Reviews and commentary

Review by Kerry Hammerton, October 2022

What It Is 

an anthology by the Ecca Poets, Plettenberg Bay: 2020

On Twitter someone recently asked, ‘what is the job of a poet?’ One of the answers that resonated with me was ‘A poet’s job is about an attempt to create a silence in you, that you want to visit over and over again’ (tweeted by @MCayloBaradi). It made me think about my own writing and what I am interested in writing, and if my writing helps to create silences for myself and other people. It has also helped me to reflect on the poetry of the Ecca poets in their anthology What it is. The Ecca poets in this anthology are: Brian Walter, Olwethu Mxoli, Ed Burle, Silke Heiss, Alvené Appollis-du Plessis, Jacques Coetzee, John van Wyngaard, Cathal Lagan.

The poems in this anthology ask the reader to look at the world with a renewed view, it is poetry that explores the intersection of self with nature, with place, with history and ancestors, with others, with music, with writing, with fruit, with life. The Ecca poets are keen observers, the small moments that make up the strings of who we are come alive in their poems. They challenge the reader by asking us to examine thoughts and emotions. They are poets that create silences

One of the themes that I am exploring in my own writing, is nature. I was delighted to read the many poems in this anthology that have a deep connection to nature.

As an example, in Brian Walter’s ‘Watching dabchicks’ (the first poem in the anthology p1) we see dabchicks build their nests ‘making tentative islands’, it is a beautifully written poem about loss and captures a deep observance of nature. Other poems by Walter, ‘Common’ and ‘Crossing Ireland’ are two examples, further examine our connection to nature and our connection to each other. ‘Here’s the spot still: but my words/ can’t find you now.’ (from ‘Common’ p2).

Like many of the Ecca poets, Walter doesn’t shy away from talking about difficult situations, in the poem ‘Through the eye of needle’ (p7) the poet becomes reflective about himself, and how he can offer a friend who has cancer only sweets, but another friend, who is able to navigate this situation better, gives her a new needle for her record player. In the poem ‘Eating a naartjie we are taken not only into the eating of the fruit but the ideas it evokes, ‘just a moment’s paradise/…/ in this hard world of men.’ (p11)

Olwethu Mxoli’s style is direct and observes family, society and the self. She is matter of fact about hard-to-read scenes: ‘The water came and moved the houses, / it drowned the dogs and killed the neighbour.’ (from ‘Flood’ p13). There were many moments of silence after reading her poems. Mxoli also writes beautiful poems of longing, ‘Your face is a soft memory/ I hold to my mouth/ like a dripping orange’ (‘With Me’ p19). Her poems are often tinged with surrealness ‘I visit the museum of my mistakes/ and dutifully heed the signs not to touch’ (from ‘Museum’ p14).

There is a deceptive simplicity of language and form in Ed Burle’s poems where he investigates big topics of love, and longing, and being, as well as writing keenly about the everyday world.  I was particularly struck by the poem ‘The ducks’ (p30) where ‘beside the highway and its fumes/…/  a pair of ducks/…/ are getting on with their lives.’ Burle also asks us to consider ‘Who am I when I am silent, silenced, and this spool of words, like a sinking vessel, is abandoned?’ (Question, p35). Our loadshedding woes also get a mention in ‘At least the birds’ (p34), ‘at least the birds/ don’t need Eskom.’

Another of the Ecca poets that writes about our connection to nature is Silke Heiss. Her poem ‘Never so close’ (p37) is poignant and reflects on a scene where the I in the poem sees dolphins close to a place where she had spent time with a loved one. There are birds, flowers, sea creatures in her poems, I particularly liked ‘Passenger poem’ (p41) where ‘The grey heron ships by /…/ sails flapping’, and ‘Water Lily’ (p39) where ‘The lily on the water/ is a castle’. Heiss, as you can see from these examples, uses pertinent and thoughtful similes and metaphors to show the reader nature and the world in a new way. A favourite poem from the anthology is Heiss’ poem ‘It doesn’t’ (p46) where she takes the reader from debating with her father and friends, to porcupines, to love and finally to the notion that all of these things ‘changes nothing, nothing/ at all.’

Alvené Appollis-du Plessis plunges us into a multilingual world of English, Afrikaans and Kaaps. ‘My naam is Ester’ (p47) is a poem that you will laugh with, although it is reflective of a hard life ‘en ek is maa’ net ‘n kind/ van ‘n mammie wat werk soek/ en ‘n daddy wat drink.’ Appollis-du Plessis also asks us to reflect what on it means to be a writer and a poet ‘Sometimes/ poets hate poetry’ (‘Sometimes’, p50). Her poem ‘Om lief te hê (p49) is both sad and beautiful ‘Dis die kap van die teelepel/ teen die wand van jou beker’.

“A full mouth of words” is how I want to describe Jacques Coetzee’s poetry. Coetzee is a lyrical poet, a storyteller, and through his storytelling takes us deep into emotion and being. Consider the poem ‘The seed’ (p64) and the lines ‘I wanted to paint the night sky for you, …/… to remind us never to be small.’ And the poem ‘Restraint’ (p54) ‘I was singing, just for the hell of it;/ drunk on a song that went right through me/ from nowhere to nowhere’.

John van Wyngaard’s poems take us back to moments in our recent history (lockdown) that many of us would like to forget, but poets are tricky like that, holding up a mirror and allowing us to re-experience events. ‘…under Lockdown. the store is dumb, now; out like a blown bulb’ (Lockdown bottlestore blues, p70).  Van Wyngaard’s poem ‘Hadeda and sacred ibis’ (p72) is a poem that I appreciated, asking the question if the two birds are really related, the hadeda ‘waking us, waking everything, shouting’, and the ibis ‘circle like cardinals/…/broadcasting prayers and benedictions’. The poem ‘Naartjie’ (p75) with its opening line ‘No, I can’t write a poem to praise you’ is another delightful poem that goes on to say ‘You’re tinctured spring water/ with citrus notes’, and ends with ‘You looked sweeter with your clothes on’.

