Hunger and insight

Spatter of rain on slate, seamless run of water.

Talking with a friend about buying art, the ability to tell when a work is serious, more than just beautiful or intriguing. In other words, when the work approaches becoming art. What is defamiliarised, what points towards the future.

Making chicken soup for flu-stricken friends, simmering fresh organic chicken and  fresh vegetables, skimming the surface all golden with little chickeny globules of fat, straining. A clear golden broth, with the option of a  root vegetable and barley soup for vegetarians.


Cooped up in the study on a winter day, wanting to  go away and sit next to a great floor to ceiling pane of transparent glass that overlooks fields and hills, just sit there with steaming dark Earl Grey tea in a white porcelain cup and pages of text neatly stacked, a marking pen that won’t blotch ink on the  linen tablecloth: no dogs,  no mugs to be washed, no dusting, no dogs barking, no dog hairs on the sofa, no phones ringing, no everyday mess or clutter. Just the rainy valley far below and the green of the fields. A horse, swishing its tail perhaps. To be able to work uninterrupted.


Nicole Krauss:

“The more I’ve learned in my life, the more acutely I’ve felt my hunger and blindness, and at the same time the closer I’ve felt to the end of hunger, the end of blindness. At times I’ve felt myself to be clinging onto the rim – of what I can hardly say without the risk of sounding ridiculous – only to slip and find myself deeper in the hole than ever. And there, in the dark, I find again in myself a form of praise for all that continues to crush my certainty.”


Hnery Duncan 1930s


Waiting for dawn

Waiting for sunrise, drinking coffee and noticing how the temperature is falling, a sudden chill and hint of ice in the lamplit atmosphere, shivering with cold and looking around for my woollen mittens, lost your mittens?/you naughty kittens!/now you shall have no pie. Mother Goose nursery rhymes shaped my literary subconscious so profoundly at the age of five. The Man in the Moon came tumbling down/ And asked the way to Norwich.

To wake early is a pleasure I never get used to — the rest of the village fast asleep, birds silent, the sickle of moon glimpsed between tall pines at the back, owls coming back after a night hunting across the valley and fields, dogs curled up snoring. Just me with a notebook in a circle of  lamplight, writing and  letting the mind glean all kinds of impressions from  fading dreams and half-awake intuitions. The moon sharp and bright as a splinter.

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Nineteen times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom.

“Old woman, old woman, old woman,” quoth I,
“O whither, O whither, O whither, so high?”
“To brush the cobwebs off the sky!”
“Shall I go with thee?” “Aye, by and by.”


What we put into our minds, how we nurture intelligence, what lodges in the memory like a fixed burning image or offkey note and rhythms, the riddles, the jokes and counting games we played as children. What is pablum, not worth recalling, what frightens or enlightens. Not yet dawn and I think of ISIS militants using sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the eighth-century citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad in northern Iraq, and the colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls that had guarded it. History obliterated along with the lessons we learn from history. Writer Toni Morrison and others excoriating those who cannot unlearn whiteness as privilege, the resurgence in sexist hate speech against women gamers or  columnists on the Internet, the belligerence and refusal to listen to minority outrage, the quandaries of climate change, the greed of financial elites, the world turning and altering  even as the sun breaks through a rim of darkness (so rapid and dramatic,  sunrise in an African valley). Open on my desk,  the novel Satantango from László Krasznahorkai who has just won the  Man Booker prize for literature, a discomfiting but visionary writer.

The stories brim with precise detail and exact technical language – about preparing pigments in a Florentine Renaissance painter’s studio, or the post-show social obligations of a Noh actor – and though this sometimes feels oppressive or otiose, Krasznahorkai seems to wish to direct the reader towards a kind of precise attentiveness to phenomena that he sees as lying at the core of the artist’s practice. His study of Japan has introduced the aesthetic concepts of mono no aware (sensitivity to the transience of things) and wabi sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection) to the inheritor of a Christian tradition of aesthetics founded on perfection and transcendence.

The sun rises like some feverish creature, flushed and noisy — birds wake, there are cars passing on this quiet road, the valley is waking, church bells for post-Matins, ping of a microwave oven  in the kitchen, dogs barking. Colder than ever, brilliant freezing landscape and  the challenge again to start over as writers, to see what we exclude from fear or ignorance, to let in voices we have not heard, to unmuffle our senses and  take in all that is discordant and angry, all we regard as Other, all that keeps crying out for justice, for  change,  for redemption even. Precise attentiveness to phenomena. What a line on the page might make new.


Jennifer Gough-Cooper

Moments of transformation

Surfacing from deadlines, sorrowing, winter bed snuggliness; the good, the bad, the everything. Wild noisy wind dashing itself against the walls and  trying to lift the roof, so no walks or gardening.

But all the same the  kale, baby spinach, rocket, parsley, thyme in raised beds and pots keep growing, so easy to pick for salads, so brightly mauve and green and  tipped with freshness. And pots too of  succulents, cacti, aloes set out in sunny spots.


