Ingrid Jonker: Black Butterflies
Although Ingrid’s first volume, Escape, 1956, did not attract much attention when it appeared, one can already recognise stirrings of a deeper anguish, an unusually dark awareness of the helplessness of the individual, particularly the child-woman on the threshold of maturity, in the face of indomitable forces and obstacles.
Above all, there is an acknowledgement of the ubiquitous threat of death: it need not always be invoked directly, but often speaks from irreparable loss, suffering, loneliness or longing for the unattainable or in metaphors of spiritual death.
Death is not only contrasted with love as a live-giving and redemptive experience, but often coincides with it: the one becomes unthinkable without the other. Ultimately everything becomes a masquerade, a game in which one loses touch with reality. Occasionally there is a strongly religious hope of salvation in one form or another; but more often than not the prospect remains bleak and depressing. In the very moment of meeting between two lovers the heartbreak of the end is already present.
In one way or another most of these poems concern an underlying awareness of a relationship – between woman and man, child and parent, you and I, ego and alter ego: and from this “double game” arises a persistent impression of a life left incomplete, broken, shattered, condemned forever to search for the magic word, or the magic potion, which may restore the lost wholeness of the primal couple.
The lyricism in her poetry here is unmistakeable. The cadences of folk songs will continue to mark her poetry to the end and in her better poems her rhymes are impressively functional: either by introducing a sound of inescapable fate, like a tolling bell, as a subtext to all human frivolity, or by lending force and confidence to what might otherwise all too readily lapse into aimless meandering.
The small circle of Ingrid’s friends in Cape Town, especially those who knew of the hours and days she spent working on revision with Uys Krige, were aware of the remarkable new maturity in her work ever since her marriage and following her return to Cape Town; but to the literary public Smoke and Ochre (1963) came as a total surprise. With this single slim volume she placed herself among the foremost poets of Afrikaans; after her suicide in 1965 she acquired the status of an icon.
Through her open rebellion against her father and all the values of the establishment he represented, and the romantic fascination of an entire young generation of readers with her death at such a young age, she became a figurehead – a female James Dean, a symbol of martyred yet triumphant femininity, like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. To this day her work, and notably Smoke and Ochre, remains among the most popular setworks in Afrikaans literature at several universities.
There are occasional impulses from her early work still stirring in the new collection; but the full extent of her renewal is evident from her supple and supremely confident handling of free verse. Her enormous indebtedness to the French surrealist Paul Ėluard, the romantic and elegiac figure of the Spanish Lorca, and South Americans like Neruda and Andrade, all of whom she had encountered through the masterly translations and illuminating commentaries of Uys Krige, is obvious from the very first of the opening poem.
No longer bound to the formal exigencies of rhyme and metre, the rhythm of these poems is determined by units of imagery or thought impulses, conceived in musical terms (often enhanced, and visually dramatised, by the use of spacing within the separate lines).
If smoke may be said to represent dreams, air, the spirit, and ochre the substance of body and earth, the dimension in which these two meet and merge is love. It is indeed the key to the heart of the volume, and it is all the flickering facets and intimations of love which lend the collection its sense of endless variety.
Love often brings with it disillusionment and loss, but also a heightened awareness of the miraculous (as in the delicate lullabies written for her daughter). If Ingrid’s love poems regularly tend towards the lyrical, with melancholy undertones (notably culminating in the haunting ‘Bitterberry daybreak’), it can also slide into a deeper and darker awareness of death.
The volume becomes a confession of faith in the simplest affirmations of life, as in the delicate ‘Daisies in Namaqualand’, or in the fine web of imagery which summarises her poetic credo (‘Little grain of sand’). But among the most memorable of her poems in Smoke and Ochre are those where the quivering music of solo flute or violin or harpsichord which seems to characterise most of the love poetry gives way to an organ played at full throttle: ‘The child’, ‘On the death of a virgin’, ‘Seen from the wound in my side’, ‘I do not want to receive any more visits’ . . . Closest in tone to the South Americans whom she encountered through Uys Krige, the magnificent rhetoric and imagery of these poems have a visionary quality which stamp her authority on the literary landscape of South Africa.
A year after Ingrid’s death, Jack Cope and her sister, Anna, compiled a posthumous collection published as Kantelson (Tilting Sun) 1966. It was not comprehensive, and there were some unacceptable editorial decisions.
The best poems in Tilting Sun beautifully complement those in Smoke and Ochre. Overall, as one might expect against the background of her last two years, the tone is darker, the disillusionment and even cynicism more marked. In response to an increasing sense of personal futility, the anger about betrayal often overshadows other emotions.
Because the poet had not been able to subject the poems to a final revision, and because, for the sake of inclusiveness, a number of early, unpublished poems were also included in the collection, Tilting sun, as a whole, lacks the wholeness of Smoke and Ochre. But it does round off Ingrid Jonker’s work in a way that comes to match, sometimes uncannily, the closure she herself chose to bring to her life.
This is a shortened version of André Brink’s introduction to Black Butterflies – a volume of English translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems by Brink and Antjie Krog.