Many of Cathal Lagan’s poems have a link to literature, like the poem ‘When I go’ (p82), phrases like ‘late or soon’ and ‘into that Good Night’ take us into a rich connected world of writing. You will have to read the poem to find out how Lagan wants to go. ‘During the ‘flu’ (p81) the I of the poem reads Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, ‘which filled me with old fidelities/ and a new approach to stress’. Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” is used to great effect in two different poems, ‘Waiting’ (p78) where the I declares ‘I’ve been happening/ for some time now,/ and I am pleased to say/ that happenstance has become/ my way of life’. In ‘First tutorial’ (p80) ‘we dive into the poem’s bewilderment/ of words, move in silences, and surface/ breathless.’

At the beginning of this review, I reflected on the question ‘what is the job of a poet?’, there is a parallel question to this ‘what is the job of a poem (or more generically poetry)?’ As a poet I know that once I have written and published a poem it is no longer mine and belongs to itself and its readers. I love this quote by Welsh poet Jonathan Edwards, ‘It’s the job of poetry to speak for us what we can’t, to articulate things that are among those which are the mostly deeply felt and the most unsayable’.

I want to invite you to find the Ecca poets’ anthologies (there is more than one) and read the poems, and the different voices and viewpoints, and discover the silences within yourself, and how poetry can articulate that which is deeply felt.

Review by Marike Beyers, December 2019
Staying Hungry by the ECCA Poets
Hogsback: Ecca

Staying Hungry is the 2019 anthology published by the ECCA Poets – a group of mainly Eastern Cape writers who put forward the first of these in July 1989, a good 30 years ago! Originating from an art and writers’ group at Fort Hare, Alice, the group has since lost members, but also expanded, including more voices from further afield. Each poet is given a generous portion of the book and, broadly speaking, shares a sense of keen observation of the world and their own responses within it and a concern with expression, mostly in the form of writing itself.

Brian Walter, who recently published a new collection Allegories of the Everyday, opens the anthology. These poems convey a reflective and somewhat mournful tone. Walter subtly interchanges free verse elements with formal structures such as stanzas that echo each other and a quiet rhyme and rhythm, slipping into the concern with poetry-making within the poems: In ‘Marching’ the speaker smiles fondly at children’s choices between the simple rhythm of a school drill and “our fine irony” in poetry. Music and writing poetry are the subject of other poems too; I am particularly fond of ‘Paganini in Helenvale’, a poem in couplets where the rough world of the young people waits on rain and words “hanging in the air / like a fresh sadness” to settle
dripping as the violin bows,

along the gangster pavements
each child here knows.
The poet also thinks about other forms of representing the world and one’s perceptions – ‘Enfolding’ is a longer poem full of the colours of painting. The everyday world of the speaker concerns children trying to find their way in the “gun streets, up and down streets / the old-young men listless streets”, reflections on the past “leaving long shadows”, visiting his mother, feeling wordless with a stranger singing his loss at a bar. “I have no easy words”, the poet says, but shapes his to encounters with others in a dry and gangster world, to bring them “in the sight / of the poetry eye”.

Olwethu Mxoli brings a fresh and direct voice to the page. Her poems speak with immediacy about difficult dimensions of experience. Among these are grief, described as a limb that “just hangs there” and depression. The latter is particularly vivid in the poems ‘Today’ and ‘Being okay’, setting up a self-judgment against an expectation of how one should be. In ‘Being okay’ she uses the line spacing effectively to mimic what is contained emotionally against slipping into spillage when she describes preparing to face the world in dressing with
… a scrupulous headwrap
tied tightly and high to keep all the darkness
out of my
and tainting the sky.
Violence against women is addressed in, among others, ‘Exhibit A’, a poem that presents a trial as an orgy, thereby demonstrating the position of the victim as display case, and ‘Live feed’ that forwards the presence of social media. There is a rage and helplessness in writing about being young and black, an awareness of the precariousness of identity in a world where education goes with a different kind of cultural immersion. In ‘Mother tongue’ she writes about no longer being fluent enough in isiXhosa to relate comfortably with her parents, repeating the unease stanza by stanza, until “I don’t say much anymore”. The poem ‘Blackness’ presents itself as an answer to “You ask me what blackness means”. It is not a comfortable poem, partly because the speaker turns it to interrogate her own position:
At night, in the quiet comfort of suburbia
in my perfect accent
I wonder how black I am
without suffering.
Blackness is also guilt.
It is also apologizing
for not starving.
It is a hard thing to hear, to listen into pain so bound into time and others and self and us as South Africans.

Ed Burle’s contributions are mostly bite-sized observations. There are a few poems where he works his precise observations into a narrative, such as ‘Tren a Barcelona’ about two passengers falling asleep together on a train and ‘Held’, where a moment is stretched into a memory from repeating the opening line “A man leaning in a doorway” stanza by stanza. The short poems sometimes take as subject memory or observations of nature. In my opinion, some of them are so short as to present an image unconnected, almost like seeing a photo from a stranger’s album without context, some even appear to be grammatically incomplete. To me it feels as if they could be starting points to something else, perhaps counter-intuitively given their brevity, to story. ‘Excerpts from a writer’s museum’ seems to bring together some of the concern with memory, the given, and gestures to reach out into an eerie narrative – almost a ghost story. The short poems, close to haikus, work best when they become aphorisms in their succinct wisdom, for example:
Smiling cashier –
no trace of the visions
that bleed through her dreams.

