The iconisation of physical deterioration with specific reference to Antjie Krog’s poetry volume Verweerskrif

Marthinus Beukes

Affiliation for the original publication:   University of Johannesburg

die liggaam begin om afskeid te neem [the body begins taking its leave]’

    (Krog, 2006a:82)

ABSTRACT

Krog struggles in the volume Body Bereft with the problem of the ageing body and with the perceived inability of language to describe such a process. She delineates the dilemma of getting older by means of the following question: “how and with what / does one gain the vocabulary of age?” (2006a:28). Since Krog not only redefines body identity through thematic presentation, but especially also through language presentation, specifically by means of the many instances of syntactic decay, it can be argued that language, specifically syntax, is a repository of identity for the ageing speaker. In this article the focus is on Krog’s writing of decay/ageing with reference to the syntactic presentation of texts and also the way in which ageing of the body is configured thematically.

Isingeniso

Umbhali u-Krog ucabanga kabanzi, embhalweni wakhe Body Bereft, ngomzimba osukhulile/ogugayo nokukhula kwawo. Ukujula komcabango kuzama ukuhlela izinkulumo ezithatha ngokuthi alukho ulimi noma amagama angakwazi ukuchaza indlela umzimba okhula ngayo noma oguga ngayo. Umbhali uyibeka kanje lempicabadala “ngabe umuntu uluthola kanjani ulimi lweminyaka esihambile?” (2006a:28). Njengoba u-Krog engazibekele umsebenzi wokuchaza kabusha umzimba ngokwenkulumo ehlelekile, singasho sithi ulimi, ikakhulu ngoko musho, luyinqolobane yobuntu yalowo ozuke ebhekene nokukhula/noguga. Kulolucwaningo ngibhekana nokubhala kuka-Krog lapho ekhuluma khona ngokuguga nokufadalala. Lokhu kusiza ngibheke indlela umzimba ogugayo ukuthi uhlelwe kanjani, ngokwenkulumo. 

Translation note: 

This article was originally published in Afrikaans in Stilet 23(1), March 2011. For ease of reference – in the pdf version of this piece, in which the Afrikaans and English of Krog’s poetry, as cited by Marthinus Beukes, are presented side to side – the page numbers of the original are indicated in the centre of the page – that is, “1” would indicate the end of the original’s page 1. Krog’s volume Verweerskrif was published as Body bereft (also in 2006). Where the arguments in the original Afrikaans of this article remain valid for the published English translations of Krog’s poems, quotes from those translations are used, placed between brackets alongside the Afrikaans. Where the published translation does not fit Beukes’s arguments, however, direct translations of the Afrikaans are used, recognizable through italics. These translations were done by the translator of the article, Menitza Botha.

Introduction

Two key concerns of Krog’s (2006a) poetry volume entitled Verweerskrif are the struggle with physical deterioration and the inability of language to describe this process. The problems associated with expressing the process of ageing are articulated by the question: “hoe en waarmee / verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom?” [how and with what / does one gain the vocabulary of age?] (Krog, 2006a:82). Krog redefines body identity not only with the thematic presentation of the volume but especially with the linguistic presentation, specifically by employing numerous syntactic ‘verwerings’ [instances of decay]. It can therefore be argued that language, and syntax in particular, is a conduit of the ageing speaker’s identity. Krog has previously used language as an instrument to express her body’s deterioration in the volumes Otters in bronslaai (1981) and Jerusalemgangers (1985). In the former, the signs of age are presented by means of ‘kombuismetafore’ [kitchen metaphors].

In the poem “besoek aan die spesialis” [trip to the specialist] (Krog, 1985:35), the marks of age visible on the body are described with words such as “verlies” [loss] and “rinnewasie” [ruin]. In this poem, possession and abandonment of bodily functions and body parts are described with these two words, which causes the reader to experience the cry of “niks is meer eienares¹ s’n” [nothing belongs to owner any more]. Van Zyl’s (2009:111) remark about Krog’s stylistic ability can be extended to the deliberate way in which she uses language as an instrument: “Krog se gedigte is […] gekenmerk deur uiteenlopende versvorme, styl- en taalvariasie. Krog ontgin in verskillende kontekste ‘n breë woordeskat met betrekking tot emosie wat stilisties wissel van kru taal, vloekwoorde, die banale en selfs die skatologiese …” [Krog’s poems are […] characterised by varied poetic structures as well as stylistic and linguistic variation. In various contexts, Krog can draw from her extensive vocabulary of emotion, which is stylistically varied from foul language, swear words, the banal and even the scatological …]
Gouws (1988:258) mentions that in an earlier interpretation of Krog’s language use in Jerusalemgangers in 1985, reviewers were in agreement about the “moeilikheidsgraad van die poësie, en dit deur die bank gekoppel aan die ‘rinnewasie’ van taal [the level of difficulty of the poetry, and all reviewers connected it to the ‘ruin’ of language]” (Cloete, 1986:10). This is in addition to the violation (Brink, 1986:16), distortion (Nienaber-Luitingh, 1986:6) and deformity (Olivier, 1986:15) of the language in the volume.

In this article, I will focus on Krog’s skrif van verwering [writing/script of decay] with the syntactic presentation in a few poems in her oeuvre as point of departure, as well as the way in which physical decay manifests itself as the theme. Since iconisation through syntax is one of the most prominent methods that Krog uses in this volume, I will briefly explain what it entails.

