User Review - Flag as inappropriate
Review from Cape Times (22.9.00) by Peter Knox-Shaw
Stephen Watson is a poet who has not allowed fashionable ideas about the disjunction of language and the world to interfere with his remarkable gift for embodying the real. Against the dank, theory-drenched air of post-modernism that so readily peels names from things, his writing stands out with extraordinary vividness. At a time when most avant garde poets have resigned themselves to playing language games in Rapunzel-like confinement, and have lost even their hair, the title of his new volume confidently upholds that old and hoary view of the poet as a being who has urgent matter to convey.
‘The Other City’ shares its title with a new poem, included towards its end, in praise of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-98) about whom Watson has written compellingly in his Selected Essays. Herbert, who lived through the siege of Warsaw and suffered the crushing brutalities of empire twice over, could scarcely hope to see the building of a New Jerusalem, but his poetry gave fresh life to shunned virtues, making him the doyen of dissidents everywhere. A further poetic alter ego surfaces at the centre of Watson’s volume among his free translations of the only remaining oral record of the Xam. Pivotal to all his work is ‘Song of the Broken String’ in which Xaattin laments the way the magic of the great rain-maker Kuiten has been destroyed by the incursions of settlers, depriving his people of their feeling for place. But although the string that signifies a sacral concord with nature has snapped, the song ‘does not stop sounding’: in other words, the ideal city continues to co-exist with the policed - or unpoliced - unlucky one. Writing in the shadow of local history and in the consciousness of sweeping cultural change, Watson underlines fiction’s potency for evil or for good.
In defiance of tourist guides, and dabblers in local colour, Watson sketches a Cape Town beloved but scruffy, a wind-buffeted place of railway yards, corroded metal and clogged gutters. The book climaxes, however, in a series of riveting portraits that conjure up the lives of the exploited (‘The Factory Girl’), the marginalized (‘A Way of Weeping’), and the cruelly dispossessed.(‘Exposure’). A particularly seering aspect of these social dramas is the intrusion of a trashy culture that leads to the desperate dreaming of ‘dreams not yours’.This theme is taken up later in ‘At the Cinema’, a poem of astonishing power that shows a city audience revelling in fantasies that leave them feeling as drained as ghosts.
The leaden aura of a lost paradise hovers at times over even the love and nature poems that account for the other two parts of the collection. Many of Watson’s love poems capture the frisson of desire, more especially when they deal with the approach to encounter, but it is the aftermath to sex that more often provides the point of departure. In keeping with his dictum that ‘it’s not the love lost / but the love that lasts, that undermines, unmans us most’, deteriorating relationships are the subject of a series of subtle poems that jolt the reader into recognition. The play of contrary perspectives is at its most arresting in the recent ‘At a Swartland Wedding’, where a wheeled-on parson delivers a nuptial oration on ‘Thy Jerusalem’ under a pergola sprigged with crepe-paper and ferns. Comic and wry, yet retrospectively solemn, this is a poem so perfectly sustained, and of such finely brindled tone, that it surely belongs to the forefront of achievement in contemporary writing.
Though technique is never up front in Watson’s work, one innovation is critical - a free-wheeling syntax that works in tandem with an unusually long line. In the city poems - where it first developed, this form allows for much naming, and for bringing things that are apparently disjunct into loose apposition or alignment. So Watson brings multitude to bear on the solitude of his human figures. But typically the long chains of passing urban sights and sounds are