“A Thousand Tentative Tendrils”: Review of The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems 2004 to 2019

AiW Guest: Susanna Sacks.

AiW note: This review is the fourth, and last, in a series of posts on the release of two anniversary collections from feminist indy press Modjaji Books – the short story anthology published last year, Fool’s Gold: Selected Short Stories, and the forthcoming poetry anthology and subject of this review, The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems 2004-2019.

ModjajiThe series began three weeks ago, with Modjaji founder Colleen Higgs’ “Words on the Times…“, an AiW Q&A set that offers space to share common interests and experiences during the pandemic; the second in the series, an in-depth conversation between Sacks and Higgs, explores the years in independent publishing that the anniversary anthologies mark, as well as looking to the altered field they might navigate through in the press’ future; last week, Susanna reviewed the story collection, Fool’s Gold, edited by Arja Salafranca.

To close the series’ birthday party celebrations, here Sacks reviews the poetry collection, compiled by Marike Beyers, and offers us her own Words on the Times, which you can find (with cats!) below at the foot of her review.


In her extended “Points on Poems,” Joan Metelerkamp grapples with a form-that-isn’t:

7. a poem has no point […]

25. A poem isn’t a record nor is it a performance. But like
live drawing the essential figure moving,
how do you get it moving

26. Across the page? […]

64. There is only one point – begin again – make a poem of it –

For Metelerkamp, whose piece closes the recent anthology The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems 2004 to 2019, the “point” of poems exceeds their economic worth or political force. Metelerkamp’s litany extends from the concrete to the abstract to encapsulate the problem with making ‘points on poems’: there is no one style that constitutes a poem, and no one point to poetry. Instead, poetry joins feeling with meaning in order to pattern experience. 

The Only Magic We Know coverThe Only Magic We Know embraces poetry’s expansiveness through its selections, gathered from each of the forty-five poetry collections published by Modjaji Books since its founding in 2007. Modjaji Books is an independent feminist press dedicated to creating platforms for women from southern Africa. Over the past few weeks, Africa in Words has celebrated Modjaji’s fifteen years of publishing: beginning with a “Words on the Times…” and Q&A with founder Colleen Higgs two weeks ago, and a review of the short story collection Fools Gold last week. Thanks to Higgs’s dedication, the press has become a major source of innovative and experimental works. Even more importantly, as Metelerkamp writes in the introduction to the volume: “Modjaji has created the poets in this anthology simply by publishing them in the first place”. As a press, Modjaji specializes in promoting works that fall beyond genres.

The recent anthology builds on Modjaji’s work to accentuate poetry’s hybrid capacities. Texts include familiar contemporary forms like the prose poem and the confessional, and novel, serial poems that play with dictionary forms, litany, and multimedia content. Despite these varied forms, the poems are drawn together in common themes, which emerge across four sections which trace themes of embodiment, life, embodiment, and craft.

The first section, “… when I set off in my best body” interrogates embodiment. What, the poems in this section ask, is it to have, to inhabit, to enact a body? What would it be to occupy another body, to imagine oneself as another? From Philippa Yaa de Villiers’s “The White Room,” which confronts the legacy of settler-colonialism and asks what it means to be from a place one does not belong, to Khadija Tracey Heeger’s “Skin matters,” which strains against the feeling of being “captive in a mish-mesh of skin,” these poems acknowledge the difficulty of finding comfort in one’s own positionality, one’s own body.

The second and longest section, “My eyes die of hunger / as I make my life” maps a life cycle. The section opens up the experiences of being parented, through childhood, marriage, birth, parenting, romance, and the experience of death and mourning. The poems resonate in sequence, much as events reverberate beyond their assigned moment. Tariro Ndoro’s “Fragments: Weekend Mythos” pairs distant memories through sensory experience. The poem is printed in landscape. Its long lines force the reader to turn the book in order to enter its world.

pick a smell, then, acrid    (wet)    cattle rushing to kick their feet in the dip    brown black mottled
hides and curved horns an excursion soon to be outgrown, along with the climbing of kopjes

pick a smell    acrid    dry      of the library her grandfather left behind shelves that still carry
Hemingway & Emecheta       but zvipfukuto have eaten the pages   the plots have holes in them now
bags of fertilizer keep the pages company

“Fragments: Weekend Mythos” interrogates how words shape our understanding of our world and challenges the utility of simple definitions over experiential ones. It invites the reader to position their experience with a word against and alongside that of the speaker. In that sense, it entwines with the other poems that “make my life” to situate individual experiences in commonly shared social worlds.

The third section, “We have lived from birth in this fist of rock / and ocean,” brings together personal experiences with reflections on social and geographic landscape. The poems in this section address the nature of identity in the context of collectivity. These include many of the most explicitly polemical poems in the collection, reflecting the scars of loss and oppression borne by the southern African landscape. Wendy Woodward’s “South African War Horses,” for instance, considers what it is to live among the final resting places of so many unmarked victims: “In the South African War,” she writes, “326,073 horses died, 51,399 mules–/ and that was on the British side”:

Each autumn, old battlefields
Come alive with the colour of cosmos,
flows from the droppings
of horses who ate seed
from Mexico, and beyond
more than a hundred years ago –
little pennants in a remembering wind.