At night, the fire’s glow in a warm kitchen, dogs snoring, books and lamplight.


The poet Franz Wright died of cancer at the age of 62, a great loss. A troubled, illuminating life:

“It’s just as hard as it ever was, but I no longer feel every poem I finish is going to be the last thing I ever write,” he told the Globe after winning the Pulitzer. “The life of art, like the life of faith, is a perilous radiance, and one makes so many mistakes. But I do not despair now, not ever, not for a second.”


Friends, correspondents, neighbours,  people coming and going: brunches in big industrial chic lofts, restaurant terraces shadowed by palms, drives through the countryside reddened by autumn colour. Pausing to buy nubbly thick-woven linen winter sheets,  a set of fine white china side plates and bowls, a basket of dried figs, dried Turkish apricots, fat sweet raisins and golden currants. I so rarely shop that it feels out-of-the ordinary to be choosing sheets, running my hand over linen napkins, considering thermal vests. I’d be happier taking an extra glass pitcher of  organic cloudy apple juice or finding an old secondhand copy of Arabella Boxer’s Mediterranean Food, with the back cover missing.

The culinary season of leeks, squash, butternut, parsnips, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower. And throughout winter, the kitchen is never without fresh ginger, pink-tipped garlic, fingers of bright yellow turmeric, bowls of lemons, limes and  oranges. A curative space.

The marvellous polyphonies of Alice Notley:

What I’ve been getting as voice for a few years is more like voices. I am so empty from all the things I’ve been through in my life, and from living in a foreign culture that remains forever foreign, that I am bombarded constantly by other voices when I sit down to write. I kind of don’t have a self now, it’s a rote thing, but I seem to hear what everyone else is saying, particularly the dead. This is quite interesting. The dead have to translate themselves, or be translated by me or into me when they speak, so they are somewhat flat musically. I hear their voices in the front of my head and then somehow translate that into poetry. I’m never sure whether I’m really hearing other voices or am inhabiting my imagination.




Somewhere back of the north wind

In the winter months, a fierce night wind blows from the north, the wind that brings rain and smells of snow in June and July. Woke last night to that unfamiliar roaring of a night wind and realised it is nearly winter. Autumn, like spring, is a fleeting season here. Even in the bright morning sunshine, the wind nips at fingers and nose with an icy goblin pinch.

The housemate calls and talks about how the rural people out on those  dusty flat plains speak, their folklore and ways of saying things: that a child will be ‘making’ her 10th birthday, not reaching or celebrating, their  secretive little [superstitious] hand gestures that  go back to the early years of the 19th century when the countryside was inhabited by ‘spoeks‘ or ghosts who appeared or disappeared at whim and  followed  young girls home with malevolent intent, wild animals that spoke in human voices, old houses that flew up into the kopjes on moonlit nights. A world that hasn’t changed in many ways, for better or worse.

Even small homesteads have tall windpumps in the back yard and a water reservoir walled round with plaster and mortar or corrugated iron, often with prickly pears, aloes or agaves growing up nearby in hope of the odd splash of water. Floors of hardened manure and  soil, sometimes studded  with peachstones. In the interiors there are blackened open hearths but no fireplaces and long dark passages for the many bedrooms once needed to house elderly and unattached relatives, travelling predikants and teachers.

The housemate talked with a farm worker who said he is no longer married but has a bywoner (transient farm worker) living with him, referring back to older days when impoverished white Afrikaners  and ‘coloured’ people descended from former slaves, who were landless farm workers, domestic cleaners, midwives and handymen, would travel for days between farms and rarely stay long in any place, self-sufficient and nomadic in one way, exploited and distrusted in another way. Solitary, suspicious folk  able to whistle birds out of a clear sky and skilled at filching hand-mirrors and combs from outhouses or through unwatched open windows. This particular farm worker means, though, that the woman bywoner who lives with him has no right to his cottage or  worldly goods, that he sees her as a transient and moving on, even though she has warmed his bed for several years. I think he may be in for a nasty surprise if he decides to evict her.

Another excited local man telling the housemate how his wealthy employer had rewarded him for 25 years service  by  paying for him to spend a single night  in a cheap bed-and-breakfast place located in a town bigger than and far distant from his hamlet, a proper town with three sets of traffic lights! He had never seen so much  traffic in his life or eaten commercially made sliced bread. The kind of anecdote that leaves me speechless for all kinds of reasons.

The interregnum between what we expect as a given from our modern westernised societies and what we hanker after as irretrievably lost in some simpler, more humane past. While the wind blows on across the  great spaces of veld and the vanes of  the windpump spin round and round in the cold sunlight.  A landscape for Brueghel perhaps as captured by Seamus Heaney in The Seed Cutters:

“They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,

You’ll know them if I can get them true.

They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle

Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.”

Merweville Farmstead Karoo