Ekke by Klara du Plessis - Conversational Review by Aaron Boothby & Klara du Plessis
Anstruther Books - 2018 - $18.95
Klara: I recently realized that I let things into my writing and keep things out. For example, South Africa enters, Canada stays out; mountains enter, oceans stay out. And that has nothing to say about the degree of empathy and affection I experience toward all examples.
Aaron: While reading I caught myself wondering about South Africa in these poems as a place, a landscape and went looking for it. Perhaps to trace its presence in lines. There’s presence, but less than I thought and what’s there seems more a series of touches. I started tracing the touches. Is the nation excised in a way, leaving only residues? Or is it that where one’s from isn’t ever a nation at all, because that’s just notional. Not touchable.
Klara: Remarkable that South Africa’s presence seems subliminal to you. I feel that my mind space encompasses a landscape that is only very superficially North American. And in the sense that at least half of these poems were written in Montreal, I feel a real lack of any Canadian nationality in any of these. Not that I know what that would even be like in my writing. And that’s only my experience of my own work.
Aaron: Not an answer, but something’s in that line of Afrikaans: mond oorblyfsels teen die skedel. Ideas confuse names and words into imagined wholes. Living’s made of mouth-touches, word-touches, stone-touches, all buoyancies for names to float upon. There they touch to other names in contacts, slippages, sounds wet and ungraspable but tactile as textures in mouths: Spelling / Spieël / Speel / Spel. Spelling / Mirror / Play / Spell. There’s tracing landscape’s residues in words and there’s tracing the shapes a mouth makes as it forms words. There’s the museum of language in a hometown made a museum for touch, the one in “Stillframe Inbox,” where there’s the possibility for a friend, now gone, continuing within yourself. Within a poem that is not a museum. With the street art stone project, touchable, remembering of painting rocks in childhood. Bound in the book’s first lines about stones on hillsides to spell / to welcome / to warn. Stones: a touchable way of saying without a mouth. The Afrikaans word that evokes something so different than English: Klippertjies. Little stone touches in keeping, themselves a way that silence can become connectivity. A spieël spelling welcome. A way to “inhabit while being cognizant” the scant undulations of landscape become more vocal as they’re noticed without inhibitions born by names laid over them.
Klara: Of course you know that at the moment I’m walking through orchards daily—olive and almond groves along the foothills of Montserrat in Catalunya. The undulation of this landscape which is not flatland but a series of languages I do not speak—Spanish, Catalan. The difference between inundate and undulate / is so slim, yet I master it / within the time bracket it takes to pour this glass / of water and drink it.
Aaron: Yes. Are even the places we call home undulating in languages we may not speak? Like South Africa, for you, California, for me, Montréal as a second for us both. There’s Bloemfontein, City of Roses / a placeholder. There’s Montréal, which is not mountain / but towers over the town. While in a small town in Northern Ontario called Burnt River, Dionne Brand remarks “And what this place was called in its own language I do not know.” Whatever that language was, is, is a language of touches, attentions, has been silenced but is not absent. It still retains some ability to speak to a mind, which like a landscape is a porous territory made to appear orderly by borders. All those figments of nation swarming around landscapes rendered silent in their language! Like the ideas that officiate one language to eleven mark the death sentence / pagination / museum / mausoleum make so that everything’s altered in seeing, disruptive of touch: Some kinds of glass partitions warp the view through. / Some kinds of eyes warp their own points of view.
Klara: The notional nation, as you say. The inhabitation one creates through a confluence of geographic space experienced, the over-mapping, the mind working simultaneously on different planes and fields and mountain ranges.
Aaron: Some of those spaces feel smaller, too. While reading I thought “this is a book of rooms that are poems,” with thresholds to hesitate at, step over, with different sounds, objects, textures, colours, people within them. I mean they’re also orchards. They’re wall-less, they lack clear entrances, exits, though this is true of some rooms, too. Each is a space differing from while relating to other adjacent spaces. I walk across different languages as if they are flatlands, yes. A language can seem infinite even held within a single person and none is. Does Engels seem more infinite than Afrikaans, a more sprawling curiosity of empire? A language couldn’t fill a room, even with all the meaning held in its words, but a hometown may house a language’s museum and research centre. In a poem-orchard adjacent the museum the fruit on the trees is either orange or oranje: sounds diverging but the word reflecting that neither holds the fruit itself in its origins. Persian, older than both. My hometown houses a citrus museum to its now mostly razed history of orange groves. Languages and poems have bounds that are not walls and appear only when I exit through hanging leaves.
Klara: While here, I was asked to present my work so I read the first poem in Ekke and a woman asked me whether all my work was “pastoral,” and my immediate reaction was to balk, no that sounds so reductive, no that sounds so sweet kitsch shepherds. But the more I think of it the more the pastoral becomes a point of contact, not the only one, but one among a few, the landscape as an entryway to quietness which includes motivity, and a way to understand the flotation device called language. Also, is Lucretius a pastoral writer? I still haven’t read him, but many I admire are constantly quoting him to great effect, De Rerum Natura. A way to pasture in poetry and nibble.