The everyday presented in Silke Heiss’ poems spring from meetings with family, friends, chance encounters, for example a conversation with a cashier at Pick n Pay, and where she finds herself. Her world is filled with people and creatures, all presented as selves – blue cranes “disappeared / their blue selves into the sky”; recovering her health, her mother finds new dignity in the mirror – “the image now / of her lovely old / self” and, finding herself in a home with a boomslang, the poet considers “a space replete with hideouts / for sleek selves”. To me ‘Lessons in hand’ represents the lively interest in the natural world and spontaneous creation of meaning from everyday occurrences prevalent in her poems. Moving around carefully, minding the snake at home, the poet finds the boomslang on a shutter, from where “he turns, leaps / like a graph of himself”. This turning the snake into an image of something drawn, written, continues in her reflections:
Let me read this event
as if I were blind.
Let me like him be feeling
my entire length
a sole – the body one extended foot,
feeding on the Braille
of surfaces.
Heiss, too, recently published a book – Greater Matter, reading meaning and her experiences in the wake of the illness and death of her husband, the poet Norman Morrissey.

Lara Kirsten’s poetry has grown in depth since my previous encounters with her work. She mainly writes in Afrikaans, but there are two English poems among her contributions in Staying Hungry. Of these, ‘stridulate’ offers the English reader a taste of her offerings in Afrikaans, as it also plays a great deal with the visceral experience of sound in writing and performing poetry. The poem introduces a newly learnt word – relating to insects producing sounds by rubbing their wings together –  and with this the poet flies “with its sizzling syllables / right into / the dusky corner of this poem”. She then expands it into an extended image for the writing of poetry, including onomatopoeia:
with resonant surety
the verses begin to rub against each other
and a soft vibration begins to spark the silence
Her poems in this anthology are preoccupied with the need and techniques of writing poetry. She seems to take joy in in-line rhymes and alliterative lines of stacked words rushing forward with an energetic sense of ‘do this!’ Describing her mouth as her tools, her place of industry to make poems, she states her joy as unmatched:
geen groter digtersjolyt!
met net hierdie enkele mond
maak ek my wêreld rond en bont
However, poems like ‘oëverblindery’ and ‘trekkrag’ also question the sources and techniques of poetry – as tricks, on the one hand, and struggle, on the other. Art, Kirsten reflects, does not come from harmony, as people seem to think, but from resistance. Creativity, she insists “moet trekkrag hê / vassuigend, vasstekend / vas geanker in `n hittige halsstarrigheid.”

Jacques Coetzee uses his poetry to reflect on his life, make “accessible at a moment’s notice” memories and moments of selfhood. The poems ask questions about the emotional and personal legacy we inherit from our parents. There are several poems on the deathbed of his father and one can hear the father in the poet’s recall: “One of the last things you said was: ‘Give that boy a chair, he’s in his own way.’” The poet probes his own sense of being in the world in relation to his father:
I can never be quite sure
if it’s me who says yes or no,
who keeps faith or breaks it,
trying always to learn
what it means to call you father in this world,
to call myself your son.
Coetzee’s poems are all in a direct first-person speaker, telling and thinking about incidents in his life – hospital visits, attending a class, listening to the experience of a student, remembering going down a water-slide as a child, facing his graceless response to the man who let him go for free, commemorating love and friendship. The poet often conflates writing poetry and music or song to reach for an inner truth and harmony through art. For example, he holds on to lines from Ingeborg Bachman “as if / they can coax / my timid, over-educated words / into wildness; can hinge me into song” and ends his tribute to a friend with this echo – “because of the songs / that still have to be sung”. The poem ‘Narrow songs’ uses the image of singing to speak about the value of what making art is about (perhaps one can call it getting out of one’s own way):
I bring you these long, narrow songs –
a ladder going inwards and down
the steep, narrow ladder of words and music
leading down
into the loneliness and courage
of the body each day.

John van Wyngaard provides a dash of satire, making fun of his ailments in ‘Geriatric rap’ and putting several twists in the oh-so-sincere sphere of poetry events in ‘At the poetry reading group’. The poem ‘Addo’ starts out with a comment on game farm fences – “tall posts, steel cables, electrified / - built to keep the orchards out”, but takes the subject of elephants with a gracious beauty: “They’re a dark shadow breathing together / in all the hard light of this moment” and a respectful acknowledgement of their otherness in the world:
No. Put down your bag
of words and images, and witness this.
They simply are, here.
Elephants, leaning together.
Living the absolute of their own company.
Other poems on making are ‘On writing a poem’ and ‘Making dress’, seeing the person making it “full of imagining / how this flattened nothing will come to fill out” – visualizing the act of creation. There is a sense of connection with people in Van Wyngaard’s work – the amused presentation of the speaker’s endeavors, the tender ‘To Caro, far away’ on missing his absent beloved in the small details of a day, such as sharing fruit for their muesli and ‘Skin’, dedicated to Norman [Morrissey] on the vulnerability of being alive.

Something of that sense of community between the poets in Staying Hungry is also conveyed in that Heiss gives a poem – ‘Did not blot’ – on the death of Cathal Lagan’s son. “I could hurt // with you, and jot this / down”. Lagan’s poem on this death, ‘You died’, speaks about the presence of the experience of absence:
You died
but the clock still ticks,
mail for you is still delivered
and we half expect
you’re still around
the next corner.
Ending the line on “still around” allows one to read the absence in this renewed sense of loss, as if there was some hide-and-seek going on. Lagan’s other poem ‘Quae est ista?’ uses a liturgical text on Mary to meditate on mystery, on what remains hidden, sealed. Perhaps much of making, poetry, dresses, art and observation is to reach past what remains hidden, sealed and perhaps it is a particular quiet that can also hold what remains sealed before one.