Metaphoric iconicity

Krog’s actualises the metaphor verweer is (soos) skrif [decay is (like) writing/script] through linguistic structures such as syntax. The arguments that the reviewers make about the application of language in Jerusalemgangers with regard to ‘rinnewasie’ [ruin], ‘verwringing’ [distortion] and ‘misvorming’ [deformity] (compare Cloete, Olivier and Gouws’s arguments above) also apply to the process of syntactic iconisation of some of the poems in Verweerskrif. Müller (2010:247) remarks that “(i)n poetry […] peculiarities of linguistic form are generally relevant to the meaning of a text […] Poetical language […] is by definition iconic”. This observation holds true for Krog’s language use – Krog’s problematisation of the syntax of poems through unusual conclusions or instances of incompleteness are the peculiarities that Müller mentions. In this way, Krog communicates a specific message to the reader: the description of physical deterioration that cannot be conveyed through language.

Wybenga and Cloete (1992:179) define iconicity in poetry as the equivalence between the sign and the object to which it refers. Here, the manifestation of the poem’s content through its structure emphasises the poem’s meaning. The following explanation by Du Plooy (2008:72) – based on Wybenga and Cloete (1992:179) – is suited to my application of (especially) metaphoric iconicity and its manifestation in physical and textual deterioration:

Daar word na metaforiese ikonisiteit verwys wanneer daar ’n parallellistiese verhouding tussen die
gedig of deel van ’n gedig en ’n referent tot stand gebring word en wanneer die gelykenis nie tussen die teken en die referent as sodanig voorkom nie, maar tussen twee referente wat metaforeies deur dieselfde
teken aangedui, gedenoteer of geaktiveer word.

[When a parallelistic relationship between the poem or part of the poem and a referent is established and when equivalence is not present between the sign and the referent as such, but between the two referents that are metaphorically indicated, denoted or activated by the same sign, we can speak of metaphoric iconicity.]

Müller (2010:248) remarks that “The arrangement of words in verses contributes to creating poeticality and iconicity”; a succinct definition of the syntactic presentation of poetic texts. His statement echoes that of Wybenga and Cloete (1992:180), who maintain that “die sin […] ook beskou word as metaforiese ikoon” [the sentence […] is also considered a metaphoric icon]. Krog’s use of syntax to convert the visual presentation of the sentence into a vehicle of meaning is a type of iconisation. In a broader sense, the way in which the sentence is applied to a line/s can also be thought of as conveying meaning. This article will focus on a small number of Krog’s poems in which the syntax has important semantic value.

(Dis)integrating entities: body and poem

The title of the poem “hoe sê mens dit” [“how do you say this”] (Krog, 2006a:28; -b:28) foregrounds the semantic value of words, specifically the spoken word as opposed to the written word. Accordingly, two aspects related to the speaker’s inability to articulate the ageing process can be distinguished: on the one hand there is the impaired denominative ability of spoken language, and on the other the failure of written language to convey the poet’s view. The exposition below indicates the striking number of lines that refer to the impotence of the speaker’s linguistic ability to describe physical deterioration.

titel hoe sê mens dit 
1-3 ek weet werklik nie hoe om dit te sê nie
jou deurwinterde kortgeknipte baard is dalk 
te ná, te téén my vir taal, te grys van grint
4 ek weet werklik nie hoe om jou ouerwordende lyf te sê 
6 ek weet nie waarom die woord ‘plooie’ so banaal klink nie 
7 ek weet nie hoe ouerword moet klink in taal nie 
21 ek dink ek probeer sê 
24 ek dink ek probeer 
35-37 hoe verset mens 
jou teen die gemaklike uitweg wat oudword bloot 
tot metafoor van die dood verstom?
37-38 hoe en waarmee
verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom? 
title how do you say this
1-3 I truly don’t know how to say this
your seasoned neatly clipped beard is perhaps
too here, too close for language, too grey with grit
4 I really don’t know how to write your ageing body
6 I don’t know why the word ‘wrinkle’ sounds so banal
7 I simply do not know how ageing should sound in language
21

21[22]

I think I’m

trying to say

24[25] I think I’m trying to say
35-37 how do you resist
the easy escape that mutes ageing to a mere
metaphor of death?
37-38 how and with what
do you gain the vocabulary of age?

The final lines of the poem confirm the view that the semantic content of language is insufficient to express the problematic nature of age and ageing:

hoe verset mens

jou teen die gemaklike uitweg wat oudword bloot

tot metafoor van die dood verstom? hoe en waarmee

verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom?

/

how do you resist

the easy escape that mutes ageing to a mere

metaphor of death? how and with what

do you gain the vocabulary of age?

With the repeated syntactic phrase “hoe en waarmee / verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom?” [how and with what / do you gain the vocabulary of age?] Krog points to the meaning of the poem’s content by expressing deterioration through the stylistic presentation of the text’s structure. This stylistic presentation is especially relevant for the way she uses syntax and various poetic forms to express decay, which then becomes the manifestation of the ‘skrif [writing/script]’ of physical deterioration. In essence, syntactic decay is the way in which the form of the poem and its linguistic elements emphasises the speaker’s message.

