‘A Book of Rooms’ by Kobus Moolman
Deep South, South Africa, 2014
Poetry Review by Agnes Marton (Hungary/ Luxembourg)
South African poet Kobus Moolman has been awarded the Ingrid Jonker prize, the PANSA award, the South African Literary Award, the DALRO poetry prize and the Sol Plaatje European Union poetry award. ‘A Book of Rooms’ is his seventh poetry collection.
The book is beautifully produced. The cover image, a painting by Andries Gouws, takes us into a not-at-all-sensuous bedroom: “the thick (…) denim / drapes are never / opened (You never know who might be watching…)”. (The Room of Going Nowhere)
It’s the territory of secrets, memories, told in the most honest way possible, with attention to detail, breathlessly, often referring to the poet’s own physicality: “the boy with the hole in his heart” (The Room of Family Holidays); even the surroundings become similar to his heart: “There is just a bare wooden floor with a hole in the / middle through which / suddenly everything drops.” (The Room of What is Left)
The collection consists of four sections, Who, What, Why and When. The prose-like, sometimes repetitive poems are called after different rooms: rooms of colours (green, white), and rooms of family snapshots, the past, the poet’s youth.
The book begins with a quotation by Georges Perec:
“Even if I have the help only of yellowing snapshots, a handful of eyewitness accounts and a few paltry documents to prop up my implausible memories, I have no alternative but to conjure up what for too many years I called the irrevocable: the things that were, the things that stopped, the things that were closed off – things that surely were and today are no longer, but things that also were so I may still be.”
The memories come in a matter-of-fact way, in constant flow, with rare metaphors: “straining / like hungry dogs against the hot rope of their longing” (The Room of Rural Teaching), often expressing confusion and enumerating obstacles, sometimes even considering how meaningless the truth (and all that remembering) can be: “That is the morning when he learns how / much easier it always is to pretend than to admit a painful truth.” (The Room of Family Holidays)
Moolman is longing for the safety of his childhood, “There is nowhere to hide then or run away to, as he could when he / was a child”, but in vain, his father’s eyes follow his adult self just like a detective would (The Room of White); even long ago his father would ruin his joy: “Bolero, which he used to listen to over and over / again in the lounge / as a child until his father grew so sick and tired of it he scratched / the record with a long / nail.” (The Room of Impression and First Appearances) The control-freak father whose car (after his death) “sat unused in the dark / garage (…) Because his mother never learnt to / drive Because his / father would not let her learn in his car (What if you bump it hey? (…)”
The poet is also searching for the long-gone naivety of the child he used to be: “He takes for / granted everything / that he sees, that he feels or tastes” (The Room of Rural Teaching), with all the hallucinations of that childhood.
“There are hundred excuses / and explanations / justifications and mitigations that he makes / for failing to meet / everyone’s expectations (The Room What He Excels at), he feels rules don’t apply to him as “he was chosen at birth not to be the / same as everyone else”, in fact “he had been forced to take / the only job that did / not require any technical skills, and for which he didn’t need a/ qualification: teaching Afrikaans to black children at a farm school.” (The Room of Independence)
Most of the subtitles seem to be stage instructions. The stage is quite raw, empty and dark, full of self-loathing yet always fascinating with its blurred, loveable figures anyone can relate to. These poems are confessions of a poet of remarkable integrity. I read them all in one sitting – then I started to re-read them slowly.
You can read more of Kobus' work here.