Woodward’s poetry makes explicit the way that human and non-human lives entwine across long temporal divides. Geography, both cultural and topographical, situates the individual in encounters with political procedure and cultural inheritance. Within the broader anthology, the third section highlights the relationship between the individual poet and collective experience.

The final section, “To open up words, / unfold them to paper,” then reflects on the process of writing and world-making. Sindiwe Magona’s aptly titled, “Statement” holds the most succinct discussion of the anthology’s purpose:

I write so that children who look like me
In my country, […]
May see someone who looks like them
Do this thing that has for so long
Not belonged to us. 

Magona amplifies the voices “of / the hunted; the hated of this world” to challenge how we write about women and our communities. She joins the other poets in the section to paint alternative approaches to familiar narratives told in familiar forms. Altogether, the poems in this section turn inwards to explore poetry’s ability to unveil what has been hidden away. The closing makes explicit the poetic voice that guides the overall collection. 

By organizing the anthology thematically, rather than by date or author, editor Marike Beyer puts the works in conversation with one another. The poets’ voices weave together, creating a choral sensibility that highlights what is shared between individual experiences in a diverse literary community.

Of course, as Higgs acknowledges in the introduction, “the voices from Modjaji do not, cannot, represent all, or even many South African women. Although there are poems in other languages in this anthology, most of the poems are in English. Women’s voices, and particularly Black women’s voices, are still marginalised, although this is changing”. Nonetheless, “The work of making a common literary culture in our country, with poetry at its beating heart, is still a work in progress; a thousand tentative tendrils, feelers, growths of the new and extraordinary”. The over-200 poems collected in The Only Magic We Know reach out together to navigate the extraordinary as the collection honors the long-standing work of women poets from southern Africa.

1page-divider1For the anniversary collections, as they become available, and all of Modjaji’s catalogue:
visit Modjaji’s website www.modjajibooks.co.za and catch them on | Facebook | Twitter | and Instagram |
To purchase Modjaji titles for international shipping, see African Books Collective – Modjaji’s page is here.

Susanna Sacks is Assistant Professor of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Susanna studies contemporary poetry and performance in southern Africa. Her current projects examine the influence of digital media and transnational institutions on literary form. You can follow Susanna on Twitter – @susannalsacks.


To close AiW’s Modjaji anniversary mini-series, Susanna has offered us her Words on the times…, an AiW Q&A connecting our experiences of now around our common interests…

AiW: Can you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your plans?
Susanna Sacks: I study poetry’s social power: how poets deploy inherited language to new and surprising ends, and how the form brings people together, both online and in performance.

The joy I find in my work comes from the interpersonal, from the way words move in live performance and the collective energies that come from audience engagement. I had expected to spend this summer studying poetry performances and working with poets and arts organizers in southern Africa–something that, quite obviously, can’t happen now. The current surge of livestreamed literature events, as beautiful as they are, can’t replace that. It’s unfortunate: I write about how other people use social media platforms to stay connected, but I’m actually quite bad at using it myself.


AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
SS: I’m extremely fortunate in many ways: I have experience working from home, strong wifi, a supportive job, and no dependents. But I am also prone to panic attacks, so I’ve had to be very conscientious about setting limits and taking breaks—two things that are hard even under normal circumstances. This transition has made me cognizant of how the space I work in affects the kind of work I produce: even a move from desk to couch can change the way I move through a text or a document. I’m increasingly realizing how embodied our relationships to texts are.

But, I get to be with my cats all the time now!


AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
SS: Moving away from screens to physical books, for at least an hour a day, has helped me remain rooted in the broader world. I’ve also started being outside more—a lot more—and getting to know my local community. I moved to a low-density, very friendly, city about ten months ago. People here are eager to say hello, exchange stories, and just sympathize. These brief interchanges with strangers, at six-foot intervals in grocery lines or on public walking paths, have helped remind me that there’s still community out there. It’s made the slight culture shock of the move, and the extreme isolation of lockdowns, much easier to bear.

AiW: How can our communities support you?
SS: Holding on to what has already sustained us: to the power of words in difficult moment, the power of art to imagine the world otherwise. During existential crises, art can feel frivolous or even fruitless. But it has always been a necessary precursor to change. I’m trying to keep that in the front of my mind whenever possible.

With gratitude to Susanna and Colleen Higgs at Modjaji, for more on Modjaji’s anniversary anthologies from us:
– you can catch the first Q&A in the series, Modjaji founder & publisher Colleen Higgs’s Words on the Times, here.
– the second post in the series, Susanna’s in-depth conversation with Higgs, entitled ‘Honoring the writers’, can be read here.
– the third in the series is Susanna’s first review of the two Modjaji’s anniversary collections, of the short stories gathered in Fool’s Gold, edited by Arja Salafranca.

And if you’re interested in hearing more Words on the Times, see the blog’s featured category page and follow the links…

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Modjaji at African Books Collective


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