POEM: Distance


What does ‘relationship’ mean
A test to see if we relate?
Do I relate to You?
Am I relatable?

What does ‘sex’ mean
A test to see if we are the same sexually?
Do I find You sexy?
Am I sexual?
Am I sexy though?

What does ‘intimacy’ mean?
A test to see if we are close enough to disagree?
Do I find You agreeable?
Am I the distance between us though?

What does ‘love’ mean?
A test to see if we mean anything?
Do I find meaning in You?
Am I meaningful?

Oh, I see.
The only distance between us is You and me.

REVIEW: Killing Commendatore

GARETH LANGDON is a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, but is dismayed by the Japanese master’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore: an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue and simplistic, painstakingly detailed descriptions of everyday events.

Killing Commendatore

An interesting consequence of a move to New York city from “developing” Cape Town, South Africa, is the recognition of what it truly means to be faced with endless opportunity. New York is a big place, with a lot going on, and a lot to choose from, often to the point of option paralysis leading to a not-graceful decline into lonely alcoholism. But let’s keep it light.

In many ways though, the prospect of endless opportunity is more of a fantasy than a reality. Not in the sense that the city doesn’t, in fact, offer many worlds unknown, but rather than being able to actually access those worlds in a tangible way is highly unlikely. Most adult humans have commitments and limitations (importantly, financial limitations, which is especially true in NYC) which will prevent them from exploring, touring, engaging with every nook and cranny of the city in any meaningful way. I mean, some days I have to go and do my laundry, instead of savouring the latest craft brew the city has on offer. The possibility of fantastical escapism becomes narrower and narrower the longer you live in the city, and the more complacent you become with enjoying your simple apartment existence.

I’ve taken NYC here as my example, naturally, as it is where I live at the time of writing, but this could just as easily apply to any of the big and desirable cities in the world, from LA to London to Tokyo, and I think it is simply true of humans that our minds can only handle so much variety before we reflexively begin to narrow things down, cull the excess, or become paralysed by an excess of choice. This is not, however, true of fantastical novels.

Novels are a deliberate choice to move our minds into new worlds, which are truly inaccessible. The same way that someone might choose to read about NYC when living in rural Somalia, as a means of fantasist escape, so too someone who lives in NYC may want to read about Narnia or Middle Earth – that is to say, we are forever grasping for the unknown, believing there must be more, and are by nature, restless explorers. So naturally, you can imagine, to indulge my escapist urge and explore beyond the stresses of moving to NYC from Cape Town, as a salve for the anxiety of actually exploring when I really needed to focus on paying the bills, I spent an unnecessary $30 on Haruki Murakami’s newest, Killing Commendatore.

The novel follows the events of what appears to be only a few months in the life of a 36-year-old painter, who is never named. After a surprise divorce, he escapes to the mountains of rural Japan to live in the former home of famed painter, Tomohiko Amada, a fortune he comes by as a result of studying at art school with Amada’s son. During his time at the house, he comes across a hidden painting in the attic depicting a medieval scene of a murder, inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni but adapted into the Japanese style by Amada himself. The painting’s unearthing (or rather, de-atticing) leads to several supernatural events assaulting the tranquil escape that the narrator had been seeking, including the autonomous ringing of a bell in a black pit behind the house, the appearance of one of the characters in the painting — a two foot tall, strange talking fellow — and the eventual crossing into other worlds by way of aforementioned pit. There is also a lot of listening to records, making and eating of breakfast, vivid depictions of emotionless sex, and painting.

On the face of it, the novel is about a man’s attempt to escape the realities of his life — a failed relationship, and unfulfilling career as a commissioned portrait artist, apparently poor financial prospects — only to find himself drifting further and further away from the actual, physical realms of earthly reality. As much as the narrator attempts to tether himself to reality by buying groceries and listening over and over again to the same classical LPs, he is inexorably drawn to something other, something outside. This exhortation to the fantastical, I would argue, is analogous to the protagonist’s (and perhaps the 70-year old author’s?) own desire to escape life as he knows it and find something better. This is nothing new in Murakami’s work, all of which is perhaps known for, and successful because of, its artful juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane. Unfortunately, Killing Commendatore does not succeed in the careful balancing act required to pull this off.

