Review: poetry from Modjaji Books – ‘Now the World Takes These Breaths’ by Joan Metelerkamp and ‘The Attribute of Poetry’ by Elisa Galgut

AiW Guest: Tom Penfold.

Metelerkamp_front coverNow the World Takes These Breaths by Joan Metelerkamp

Joan Metelerkamp is one of the most consistent and articulate poets of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary landscape. Alongside other contributors to the New Coin journal that she once edited, Metelerkamp is a member of a collective that I term The Poets of No Sure Place because of the apprehensive and unstable nature of their work. A diverse group, which includes poets as varied as Lesego Rampolokeng, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Angifi Dladla and Mxolisi Nyezwa, they are united in combining the public with the private; juxtaposing the regional, national and international; and in cathartically probing the often controversial nature of South African society. This poetry is insecure and these are poets who, as Karen Press argues, are “on the edge of falling off the world”.[1]

In many ways Metelerkamp’s eighth collection of poetry Now the World Takes These Breaths is a continuation of this tradition. The poems act as a reduction of Poetry of No Sure Place’s contending themes into a more familiar landscape as she traces her daughter’s marriage and recent move across continents by exploring the complex and fluid relationships between mother-daughter, husband-wife, family bonds and wider social connections. Through snippets of conversation, uncertain recollections, shifting perspectives and unutterable truths this collection powerfully and uncompromisingly portrays the highly emotive politics of family. Kelwyn Sole (2015) perhaps puts this most concisely when he speaks of “jagged” relationships where, as we will all recognise, family offers a “repeating sense of isolation and confinement” but one that also allows freedom and offers necessary care and support.[2] Metelerkamp_back coverFamily is characterised by an unavoidable tension between the fundamental human desire to think, to see, to hear, and to experience life as an individual against the boundaries imposed by an obligation to others that can both restrict and enhance. Such is the way within this latest collection where the multiple different types of sonnet, or ‘soundings’ as the blurb labels them, can be read individually in isolation or as a narrative cycle that reads in harmony from front to back.

Each poem is a multi-layered expose that reflects back one particular moment from a lifetime’s worth of thoughts and experiences — a lifetime’s worth and more as Metelerkamp repeatedly presents musings on the lives of others in her family (her son, her daughter, her father) as well — and chips away at the knowledge we all build from life’s various influences. Much as her daughter leaves the family home “with her Hegel, Bob Dylan, the Bible” (p. 22), this collection brings together the religious rituals, the philosophical and visionary musings we allow ourselves in our most intimate moments, and the poetry of the streets that is our banal and everyday life. As the pages turn and the poems add together, the story unfolds — literally un-folds — with Metelerkamp bringing into question meanings, desires, and memories previously understood and accepted. The final chapter of poems in particular notes that any acceptance, any “this is how it is / it’s ok / it can go” (p. 61), will only ever be provisional. Her certainties, her irritations and even her doubts are continually open to her “lack of clarity, irritability, depressiveness, forgetfulness” (p. 58). And this self-doubt is not confined, as its persistence begins to infect the reader. Sole, for example, notes of ‘Daughter’ how “the reader is left uncertain as to the tone and eventual meaning of the poem – is it self-criticism, celebration or self-justification”:

My daughter –
how could I have loved her
too closely

how could I have loved
my mother too closely (p. 38).

Across the collection both poet and reader are led into an arena of doubt where meaning can only be sourced by an appeal to “abbreviated references”, “tendential half-statements”, and the seemingly random selection of previous poems, both ours and others, metaphorical and real.[3]

Now the World Takes These Breaths reviews the most complex and personal relationships we establish in our lives and explores how these play out: how we perceive them; how others perceive them. As the poems themselves suggest these are alliances between individuals that are jagged and shifting, at times thoughtfully hesitant and at others intensely rushed. But the collection’s meaning is in Metelerkamp’s skill and control that says not just of the wedding ceremony but of our individual lives that, despite the uncertainties and difficulties of any one moment:

when you look back you will see
everything moved itself dance-like
effortlessly. (p. 24)


[1] K. Press (2003). “Interview with Robert Berold”. South African Poets on Poetry. Ed. Robert Berold. Scottsville: Gecko Press. 3-21.

[2] K. Sole (2015). “Kelwyn Sole Reviews Joan Metelerkamp’s New Collection, Now the World Takes These Breaths”. Books Live. Available at:

[3] Ibid.


