Rustum KozainSouth AfricaWriting2009

Starting with my departure from Cape Town on 10 August, I have felt suspended from reality for six weeks. A long flight to London, then on to Rome, and the ordinary transaction of buying an espresso strangely becomes otherworldly. The seasoned traveller may mask this with droll indifference, but nothing more raises the stranger’s awareness of his or her suspension from the real than handling a foreign currency in its own place – buying this or that with pound or euro, an immediate insertion into the everyday, using the ordinary tools of such transaction, but in a different place, in a different ordinariness. And currency is both ordinary object and fetish, the real and the abstract in tension.

The first few days at Civitella Ranieri continued that estrangement. My living quarters with a fascinating mix of mechanisms for securing windows (early 20th century? pre-20th century?) Toilet cisterns with a plunger pushed upwards, as opposed to a lever pulled downwards, as at home. The castle, with heavy iron bars and discs reinforcing the outside walls against or after earthquakes. The heat of summer. Insects not encountered before: wasps and hornets; ones known in South Africa, but here apparently less dangerous: the small scorpion that visited me. The bat that flew in by my study window one night, then spent a few confused minutes flying up and down the passage, finally flew back into the study with a twirl around my frightened head and left again through the study window, leaving me momentarily shocked, but lastingly with a fond, bemused memory, as if it were a long lost friend dropping by, doing a quick tour of my living conditions and leaving satisfied, even if with a slight admonishment to call more regularly.

Then the other fellows, strangers around me; and strangers themselves extracted and abstracted from their contexts, from their currencies. And then how strange to find familiarity in these strangers: Sergey Gandlevsky, poet and fellow-smoker who on the first night over our after-dinner cigarettes confessed habits that were the same as mine: yes, coffee and cigarettes are constant companions.

The third smoker, also a poet, Jorge Esquincas. Long nights with him drinking and smoking, and Lara Almarcegui also there, talking about whatever there was to be talked about: the over-used formulas of magical realism; the madness of our long, mad walk in the blazing sun one Sunday afternoon, which we ventured on despite Lara’s advice; who really lives in the basement of the castle conducting what kind of experiments on which zombies. And sometimes long conversations about everything else – the buffoonish politician, in Italy, in South Africa, in Mexico; the machine of production versus the sloth of the soul, the sloth and the soul of poetry; Mexican street food – over a bottle of grappa or whisky in my study while ostensibly on our way to play snooker. And so on.

Not only the poets, either. The fellowship with other artists reproduced this sense of the simultaneously strange and familiar, through conversations and presentations that ranged from the destruction of buildings to the creation of aural architecture, with people who all have their own tics, but all of whom, like me, share this characteristic. And fellowship that has lead to collaborations among and between various fellows, collaborations which will hopefully continue, and spread, as if a giant spider, huddled in the castle courtyard, has begun to spin a web that will soon span the globe, ready to catch whatever juicy arthropods of collaboration, inspirations and translations drift into that web.

For me, all of this, and much more – the routine of not having to think about the routine of food, for example; the uninterrupted hours of reading, gorging on the collection of Granta – was a welcome suspension from reality, from the anxious grubbing for rent and food money (to which, alas, I must return), from a country that almost everyday breaks my heart. And the estrangement in this new reality – even the estrangement of finding my familiar in the strangers who were my fellows – this negative camber at which my mind is set adrift, in the companionship of those similarly afflicted and blessed… It is a long forgotten companion and one with whom I have been happy to reacquaint myself over these past six weeks. Because it is this angle, this state of being – the mind at camber, the view of the world askance – that any poet or writer craves. This languid, even slothful drift or suspension is a remarkable gift – against the grain of a world caught in the logic of production – for which I am deeply grateful. There may be few words on the page when I leave, but writing starts long before the words on the page. It starts at estrangement.

Kingdom of Rain

from these I am growing no nearer
to what secret eluded the children

– Derek Walcott, ‘Sainte Lucie’

Somewhere in some dark decade
stands my father without work,
unknown to me and my brother
deep in the Paarl winter and a school holiday.
As the temperature drops, he,
my father, fixes a thermos of coffee,
buys some meat pies and we chug
up Du Toit’s Kloof Pass in his old 57 Ford,
where he wills the mountain – under cold cloud,
tan and blue rock face bright and wet with rain –
he wills these to open and let his children in,
even as he apologises –
my strict and angry fearsome father –
even as he apologises for his existence
then and there his whereabouts declared
to the warden or ranger in government
issue, ever-present around the next turn
or lazing in a jeep in the next lay-by:
‘No sir, just driving. Yes, sir, my car.’

At the highest point of the pass
we stop to eat, and he, my father,
this strict and angry, fearsome father,
my father whom I love and his dark face,
he pries open a universe that strangely
he makes ours, that is no longer mine:
a wily old grey baboon, well hid
against salt-and-pepper rock, eyeing us;
some impossibly magnificent bird of prey
rarely seen, racing to its nest as the weather turns.

And we are up there close I think
to my father’s God, the wind howling
and cloud rushing over us, awed
and small in that big car swaying in the gale.

Silence. A sudden still point
as the universe pauses, inhales
and gathers its grace.
Then the silent, feather-like fall
of snowflakes as to us it grants
a brief bright kingdom
unseen by the ranger. And for some minutes
a car with three stunned occupants
rests on a mountain top outside the fast
ever-darkening turn of our growing up;
too brief to light the dark years
when I would learn:

how the bright, clear haunts of crab and trout
where we swim in summer
now in winter a brown rage over rock;
how mountain and pine and fynbos
or the mouse-drawn falcon of my veld;
the one last, mustard-dry koekemakranka
of summer that my father tosses through the air
to hit the ground and puff like a smoke bomb;
and once, also in summer somewhere,
a loquacious piet-my-vrou;
or the miraculous whirligig of waterhondjies
streaking across a tea-coloured pool
cradled by tan rock and fern-green fern;
my first and only owl,
large and mysterious
in a deep stand of pine,
big owl we never knew were there
until you swooped away, stirred by our voices;
how I too would be woken and learn
that this tree and bird, this world
the earth and this child’s home
already fell beyond his possessives.

And how, once north through the dry
Bushmanland with its black rock,
over a rise in the road, the sudden green
like the strange and familiar sibilants
in Keimoes and Kakamas.
And the rush of the guttural was the water
over rock at Augrabies.
The Garieb over rock at Augrabies,
at Augrabies where the boom swings down,
the gate-watch tight-lipped as a sermon:
‘Die Kleurlingkant is vol’
as he waves through a car filled
with bronzed impatient white youth
laughing at us, at my father, my father
my silent father in whom a gaze grows distant
and the child who learns this pain past metaphor.
How like a baboon law and state
just turned its fuck-you arse on us
and ambled off.

from This Carting Life (©Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2005)