February 11, 2009

don maclennan: a profile by dan wylie

Filed under: poetry — ABRAXAS @ 7:52 pm


Don Maclennan, Grahamstown’s gaunt doyen of poetry, has always had a curious kind of modesty, incongruously married to an apparently irrepressible desire to shock people with comments of a bluntly personal and bodily nature. The raunchiness, however, all but disappears in his poetry, the kind of writing for which he’s now best known. In his earlier years, he concentrated on writing plays and produced a goodly number, the best of which is An Enquiry into the Voyage of the Santiago, which you can find in a volume of contemporary South African plays edited by Ernest Pereira (and in the first production of which Rhodes Drama Department’s Reza de Wet acted). Half a dozen novels he judged inferior and burned, with great satisfaction. An autobiographical piece remains in the mill. He also wrote a judicious minimum of academically kosher critical work, mostly on Olive Schreiner, but became infamous for failing to conform to institutional fripperies and norms. (It was with a certain worry in his eyebrows that one of my superiors suggested hopefully that I wasn’t going to follow in Don’s footsteps. I generally haven’t, even though Don is, in every way but blood, closer to me than my own father; and even in poetry, though Don remains my Number One Mentor and Shredder, I write very differently indeed )

But it’s that offhand modesty, part of his air of gaunt and craggy wisdom, allied with a curious eagerness to make philosophical pronouncements, that seems to me most characteristic of his poetry. Here’s an example of what I mean, a typically nuggety poem from his latest (seventh) collection, Solstice:


Lying on the path
in the hot sun
an Acheulean handaxe
beautifully shaped.
No different really
from the swords
my father owned
whose rust, I thought,
was blood.
Survival is a weapon,
not a work of art.

That’s Death Valley near Alicedale; not California. This is characteristic of Don’s poems in a number of ways: the short lines, the straightforward diction, the lack of pretentious or “thick” metaphor. The central image is crystal-clear, though the word “Acheulean” betrays a depth of knowledge most of us non-archaeologists lack; the comparison with his father’s sword is so neat and natural there seems at first little one can say.

But there’s a lot moving under the surface. There’s a terrific compression of historical time – from Iron Age to the twentieth-century, past to present. This precisely overlays (and also reverses, in a kind of chiasmus) the discovery of the handaxe (in the present) as opposed to the rather amusing memory (in his own past) of the child-Don’s romantically fancying rust for blood.

Finally, following these lucid, almost everyday images, there’s the powerful closing philosophical statement, which seems equally simple, but isn’t. In what sense, you’re brought up short to ask, is survival a weapon? A weapon against what? Death itself perhaps: Don is fond of quoting that other great South African poet, Sidney Clouts: “Poetry is death cast out.” He seems perpetually surprised to be alive at all – as we all should be: nothing is more miraculous than the fact of life itself. It is, ironically, weapons like that handaxe, those swords, that have allowed certain people, certain kinds of life, to survive – have allowed us to live. The poem goes further to suggest that survival itself may not be a work of art, but that somehow we make life beautiful for ourselves; hence the handaxe is “beautifully” fashioned. The capacity to choose to shape things, weapons included, is what makes us human.

Yet – to come back to that modesty – despite the willingness to make what sounds like an immoveable philosophical pronouncement like that, Don repeatedly stresses his own limitations -the limitations on the reach of his thought, his inability to understand, the brevity of his life – even as he revels in the practice of his art. This is expressed in another tiny but loaded poem from Solstice:


I cannot tell you of the universe
that talks to me
like an inner spring –
a sunrise that I helped achieve itself,
a sea that darkens and darkens
into Homer’s wine.

Even as the poet claims an inability to talk of the vastness of the universe, he tells us – something. That, for instance, he is intimately connected to everything: the universe is not “out there”, but an “inner spring”. Is that a spring as in a machine, his source of energy; or a spring of refreshing water, like the Pierean Spring of Greek mythology, the source of poetry? Given the natural imagery of the following lines, and the reference to the literary fountainhead of all Western poetry, Homer, it’s more likely the latter. The sunrise doesn’t happen apart from himself; he helps it come into being, just by being there to see it and write about it; his vision is part of its beauty. In opposition to that archetypal image of beginnings, the sea “darkens and darkens”, in a manner at once delicious, like maturing wine (often a symbol of life’s simple pleasures for Don, even though he no longer actually drinks it!), and forbidding, darkening inescapably towards death.

Aging and the threat of death occupy more and more of Don’s poetry; this might explain why his style grows more and more lean and spare. Yet he presents the threat in a way which, more often than not, makes one not frightened, but glad to be alive. Some of you will recognize this scene, taken from Don’s many years of teaching in Rhodes University’s English Department, a poem of wonderful compassion and typical self-deprecation taken from his own favourite collection, Letters (1992):


Being alive can never be
finally understood, no matter
how you brood on it.
In this study,
closed to the bitter wind
that tears the first of August
into shreds, girls
hurriedly dressed this morning,
warm bare ankles
at my two-bar heater.

What are they doing here?
What do they want?
Am I a dying man
they’ve come to watch
hide his incoherence
as he sinks?
Is this their education:
a babble of unformed tastes,
aesthetic theories,
cramming the room
like a tide?

I read the tragedy
of this life in the sun:
it kisses the dew to death,
descends and disappears
into the arms of night.
The view is urged
by Indo-European nouns
which can’t escape
personifying objects.

I do not know
where words begin or end:
irrational motifs burst
from a reservoir of dreams,
coalesce into a wonder tale
to shelter in
and shut away the world.

If Cratylus is right
there’s meaning to be found
somewhere, day or night;
but the story of my life
crumbles and collapses
into faulty rhetoric.

I suppose they learn
by watching age,
memory faultily recalled
of things that happened
long before they were born.
I am a warning man
showing them they
must live now, while they can.

Yet, once when I walked here
in the green rain
among wet rocks
there were young girls
who loved me, and
girls in summer frocks.

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