Staying Hungry provides quite a range of poems. Each poet is in effect given about 15 pages of contributions. It occurred to me that this is almost a chapbook of poems per poet published annually and I wondered about the different kinds of affirmation or readings that arise from this mode of publication. Choosing to share work in an anthology requires more cooperation in the production side of it and perhaps remains a supportive platform for the poets who then write and publish as a community. Some of this is suggested by Van Wyngaard’s poem on the mystery (the waiting and wrestling) of engaging with a poem,  serving as a conclusion:
Neither of you can know what you want to say,
Or be, or become, or whether you ever will,
Until it says itself, so some dialogue can play
And conversation begins, and goes on…

Reviewer: Marike Beyers
Curator: Amazwi South African Museum of Literature
The opinions expressed in this review are the reviewer’s and should not be taken to represent Amazwi.

* * *

Ecca Poets: This Moment’s Marrow
A reader’s impression by René Bohnen
January 2019

What is marrow? This question spontaneously pops up as I hold the 2017 publication of the Ecca Poets – their 20th book in 25 years. This edition, This Moment’s Marrow, offers the reader  an eclectic group of poets in an anthology which makes for an enriching read.

So what is marrow? Dictionaries present definitions we know so well that we probably seldom pause to think about the profound meaning of the word.
Marrow is “a soft fatty substance in the cavities of bones” the internet offers, and also “ the essential part of something”.  Synonyms given are: “essence, core, pith” and “heart”.

In the reading of This Moment’s Marrow,  I discover and experience the whole spectrum of these dictionary entries.

The anthology title is taken from a Norman Morrissey poem on page 26.

A dove called,
and I’d a vision
of our lithe boomslang

up in the cherry tree:
the Holy Ghost
and the hero

winding Hippocrates’ staff of healing
in one grasp
of thought:

old myths, symbols
in this moment’s marrow.

All of the Morrissey poems in this anthology show an accomplished poet at his task. Strong pastoral imagery, bursting with life, alternates with delicate vignettes of tenderness and tranquil silence.

Norman Morrissey passed away in July 2017 and has left a rich literary legacy. Like the butterfly shows us the breeze, this poet shows us wisdom. (Page 24)


You knew there was a breeze
because the butterflies


According to the Preface, the poets have had “no real aspirations or manifestos” and their books will hopefully always have “a workshop feel” (Brian Walter on page 1)

If the function of marrow is to generate blood cells, the vital role of Ecca get-togethers is evident. Nurturing and giving oxygen, the group promotes growth in individual poets. All have successfully made their own paths as well – since paths are made by walking, as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado so succinctly put it.

Brian Walter is a poet who is firmly in touch with the soil and he walks in acute awareness of all creatures and the landscape they inhabit. Inseparably entwined, man’s soul breathes through nature and the poet keenly observes.

            It’s birds.
            Always birds.

            When we scattered my father’s ashes
beneath a cycad in the Hogsback –

            the last of him lying in flakes
            of grey ash on the rich dark soil –

            we turned to watch a Knysna lourie
            drop onto a nearby branch,

            then wing off, flashing an old-world red –
            “There he is, it’s okay,” my mother said.

            Now, as my friend lies dying,
            my heart breaking with his breath,

that Cape robin that’s been around
comes right indoors, and boldly hops

across the kitchen floor: “umcelu,”
Fundi whispers, “a bird of good chance.”

And thus I think of you,
your last breaths reaching out

on bird-wings,
tilting bright-eyes,

being around,
saying goodbyes.

This is no lyrical poetry of pastoral romanticism; on page 4 the poet also writes
            let nature play
            at being normal

Adept at the use of sound elements and occasional rhyme, warnings and observations of damage done to the planet and to fellow human beings are written down so as to indeed chill the reader to the marrow. An example of this is when a newspaper-child becomes personal: (page 10)

                        Who made up a heaven of our misery
                        - Blake

In my study hangs a picture
I cut from a newspaper, cut
out and mounted,

of an Afghan child who wails
on his father’s shoulder
with troubles in their land

– seeming so akin
to my own son weeping
his innocent, unscathed sorrow.

I keep it here, close to hand,
in a silent pledge that echoes
again and again

never – whatever temptation,
or championed occasion –
to feel with righteous males

– of any persuasion –
whose triumph is borrowed
from childhood pain.

Children and babies feed the marrow of a mother’s soul, as they do that of the poet. 

            When I fell
            with you I fell

            into new makings,
            poems would wake me”

writes Silke Heiss in “Kept up” on page 27. She is a poet who understands the exquisite tension that is created by holding two polarities at once. I give you the example on page 29, where a surprising contradiction alerts the reader to a vast truth held within a small poem:


Mist is
a revelation,
a happy Gossip –

tells all
where air has been –
is going to.

Almost haiku-like, the short poems sigh with insight and meaning; they show Heiss to be a master of cutting right to the essence of her observation. In her longer poems, she displays an instinctive grasp of the objective correlative, by evoking strong emotion in the reader without annoying prescription. On page 29 we find the

            Wood Owl

            I go outside to fetch some kindling,
            my blankets snag on branches dry –
            unwitting I catch them with the twigs I’m breaking:
            they whirr and cough and patter and sigh.

            Panic I subdue with patience,
            pull away gently, sensing why.
            Free at last I fill the box,
but am lost in the dark by the Wood owl’s cry.