The metaphor inherent in the title of Krog’s volume is the following: “die liggaam is verweerskrif” [the body is deteriorating in writing]. In the context of the volume, a poem is a body that deteriorates, or the body is a poem that deteriorates. Elements of meaning of “skrif” [writing] are conferred to “verweer” [deteriorate] because “verweer is soos skrif” [deterioration is like writing]. In this construction, writing is the manifestation of the body’s disntegration. Krog’s use of grammatical means, especially syntax, becomes “verwring” [distorted] or “verweer” [deteriorated] in order to function as a metaphor that iconically describes the body’s degradation.

The deterioration of the speaker’s body is already expressed in Otters in bronslaai (Krog, 1981:37) in the poem “familieresep?” [“family recipe?”]:

ek kyk af na my platgevalle borste, my klonterige maag

die uitgesakte houtlepel van my heupe

my biltongbruin kuite

/

I look down on my deflated breasts, my lumpy stomach

the sagging, wooden-spoon hips

my biltong-brown calves

In the same volume, the ageing body is depicted through kitchen metaphors in the poem “hoe en waarmee oorleef mens dit?” [how and with what do you survive it?] (Krog, 1981:39):

ek illustreer ’n kombuis

met hare vaalgeklits teen die stroewe novilon van vel

die taai melkkoepons van rug buig belangeloos

onder ’n vadoekvaal kamerjas

die bene soos blouseep fyn beaar

pantoffels soos potskuurders om voete

ek is dikbek soos ’n meelsak

afgechip soos ’n melkbeker

my hande ouer en droër as gisteroggend se toast

/

I paint a kitchen

with dabs of drab hair against the dour novilon of skin

sticky milk coupons of back bending blasé

under the wan washrag of a dressing gown

the legs finely veined like mottled soap

slippers like scourers around feet

I’m pouting like a bag of flour

chipped like a milk jug

my hands older and drier than yesterday morning’s toast

A self-conscious observation of the speaker’s body is present in the poem “selfportret” [selfportrait] (Krog, 1981:47). It is congruent with the deterioration that, twenty-five years later, is the central concern of Verweerskrif. Physical deterioration is used to paint a self-portrait in this eponymous poem of six stanzas. The three stanzas of nine lines each are divided by an isolated line in which the speaker’s neck and throat are presented in a diagrammatically iconic² manner.

selfportret

 

na soveel maande kom ek sit om ’n gedig te skryf

soos ’n leë maag rammel leë wolke agter die fyn reën

die blaai onder my hand is lynloos

die potlood skerp en vars

valslik probeer ek in ’n swoon ingaan

een of ander esoteriese beeld vasgryp

– vroeër was ek so goed daarmee –

maar elke beeld staan sonder dimensie

van ewigheid, kosmos en dít wat groot poësie sou maak

 

drop dit, ek strek my arms, krap my nek en

 

vang myself in die spieël, die gesig is byna dertig

in borduursteke lê fyn plooitjies om my oë

en ritsel deur die reliëf van wangbene en slape

sagte deegblasies rys onder my oë

soos ’n vetkoektang sper die kepe van die neus af mond toe

waar ek wil lag oor my sagte lippe nog

my tong wat soos ’n pienk akkedissie aan saadtrosse kan hang

my stem wat ekstase so goed kan na-hyg agter sterk wit emalje

totdat ek die nek sien:

 

die bruin suede-handskoen om my keel

wat die spieël met die reëngedempte lig nié sê nie:

is dat sy smôrens skilfers op haar wenkbroue kry

hare uit haar neus moet knip

haar snor moet afhaal met room op die kruissteek bo-lip

onderkant die versteende swartkoppie op haar neus

die witkoppies op haar ken

dat haar tong agter aangepak en swart gebars is van rook en wyn

dat haar kiestande vaal gestop is

haar kliere al hoe strammer poësie uitknars

 

en dat sy snags al hoe asmatieser snork deur haar strot.

/

after all these months I sit down to write a poem

like an empty stomach empty clouds rumble behind the fine rain

the page under my hand is unlined

the pencil sharp and fresh

spuriously I try to enter a swoon

grab hold of some or other esoteric image

– I used to be so good at this –

but every image is without dimension

of eternity, cosmos and that which would make great poetry

 

drop it, I stretch my arms, scratch my neck and

 

catch myself in the mirror, the face is nearly thirty

fine wrinkles lie embroidered around my eyes

and quiver through the relief of cheekbones and temples

soft dough bubbles rise under my eyes

like a pair of vetkoek tongs the nose slits splay down to the mouth

where I want to laugh about my soft lips still

my tongue that can like a little pink lizard hang on seed clusters 

my voice that can imitate intimate ecstasy behind strong white enamel until I see the neck:

the brown suede glove around my throat

what the mirror doesn’t say in rain-dulled light:

she finds dandruff in her eyebrows in the mornings

has to cut hair from her nose

remove her moustache with cream on the cross-stich of an upper lip

beneath the ossified blackhead on her nose

the whiteheads on her chin

that her tongue is furred and black from wine and smoke

that her molars are fallow with fillings

and her glands stiffly, stiffly gnashing out poetry

 

every night she’s snoring even more asthmatically through her gullet.

