LOUIETTA DU TOIT is entranced by Navigate, a dense and shimmering collection of poems by Karin Schimke.
Karin Schimke’s Navigate sits on my desk for several weeks. I gather, before having read it, that it is a deeply personal work and I intend to engage with it as devotedly as I imagine it was written. But amidst the incessant pulsing of my city and work life, an ideal bookended period of time to do this, does not arrive.
And then I am at the feet of the Waterberg, lounging on a redbrick stoep constructed by my grandfather almost three decades ago. I am here with my closest family on a celebratory weekend away – it’s my birthday soon. More than we ourselves are able to, the unassuming landscape of the farm holds our shared history and each moment together offers something of this, interspersed with everyday wonder, affection and little traumas and distress.
As always, we move within the structures of this intimacy a little clumsily, but each with a somewhat refined steering method.
We are, perpetually, either finding each other, or trying to.
Navigate finds me here.
my lips blister, my tongue dries.
atonal winds, weather all wall-eyed.
Schimke’s evocative collection is woven on a number of distinct threads. It is a conscious expedition through roots and heritage and the complex, fluid meaning of home and belonging. The refuge of nature in all its beauty and simplicity. And the becoming of a self – the poet’s finding, nurturing and placement of her voice – as a writer, a daughter, a woman and a citizen. The implication that these threads are interwoven and interdependent, is strong: a recognition which I greatly appreciate and resonate with.
A series of dichotomies, as striking as the natural metaphors Schimke employs throughout, appears – between the metaphysical and the earthly, the personal and the public, the private and the communal, the complex and the staggeringly simple. The need for togetherness and simultaneously, an ever-present yearning to be separate. Together with these binary notions, a question is posed: which takes precedence? The answer I find is far from prescriptive – not one.
Instead, it is suggested that navigation, here so skilfully demonstrated through poetry, inherently requires a well-honed, multi-faceted attention and an ability to adapt. This calls for a resolve to be acutely present in all conditions and Schimke appears willing to be exactly this – not only at the mercy of the “elements” she is faced with, but very much present within them. She captures the heart of this process in Cleaning the wound:
the trick is to pull off the plaster
and look the wound in the eye
it’s not as bad as you think it will be
it’s just a doorway
a threshold to sweep
and polish and protect
It calls for what I find to be the most striking quality of Navigate– a down-to-earth-ness. The language of Cleaning the wound is both sincerely painful as well as reverent and nurturing. Rejection never emerges as an option. Only a flow and the willingness to receive it fully, to expand and retract, again and again. In this way, human experience becomes, like this collection of poems, simultaneously tumultuous and beautiful.
As I am flung about, and taught, and held by Schimke’s dexterous wielding of harsh, methodical memories alongside deeply tender, redolent imagery, I am reassured by the grand coexistence of things which appear at first to be mutually exclusive. This is the flood of the world. The poet’s (and my) experience swings from an openness and delight to a shrunken, unanchored state and back, as does her sense of self and voice, her craft and her conviction within it.
The second section of the collection is prefaced by:
and now my mouth is small and hard
and now my tongue’s a fossil
now my lips are bone on bone
my chest’s an empty vessel
and she agonises in Taped Beak:
over and over
christ this chorus bores me
i’m doing whatever the verb
is for litany and grass grows
over my feet i am that woman
that white that wash that
i am my own thick black
censor lines my hushing
Aside from the poet herself, the character of her father (the immigrant) is the most consistently present, whether as an explicit, literal subject or employed as a metaphor. Schimke’s reflections on her father start off as a harsh, almost desperate disconnect, evolving through this exploration into something full and tender. In parallel, her creative voice awakens, hesitates, expands and settles. The father figure then becomes a marker on the map: the more foreign and inaccessible he is portrayed to be, the more tumultuous the conditions, the more untethered the poet appears. But as we are granted a deeper access to and understanding of Schimke’s universe, a spaciousness grows around her father and around the poet herself.
We sweated. You measured. You planned.
When I shifted my weight, you cursed.
Boredom grew. I needed to pee.
My hands uncramped themselves.
My mouth excused me.
You shouted. My fingers swore.
Relief is enough breath for one last stand.
You grabbed me by the hair
Retracing one’s steps also means deepening them. I know this well. But I also know and read again here that ultimately, through the process of revisiting and seeing, the old, deep traces of where we come from become less dire, less violent and less separate from where we are, here and now. This is indeed, on every implied level, a navigation from a state of Myopia (the title of the opening poem) to an uncomplicated belonging when the collection closes, intimately – My feet were at home in your lap.
Navigate – a most appropriate title for the narrative arc of this collection – offers neither injunction nor resolution. Instead, it is an always tender and rarely sentimental telling. In this telling a process emerges, divided into the four phases of the poet’s personal navigation. These phases are not clinical, but emerge in the moment to moment unfolding, as do the beautifully crafted poems. The resultant coherence is gradual and unforced.
Schimke writes her own trajectory amidst the elements, passing through conditions of chaos and turbulence, desolation, a palpable impasse where nothing moves, with eyes shut tight, waiting, and then into something akin to redemption, conjuring up an image of her standing, simply and gently, exactly where she is – in the eye of the proverbial storm. The introductory verse of the final section signals this pause and arrival:
i knew no goodness till i’d trawled
the sky of his forehead for the bitter stars
and found none
It is a homecoming: to the deep, safe waters of the other and the self. And it is in this way that she can lay claim to the contours of her own voice:
I dream in
the alphabet of dance
where vowels bleat
are the same
It may be worth considering to what extent one’s response to a literary work stems from a kind of confirmation bias – do we simply read into it what we wish or need to see? Can we put it down to that old chestnut of the right thing at the right time?
Perhaps it is really a matter of this: one true thing, at any time. To me, this is the birthplace of poetry, of art. It is born in a non-exclusionary exploration, in the artist allowing the force of the flood.
Encouraged, I tug my thoughts back down to earth. As I read, I try to couch my response in terms as basic and true as the pale cement joining the red bricks, the rarely seen Piet-My-Vrou calling to its mate. It is late autumn and the Limpopo sun is modest now, casting the shadow of a wild olive tree over my hands and across each printed page which I trace and turn. I am feeling more, wanting more. I am reminded to open and soften towards my own experience, my people, every moment – so often met with judgement and apprehension.
The voice of the poet is not glorified here – life and art are very much merged, becoming together.
This dense collection is nothing if not heartfelt. Schimke’s poetry leaves me with a sense of fragmented completeness and in this contradiction, a freedom. A testament to the myriad elements of what it means to be human, each in their mundane and dramatic, exquisite and distressing way, I close Navigate in the comforting fold of a sentiment expressed by Gustave Flaubert – ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’ Yours and mine.
Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read three poems from the collection here.
Author photograph by Paul Reeves.