- Synapse by Antjie Krog
As a poet, certainly within South Africa, Krog is best remembered for her 1989 sequence Lady Anne and for "My Mooi Land," first published in a special edition of her school magazine when Krog was seventeen. The publisher's note to the first collection of English translations of her poetry, Down to My Last Skin, captures well the furor "My Mooi Land" created: "[T]he explicit political and sexual themes [in that and accompanying poems] provoked such an angry response from certain sections of [the community in Krog's home town, Kroonstad] that the controversy was highlighted in the country's national Afrikaans Sunday newspaper…. One counterpoint to this was the mountain of letters of support from mainly black scholars posted to Krog's school. Several months later the Sunday newspaper that had started it all published news of the translation of the poem into English, and, worse still, of its appearance in an ANC publication in Dar es Salaam."
The poem still packs quite a punch, as much for its tenderness and beauty as for the seething anger that underpins it: "look, I build myself a land / where skin colour doesn't count / only the inner brand of self / where no goat face in parliament / can keep things permanently verkramp." Other early poems distinguish themselves for what I have come to think of as Krog's anguished pantheism and anthropomorphism, her rooting in the soil that both nurtures and lacerates her (from "red grass": "I adore Themeda trianda the way other people adore God"), and her opting for poems "without fancy punctuation / without words that rhyme," or what she calls "barefoot poems." Also at this early stage, family and, especially, marriage emerged as a bedrock concern (from "marital psalm": "man who makes me possible / though I can fight him spectacularly"), and there are frequent references to the spouse's objections to Krog's poetry: "do our children successfully in respectable schools have to see / how their friends read about their mother's splashing cunt." And above all there is the concern with history and the historical self (the Lady Anne [Barnard] sequence), the related question "how to write this land," and the need to problematize marginality and Westernness that reemerges as a central issue in nonfiction texts such as Begging to Be Black (of white South Africans she asks, "how long do we mean to last here? / we who have been wrecked against this lush continent / without ever indisputably landing in Africa").
Down to My Last Skin appeared in 2000 and Krog's next English language poetry title, Body Bereft, six years later. One still recalls the hostility this volume generated in the South African press, with Stephens Watson and Gray, among others, objecting to the candor of Krog's depiction of the aging female body and even to the cover photograph of the same. Other poets leapt to Krog's defense, but [End Page 201] it was shameful that the row ever took place; as even warlike Wellington put it, "next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won."
Synapse (2014) was Krog's first English-language poetry collection in eight years, a translation of an Afrikaans volume (Mede-Wete) carried out by fellow poet Karen Press. Of immediate appeal is the powerful, beautiful cover art by Otobeng Nkanga, though this straddles front and back covers, and I do wish that the publisher had also reproduced the piece intact inside, so one could more readily grasp the impact of the whole. The appeal of the poetry itself is less immediate. Synapse is a volume that poses such challenges to the reader—and yet is so gripping, finally so rewarding—that I didn't dare embark on a review until after a third reading. As the publisher's blurb puts it, "Krog's career as a poet began with resistance to language and authority. This was more than simply youthful rebellion—it was a desire to free language itself from all constraints. [In Synapse] Krog once again disrupts language to create new meaning as she re-engages...