In the poem above, the speaker’s self-portrait is painted with words and is stripped of aesthetic display. She attempts to overcome the physical deterioration by means of the poem’s set pattern. The physical deterioration is “in takt gehou” [kept in tact] by the poem’s structure. In Jerusalemgangers (Krog, 1985:35) the poet speaks of “rinnewasie” [ruin] to express physical deterioration, but attempts to effect a conservation of form against the decay by using tercet stanzas.

In Verweerskrif, the speaker’s relationship with her husband and children determines her identity, and language is occasionally insufficient to express both the deteriorating body and her interaction with her family. Language, and more specifically syntax, is employed in “sonnet van die warm gloede” [“sonnet of the hot flushes”] (p. 16[17]) as well as “God, Die Dood” [“God, Death, Love”] (p. 20) to give a name to the struggle of ageing. In the three marriage songs, the husband’s physical deterioration is expressed in conjunction with that of the speaker specifically within the context of marriage. The poems “vertrekkende” [“short visit”] (p. 15[16]), “depressie 1” [“depression 1”] (p. 40[49]) and “depressie 2” [“depression 2”] (p. 41[50]) express the speaker’s relationship with her children, especially through syntactic decay.

The ambivalent ability of language

Krog’s struggle to translate the ageing process is also characterised by conservation. When the speaker declares “met geliefde tale wil ek jou oproep / en volbrag” [“in loved languages I want to call you forth”] in “ode vir ’n ander lewe” [“ode for another life”] (p. 38[47]) it is an attempt to conserve something through language. This expression of desire stresses the dissatisfaction with the ambivalent power of language. It is exactly Krog’s touching desire to preserve her lover and children through language that makes this poem compelling. An additional layer of conservation is established through the poem’s form (an ode). The conventional pattern of the poem’s structure enables Krog to create lyrical or harmonious uniformity. The similarity of meaning between the ode as a poetic form is situated in the lyrical elements. According to Webster’s Dictionary (1986:1564), the ode is “a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular metre”, or “a historical poem meant to be sung”. The suitability of this poetic form stems from its disparate nature, which corresponds with the poem’s content. As a lyrical poem with an elevated subject and content, this type of form conveys the poem’s message effectively. The constant syntactic refrain of “ek wil” +
“ ’n ander” [“I want (to)” + “another”] emphasises the speaker’s discontent with her ageing body. The apex of her desire³ culminates in the “l’envoi”. She expresses the following wish (p. 39[48]), but is curtailed by her body’s imperfections:

ek wil ’n ander lewe hê

waarin ek onbevange aanraak

en onverganklik omgee

ek’s moeg vir my tekortskietende hande

my papende brein en snedige tong wil ek nie meer hê nie

ek’s moeg geskuif van:

hoe bly jy jonk     na hoe bly jy lewendig

van hoe bly jy lewendig     na hoe het jy lief

van hoe het jy lief      na hoe het jy ten goede lief

 

ek is sat om ’n leeftyd lank

‘n ander lewe te moet hê

/

I want another life

in which I can touch unhampered

and love imperishably

I am tired of the deficit in my hands

my pauperising brain and tongue I no longer want

I am tired of shifting:

from how to stay young     to how to stay alive

from how to stay alive     to how to love

from how to love     to how to love to the good

 

I am tired of this lifelong wanting

the needing of another life

In light of the argument above, the poem “hoe sê mens dit?” [“how do you say this?”] (p. 28-29) can be read as the spoken word’s ineptitude at constructing age. This inability to allow ageing “te laat klink in taal” [“to sound in language”] in this 38-line poem can be summarised as follows:

hoe sê mens dit

1 ek weet werklik nie hoe om dit te sê nie
4 ek weet werklik nie hoe om jou ouerwordende lyf te sê nie
5 sonder die woorde ‘verlies’ of ‘fataal’ nie
6 ek weet nie waarom die woord ‘plooie’ so banaal klink nie
7 ek weet nie hoe ouerword moet klink in taal nie
21 ek dink ek probeer sê
22 dat ek jou verdikte buik sexy vind
23 dat ’n ereksie teen die effenste ronding
24 my nat in die mond laat ek dink ek
25 probeer sê dat ek my vir die eerste keer
kan oorgee aan jou dye vanweë hulle week
witheid …
35 hoe verset
36 mens jou teen die gemaklike uitweg wat oudword bloot
37 tot metafoor van die dood verstom? hoe en waarmee
38 verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom?

/

how do you say this

1 I truly don’t know how to say this
4 I really don’t know how to write your ageing body
5 without using words like ‘loss’ or ‘fatal’. I don’t know.
6 I don’t know why the word ‘wrinkle’ sounds so banal
7 I simply do not know how ageing should sound in language
21

[22]

I think I’m

trying to say

22 that I find the thickening of your
23 abdomen attractive, that an erection against a
24 slight curve leaves one wet in the mouth. god,
25 I think I’m trying to say that I can surrender to

your thighs for the very first time because of

their soaking whiteness 

35 how do you resist
36 the easy escape that mutes ageing to a mere
37 metaphor of death? how and with what
38 do you gain the vocabulary of age

There are numerous lines in which the speaker uses negation to express her inability to represent physical deterioration and it is especially noticeable in lines 1-7: “ek weet werklik nie” / “ek weet nie” [“I truly don’t know” / “I simpy do not know”]. Lines 21-25 contain two declarative clauses in which the inability of the speaker can be heard in the helpless attempt to express the ageing of the body: “ek dink ek probeer sê” [“I think I’m trying to say”]. The interrogative clause “hoe en waarmee / verwerf ’n mens die woordeskat van ouderdom?” [how and with what / do you gain the vocabulary of age?] at the end of the poem can be considered a synthesis of the speaker’s dilemma to find words for her deteriorating body.

