The consensus amongst the throng of poetry lovers who gathered at the Book Lounge’s first event of the year last week was that it was exceedingly good to see the country’s only independent publisher specialising in southern African women’s writing, Colleen Higgs, celebrating the launch of her own poetry collection.
Finuala Dowling paid tribute to Colleen’s work in a generous introduction. She said it worried her to hear people say that they found poetry boring. “Boring is the antithesis of everything true poetry stands for. The best poems change us, not by being preachy or pedantic, but by surprising us, by strong-arming us into thinking differently, seeing differently, arguing differently; by overturning the norm and the expected.
“They lure us in with promises of intimacy, but their tails are twisted, their punch lines knock us out, their images tear up the rigid timetables, duty rosters and sealed Tupperwares of our daily existence. Poets are deviant and transgressive people. Which brings me to Colleen Higgs.
“In the opening poem of Lava Lamp she gives a self-portrait that is also the portrait of any highly-strung, highly sensitive artist – ‘tethered very lightly, if at all / a horse who only thinks she’s tied’ … ‘easily startled, flustered, worried or disturbed / not manageable even to myself’. She feels sometimes, ‘I could even slap strangers, / for no apparent reason’.
“This nervy, volatile sensibility runs through the poems in Lava Lamp – don’t be misled by the Hey-shoo-wow-chilled-out-in-Yeoville quality of the title. Many of these poems are shot through with the anxieties of family and history, particularly the late days of apartheid.
“Perhaps because I was a spectator and fringe participant of Rocky Street life at the end of the 80s, I’m particularly drawn to her poems ’1986′, ‘The Comfort of Parquet’, ‘My Yeoville’ and ‘From a Balcony’. 1986 was ‘the year of being under surveillance, even when you weren’t’, that was the decade of ‘warm bars, sexy strangers’, ‘the gloominess of jazz clubs’ where you might imagine leaning over to a stranger and kissing him, or waking up in his bed.
“Colleen captures the irony of feeling nostalgia for those end days which, despite their paranoia, held the happy riskiness of youth too: ‘I miss the Market Theatre, Jamesons, Kippies, Rumours, Scandalos / the Black Sun, film festivals, installations, walks in wet November/ streets late at night. But not the too finely tuned / anxiety of all that was going on and around me’. These poems don’t just use irony, they run on it, like a fuel.
“Your family can be thrown out of Lesotho, your nearest and dearest can be prone to drinking too much, sleeping too much; they may go mad and make your life impossible, but you still miss them, and your childhood and Lesotho.
“Both in these poems and in the last poems, ‘Notes from a New Country’, Colleen explores and wonders at the way anticipation gives way to disappointment. Standing on a balcony in Jo’burg, the speaker feels -
sexy and courageous in my short hair
and my new life ahead. All of this was visible to me
as I stood there, free and full of possibility,
inviting the new to flow into the empty space I was clearing
I didn’t see the pools of tears, the anguish
at leaving the stone house, the white stinkwood trees
which had grown tall and shady in the five years I knew them. I didn’t see the progressive rage I would feel about a vacuum cleaner
“In the same way, the innocence of hands held out to the infrared light in the first elections gives way to the troubling cynicism of official speeches at a 2007 conference at Munitoria, where ‘the speeches toed the party line and were padded with much friendly yet menacing goodwill.’
“There is a poem in Lava Lamp called ‘Other women’ which shows Colleen at her transgressive and deviant best. It’s a confession about slipping into the bedrooms of other women and trying a dab of their expensive creams – the moment the tub is opened, the poem is overwhelmed by a rush of Pandora-like images of her mother. But then the tub is sealed again and the poem ends quietly.
“And that’s how Colleen’s poems work – quietly, sneakily, subversively. She knows she’s shocking you with the girl who opens her brother’s head with a swing ball bat, with disclosures of a mother who sells Porn magazines, who has to be controlled, like a small, pettish dog, on a leash for the first time”. There is a beautiful arc of electricity when she ends her poem ‘My grandfather and other ancestors’ with ‘some of them are still alive’.
“The voice in these poems is rhythmic and mesmerising. Colleen has perfect diction and phrasing: the poems are easy to read not because their subject matter is light or easy, but because Colleen’s style holds the material up with the hidden roof-beams of weight-bearing language. Her voice is honest and wise, but without the staidness that you might dread from honesty wedded to wisdom. That’s because there’s another element at work here, which we could call the ‘burning R20 notes and the kitchen curtains’ element.
“The speaker in Colleen’s poems pretends that volatility is a thing of the past, but somehow we doubt it:
Yet it’s not like before where I’d flirt and invite the person for a drink
lend them a book, call them for some spurious reason.
It’s not like idly lighting a match
setting fire to a R20 note or the kitchen curtains
now I know for sure where these things lead.
“I love reading Colleen’s poetry. She is incapable of being boring or unoriginal or humdrum. She uses the lava lamp to calm down.”
Higgs read a selection of poems to an enchanted audience. She signed books for fans and friends, who enjoyed the wine, generously sponsored by Leopard’s Leap.
- Lava Lamp Poems: Colleen Higgs by
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