Comeback: poems in conversation

by Peter Esterhuysen

Category: Biography

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Comeback: poems in conversation
Peter Esterhuysen
  • Type: Paperback
  • Pages: 78 pages
  • ISBN: none
  • ASIN: 9780620412438
  • Edition Language: English

Comeback: Poems in conversation 1984-1989Peter Esterhuysen & Paul MasonSimon’s Town: Bodhi Books, 2009ISBN: 978-0-620-41243-8Pback; 72ppComeback is a collection of poems that celebrate and commemorate the friendship between Peter Esterhuysen and Paul Mason.

The book consists of three sections. The first, Remembering Peter, gives some biographical information about Peter Esterhuysen in the form of Paul Mason’s introduction; an obituary published in the Mail & Guardian and a poem Peter wrote in direct response to his illness, called ‘A wreath of sixty-five roses’ and a longer poem ‘A common calling’ Paul wrote retelling their friendship.

Peter Esterhuysen was born with cystic fibrosis, but defied his medical prognosis not only by living much longer, but by leading an inspiring life, contributing to the arts and the South African community through storytelling, film making and a deep dignity he brought to humanity through his life and art. He worked in the field of television and film scriptwriting and comic literature used in educational entertainment, but also wrote textbooks, plays and poetry.

The main body of Comeback is the section called Echoes which consists of a series of poems written by both poets between 1984 and 1989. They are selected and presented in the collection in a way that reflects each other. Some of the poems were clearly written either together as friends or written in direct response to the other’s poem.

The most direct example of this are the two poems ‘It is’ by Mason and ‘It isn’t’ by Esterhuysen. Images that recur in both poems are a mezuzah on a doorframe, a fanlight reflecting light, a landlocked boat, a rearview-mirror, a window lit and darkening. Surprisingly Mason’s poem which is more nostalgic, perhaps romantic, in tone ends in a sense of loss and separation, whereas Esterhuysen’s poem, lighter, slightly self-deprecating in tone, holds out a hand at the end ‘that draws me to your door’.

These poems work as companion pieces and it is the juxtaposition and repetition of images in slightly tilted contexts that provide them with an additional liveliness. Although arranged in a form of dialogue, clearly giving a greater sense of a shared context, not all the poems reflect their companion pieces as directly. More often they reflect each other thematically in concerns with writing, or in contrasting experiences of the self and community.

Mason’s poems tend to be longer (though certainly they are short poems, not often running into more than one page), perhaps more doleful, or occupied with disillusionment and a sense of futility or uncertainty about the value or effect of his efforts or sense of self. I am unable to resume my books,My former resolve rendered desolateBy the image of all those othersWho are each saying I, just like me(the me I imagine myself to be).

(From: I’s images)Mason explores contrasting impulses of the self: towards renunciation - a wish to remain unchanged, still, an essential self - expressed in ‘Don’t speak my name when I am gone…. Ses me as death… Be oblivious of me… Certify me unspeakable… Take me nowhere with you… Leave me still, / unchanging. / Renounce me. This is put against a wish to live in flux, the self shaped by communality and memory expressed in Speak me.

/ Breathe my every word. Sanctify my life and death./ Be me.Esterhuysen’s poems tend to be denser and though addressing serious issues of self and society, comes across at times as almost playful and at other times as angry and satirical in the after-read thought. He often uses an ironic tone, rhetoric questions and juxtaposing or repeating images in changed contexts. ‘The poet and the underwriting’ comments on the role of artists in a violent repressive society as apartheid South Africa, but also questions the stance of the poet’s wish to remain individualistic and separate from events.

“Be strange to me” the poet demands and is then shown, perhaps the littleness of this wish - “the guns will be strange” the poem says and ‘will tear reality into being’ And this continues: “The dead bodies will be strange, will underwrite every word”…. “the poets most of all, /most of all, will be strange, /will die desperate deaths…” with the wry question “will their cries….

/ ne any stranger / than the rest?”Several of the poems expereiment with line and linguistic forms. ‘This and That’ of Esterhuysen is a shaped form with expanding and contracting line length. In “Yet another poem about myself” he uses grammatical terms to express a sense of a fragmentary exisiting within a relation “your marrying stare con-/jugates what I appear/ to you” and juxtaposing a sense of ‘you-ness’ with ‘my amness’.

Mason similarly experiments with breaking off words to give a sense of discordance in ‘The poet is addressed by his public”.

“We are glad your are st/ ill with us” and “capitalising on the bound / less material” are examples of such lines where the second part of the word also stands on its own, taking on a different meaning for a moment, commenting satirically on the attitude of the reading public. It does not work consistently throughout the poem and with both sections of the broken words in every instance though.

Themes addressed in these poems, echoing each other, are friendship, relationships with friends and loved ones, balancing a sense of self with others, urban life, alienation and loneliness, living within a context of social violence, writing as a form of knowing, reading, art, individuality and the longing to share, despair, responding with integrity to one’s inner and outer reality, the role of art in transforming society, the difficulty of finding meaning within daily routines and theories.

Although art is clearly central to both poets, there is a sense of a wry smile at the idea of art transcending the life it is lived in. Esterhuysen acknowledges in ‘now and then’ that “poetry is a lonely place” The final section – Two Poems – consists of poems written by Paul Mason in 2006, after the death of his friend.

These poems use images from classical mythology to express the effort involved in creating meaning from life, friendship, art, love – holding memories and the loved ones within oneself – ‘stilled, known, knowing’.Marike Beyers

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