The speaker and children

The poems in which Krog’s linguistic inability to express the pain and loss of a departing child are “vertrekkende” [“short visit”] (p. 15), “depressie 1” [“depression 1”] (p. 40[49]) and “depressie 2” [“depression 2”] (p. 41[50]). In the two poems about the depression of the speaker’s child, the syntactic presentation is diverse, stressing the speaker’s emotional powerlessness to help her child.

As with the poem “hoe sê mens dit? [how do you say this]”, Krog is powerless to verbally express loss in the poem “vertrekkende” [“short visit”] (p. 15). Besides the disintegrating syntax, the most noticeable impediment preventing the speaker from writing about loss is spoken language. The speaker claims that “na elke vertrek beraam ek taal […] om wat ons bind verbaal te uiter” [after every departure I plot language to utter verbally what binds us] [“after every visit I devise […] I utter what binds us”]. It is ironic that the power of the sure-fire punch is expressed as follows:

“die ongesêde bloedbelope desperaat gemikte vuishou. of dit die smoel voluit tref” [“the unsaid bloodshot desperate fistblow. whether it had hit the snout. full out”]. What is distinctive in this case is that the punch ‘tref die smoel’ [hits the maw], thus complicating the verbalisation of the pain caused by the child’s departure. The punch is on the mouth, which complicates the verbalisation of the pain. The placement of the full stop after “vuishou” [“fistblow”] emphasises the action even further – the full stop iconically functions as the punch.

Krog also uses the syntax iconically in the poems “depressie 1” [“depression 1”] (p. 40[49]) and “depressie 2” [“depression 2”] (p. 41[50]). In these two poems, the diverse syntactic presentation comes to the fore. In “depressie 1”, the converging syntax becomes iconic of the child’s pining. The marked repetition of the phrase “dis asof” [“it’s as if”] effectively represents the spatial disparity between loving parent and child as the child drifts away from the speaker. The mother’s rescue attempt is hampered as the child drifts further away into the clutches of depression.

Etymologically, the term “syntax” comes from the Greek term suntaxis (Webster’s Dictionary, 1986:2321), which signifies the arrangement of words and clauses for optimal meaning. The writing in these two poems is applied to embody the depression sufferer’s condition iconically by subverting syntactic conventions through poetic language use in order to ensure that the meaning reaches a climax. In these two poems, the deteriorating writing indicates the denormalisation of the order of the clauses that refer to the child’s condition:

depressie

1.

dis asof jy al hoe meer binne-in

jou oë wegraak asof jou voorkop al

donkerder jou wange al hoe

beweegloser jou mond verder word

as wat enige iets nog ooit van my

was jou lyf so deursigtig asof my

hand deur jou steek as ek probeer

keer dat jy verdwyn jy beweeg

tussen ons maar het kontak

verbreek aan jou hande kan ek

sien hoe verbete jy soms nog vashou

die naels in jou vingers raak

uitgewis dis asof ek langs ’n

oewer hardloop en reddingsboeie

uitgooi en toue en takke en buite

myself skreeu dat jy moet

uithou en vashou dat ek jou sal

uitswem dat ek my in jou

plek sal gee dat ek die Here God self

uit die hemel sal pluk dat ek alles

alles sal prysgee om jou veilig

te bring in jou oë terug

depression

1.

it’s as if you are disappearing more

and more within your eyes

as if your forehead

grows darker your cheeks

more motionless your mouth

further than anything

has ever been from me your

body so transparent that my

hand goes right through you

if I try to prevent you from

disappearing you move among us

but have broken all contact from your

hands I can see at times how fiercely

you hold on the nails in your fingers

become erased it is as if I run down

a riverbank throwing life-buoys and

ropes and branches I am beside

myself I yell that you should hang

on hang in there I will salvage

you I will give myself in your

place I will rip God Almighty

Himself from heaven I’ll give

anything to bring you back

safely into your eyes

The run-on sentences evoke the way in which the addressee is carried away by depression (metaphorically depicted as water). Depression is a tide⁴ that carries the child away from the speaker, and the subversion of conventional syntactic order is a vehicle for conveying the child’s depression. The reader is forced to break down the converging syntax into understandable units and to add caesuras where needed.

The second poem in this diptych has a completely different syntactic presentation. The six repetitions of the phrase “dis vreeslik om” [“it’s terrible to”] as well as the incomplete syntactic presentation stress the impotence and emotional pain that the powerless mother experiences as a result of being unable to help her child, with the implication that the syntax becomes an instrument to visually illustrate this helplessness.