Manipulation of words themselves is the great joy of the poet and Lara Kirsten indulges in an often playful, always original, manner. She is a concert pianist and a performance poet. This poem on page 49 shows her body-intelligence as well as love for cavorting in a landscape of sound.


            i learnt a new word today
                brachiate –
                     to progress by swinging from hold to hold by the arms

            i suddenly have the desire
            to brachiate between the poem’s stanzas
            never to touch the ground
            never to reach the end of the poem

            forever swinging till my arms grow wings
            and i fly for evermore in the versified sky

Kirsten also has some Afrikaans poems in the anthology. These are a poignant narrative of loss and grieving in which the heartbroken subject yields to the finality of death. There are longer poems well worth reading; I have space only for a shorter one here. (page 45)

            ek het nooit gewaag om jou te roep
            toe jy gelewe het
            maar nou in jou dood roep ek jou
            – my keelspiere trek in snikkende bulte –
            nou roep ek jou
            dat jy my wenende verlange kan hoor

Loss and sorrow are found wherever relationships exist. The poets explore the vast spaces between people, the coming together, the touching. Alvené Appollis-du Plessis shows that such contact without pain is momentarily possible. The Afrikaans poem on page 65 reads:


            In jou eenvoud
            is jy spatsels groen en rooi
            soos graspolle en bloed
            op my skilderdoek.

            Jy smeer jouself met sterk hale oor my
            en ryg jou smarag-skarlaken
            in my,
            netjies gepatroon

            sonder letsels.

The poet uses delightfully fresh line breaks to emphasize actions and effects of actions. Vividly visual, the poem is deceptively simple. Love will often be lost, Appollis-du Plessis also writes. Be it between friends, lovers, or parents and children, the ties may be temporary. Truly dwelling in a moment can create an eternity, though, she makes us see. (page 69)

            The stars will witness

These warm winter nights
are made for kissing,
softly deep
as the wind gently gushes against my skin,
the same way your fingers filter
through my lily dress,
bringing my womb, my heart to life
under these stars
gazing witness
to the tremors of my soul
engulfed by your body.

Memories too, transcend time and can even bring our almost-lost selves back to us. Jacques Coetzee paints a stirring picture of the comfort and purpose a younger self can offer the adult poet. We see that both need instruction and above all, to be held lovingly.

            The days of 1999                            (page 56)

            He would come home, already half-drunk
in the middle of a winter afternoon;
would sit down in front of his computer screen
and dream of poems, but never write a word.

He would feel the wine course through his body,
remember the ebb and flow of the talk
at the table where he’d sat;
how he’d eased himself into a different state of being
from which, he thought, words must come.

But no words ever came; only the hiss
of his own blood in his ears,
as of the sea far away.

It is because of him that I write;
because of his helplessness, the eagerness
of his young body, which is no longer mine;
because of the words he longed for there,
behind the screen, the words of experience
he was too young to find;
because of nights like these, when I walk out
with a clear head, into these sober streets,
hoping still to find him.

Coetzee employs a strong musicality to convey his ideas and in so doing, he changes a usually ordinary world into an audible experience even while the reader is silently reading the words on paper. Often advancing an attitude of instinctive living, this poet also addresses social issues in a manner that is integrated with a certain lyrical quality. Thus he avoids sentimentality, turns away from the one-dimensional.

            “Thinking’s no good; thought
is a tiny insect circling
something for which your language has no word
pulled by a hand, a mind that was never yours.

Outside someone is singing
for joy, someone is lifting
dishevelled praises through city smog;
someone is dancing naked in the sun,
knowing it will set, and so what”
                                          (from “Here”, page 52)

The bright sun is less present in the poems of Cathal Lagan. Often moving back to events and times in Ireland, his work is filled with a meditative water element – rains and rivers, specifically. The impressionistic moment brings the reader to a standstill in Lagan’s poem “Memory”. (page 73) and activates similar flashbacks to a childhood in another time altogether.


The memory of three coins,
musical pennies in my pocket,
and I am king of the village,
walking through November leaves
on the way to the shop
of hearts and peppermints
and cloud-spun sugar sweetness
under the greying sky.

Perhaps memory is even pliable, fluid like water and as elusive too. Lagan approaches serious matters with a light touch and a subtly playful manner; making archetypes into familiar characters (or is it the other way round?) as he writes about a grave-digger and we have to vaguely remember those diggers in Hamlet, Act V.

With Lagan, the small is the profound. Imagery is concise and he paints the watercolours with a loaded brush while he smiles into the space of compassion.

            All souls                                    (page 71)

The hot water bottle chuckled
and fell on the floor,
and I fell asleep,
and must have by chance
taken it into my dream
of laughing old men
reminiscing at the wake
on the ways of the dead one
and the laughter was for them,
and for me,
and for all who read this.

And all who read here are gathered together in the shared marrow of the moment. From small sketches and short narratives (p 73)  to an all-encompassing primal wholeness (p 69), right up to the shards and sparks of the creative process that feeds and burns the poet (p 49), this is an anthology of Studium and Punctum, as Roland Barthes described it for photography. (Studium is the element that initially gets your attention. It can be colors, a cool background, a pose, really anything. But the punctum is what Roland describes as the thing that "pricks or bruises." It's that rare detail that makes the viewer feel something and pushes the photo even further. - Wikipedia)

Basking in the wisdom of the imperfect, embracing the beauty of imperfection, This Moment’s Marrow is a rewarding read and often just perfect. May the Ecca Poets keep on going on, may the bones never be sucked dry.


Review by Peter Merrington, November 2016
Sound Piping and Gold in Spring
Ecca, Hogsback, 2015 and 2016
ISBN 978-0-620-66405-9 and  ISBN 978-0-620-72983-3

The Ecca poets of the Eastern Cape have two new collections. Sound Piping (2015), and Gold in Spring (2016) represent the local group of Brian Walter, Norman Morrissey, Silke Heiss, Lara Kirsten, Alvené Appollis-du Plessis and Cathal Lagan. Eduard Burle of Cape Town joins them, in Sound Piping; and John van Wyngaard, in Gold in Spring.

