Stephen Watson has a relationship with writing that is not so unusual for a writer of his gifts: cautious. One gets the sense that, for him – as for many others so acutely attuned to the imagery and sounds words conjure – writing can be as much a source of shame as of satisfaction.
This has never stopped him from wrestling with the beast, however; and over six previous collections, plus a book of essays that stands on the top shelf of SA literary criticism, he has shown his gifts to be very honed indeed. No one else, I venture to propose, has charted what it means to be conscious while inhabiting the natural empire of the Cape with such compellingly cold, poetic passion.
Emerging from what might be described as the ashes of the controversy he stirred up last year involving Antjie Krog, Watson’s latest book, The Light Echo and Other Poems has been called his “finest collection to date”. BOOK SA is pleased to bring you three of the poems from the work.
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WOMAN ON A BEACH
The woman at the water’s edge, watching
the surfers who stand up to drop
off a wave’s face, is peeling down her jeans,
staring all the while in the direction of Cape Hangklip.
In her, her every gesture, there’s the cast-off,
the offhand intimacy of beaches: the hand
that brushes off the sand, the salt
that dries, contracting on her upper thigh –
the skin across her belly
so tanned its grain goes dusty
in that almost sexual darkening as she bends
now once, now twice, to pick up a shell.
Hers is the privilege of all summers here –
the body in this heat, unclothed for one more time.
And yours the privilege of which she’s unaware:
to know through her, watching her, desire
that is as intimate to each existence
as is the instep of the foot, its arch
to the bare sole it moulds – to these sandals
you can’t quite put on yet, or walk away upon
while all’s still washed by that pale, salty feel
of the end of a day at the beach, and she,
resettling, does something to her top, its cups, its straps,
to make each breast more comfortable.
HOW THINGS TURN OUT
They would wait and see how things turned out.
It was still too early to be quite sure – at least
for people like them.
They couldn’t believe in one grand love,
so final, fixed, so absolute: that
was their parent’s story.
They were part of Cape Town’s younger set, people
who sleep together, who move in together
for one or another time, shorter or else longer,
and then move out, move on
(after dividing the linen, posters, compact discs).
They were two among the many now
who marry later, if at all,
who, as they say, still travel light.
Besides, she owned her own apartment;
her car was long since paid off. She needed
no one to look after her. She needed someone –
this was her ideal, her secret hope – who did
not actually wish to live with her;
who understood, without her having to explain,
her need for space, for solitude.
And then someone in his line
of business – a complication no less real –
had to be prepared to relocate
as the markets fluctuated. In fact,
both wanted to keep their options
open. And for people like them, of their generation,
there were always other options: another job elsewhere,
in Miami, London, or perhaps Taipei,
so many places where one could get ahead,
and always the chance of making love to someone else.
Yes, it had its drawbacks – they’d be
the first to say. But let the clergy still
demur, their parents fail to understand, it simply was
what was. It was how one lived nowadays:
instead of a marriage, a series of relationships;
instead of a home, a succession of addresses;
instead of a career, the freelancing
that had served each rather well;
instead of a country, that stamp – resident alien –
they so valued in their passports.
So they’d wait and see
for a while longer. All this
was only – it was a catch-phrase of their set –
‘for the time being’. By now, both in their early thirties,
they’d had their share of flings, affairs, things
on the side – things that hadn’t worked out. (He’d slept
with three Catherines already,
though of course he would not tell her this.)
But they’d known too many people, friends,
who’d found true love
and found that it was not enough –
people now shamefaced, divorced –
to believe that this, and only this,
was all they had been waiting for.
Perhaps someone else would come along.
Perhaps his job would take him elsewhere.
Perhaps she would just
lose interest (it had happened
more than once). But for now – ‘until
further notice’, as they also liked to say –
they could get along. For the time being,
they would patch together
this thing that, like history now, their lives, their selves,
was without libretto – this thing
that one made up
as one went along, and only
for as long as it went on.
from A NATURAL HISTORY
All we’ve ever met with, so it’s said,
all that was loved, and suffered in that love,
and, even more, that which we have lost,
remains secreted in some secret residue
which, even if unseen, unknown, is never lost.
But I remember, once, a woman talking
of an ex-husband, by now a surname only,
as if the time they had been joined,
the passion play of their long parting,
belonged long since to someone else.
She talked of him like certain men
discuss the various makes of motor car.
She listed his faults forensically, an expert
collecting data from the scene of a disaster.
I saw – for a moment, as she talked, I saw –
that all of it had washed out of her
as casually as any casual love affair
might wash over us. I saw that all of it –
the clamour, bitter, as two lives uncouple –
had long been given up, or given over.
I saw her whole past spinning away
from her, the burnt-out after-burner
of some rocket now consigned
to time that owns only to disown,
to all of space, its orphanage.
Revolving slowly as it sailed off,
orbit unknown, into the junkyard of space,
I saw a life sailing off into the unseen –
light with the lightness of that which is free,
light with the lightness of all that is empty.
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- The Light Echo and Other Poems
by Stephen Watson
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