AiW Guest: Erica Lombard
The illness or death of a parent and the impulse to return in writing to one’s formative years are intimate companions, and have been particularly prevalent tropes in white South African literature of the past two decades or so – most commonly in the writing of those who live abroad. Eliza Kentridge’s Signs for an Exhibition (Modjaji, 2015) is one of the latest of such literary homecomings, and one of the few that takes place in poetry. The collection, which is joint winner of the 2015/16 UJ Debut Prize, comprises a sequence of forty-three autobiographical poems that emulate the structures, and are permeated by the ache, of memory. As her mother succumbs to a degenerative neurological disease, Kentridge moves between her past and present, mediating between the ‘dry uplands’ of the South Africa of her youth and the ‘wetlands’ of her current home in Britain, and meditating on questions of identity, place and belonging.
Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1962, but now lives in England, where she has worked as an artist for the last thirty years – a fact at which the collection’s title hints. If her surname is recognizable, it is because her brother is the Kyoto-Prize-winning artist William, and her parents, human rights lawyers Sydney and Felicia Kentridge, famously fought against apartheid in South Africa. Sydney was among those who defended Nelson Mandela and the other accused in the 1956 Treason Trial, and also represented the family of Steve Biko at the inquest after his death.
Given this family history, it is noteworthy that, like Denis Hirson’s I Remember King Kong (The Boxer) (Jacana, 2004) before it, Signs for an Exhibition eschews an overt focus on the political circumstances in which Kentridge’s South African youth played out. The wider apartheid context is broached only tentatively, such as when the speaker remembers a homeless beggar who ‘had a name which we never thought to ask / All of us there in the same unfair space / Locked apart in the sugared afternoon’. Instead, the poems circle inward, dwelling on private memories: both quotidian and significant moments in family relationships, road-trips and family holidays, rites of passage.
In this moment of fallism, in which the ethics and politics of memory and memorialization are so keenly debated, Kentridge’s lack of explicit focus on the oppressive conditions that safeguarded the comforts of white life under apartheid (and therefore also granted her access to the many consoling memories she explores) may appear a conspicuous oversight. But perhaps it would be unfair to demand such an overt foregrounding of the spectacular aspects of the South African past from a collection whose project is precisely to grapple, at the most private and intimate level, with how to make sense of an upbringing not marked by the direct experience of oppression. In short, Kentridge’s poems explore the ambiguous and ambivalent terrain outside the scope and teleology of official historical (and national) narratives. Nonetheless, Kentridge feels acutely the anxiety of revisiting her homeland in text – ‘Why is it so very difficult? / Writing words about Africa’ – and is certainly aware of the pitfalls of ‘Remembering and misremembering Africa’ (though this employment of the questionably monolithic concept of ‘Africa’ needs further probing).
There is a potent nostalgia at the heart of this collection – an especially risky mode of memory for those who have benefited from historical injustice. But if nostalgia sometimes resembles a form of historical amnesia, at its best it can serve as a catalyst for ethical reflection and creativity, providing fuel for the pursuit of a more complex sense of who we are and where we come from, as well as a means of meditating on how the past remains ambivalently with us in the present. In psychological terms, nostalgia (whose etymological origin is in homesickness) is one way in which we try to create unity and continuity in our identities, and find a sense of home or belonging, in circumstances of change and dislocation.
Kentridge’s poetic form in Signs for an Exhibition exemplifies this kind of nostalgia, and in fact is closely related to the technique of her recent artistic work, which uses collage to combine drawing and stitching on tracing paper and fabric. The numbered ‘Sign Poems’ read like collages themselves in which collected and recollected snippets of experience, from literal signs (‘HOUSE FOR SALE’) to voices from the past (‘SUPPER’S READY / COMING’), are stitched together by the thread of the speaker’s voice. Kentridge is especially attentive to the sensory details of the past in which memory is rooted, such as ‘The smell of jasmine’, and the surrounding environment (‘Syringa trees, agapanthus’) which makes up the matrix of everyday life. Mimicking the associative, recursive movements of memory and thought, the accumulation of fragments builds a rhythmic sense of momentum across the collection; likewise, recurrent images, particularly of birds and flowers, gain significance through accretion. The result is a portrait of a mind, and memory, at work, using seams of narrative to sew together a self and its meanings – ‘an inner impossible logic / The waking dream in all of us’ – from a mass of discontinuous temporalities, experiences and voices.
This sustained concern with the working of the mind and its relation to selfhood also has a deeper function in the collection, which was composed as Kentridge’s mother suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy (passing away in June 2015 as the book went to press). With echoes of Anne Landsman’s extraordinary novel, The Rowing Lesson, the poet journeys with her mother into their shared past and her neurodegenerative disease, unpicking and re-narrating their relationship as ‘Illness wash[es] in invisible layers’ over her. The collection’s most striking and poignant moments are found in Kentridge’s attempts to come to terms with, and simply to put into words, this illness and loss.
Finding analogous images in the natural world, she describes ‘The tendrils choking neural pathways / The vines which tangle the knowledge you contain’, and emphasizes the cruel beauty of the characteristic shape of the brainstem and midbrain in sufferers of her mother’s particular neurological disease: ‘Hummingbirds make signs in your brain / Morning glories flower among your thoughts’.
Anchored by an arresting visual sensibility, Signs for an Exhibition is a remarkably confident debut that maintains a strong thematic and atmospheric continuity, punctuated by welcome moments of unexpected fierceness (‘Sign Poem 19’), whimsy (‘Sign Poem 43’), and fantasy (‘Sign Poem 24’). Overall, Kentridge has produced an erudite, intimate and at times startling exploration of the question of home – the relation of the self to place and to others – and how we shape, and are shaped by, the contours of our memories.
Erica Lombard is a writer and critic based in Cape Town. She has studied in South Africa and the UK, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the English Department at the University of Johannesburg.
Eliza Kentridge is a mixed media visual artist and poet. Born in Johannesburg in 1962 and educated in South Africa and the UK, she moved to England in the 1980s. As an artist, Kentridge “uses paper, fabric and clay to make work that revolves around glimpsed narratives and words – a sort of poetry,” according to her publisher, Modjaji Books. Signs for an Exhibition, her first collection of poems, is available for purchase through Modjaji.
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