Their name, Ecca, is the name of a mountain pass that links Grahamstown with Fort Beaufort – a name derived from Khoi, meaning brack or bitter water. Ecca – or Marah perhaps, the proverbial bitter water in the desert, made sweet and drinkable – maybe a metaphor for art itself. In the well-spring of these books there is salt or tang or pang, of return or distance and separation, or small but striking confrontations. And the poets aerate and distil the waters, through secondary engagement.

On the shelf in front of me is a pair of creamy chinaware book-ends – two tonsured monks bent over china volumes on their laps. It's similar with Sound Piping and Gold in Spring: their contents are contained, obverse and reverse, by the work of two experienced book-men and poets, Brian Walter and Cathal Lagan.

Brian Walter is a master of the natural and pointed rhythm of the line (variation of pause and emphasis). He speaks to his subjects with a kind of spare and curious interest. It's almost what we might call 'metaphysical wit' (in the late sixteenth-century sense, updated into here-and-now, in Southern Africa). It's crystal-clear reason of thought and feeling, and it wakens like fresh astringent mountain waters. It's effective and masterly poetics. His poems rightly open each volume, and set the tone. Keen and piquant, alert and striking, freshly pointed by strong art.

Cathal Lagan's warm voice speaks in private confidences, about long experience – here and in other lands. It's engaging, inviting us to listen. There's natural assurance in the rhythmic open intimacy. He's a conversationalist in verse. Like Walter, he's got an accustomed feel for the discursive flow – the unfolding run of speech as it flows and pauses, turns outward, points things out, and turns with assurance inward again. It's worldly-wise with concern and fondness – knowing, understanding, and kind and stern and interested. It's also, at times, deep quiet pain of return or departure, folded into his rhythmic voice. It's Marah, sweetened with generosity and experience and sylleptic wit. One feels safe, against time and darkness, in Lagan's hands.

Silke Heiss is a discursive explorer or pioneer, addressing absent friends, her self, her present circumstances, in dialogic poems, intimate address, interrogation, or open seeking. She speaks with authenticity of her own sudden-turning wheel of life (time, place and person). There's moral and emotional courage in this change-management (life and art as work-in-process) and evolving newness. She's a mother, lover, maker, carer, writer, reaching out for dialogue or answers, to disentangle and process things, and regroup, with both plea and pledge.

Ed Burle is a master of the brisk poetics of the ironic forms of thought and response. He's a strong poet. All these writers bring tentative lips to the cup of Marah (that's the South African way where not one of us can – perhaps even do not wish to – claim assurance of cultural or poetic identity in a hybrid land), but Ed Burle does what strong poets do – he makes his own tenacious thought-forms, and they stand up and assert themselves. There's confidence in the forms of his avowed expression of uncertainties. It's a strong grip on an original and well-wrought cup.

Norman Morrissey offers a contrary cup to Burle – it's imagist, observing the reflection of images in the water. As in Zen, they manifest and go. He holds them, and he releases. With Walter and Lagan he's one of the original and much-published Ecca poets. His mature voice dissolves years. He writes of past and present epiphanic moments, and he bridges the years from when we learnt to let go, in the 1970s, of old forms and sentiments; and he keeps those clear waters fresh. It's dappled and transient, and it flows around the stones that impede – the troubled moments – rough-scaled pike or carp that rise and snap.

Lara Kirsten and Alvené Appollis-du-Plessis write in Afrikaans save for one or two poems, and while this reviewer is functionally bilingual he can't adequately respond. Lara Kirsten's English-language poem 'In the dappled pine forest a lost parachute grips the needy leaves' (Sound Piping) is an astonishing and engaging surrealist piece (though the English idiom where she speaks directly of abstract concepts isn't as grainy as in Afrikaans). The free-wheeling surrealist movement of images appears again in her Afrikaans poems. It's innovative, like diving into a mountain pool and finding, down below, a provocative Karoo-mermaid trove of teasing Protean things.

Alvené Appollis-du-Plessis writes of bitter situations in clear extended metaphors, in strong simple taal. Loss, blood, rue and challenge, in direct address. It's unremitting authenticity in strong stark images, with potent focus. She confirms my idle thoughts on brak water – In her poem 'Bitterlief' (in Sound Piping) she writes, 'jou liefde proe bitter soos Mara'. 'Augustus'  in Gold in Spring and 'Vir Clement' in Sound Piping are very good examples of the tightly-knit play of metonymy and metaphor.

John van Wyngaard is wonderfully refreshing – a natural modern idiomatic free-wheeling voice, that speaks of ordinary and suburban moments – motorcycle lessons, a cancer shavathon, a hospital ward, retirement, cooking, and the like. He's wide-awake, direct, witty, engaged and liberated. His address 'To Philip Larkin' in Gold in Spring is puckish, exact and wicked approbation.

Ecca – Marah – from Bitterfontein to Soetwater – the poets in these two volumes dip the bowl and taste, and mix and blend and offer. Try it, reader, from this well-turned bowl of olive wood – it's quiet, wry, gentle or insistent, meditative, and precise. It's their own pharmacopia. Small personal and biting things – the tang of turksvy or healing aloe on the tongue.

