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Double Bass

P R Anderson

This Life This Carting Life
Rustum Kozain
Kwela Books and Snailpress

ISBN: 0795701985
Pages: 96
Price: Was R95.00, Now R76.00 (at
Click here to buy this book from

If a species of literary archaeologist digging up the bones of Mr Kozain's poetry some ten thousand years hence were to take the cache, dimly descried as This Carting Life, to a paleopathologist pal for analysis, he or she would learn something like this from what was found:

This is the poetry of a robust male in his prime; the skeleton is in excellent nick, properly nourished and showing no deformities of any significance; the deposits of minerals proper to the growth and maintenance of poetry are excellent; noteworthy idiosyncrasies are (1) signs that the skeleton bore its load frequently and over distances requiring stamina (thickening of the spine, pelvis, shoulders); (2) the spinal core is more robust than some extremities, perhaps suggesting that the poetry was under-exercised in the limbs (ie this poetry may have walked long distances regularly, bearing loads, but seems unlikely to have gardened, embroidered, typed or played squash), and that some limbs are almost vestigial; (3) there are several prominent scars to the tissue, including a chip repeated in pattern everywhere and miraculously missing the shoulder.

This Carting Life is that most pleasing of books, a considerable and mature demonstration of a proper poet at work. That it is Kozain's first book makes this all the more satisfactory since here, at least, we are not having our time wasted in the productions of a part-timer with no record. Kozain is an accomplished and accounted poet and the time for this book is right.

But there remain too many poems in the book. It is the temptation of all books to write off the work to date, and though I know of at least one poem not included here, nonetheless the comprehensiveness of the volume mars its cohesion and the sustainment of its quality. Inevitably a reader will prefer certain poems to others, but I find myself conspicuously liking some of these to the extent that I feel aggrieved at the disservice rendered them by others. It is true, of course, that the poems I like less may be those other readers enjoy most, and patently Kozain and his editors do not see things the way I do. Still, let this be how I frame my criticism of This Carting Life.

The best poems in this book are those with discrete objects of consideration, that is, poems whose subjects stand outside of Kozain's concern with himself. When he is writing about other people (really about other people, as opposed to what other people might mean to him), landscapes, particular days of the week, cooking, jazz, things like this, then Kozain's poetry is lyrical and precise. I join him in his delight and his despair at the world he reports to me. When he retreats into his subjective experience, a world of emotions and abstractions, anger and reverie, then it is harder to follow. The trouble with this kind of poem is that it encourages writing that, like its subject matter, is neither concrete nor public. Over and over again, as if to pull himself towards himself, as if to get his own self in focus, certainly in order to remind his reader of an occasion outside of the text, Kozain punctuates these poems with "Brother", "Mother", and, above all, "Father".

Such nominations are false to true speech. We just don't talk that way. They are a highly rhetorical form of address, summoning imagined interlocutors, conjuring the presence of those who are (evidently painfully) absent. I think it is possible to have a confessional poetry that does not make a rhetoric of absence, with all its attendant dangers of indulgence and, most of all, a complicity in the failure of these anguished relationships (by washing linen in public, by wasting time writing poems while the telephone lies unused). Indeed, Kozain writes some of his best poetry about his father ("Kingdom of rain" and "Talking Jazz" are damn fine); his worst poems are those addressed to the same man. The first figure has an objective presence, the second lives only in Kozain's texts and thoughts.

"Talking Jazz" is my favourite poem, and for good reason. In it Kozain uses a tight and propulsive quatrain (with one or two riffy "lapses" from the rule) to tell the story of his father's days of joy and glory as a session player (and more) for a jazz band. The stanzas embody all the organisation of music, but they roll and embroider and syncopate, just as jazz does. In this Kozain uses poetry to its proper purpose: to make more real, again and again, on every reading, the instance and its population. By the end of the poem, the book's pages are "dibbled" with words just as the young Kozain finds the lino of his childhood kitchen is by the foot-pin of his father's bass. How mightily that great instrument looms: a proper piece for a father! And the poetry a proper inheritance for his son, the same, who here cheekily breaks the quatrains with an interposed one-liner:

   jazz is knowing first about restraint.