Aaron: There are even cows in Ekke but they’re not found in pastures. If someone says “pastoral” now do they mean taking the time to notice, rather than announce? Lucretius does a lot of noticing and is better at this than coherence. I noticed the stones that first poem: we no longer write in black but in white stones, because there’s a poem by César Vallejo titled “Black Stone on a White Stone.” Stones which are so like words, Repurposed, repatriated, / stones estranged in new names. These different ways of inscribing landscapes whether hillsides or pages. There’s lyftaal and skryftaal; is there a word for stone language? While Lucretius wonders about names he says, “nature prompted the tongue to utter varied sounds, and convenience coined the names of things,” which conveys a sense of accident well.
Klara: “If someone says ‘pastoral’ now do they mean taking the time to notice, rather than announce?” Noticing implies an affinity with the surroundings, a way to inhabit while being cognizant. Attention and the ability to mediate ego is a remedy to announcement, writing with a bugle of self. It’s a soft balance between the two, especially when one writes integrally from a perspective, and even more so from a narrative of identity, such as a poem like “Ekke” could be interpreted to be.
Aaron: Strangely, somehow, “Conveyor Belt” also seems a kind of narrative of identity. Those frightening slides between die, daai, die beeste, die best and how bles is bald and what bald suggests thrown into relation to blessure. That there’s no accident in chronology, but nothing living is idyllic, like Breasts / with their eternal asymmetrical pairings conveying thought back to Vallejo’s line in another poem: “Truly refuse symmetry.” Then the redactions. The conjugated I / Io / Isis. That cows are cowed by bullying bulls and how If you manhandle language, like other things it cowers and how it’s a woman whose calf is born which becomes my calves rigid from walking. We like landscapes and languages to project a false coherence in composition, even ones we’re looking at. Things slip, loosen, distress so easily: vlees vleis vleiend veiled. Flesh, meat, flattering, veiled. Like with Lynch’s highways that you invoke, also always conveying, there’s something awful glimmering behind, but it’s hard to say what it is. By the unfinished fourth book Lucretius is a mess of cataloguing. Noticing eventually shows that things aren’t what they seem and all pleasures can’t also be good, which a cow penned for flesh would say. It is one of the most beautiful literary definitions that a poem is an untouched cow, because it’s not possible to touch a poem, though it’s possible to be touched by one, possible to ask that both cow and poem bear the definitions I give them.
Klara: “It’s not possible to touch a poem, though it’s possible to be touched by one.” Compare with hands can touch / mouths can touch / eyes cannot touch. Touch as a form of connection, again. Now something I’m curious about: Can excision be a form of connection? Looking at the rectangular censorship blocks in “Conveyor Belt” or even the lines crossing out text that is still legible—are these lines that cover up and draw through, a way to hold hands? Is silencing a different route to connectivity? It is perhaps when what is being said is unproductive and silence stands in as an aura of listening. Strange reader responses is becoming a theme: At the Montreal launch, a friend, mostly joking, asked me how she was supposed to read the censored sections, how she was supposed to know what was underneath. For the longest time I took her to be serious, then told her that there was nothing underneath, gibberish, which, for the most part is true, though I guess I shouldn’t’ give away the gap. Alternatively, the black rectangles act as a canvas for the book’s beginning, one needs darkness to write in white: First of all we no longer write in black / but in white / stones. The weight, the graveyard of text, the quietening, the deadening, the enlivening, the insistence to write even when the accepted modus operandi of text dissolves, the willingness of stones to live through language. (By the way, I read the Vallejo poem you cited, and wow, the self-inflicted violence by an imagined other which chafes on suicide, announcing by noticing the future.)
Aaron: It’s such a delight to find those threads in the poems, the confusions they so carefully but assuredly navigate. Poem’s not a word meant for room, even if one feels like it, and Klara’s not a word for Clara, but there’s space for the tensions and entanglements of these things. Now I’m not sure I remember how I say your name; maybe it only appears when I say it to someone. Words are sounds that sometimes pretend to have meaning. Sometimes, one’s asked to enter a poem, even if some are paintings, or evenings, or beasts. A tongue can pick up something found there, look at it. If someone’s standing in a room of this museum and says “Klara” does the “a” inflect as air or are, do they explain why the A’s slant matters. Being a name means you’re someone but how does what’s being of anything, anyone, alter in sound’s pretensions of meaning. What’s ekke’s mirroring I in the room (a mirror image is never static), orchard, flatland where one must explain again how to actually say —.
Klara: Klara. I love how you are able to pick up the edges of a sprawling landscape of statements and fold them together into a paragraph, which is a poem, which is (not) a room, which is an orchard and again becomes an organic fixture.
Aaron: The edges! I love the edges. Perhaps what’s pastoral is seeing a landscape’s undulations from the edges without partitions and their warping eyes. Not a Ministry of Culture’s museum or mausoleum but those mond oorblyfsels teen die skedel (Mouth remnants against the skull). Something other than the curatorial, or a different variety of curatorial, is at work in what rises up out of minds and landscapes to speak, fecund, planted without having been asked. Feral words like weeds around names, stone-scriptured. What comes out of my mouth grows from the seeds planted in my guts, / tendrils coursing, blossoms frothing and fruit thudding / to the floor from my face. As if one’s an errant garden where languages run rampant, where there’s no lingua franca of the mind. A garden being a kind of museum for touch that is also for seeing, smelling, tasting, for inhabiting without inhibiting where everything has more than one name. Where all those continued existences of others in yourself may appear is where one is and opens a mouth to speak.