2.

dis vreeslik om jou so te sien.

hoe kry ek jou. dis vreeslik om.

hoe kry ek jou terug. kon dit dalk.

as ek maar. had ek liewer.

dis vreeslik om. kyk hier staan ek.

ek skeur. ek probeer skeur.

hoe kry ek my liefde. hoe kry ek

my liefde uit ontoereikendheid.

derms en al. dis vreeslik om. hoe

kry ek jou. hoe vrygeskeur.

hoe voer ek in jou in. hoe kom ek tot jou.

ek moet jou. deurstroom van soveel

ligte lieflikheid dat jou ribbes.

dat jy daarvan moet straal.

dat jy genade aan jou bo-arms.

ag God, my kind wees sag.

wees by jouself. jy’s jonk. jy’s mooi.

jy beur verlore. ’n aarde wat.

die Here weet. ’n aarde wat jou

’n lewe lank. jou uiteindelik

net liefhet. hoe kry ek jou.

dis vreeslik om. dis vreeslik te sien.

jou so te sien.

/

it’s terrible seeing you like this.

how do I get you. it’s terrible to.

how do I get you back. maybe it could.

if I’d only. had I rather.

it’s terrible to. look I’m standing here.

I tear. I try to tear.

how do I wrest my love. how do I wrest

my love from inadequacy.

guts and all. its terrible to. how

do I get you. torn free.

how do I feed into you. how do I get to you.

I must suffuse. you with so much

light loveliness that your ribs.

that you should radiate it.

that mercy in your upper arms you.

oh God, my child be gentle.

be with yourself. you’re pretty. you’re young.

lost, you heave. a world that.

God knows. a world that

a lifetime. that finally

only loves you. how do I get you.

it’s terrible to. it’s terrible to see.

seeing you like this.

The incomplete or elliptical infinitive clauses that occur repeatedly⁵ emphasise the depression’s powerful effect on both the child and the speaker who watches helplessly as the current carries her child away. The entanglement of the fragmented and decayed syntax is iconic of depression’s immitigable effect on the child. The clause “hoe vrygeskeur” [“torn free”] highlights the stranglehold of both the child’s psychiatric disorder and the emotional state of the powerless mother. The phrases that express emotion are placed at the beginning of the line. Only the first infinitive construction is incomplete, but the “so” that is referred to is not qualified. The broken sentences foreground the child’s emotional deterioration as a result of depression, but more specifically it is a technique to depict the speaker’s feeling of powerlessness; in lines 1 to 12 this powerlessness is expressed by incomplete sentences.

As the child gradually pines away because of depression, the sentences decay and disintegrate. The pattern of repetition of the infinitive clause reaches the height of its fragmentation at the end of the poem, as if the child is slipping further and further away from the rescuing hands of the speaker:

dis vreeslik om jou so te sien.

dis vreeslik om.

dis vreeslik om

dis vreeslik om. dis vreeslik te sien.

jou so te sien.

/

it’s terrible seeing you like this.

it’s terrible to.

it’s terrible to.

it’s terrible to. it’s terrible to see.

seeing you like this.

Like in “depressie 2” (p. 41), the sentences in the poem “vertrekkende” [“short visit”] (p. 15[16]) are also incomplete. The accumulation of the staccato, decayed and broken sentences lends a trudging rhythm to the lines. 

Müller (2010:353) describes this version of syntactic iconicity as a meaning shift because the weight has now been placed on other words in the line:

vertrekkende

’n kind vertrek. ek bly staan. bekende

oë groet voordat die donkerbril.

hande wat die sitplekgordel soek.

die straat verlate. ek waai waai. dis of

alle lig taan, of alles killer wil. of my hart

die blaam weier. alles wat gesê moes

word. na elke vertrek beraam ek taal.

om te verduidelik. hoe om volgende keer.

die gevoel van skroei deur my ribbes. ek

onderneem om maniere te vind. om wat

ons bind verbaal te uiter. so min is dit

wat jy wil hoor: die ongesêde bloedbelope

desperaat gemikte vuishou. of dit die smoel

voluit tref. jissis! ek bloei, kind.

/

the child is leaving. I’m left standing.

well-known eyes meet before the sunglasses.

hands grapple while the safety belt.

the street desolate. I wave, wave. as

all light pales. as everything aspires

bleaker. as the heart refuses.

everything that should have been said.

after every visit I devise.

next time to explain the scorching.

I undertake ways.

I utter what binds us. you want to

hear so little. the unsaid blootshot desperate

fistblow. whether it had hit the snout.

full out. jesus! I am bleeding, child

Krog’s use of the Italian sonnet could possibly be an attempt to conserve (by means of a conventional poetic form) the loss experienced as a result of the child’s departure. Unlike the blank verse of the depression poems used as an instrument for describing how the child drifts away from the mother, the choice to tell of the child’s departure in the form of a sonnet is calculated.

Like the departure, the speaker’s physical deterioration is also realised through the form of a sonnet in the poems that will be discussed subsequently.

Poetry as physical deterioration

In the following poems, the speaker’s attempt to express ageing and her disintegrating body is done without making an overt reference to the inadequacy of language. The physical disintegration is conserved with a sonnet, as if the body’s deterioration is actually obscured by the poem’s form.

sonnet van die warm gloede

iets kram jou rugmurg êrens vas jy voel.

hoe sprei ’n pasgestigte brand sy angs vanuit.

’n kern en jou are loop met vuur jou vleis.

ontvlam jou hart hou vuurvas haar balans.

jou beendere bak buite hulleself jou gesig.

verseng jou wange prut onthutsend voort en.

telkemale breek jy weg uit sissende omhulsels.

sweet jou vel vonk in ligte laaie weg.