What I found in Killing Commendatore was an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue, simplistic, prosaic description in painstaking detail of everyday events, and that same simplicity and triteness sloppily applied to the fantastical. I’m not sure if it is something that has been lost in the translation, or if this a deliberate manoeuvre on the part of the author to trick or perhaps communicate something deeper at the level of syntax to the reader, but the fact remains that it falls utterly flat. Far from providing me, a newcomer in a scarily large city at a new stage in life, or indeed the protagonist, himself in his own peril, with an escape, instead it left me feeling uncomfortable at the level of language I was expected to simply accept from a world-renowned master of the art of novel writing. It was for me, to paraphrase another critic, the kind of experience that made me feel embarrassed on behalf of Murakami himself.

What alternative explanations could there be for this lapse in judgement? Was the author rushed to produce this? Or is shitty translation the culprit: were the translators unable to accurately capture the Japanese as English, with symbolism lost in translation? Or is there something more insidious at play here, something deliberate, something cunning?

I remember once I attended a graduate seminar in which one of the papers on review was about Coetzee’s (bleh) Childhood of Jesus. Several days prior to this conference, I had myself read and scathingly reviewed the novel (also on account of the disappointingly third-grader level of language), and was curious to get the insight of a vastly more qualified academic on the matter. His general theory was that — get this — Coetzee was now so good and qualified to write well, that he had subverted the medium to the point where average writing was actually a sign of greater talent — he was beyond being any good, and could dismantle language to the point of it being what, at first glance, looked like crap. So in this conception, Coetzee had made some Picasso-esque move to regress himself to a child-like wielding of his form to send some kind of message, either about language itself or about his excellence as a writer. And so, do we find ourselves here again with another writer, Murakami, arrogantly thinking that he can get away with it?

Now, fair enough. Writers strip down and play with the form of the novel all the time, all the way through its history some would argue. But there is a limit. To continue the analogy of Picasso, his brilliance was that, even though the image was distorted, and child-like (his words) and perhaps indiscernible, it still formed a cohesive and striking whole. It was something beautiful to look at. Furthermore, you can get away with this as a visual artist, because it takes a split second to take in an image, and its colours, and to allow the effect to wash over you. But it takes a commitment of many hours (days even) to read a novel, and my feeling is that subjecting a reader, who out of reverence paid good money to buy your book and escape to some world other than their own, is borderline sadistic.

Now, I’d hate for this to become a rant about the obligations of writer to reader (there probably aren’t any) or to end up somewhere down the rabbit-hole of “I paid you, so you owe me” because we all know that is a slippery slope. But who isn’t upset when they fork over for their favourite band’s new album, or their favourite director’s new movie, only to leave feeling hurt, disappointed, and frankly, disinclined to favourably review said artist in an article?

I’d love to spend more time here dissecting the story of Killing Commendatore, its many metaphors, ideas, concepts etc, but really, it was so difficult and tiring to wade my way through the prose that I don’t even have the energy left to do so. All I can really see myself doing is going back and re-reading IQ84 or Hard-boiled Wonderland in the hope that I’ll discover that I was right — that Murakami is actually pretty good, and I still like him.

Killing Commendatore really does feel like Murakami’s difficult second album, his very own midlife crisis, a little blip in his past, and I think it is best that we, like a blighted lover, forgive him and try to move on.

Killing Commendatore is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

POEMS by Abbey Khambule

I see you

(for Tshego)

You have my mother’s eyes.
I see her
in your selfies.
Updates, Posts, Statuses: reshuffling
of your thousand smiles, profiles.
Apple of my eye, ebbing away with
the ever-changing timeline.
In updates of your becoming I wonder
did I miss your new post;
status of your belonging to a new world?
I see you
in her Kodak eyes.
It’s always been you
extending her; extending yourself;
extending the cosmos; reaching,
calling unawares against
my unmaking.