Both books are attractively made. Norman Morrissey is the editor. The artwork on the covers is designed by Silke Heiss. The front cover of Gold in Spring is beautiful and I'm tempted to cut if off and mount it as an image. The books are published under the imprint of Ecca, Hogsback (2015; 2016).œ 


Dr Peter Merrington taught literary studies and has published research essays in Theatre Journal (USA), the SA Theatre Journal, Journal of Southern African Studies, and elsewhere, as well as poems and short stories in New Contrast, New Letters, and Imago. He has won a number of research awards, including Oppenheimer fellowships to SOAS, London and to Oxford University, and received the English Academy of South Africa’s Pringle Prize for fiction in 1996 and for a research article in 2000. His novels, Zebra Crossings (2008) and Zombie and the Moon (2011) have won wide critical acclaim. On his LinkedIn profile, he lists his specialities as “English Literature, literary historical research, Latin and Greek classics, heritage, teaching creative writing, motorcycle restoration, ceramics”. Find out more about him on and


Review by Marike Beyers, June 2014
This questioning terrain 
Ecca, Hogsback
ISBN: 978-0-620-60529-8

This questioning terrain is the 17th anthology of poetry by the ECCA poets – an Eastern Cape collective who support each other’s writing. Themes of looking at the world we live in and the people we share it with run throughout the book - fragile and damaging, detaching, immersing, wondering – the attempts to find words that become the questioning.
Brian Walter’s poems reflect on our position towards nature but also on being human within a history of humanity. His scope is broad, from an African violet in his garden to “Ngugi’s quests” and “wise women survivors”; from classical heroines finding a journey to life in Shakespeare to the death camp in Auschwitz “to feel/each thin shade’s story”; to a local political rally blaring loudhailers and promises. There is a movement between the past and a “Now thirty years on” – a careful reflection on what it means to be alive with others in a world - being seen by a blind woman, mourning a dead friend, finding new ways of belonging. On the surface the poem ‘Breakdown’ might be about killing a nest of “seven looking-up-at-me baby rats” in the home, but its compelling pace forwards presents a conundrum between thought and act, a slippery field of ideas and being in the world where poetry ventures.
The title of the anthology takes its name from his poem ‘Primal’ – the speaker observes a group of baboons while with friends. He draws a likeness between the baboons instinctual way of being in their environment and people’s instinctual way of searching for meaning, an exploration central to being and surviving
…                                             my mind
snatches at each grub our words turn up
as we cross this questioning terrain   (from ‘Primal’)
Two of Norman Morrissey’s poems are formally addressed as nods of respect, a farewell to people honoured – Colin Gardner and Seamus Heaney. Other poems have a lighter touch, smiling gently on children absorbed in their cell phones along the road and the cares of close friends and family, reflecting on the seasons and aging. Formally, most of these poems are presented as triplets. There is the small noticing of details - comfort in the body, the “strawberry shirt your mother wore”, the importance of making a gift, marvelling in another’s friendship. In a new context he returns web as a verb: “you talk of your day/- the friends you webbed”. This also reflects the interest in wording, in searching for expression for the web of the world around us, the wish to catch the right words, even if they slip away.
I sit,
— no glint
In this anthology Silke Heiss seems to find a sense of home in Hogsback. Though interwoven with relationships – care for the beloved in illness, pride in a son, joyful inclusion of strangers, guidance to children, there is a particular focus on Hogsback landscape and places. Except for the formal butterfly poem titled ‘Pedestrian’ using a mirroring rhyme scheme, most of her poems are either couplets or triplets with a flexible line expanding into long lines with alliterative bite and short lines tidying into an emotional focus. Though one wonders how a series of poems starts with one declaring the poet no longer interested in writing  
The pen no longer comforts me, 
I seem to be over, somehow.
The whole concept of ‘I’
has come to be redundant      (from ‘Somehow I don’t care’)
 - there is something serious and gentle in the sense of reconsidering selfhood within a new way of being with another.
Eight of Lara Kirsten’s poems in the anthology are in Afrikaans and have the tone of being mainly performance poetry. Hers is a poetry of larger statements, greater wordiness, a sense of exuberance - non-containment with a note of defiance and informality – this is what’s important to me! Celebrating life in its senses of seclusion, togetherness and turmoil, connecting with natural processes, being in love, accepting and making claims on people from the past and present. Her interest in words is also clear in her playful English poem full of portmanteau words ‘our worryphernalia knows only dutbinfinity’. There’s a lovely humour poking tongue-in-the-cheek at over-seriousness in this poem:
“ah, come on, what has happened to your blisschievousness?
our tongues need to return to their original tasticality”
Alvené Du Plessis’ poetry is of a quieter kind. There is a slightly nostalgic look towards childhood, growing up in the countryside, learning to read. There is also a sense of belonging and responsibility towards this land in the South where she finds herself – difficult memories of someone murdered, unacknowledged love, being far away from home and a surprising poem in the form of a letter to her nanny. Surprising in the chaos it allows, how what could sound like a list of complaints is transformed into an exchange of gratitude for love for a child. Du Plessis too has a poem on writing, but here too a reversal in my reading – the impression is that it is not so much poems scrunched up in a drawer, but life that ends up discarded & forgotten
in die onderste laai van my lessenaar
met halfgeëte brood
en koekies
wat ek vergeet het
om vir die hond te gooi          (from: ‘Oorskiet’)
Cathal Lagan too brings tribute to Seamus Heaney with an image of the great Irish poet’s heritage – his connection with rural villages, the humility of leaving as physical memento, his jacket over a chair (‘The chair’). His poems in the anthology speak of a childhood in Ireland and finding himself elsewhere. A life change is described in the poem ‘Baptism’, which is concerned with the “the edge of mystery” recognisable in anyone’s life - a spiritual, geographic and linguistic transformation. His is a light touch with gentleness and humour.
Lagan’s lines hold moments, thoughts, consolations and disturbances in harmony. There is the question of the consolation of words and also the inability of words to reach. He uses the rituals of Christianity to explore this complex relationship with words in ‘Found in translation’ and in ‘Cemetery’, wondering if words in a foreign language “tough/and magical” might ironically do what rationality cannot - “bring [the heart] near to mystery/passing/all understanding”.
Mystical is the moment held in words where he describes a dolphin – “sculpture out of water” – for a moment:
nothing extraneous,
for water knows
its shapes; countless
fingers of water
hold the instant           (from: ‘Dolphin’)
Nothing extraneous - holding the instant. Yet he is perhaps the most aware of the limitations of words. ‘Persona’ (with the poet as dog) presents a darker note on the role of the poet - “Let him  be the poet proper…” as social critic, harbinger of the new, the beautiful commitments…
ringing in the new,
stretching the leash
Indeed a questioning terrain – this searching for where and who we are. We all have to find our own way to do this - the ECCA poets choose writing as one way of looking, of holding what is past, and what is becoming within a present homecoming.

