carrying the fire by Joan Metelerkamp
(substancebooks, Cape Town, South Africa, 2005)
Burnt Offering by Joan Metelerkamp
(Modjaji Books, Athlone, South Africa, 2009)
[Review first published in print by English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, Volume 27 (2) October 2010]
A burnt offering is not something you politely swallow with an extra glass of wine so as to not offend your king-of-the-braai husband. A burnt offering is the most selfless of gifts; it is selected willingly and with care by the giver as gift to the intended recipient. And that offering is burned, not for its destruction, but for the fire to consume and transform it, as an alchemical process, from its original substance into a gift fit for the gods.
Joan Metelerkamps’ Burnt Offering is such a gift, and it is also a song of mourning for carrying the fire, a book-poem that narrates a burnt offering that is rejected, as if burned boerewors, rather than accepted and valued as the gift of love it is. The two books speak to each other as few poetic works do.
Imagine Robert Graves’ muse-poet, obsessed, possessed, consumed almost, by lust for the muse-god; imagine the passion of Gounod’s Faust, bargaining desperately with Mephistopheles his only immortal soul, for a return of love and his youth; imagine brave Prometheus, daring to steal fire back from the gods to return its heat to humankind. This is the stuff, the dramas and, ultimately, the tragedy of carrying the fire.
carrying the fire enthrals like grand opera; Metelerkamp’s words mesh and metaphor and metamorphosise into arias, and trying to describe or write about the work is like trying to convey music with words. Perhaps I should begin by quoting this line from carrying the fire:
Praxis. Artistic praxis – the artist transforming herself as she transforms her material.
(ctf: pg 102)
Joan Metelerkamp takes myth and legend and snippets of herself and words and transforms them all, like a burnt offering, into an entirely ‘other’ form – into an experience like, perhaps, that of listening to stirring, rousing music.
Here is a quote from just sixteen pages later in that book:
Artistic praxis, the artist transforming herself as she transforms her material… every entity has a central contradiction the resolution of which transforms it; psychic metamorphosis; the alchemical process…
(ctf: pg 118)
A repeat and expansion of the motif of transformation – not only of the poet, not only of the physical, but a transformation too, of the psyche. Whose psyche transforms? Surely the poet’s, but I think too, for the receptive reader, these two book-long poems bring an experience to the psyche and not, as is often the case with poetry, only an intellectual or emotional experience. As Metelerkamp writes in carrying the fire
… I have sat
obliquely as the message on the screen
not like beauty, not like love
poetry is love; it is; I am
too tired of narrative, of my own
story of all the stories
I try to work
out, in, through
the stories I’m told
so I won’t go into this –
read this poet
nothing but this
nothing I have to make come true.
(ctf front cover & pg 73)
Metelerkamp also refers, in the pg 118 quote above, to alchemy. Alchemists begin with some, any, sort of base substance and they melt it, meld it, mould it, mix it in the hope of magicking it somehow into something entirely new and of infinitely greater value. In Burnt Offering the poet explores – in terms of Edward Edinger’s explanations of the workings of the human psyche as the craft of alchemy – how, or what it is that poets magick from their base substances (words and snippets of themselves and myths and legend). She explores the alchemical process or effect that that process can, in turn, induce in the poet’s (and readers’) psyches.
Burnt Offering examines the questions, ‘what is poetry?’ and ‘how does poetry work?’ At the same time, its poetry becomes an alchemic transformation of the poet’s words and other base material into a poetic experience of the psyche. And in that writing/reading process, the poet is effaced – she burns, transforms herself too, as offering.
Joan Metelerkamp writes of poetry that
It has nothing to do with linear narrative
even though it’s made of lines,
and although it is really a story,
(BO: Points on Poems, pg 14)
And of alchemists that,
they didn’t want to end up with
the same stuff they started with
the residue of the time before
(BO: Body of Work, pg 54)
Like carrying the fire, Burnt Offering is a book length poem-as-music. Not opera this time but more reflective… and responsive to the tragic ending of carrying the fire.
Imagine triumphant Prometheus bringing home the golden gift of fire to the mortals, only to be told,
“But what are we to do with this burning blackening stuff? We don’t need it! We don’t like it, take it away!”
Hardly worth having your liver devoured, as dinner, by an eagle every night yet the mortals in the last section of carrying the fire do just that; they are unable to see the worth of the gift they have been brought. Instead, they take the ‘I’ of the poetry’s narrative and reduce it to the person of the poet; they take the vehicles of the poetry’s metaphors and reduce them to a mundane literalness. It’s as if those mortals had been to watch the movie, Avatar, and refused to wear the producer’s 3D glasses, preferring to see the film’s effects reduced to the two dimensional.
Burnt Offering is poem as threnody, as lament for that tragic ending. It looks back and examines the events of carrying the fire. Its music reiterates the non-narrative transformation of words into experience – not the realist, confessional ‘experience into words’ that so many readers today seem to expect of poetry and poets. Because,
… this is obvious and not good enough not enough
a poem being always eventually an act
of synchronicity –
(BO: Came back wanting, pg 61)
I didn’t choose the metaphor, it chose me, came to me;
like a voice, like given words,
Only it didn’t feel like a message, but a man.
Like a poem. Not like love but love.
(BO: Points on Poems, pg 21)
And again, the poet performs the alchemy she performed before – and once again she and her work burn, transform and,
Suddenly the season changes and where you are
isn’t there any more –
where you were wasn’t there in the first place.
(BO: Came back wanting, pg 63)
meaning and matter coming together
the poet interpreter and dreamer
(BO: Came back wanting, pg 62)
Every time I take Burnt Offering up I am, as with carrying the fire, unable to lay it aside until I’ve reached the end of the last page – after a heady hour with the poet and the spiralling experience of her alchemy:
I say to myself can’t I just let it be –
what is was – let the chronicle rest, the chronicler rest
chronic restlessness, unrest –
if I don’t make something of it, it won’t let me rest, if I don’t
make some song more satisfactory, (chirri chirri chirri)
it will always be less, if I don’t continue to chuck away all the unnecessary
notes, notebooks of notes,
give it its own space, unless
it feels its own breathing space
it will always be less
less – what it is, is less, what it was, is less –
less than it could be, maybe
that process of immanence,
that setting free –
(BO: Crossing the Crocodile, pg 86)
Compelling reading that sweeps me away as a rip tide would, sucks me right in until its last disappointing en dash. Disappointing, because over that page there are no more words, no more poetry and I so want the experience of more.
Joan Metelerkamp is creating some of the most innovative and exciting art around. If you don’t agree, it’s likely you’re watching Avatar with sunglasses on. Swap them out for the 3D specs and you’ll see the metaphor in the narration, see the avatars in the narrative ‘I’. You’ll hear the musical drama on the pages. You’ll understand that it’s not burned boerewors laid before you for your reluctant consumption.
And you will get to experience this poet’s unique offering – burnt in fire stolen from the gods, as gift fit for the gods – as it consumes you, magicks its alchemy upon your psyche.
Moira Richards, accountant, author, editor, publisher, lives in South Africa and hangs out online HERE and HERE.