Ontological Predicament of his being in Australia, he heard that word that his father had often used, that the Patriarch had called “the Blacks”, and he heard it as the name of a freedom. He knew that in the new South Africa no-one openly used that word, and no-one ever admitted to having used it. That was the second part of the poem, not the part that had drawn him to unpack years of lost work. Of that part he wasn’t able to remember anything at all.

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