Galgut_frontIf You Think About It: The Attribute of Poetry by Elisa Galgut

“Well, I’ve struggled through this jumble of words –”

On my first reading of Elisa Galgut’s debut poetry collection, The Attribute of Poetry, that is exactly what I did: struggle. The collection covers a lot of ground from a cold, clinical, steely hospital ward in Johannesburg to rural retreats in the Western Cape’s winelands; from the violent emotions of the TRC and South Africa’s scarred history to a future where perhaps, as the seasons roll forward, wild sweetpeas will “bruise the clouds, and break / Through the fragile blue that saves us / From the night”.[i] In so doing it can be hard to trace a theme or – as so many good poetry collections allow – conjure the outlines of a single matt image and slowly paint in between the lines a diverse array of colour and shade.

“I rolled the rocks and stones up a daily hill –”

Galgut presents numerous pictures that are technically excellent, though I found reading these poems an often lonely and depressing experience: there’s illusive memory that “dissolves my dreams into the lingering day” and conjures a return “to the place that we left; at home, but bereft”,[ii] two “in memoriams”, and passages of idly drifting darkness which do little to lift the reader’s mood, as I’d hope most poetry would do:

[…] Her mind becomes moon-filled.
It glows with light reflected from a dying sun,
which sets below the contours of the page.
Darkness will soon smudge the boundary
between ide and object, between mind and world,
and meaning will be absorbed into the blotting paper of night,
as the letters fall drowsily into shapeless sleep.[iii]

Galgut also makes heavy use of intertextuality with references sweeping from the Romantic poets to Greek philosophy and mythology. The result leads the reader to question human life, nature, physicality and the gaps in between.

“All this heavy work to tell us what the human heart
Desires? I thought that was simple – love or something”

But actually it’s the gaps between the questions that, to my mind, are key. Galgut’s The Attribute of Poetry cannot be read like so much other South African poetry, which has lingered for so long on the dramatic and the demonstrative with little subtlety and no intricacy. Galgut’s style finally embraces Njabulo Ndebele’s famous calls to ensure thinking is primary to seeing, and thus reverse the dominance of the spectacle over the reflective.[iv] Her questions aren’t rhetorical but neither are they designed for you to provide answers. Galgut_back and spineAs you should probably expect from any poet who is a lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s Department of Philosophy, these poems are designed to make you think, really think. Arguably, it’s not about putting a picture together but thinking about why we want a picture, how the picture is formed, what the picture is. This is probably best encapsulated in the poem “Moore’s Paradox” which sums up Galgut’s heavily referential, thought-provoking, probing and meditative voice. To understand and truly appreciate this collection its necessary to accept “there are / things (which remain ‘things’, unnamed, / heavy in my ignorance) / whose truth I acknowledge without believing”.[v]

“[That] Can inspire. I guess that’s worth finding”

I’ve bookmarked this review with lines from “Heaps” because it sums up much of the collection and my feelings towards it. There is a lot of thought provoking material, it surveys a vast poetic landscape and it has a charm that admittedly I did not think was immediately evident:

I rolled the rocks and stones up a daily hill –
More Williams, another John, Samuel Taylor, Percy –
My word, they all had a lot to say, and they said it
Very prettily, very prettily indeed.

Galgut supposes the laureates she mentions were trying “to capture some sense of that ‘aah-ness’”, the same sound that represents realisation, confusion and inarticulate beauty. The Attribute of Poetry is a step towards achieving a similar effect. I didn’t always find the prettiness in the words and images themselves but Galgut actually makes you realise the prettiness can reside in that bit behind the words, the bit we can’t quite understand or enunciate. If you think about it…


[i] E. Galgut (2015). “The Sweatpeas”. The Attribute of Poetry. Modjaji Books, Cape Town, p. 25.

[ii] “The Illusion of Memory”. Ibid, p. 21.

[iii] “The Accuracy of Letters”. Ibid. p. 35.

[iv] ‘‘Thinking is secondary to seeing. Subtlety is secondary to obviousness.” N. Ndebele (1994). “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writings in South Africa”. South African Literature and Culture. Manchester, Manchester UP, p. 41-59

[v] E. Glagut (2015). “Moore’s Paradox”. The Attribute of Poetry. Modjaji Books, Cape Town, p. 28.


_TomPenfold1Tom Penfold is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. He received his PhD in African Studies at the University of Birmingham in 2013. He is currently working on two new research projects; one is a comparative project looking at representations of identity in Brazilian and South African literature, the second investigates the importance of graffiti and street art in mapping the urban environment. He has also published on Black Consciousness poetry and performance culture in South Africa.


Now the World Takes These Breaths (2014) by Joan Metelerkamp and The Attribute of Poetry  (2015) by Elisa Galgut are available from Modjaji Books.

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4 replies

  1. Good to see post Apartheid poetry alive and pulsing! Unfortunately for expats like me hoping to get published in the country of my birth seems unattainable as there is almost no information on the web about all the journals or e-zines in SA. Maybe now I will be able to find out more.

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