Winter in Bophuthatswana

Fire ants fall
from a winter tree

Coppery skeleton army
warring with the cold wind

Like a shepherd boy
I lead one warrior to my dry cold feet

Let him sting the skin between my toes
so I can burst into summer

POEM: Trying Not to Think of Seamus Heaney


I ease the mower
beneath blackberry stems
and think instead of my mother
who has just called me Angus

Stooping to pick a few of the immense dark
planets I try not to think
of my mother already losing
the word for blackberries

who picked blackberries as a child
and took them home to her mother
who knows blackberries
in three languages

each planet of thought
soft between my thumbs
Trying not to think
of my mother I think of grass

POEM: A House


A house shaped like a tree.
A house in the form of a stone.
A ship that’s a house.
The river-house.
House on the moon, the dark side,
its porch light on always,
attracting moths and meteors:
something to hope for
when seen from a long distance.


My house sings beside a ditch.
My house struggles with its conscience.
My house falls up a hill.
It’s where I live;
I go home because I’m not there.
Because I am.
Because I have to be somewhere
Because I have to be.


The house in my head
has eyes and legs and lips and a heart.
The mind-house is one room
inside numberless rooms;
a wooden dreamscape,
a child’s nightmare of bricks flying
and doors that won’t open.
There’s something unsayable
under the floorboards.


The portable house –
you can take in anywhere
and everywhere.
You can never leave or arrive.
It follows you to school, to work.
It’s hands-free.
It’s no bigger than your mouth.
Just deflate and fold
and you’re on your way.


In one house that I lived in
the cat was king and dog a citizen.
In one house the ghosts
took turns frightening themselves.
In another house
the furnace stayed on no matter
what we did or didn’t do.
And the mice were very intelligent –
saints to the roaches’ sinners.


The house is on fire, then underwater,
then invisible, then in outer space.
The house is black, then red, then purple.
The house is edgy, divine, sanguine, undone.
It has hair and teeth and principles.
A circle, it thinks it’s a square.
It’s lost its bearings.
Someone suggests: Let’s go there!
But we can’t go there.


The house of sod.
The house Bosch built –
doors only on the inside,
the floors up a wall,
its furnishings in people-form.
Set in its ways,
it’s the planet which is shifting.


Come in, you’re out.
This is the room God sent you.
Here is where we store the clouds.
That’s the closet that death was born in.
This is the hall we can’t get to.
The light enters here
then gets lost along the way.
The air decides for itself –
because we’re all free-thinkers here.
We all live somewhere else.


The house is abandoned now.
It seems to be (but it isn’t)
always late autumn – inside and out.
The penultimate leaf waves farewell.
A torn curtain shudders
in a last-gasp effort
to prove its existence.
The dust is barely disturbed
by the ghost-whisperers –
that handful of lonely spectres
who refuse any notice of eviction.
Like little flames, one by one
by one, they flicker out.
They can’t come to the door right now.
Try again, in the next world.
Knock louder.

POEMS by Jeannie Wallace McKeown



Dinosaurs make themselves at home
in my garden.
Strutting, preening, pecking
at the earth
as if it is theirs –
worms, seeds, old fruit.

They know that this territory
is contested;
with alarm they arise, flustered,
glide between trees, calling
urgently to one another
as the cat stalks, forgets, stops to wash.

Settling again, alert and ruffled,
they watch.
It wasn’t always this way, glinting eyes hint.
“When we had teeth,” the birds chirp, the birds coo,
“careless mammal, it was you
who was fleeing from us.”

Melamine Cowboy

The melamine cowboy plate broke.
It lasted longer
than much of the china crockery.
That cowboy lived in our kitchen
for over a decade.

Now he’s in the bin.

But that melamine cowboy
won’t biodegrade.
He’ll ride the landfill express
into all our sunsets.

Should humanity survive
to vacate, he’ll be there
to see silver craft shoot upwards,
people queuing to leave the earth behind
having covered it in plastic straws,
disposable nappies,
single use coffee pods.

With their departure,
perhaps new grass will finally
grow over him.
He’ll ride the deep earth,
substrate cowboy
with a story to tell.