That's lovely.

I find I admire the way in which Kozain pickpockets other languages in order to point up the delectability and perfection of words themselves. He does this often, filching from Afrikaans, Danish, Spanish, Arabic, and the proper nouns of America and the Cape. The effect is to turn the words for our inspection, as also the plain (or, I should say, sheer) wordiness of words. By this "I test/ names by my tongue", Kozain tells us in "Cape Town, 1995", measuring the "distance and proximity" of peoples and experiences, specifically in the colonial and post-colonial instance, but also, I infer, in the great commonwealth that is language and the intelligent life of Homo sapiens. This is excellent, and by it the reader may measure his or her own distance and proximity to the world as Kozain knows it. Each word, moreover, is brought to the reader as a gift - perhaps even as that tautological peculiarity of advertising, but here useful, a free gift, for Kozain is giving only what we may freely take. Nevertheless - or because of that - the gesture is the business, as they say, pure poetry.

All the more reason, then, to carp at the occasional overwrought phrase, almost invariably flooded with modifiers that swamp nouns already abstract or serving as metaphors. Here's an example

of those grand phrases,
the darkening embers
of my stubborn utopia
in which, besides the explicit aggrandising language, we are expected to add to the already unimaginable project of utopia the unexpected character of stubbornness, and the attributes of a dying fire. The worst of this (and it happens very rarely) is the way in which a cloying pattern of modified nouns develops. It is as if what determines the line is the achievement of this semantic unit rather than any contribution to the evolution of the poem, its music and its argument, as a whole. This fault is blessedly rare, as I say, and often almost inconspicuous (parched leaves, damp steps, thieved soil, myriad suicidal shards, dark loam: my point is that loam, for example, is a dark word already, and a word spoiled by decoration), and I mention it chiefly because of the disservice it does to Kozain's genius for words and images, far more generally on offer. How is one not to envy the simile that compares "industry on Sunday" to "a yawn"? How is one, then, not to be disappointed by this yawn's becoming that of the "actual giant", when the giant is neither actual nor a giant?

What I like is a poetry that can discover in the lights of Paarl, looking down from the pass, a sugariness, and that can recover the child's excitement in words like thermos or names like the Drakenstein Lounge. I think it superbly clever and fulfilling to identify the music of a double bass as "a fish brooding under the skin". This is the kind of language that "nail(s) the world to its sentence" (which is itself a very clever image, as conscious of the crucifixions of poetry as the carpentry). And Kozain's poetry, excellent as carpentry, has this kind of language for its wood.

If this review is largely about the poetry of the poems in This Carting Life, and less about the concerns of the book, then that is because the poems ought to tell their own stories, or why else should we have them? The reader will find a good deal of Kozain's background wrapped in different kinds of anguish: father, mother, country, dorp, language, faith Ö these recur. There are poems recollecting childhood, and recollecting a spell in the United States (together, my favourites). There are love affairs, recurrently spliced with Cape Town in its various moods. There is a good deal of jazz. Although Kozain cites his "racial rage" as though it were a problem (and I suppose it might be, to the detriment of the poetry), it is here compressed and almost always applied as proper poetry. "Kingdom of rain" joins the very rare company of excellent poems that have emerged from the political horror of apartheid. Kozain's shorter lyrics tend to please me more than his longer pieces (the speculative questions of This Carting Life pall on me, and too often a longer poem signals a paean to one or other of his Absences). He has a distinct and distinctive voice that I would characterise as elegiac and world-weary, injured but wanting to bless. It is the voice of someone who finds that in poetry he has half a chance of recovering what is loved and lost, and of recovering what it feels like to love, when that, itself, seems what is lost. It is the voice of a double bass, as if a father's heard by a child, full of the solace that is in a man's tones, but shadowed by the wasps there too, and the fish brooding under the skin.

LitNet: 14 February 2006

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