Monday, February 22, 2016

I’ve Come to Take You Home by Diana Ferrus, a review

Diana Ferrus is a writer, poet, performance poet and story-teller who lives in Cape Town. She writes in both English and Afrikaans. This book, I’ve Come To Take You Home, is a collection of poetry in English. The title poem is written to Sarah Bartmann, the Griqua woman who was taken to Europe and shown around as a “freak” and whose remains (her brain and private parts) were put on display at the Musee de L’homme in Paris after her corpse was dissected. When the French were trying to pass legislation to return the remains of Sarah Bartmann to her home in South Africa, the legislator presenting the bill in their parliament found Ferrus’ poem online. It inspired him so much that he included it in the actual bill, and in fact it is part of the French law that released her remains to be buried properly in South Africa. The only poem incorporated into a law in France. Ferrus accompanied the remains on their way back home. And there is a fantastic story to tell people who think poems and stories don’t matter— they can change the world!

The title poem I’ve Come to Take You Home is a victory song as much as a condemnation against the abuse that Bartmann suffered. The last stanza of the title poem resonates with the sadness of Bartmann’s life and her bittersweet return, but also with the salvation of the poet herself and the battered people:
“I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill.
Your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white—
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you,
for you have brought me peace,
for you have brought us peace.”

Ferrus’ poetry is my favourite kind, where she uses solid words to create powerful accessible images. Many of the poems in this collection are biographical, such as the ones about her parents and her childhood, or touch on important social and political issues. One of the most haunting is The Journey, about a man on the train who, along the way the poet discovers, is unable to read so doesn’t know where his train stop is. The poem has a repetitive refrain of— It was on the train to Bellville, the one from Cape Town at a quarter past three —that adds to the overall sadness of the poem:

“It was on the train to Bellville,
the one from Cape Town
at a quarter past three
where I saw him looking
through the clear shining window
anxiously clutching the bag in his hand.”

Ferrus, a coloured woman born in 1953, lived through all of the brutality and inhumanity of the Apartheid system and many of her poems reflect this.  She includes poems about iconic Apartheid fighters like Ruth First and Nelson Mandela, as well as hopeful ones like That Day which tells the story of Ferrus and her mother going to vote in the first democratic elections in South Africa.  

Once a Girl looks at the effect of life and its struggles and disappointments on the innocence of the child we all once were:
“She was once crying and others
thought her naughty.
She was once quiet and others
thought her moody,
but she was only a girl
with a message in her eyes.

She is a young woman now
but she was once a girl
who left and never came back.”

Ferrus often uses repetition in her poetry effectively. A good example is her poem Obsession:
“Who do you love
so desperately
that your eyes keep wandering
over the head of the moon
and then speak
to the void in the night?”

Ferrus has a series of short poems dealing with romantic love, the impermanence of it, the joy and sadness of it. She manages so much in this tiny six line poem, The Healing Heart:

Awake at four,
I feel the sheets
ice cold and clean—
my lifeless nipples undisturbed.
I dreamt of you

The glossary at the back of the book is not one you’ll want to skip over, my normal practice. Ferrus has explained more about the birth of some of her poems, as well as explaining words and their meanings to her and the poem referenced. I found that quite fascinating. This is an accomplished collection of poems. 

(This column first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi newspaper on the 19th Feb 20116)


TJ Dema said...

I loved seeing her read at The Orbit, a wonderfully haunting singing voice too. I love that she inhabits stage and page in equal measure, she has a great way with word economy - not always the case with work that is read live in our part of the world - and only uses repetition when a line demands to be heard again.

Lauri said...

She's lovely! And even her storytelling- I could listen to her all day. Maybe we should get her to come for Poetavango- wouldn't that be lovely. :)

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