REVIEW: My Life on Legs

SHIRLEY MARAIS is delighted by Hailey Gaunt’s debut poetry collection.
my life on legs
The cover of My Life on Legs — featuring a delicate etymological plate by Andrew Breitenberg, beautifully positioned on a background of palest “mint-moss green” (Morning walk) — give a sense of the poems and themes inside this collection: detailed, in-the-moment, idiosyncratic insights into Gaunt’s relationships with friends and family, and her relationship to the natural world, filtered through the stained-glass wings of her poetic mind.  

The collection takes its name from a line in Morning walk, which ends with a picture that makes you draw your breath in, quite literally:

I want to shed my clothes, shoes,
my life on legs,
throw my body back,
leave the whole shell of it behind
shoot across the wave in one wet line.

I am struck how Gaunt quite naturally and easily uses phrases and lines like ‘magical happenstance’ (The beginning), ‘effulgent runway’ (A pledge) and ‘playing at rumbunctious games’ (At the pool) without ever being pretentious or ostentatious, because she is so consistent – and so consistently and beautifully precise – in her careful stitching of these poems. Her consummate use of language serves the intricacy and detail of her narrative imagery, adding bright points of light, rather than weighing her work down.  

Her relationship with her world, and the people in it, is so intriguingly detailed and reverent, as to invite unselfconscious participation from the reader, even in her most intimate poems:

And I tell you something else —
part apology, declaration, pact:
“I’m willing to start over
as many times as we have to.”

This poet is not afraid of intimacy, but never jolts the reader, except very gently – I am thinking particularly of the line ‘rude and kind as a tongue’ (from Patronage), which speaks of her father’s habit of pushing a roll of banknotes into her hand as he says goodbye, and the last stanza of Caress:

And I’d slip between each adult embrace,
minnow my hands in a parting prayer –
it was around that time I prayed
the small, stiff buds back into my chest.

Although gentle, Gaunt’s work is neither bland nor predictable. Each carefully crafted poem holds the reader to the end and makes one want to go back later and read it again. The narratives are full of surprises and pictures that turn the everyday into the extraordinary, as in For the first time (second and third stanzas):

Turning it over,
I stare through the shell and soft wall
to a place within,
and somehow I’ve slipped
into terrifying territory – and yet,
my body softens.

I see a tiny hand
spread like a star
and all over as delicate
as the traces
of a nail’s paper rim:
it’s reaching.

Gaunt’s work is proof that being strongly rooted in ordinary ‘middle-class’ life and sound, loving relationships – so apparent from the many poems about her lover and her father (the ‘great-big fix-anything move-the-earth father’ in He can’t hear) – can also be fertile ground for beautiful poetry. 

The exchange is one of my favourite pieces in this collection. Like many of Gaunt’s poems, it is so rich in both inner and outer detail that it plays out like a densely woven art nouveau movie in miniature. Here is the final stanza of the poem:

She says nothing but her free hand
sweeps my wrist in a gesture so succinct,
barely perceptible and without a name.
I turn back to the bookstore and cover my wrist.
Now I am bursting, burning full of words –
oh, but I would give them up!

I certainly hope it will not be Gaunt’s last collection of poetry. I find myself constantly returning to the book to look again for a phrase, a word, an image, that I want to re-meet and re-explore. I hope she will continue to burn and burst with words, and give them up – to paper.

My Life on Legs is published by Aerial Publishing.

POEM: The First Day of School


Since the labour pains promptly followed
the devouring of a veggie vindaloo,
the baby was named “peppery”
in Esperanto, the lingua franca shared by
her Hungarian panjo and Turkish paĉjo,
and it’s still the only language
six-year-old Pipra can prattle in
to her gepatroj, her hundo or anyone else.
Initially home-schooled after
being bundled off as a baby
to Ameriko from Germanujo
she is now being relegated to
Pleasant Prairie Primary
to learn la anglan lingvon and make friends
since “a child is not a sunflower
and cannot bloom in isolation.”
Yet Pipra’s locked up
in linguistic quarantine
because she can’t comprehend “cloakroom”
or “closet” or even “please,”
and she’s as much of a blinking curiosity
as the toad in the classroom aquarium,
stared at by a lopsided ring of wide-eyed faces
that mock and giggle and spit out confusing strings of
strange nasal words that end with a thud in consonants
because kids are wicked
to the weak and the weird,
and the teacher is too overworked
to notice or care.