 

maar op ’n dag skuif jy in jou stoel – en voel

die smeltkroes kole wat jou laaste

sappigheid verwoes. die fok weet dis genoeg:

brandend soos ’n kryger staan jy op – ’n boeg

van vuur – aan sy strot pak jy die dood en ploeg

sy neus deur jou kaalgeplukte drooggebakte poes

/

sonnet of the hot flushes

something staples your marrow somewhere

you feel a newly floated fire spreading angst from

a kernel and how your veins run with fire how

your flesh flames your heart keeps her fireproof

balance your bones bake besides themselves your

face singes your cheeks simmer in dismay and

time and again you break out in sizzling encasings

of sweat you smell your skin sparking off a blaze.

 

But one day you shift in your chair – and

feel this enormous crucible destroying your

last juiciness. God knows, this is enough:

burning like a warrior you rise – a figurehead of

fire – you grab death like a runt and plough its nose

right through your fleeced and drybaked cunt

Viljoen (2009:199) rightly asserts that the autobiographic nature of Krog’s poetry mostly follows the course of her life and in so doing brings different stages of female physicality under discussion, namely adolescence, virginity, menstruation, sexuality, conception, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, motherhood, menopause⁶, and ageing. Krog’s expression of the theme of menopause through a sonnet is relevant. Deterioration as decay is not only embodied by the physical body of the speaker but also in the form of the sonnet. When Viljoen (2009:212) refers to the graphic description of the ageing body, it also applies to the way the sonnet’s form reifies physical deterioration.

The syntax of this sonnet is used as a conduit to illustrate the effect of menopause on the speaker. This Italian sonnet is, unusually, written with no delineated quatrains and tercets in the octave and sextet, with the result that the reader is confronted with a problematised syntactic presentation in the two parts of the poem. The syntax of the octave is broken, halting, incomplete and disrupted. After every line there is a full stop [only in the Afrikaans] without any trace of a completed syntactic unit with complete semantic content. Where enjambment could have completed the line, Krog has inserted unmotivated caesuras. The iconisation achieved by this foregrounds the disruption that the speaker experiences as a result of menopause.

It is only in the first line that there is no direct reference to hot flushes, but the line begins with the unqualified pronoun “iets” [“something”]. From the second line it is clear that the speaker is referring to the effect of menopause. In the subsequent lines, the accumulation of the words that stress hot flushes seems almost excessive:

octave
2 sprei ’n brand [fire spreading]
3 vuur [kernel]
4 ontvlam / vuurvas [flames / fireproof]
5 bak [bake]
6 verseng / prut [singer / simmer]
7 sissende [sizzling]
8 sweet / vonk / ligte laaie [sweat / sparking / blaze]
sextet
10 smeltkroes kole [enormous crucible]
12 brandend [burning]
13 vuur [fire]
14 (and then the final effect of menopause) 
kaalgeplukte drooggebakte poes⁷ [fleeced and drybaked cunt]

In the same cycle of sonnets, the poem “God, Die Dood”⁸ [“God, Death, Love”] (p. 20) is a continuation of the theme of menopause and the speaker’s struggle with ageing.

God, Die Dood

God, Die Dood, Liefde, Eensaamheid, Die Mens

is Belangrike Temas

menstruasie, geboorte, menopouse, puberteit

die huwelik – nie

 

tog lê die verskrikking juis in

hoe leef jy met die disintegrerende lyf saam

hoe aanvaar jy dat die liggaam sig

nie meer kan intensifiseer tot ’n verruklike knal nie

 

hoe bemin jy die al-hoe-meer-blussendes

hoe berus jy in vaginale atrofie en inkontinensie

 

of dat die lem wat nou deur jou hart klief

waarskynlik ’n hartaanval is

 

om van die ouerwordende lyf na Die Dood

te spring, word al hoe meer ’n cop-out ding

/

God, Death, Love

God, Death, Love, Loneliness, Man

are Important Themes in Literature

menstruation, childbirth, menopause, puberty

marriage are not

 

meanwhile terror lies exactly in how

one lives with the disintegrating body

in how one accepts that the body no longer

wants to intensify with exhilarating detonations

 

in how one loves the more-and-more-slaked-ones

in how one resigns to vaginal atrophy and incontinence

 

or that the blade cleaving through one’s heart

is probably a heart attack

 

to jump from the ageing body to Death

has suddenly become a cop-out act

The phrases “vaginale atrofie” [“vaginal atrophy”], “inkontinensie” [“incontinence”], “hartaanval” [“heart attack”] and “ouer-wordende” [“ageing”] summarise the speaker’s struggle to express the deterioration of the body. The speaker’s body is characterised by two participles: “disintegrerende” [“disintegrating”] and “ouerwordende” [“ageing”].