Praise for the Ecca Poets' 2013 publication and readings 

"A finely balanced blend of distinctive voices from the Eastern Cape" – Andrew Stevens, Senior lecturer, Education Department, Rhodes University

"This is a multi-faceted collection that takes the reader on a journey through the harsh realities of nature (and ourselves), the intimacy of relationships and the dilemma of the poet." – Ruth Woudstra in Grocott's Mail 26th March 2013

"Thank you for a truly wonderful evening. [...] I shared some of the Afrikaans poems with Mrs Snyman and she would love a copy of the anthology." – Andrew Renard, English teacher. St. Andrew's College, on the launch of Unplanned Hour on 9.3.2013 in Grahamstown

"Yes, I would like a copy of Unplanned Hour. I have always enjoyed the Ecca Poets very much." – Lynette Paterson, Chair of the Shakespearean Society, Grahamstown


The Ecca poets launched their newest book Unplanned Hour in Grahamstown on the 9th of March 2013. This year sees the most members the Ecca group has had up to date - 8 poets - Brian Walter, Norman Morrissey, Silke Heiss, Lara Kirsten, Alvene du Plessis, Mzi Mahola, Quentin Hogge and Cathal Lagan. Below follows a review of the book.

Review by Ruth Woudstra, March 2013
Unplanned Hour, 
Ecca, Hogsback 

From roadkill to fishing for daffodils

Roadkill is not something you want to be looking at while you are eating. Even less so a crow settling in on the mess of muscle, bones and fur. And yet, when the narrator in Quentin Hogge’s poem ‘Highway picnic – roadkill’ finds himself under a peppercorn tree doing just that, he is forced to contemplate the origin of his lunch. With typical off-beat humour, Hogge concludes the poem with the punch line: “I stared at my ham sandwich.”
It is this reflection of everyday experiences, both in the animal and human world, that characterises Unplanned Hour. The latest of 17 collections published by the Eastern Cape Ecca poets, Unplanned Hour demonstrates the variety characteristic of previous collections.
From Hogge’s roadkill, we page back to a hunting gecko in Brian Walter’s ‘Reading things’. Walter describes a gecko near where he writes, which crawls up the spine of a book and along the closed leaves on top, “till in her mouth, the insect / with uncontrollable legs.”
For Silke Heiss, natural elements become metaphors for the human condition. In ‘Mussels’, the narrator eats fresh mussels with her son and describes how they slurp the “salty seapink brainbody-all-in-one-beings”. Their visceral enjoyment of the mussels is related to wild animals: “we loved them / like the jackal loves lamb / and the elephant / lush grass.”
But it is not only the effects of nature on the human psyche that are explored in the collection. Conversations between the poets themselves are found throughout. ‘Note’ is a poem Brian Walter pins to the door of Toor Ballylee, Yeats’ castle in Ireland, which he visits. It is addressed to Morrissey, “who – any day – / would have made this place / his journey’s end.” Similarly, Morrissey addresses the poem ‘For Lewis’ to and old Cape Town friend while conversing with Silke Heiss, his partner.
But the conversations are not limited to the Ecca poets, who converse easily with earlier writers. In Cathal Lagan’s subtle poem ‘I go a-fishing’, the speaker ‘catches’ one of the major principles of the Romantic Poets as expressed in Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. He ‘fishes’ from the tradition in which being humbled by the enlightenment offered by the natural world is the greatest saving grace. This humbleness contrasts with the industrial, technology-dependent activities which are used to lord over nature today. “I send this verse to work, / not for its own sake but for / survival – the host of golden / daffodils, how are they holding up? / Will they be here next year? / Will spring?”
Similarly, Hogge reads ‘Poem – a reminder’ by Robert Graves, followed by his own response to the poem called ‘Kindling – the death of poetry’ which satirises the role of technology in a poetry sensitized consciousness.
This is a multi-faceted collection that takes the reader on a journey through the harsh realities of nature (and ourselves), the intimacy of relationships and the dilemma of the poet.
The essence of Unplanned Hour could not be better described than in these lines from Cathal Lagan’s ‘Exposures’, the final poem of the collection: “I knew that this unplanned hour / which held me here would remain / (nothing else I had done that day would endure).”

The cover of Unplanned Hour is inspired directly by Lagan's lines in his poem "Exposures" - ... the leaves / were letting go their weight of water / I knew that this unplanned hour / which held me here would remain / (nothing else I had done that day would endure).

The cover art is a scissor cut collage using paper, a leaf skeleton and brass wire. It was conceived and created specifically for this volume, and is thus naturally entitled "Unplanned Hour." The artist, Silke Heiss, admits that the sixteen sections of the clock superimposed upon the normal twelve was at first an accident which she decided not to fix. It seems to say something about the shiftings of time which that poem also expresses. The cattle are hand-copied from a rare San drawing found in a book called "Images of Power. Understanding Bushman Rock Art" by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, Southern Book Publishers, Johannesburg (1989).

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