- Skinned by Antjie Krog
Skinned introduces the poetic oeuvre of preeminent South African author Antjie Krog to a North American readership. As Krog’s first collection of translated poetry to be published in the USA, it introduces North American readers to the autobiographical writing in which Krog explores the different phases in her life as a poet, woman, and mother. Except for a handful of poems translated by fellow South African poets Karen Press, Denis Hirson, and Patrick Cullinan, all translations are by Krog. The apposite title, Skinned, emphasizes Krog’s preoccupation with skin: skin color (race, culture), skin as a mask (especially in her poems on Lady Anne Barnard), and skin as the marker of identity (societal roles). Several of the skins Krog metaphorically sheds throughout this poetry selection are those of daughter, mother, wife, woman, writer/poet, translator, journalist, teacher, feminist, and political activist. Racial and cultural skins are also cast off in an effort to unite all Africans: White, Nama, /Xam, Sepedi, Xhosa, Zulu, and the West African griots (traditional oral poets). Even Claudette Schreuders’ wooden figure on the book cover is skinless.
The title, Skinned, becomes even more significant if read in relation to the only other Krog collection of English translations, Down to My Last Skin (2000). In thirteen years, the poet has progressed from a seemingly definitive stance (last skin) to an unprecedented position of complete bareness (skinned). The former title is derived from one of her poems, which accentuates skin as mask: “I am down / to my last skin” (76). The new selection’s title originates from two poems: one indicates the skin of humanity, “that what we are is something so soft so humanly skinned” (124), and the other foregrounds the poetic skin. In “poet becoming,” an apt choice of introductory verse, the essence of poetry is revealed: “the only truth stands skinned in sound // the poet writes poetry with her tongue / yes, she breathes deeply with her ear” (19).
Although Krog established her South African literary reputation as a poet who writes in her mother tongue, Afrikaans, when she made her debut at age 17 in 1970, she gained world recognition for her English autobiographical text, Country of My Skull (1998), in which she wrote about her experiences as a radio journalist reporting on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2003, another autobiographical narrative, A Change of [End Page 233] Tongue, chronicled transformations in South Africa after the change to democratic rule in 1994. This autobiographical triptych concludes with the provocatively titled Begging to Be Black (2009), in which she explores the concept of interconnectedness between all people. Krog’s prose works can be read as complementary to the verse in this anthology, especially as the first two autobiographical works in her trilogy offer insightful commentary to elucidate and contextualize her poetry.
Skinned includes poetry from the following publications: Dogter van Jefta [Daughter of Jephthah] (1970); Otters in bronslaai [Otters in Watercress] (1981); Jerusalemgangers [Jerusalem Travellers] (1985); Lady Anne (1989); Gedigte, 1989–1995 [Poems, 1989–1995] (1995); Kleur kom nooit alleen nie [Colour Never Comes Alone] (2000); Met woorde soos met kerse [With Words As with Candles] (2002); The Stars Say ‘tsau’ [Afrikaans version die sterre sê ‘tsau’] (2004); Verweerskrif [published in English as Body Bereft] (2006); and the testimonial narrative Country of My Skull (1998).
The five thematically arranged divisions span decades of Krog’s recurring poetic concerns. In part one, “Extenuating Circumstances,” the reader glimpses the inner workings of the poet’s ars poetica, but also the struggle between the often competing roles of poet and those of mother and wife. The revealing poem “writing ode” encompasses this precarious balancing act between underground (the realm of creativity) and ground level (reality).
The second part, “The Lady as Metaphor,” comprises fragments of the poetry volume, Lady Anne (1989), an epic poem exploring the life of the Scottish aristocrat Lady Anne Barnard, who lived in the Cape Castle with her husband from 1797 to 1802. These poems are characterized by Krog’s imperative that poetry not simply be aesthetic but convey...