However, it is the meaning of “disintegrerende” [“disintegrating”] that underscores the pain of the speaker’s inability to understand ageing. According to Webster’s Dictionary (1986:650), disintegration is defined as follows: “break up into small parts, typically as the result of impact or decay; weaken or break apart” and “deteriorate mentally or physically”. This definition makes it clear that the theme of disintegration is the most prominent in the poem and that the speaker’s ageing body is subject to rapid deterioration. This painful disintegration is further addressed in the poem about the speaker’s stroke. In “sagsif van die uurglas” [“softsift of the hourglass”] (p. 42[51-52]), the poem’s structure is used iconically to represent the consequences of the stroke. The typographic divides in the poem’s structure gives a graphic depiction of the speaker’s stroke. The two halves of the body now living past each other are illustrated by the form of the poem:

die helfte van haarself is iemand

anders   asof iemand anders

langs haar, in haar staan soos

die brugkant van ’n neus …

/

half of her is somebody else

as if somebody else

is standing next to her in her like

the bridge of a nose …

The left and right sides of the body that no longer meet after the stroke are embodied by the typographic separation. In this regard one can refer to Viljoen (2009:192), who explains that Krog’s poetry is characterised by physical concreteness. This remark also applies to the process of iconisation that occurs in the poems concerning physical deterioration, with the ageing body visible in their form.

Conclusion

For Krog, language and textual deterioration are concurrent with her physical deterioration. The aged and ageing body is expressed through broken and incomplete syntactic formulations. Krog iconises linguistic and formal disintegration and applies it in order to express her experience of physical deterioration.

 

Notes

  1. Ruin can also be observed in the elision of the definite article.
  2. The three isolated stanzas are iconic of the speaker’s neck. As Ljungberg (2010:49-50) argues: “The diagrammatic character of the literary work is even inscribed already in the way sentences are structured on the page as spatial diagrams or as projected possibilities.”
  3. It is ironic that the ode, as an elevated song, falls short of reconstructing the ruined physical identity.
  4. Both the mother’s captivation and emotional inability to save her child from the maelstrom of the disease is expressed by means of this syntactic style.
  5. In this regard, Müller’s (2010:348) discussion of syntactic repetition is useful: “repetition – of whatever form – has an emphasising or intensifying and thus an iconic function. A plus in expression entails a plus in meaning.”
  6. Viljoen (2009:210-212) provides an in-depth discussion of the menopause in “sonnet van die warm gloede” [“sonnet of the hot flushes”] as well as “as vas los is” [“when tight is loose”] by referring to the “elemente van die groteske realisme” [elements of grotesque realism].
  7. In Lijfkreet (Krog 2006c:25), the Dutch translation of Verweerskrif, the Afrikaans rephrasing of these lines is different, but with an important focus on the [k] plosive to denote the action by iconisation: “jy druk / sy fokken neus in jou klipperige kaal geplukte poes” [“plough its nose / right through your fleeced and drybaked cunt”].
  8. This poem relates to what Krog (1995:15) states in “wintergedig 2” [“winter poem 2”]: “dinge natuurlik waaroor ’n mens nooit ’n gedig sou skryf nie” [“obviously things you would never write a poem about”] (from the volume Gedigte 1989-1994).

 

References

Coetzee, A.  2001.  Wondbaar en kloppend.  De Kat, Maart: 81.

Du Plooy, H.  2008.  Woorde wat teken en be-teken – ikonisiteit in die poësie.  Literator, 29(2), Augustus: 65-88.

Gouws, T.  1988.  Die transskriptuele lees: hiaat, haplografie en transkripsie in die poësie van Breytenbach, Krog en Cloete – ’n logolinguale lesing.  Ongepubliseerde D.Litt.-proefskrif.  Potchefstroom: PU vir CHO.

Krog, A. 1981.  Otters in bronslaai.  Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

Krog, A.  1985.  Jerusalemgangers.  Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

Krog, A.  1995.  Gedigte 1989 – 1995.  Groenkloof: Hond.

Krog, A.  2000.  Kleur kom nooit alleen nie.  Kaapstad: Kwela Boeke.

Krog, A.  2006a.  Verweerskrif.  Roggebaai: Umuzi.

Krog, A.  2006b.  Body bereft.  Roggebaai: Umuzi.

Krog, A.  2006c.  Lijfkreet.  Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Podium.

Ljungberg, C.  2010.  The bell jar, the maze and the mural: Diagrammatic figurations as textual performance.  In: Conradie, J., Johl, R., Beukes, M., Fischer O. & Ljungberg, C.  Signergy.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.  pp. 47-72.

Müller, W.G.  2010.  Metrical inversion and enjambment in the context of syntactic and morphological structures: Towards a poetics of verse.  In: Conradie, J., Johl, R., Beukes, M., Fischer O. & Ljungberg, C.  Signergy.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.  pp. 347-363.

Van Zyl, D.  2009.  Grensoorskrydende passie in die poësie van Antjie Krog en Anna Enquist. Vroueverskynsel, konvensie en vernuwing.  In: Foster, R; T’Sjoen, Vaessens T., reds.  Over grenzen / Oor grense.  Den Haag: Uitgeverij Acco.  pp. 109-127.

Viljoen, L.  2009.  Ons ongehoorde soort. Beskouings oor die werk van Antjie Krog.  Stellenbosch: SUN PReSS.

Webster’s Dictionary.  1986.  Springfield: Merriam-Webster.

Wybenga, G. & Cloete, T.T.  1992.   Ikoon en ikonisiteit.  In: Cloete, T.T., red.  Literêre terme en teorieë.  Pretoria: HAUM-Literêr.  pp. 178-182.

 

To cite:  Beukes, M. 2019. The iconisation of physical deterioration with specific reference to Antjie Krog’s poetry volume Verweerskrif (reprint; translation). Stilet, 30(3):114-135.

© 2019. The author.

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