Poetry Beyond the Edge of Time

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers spent the first eight months of her life in The Princess Alice Home, a facility for adopted babies in Johannesburg.

Published: 04th October 2014 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th October 2014 11:53 AM   |  A+A-


TISHANI-DOSHI.jpgPhillippa Yaa de Villiers spent the first eight months of her life in The Princess Alice Home, a facility for adopted babies in Johannesburg. Half Australian-half Ghanaian, she was adopted by a white family and grew up in a “leaf-dappled place,” with a swimming pool, big trees and dogs. “But I always felt like there was pain there, between the shafts of light.”

She came to poetry circuitously, via acting, teaching, waitressing, construction work, cashiering at a supermarket and working as a hospital clown, although she says the ambition of writing was evident early when she absorbed Louis L’Amour and James Hadley Chase in the crook of her father’s arm. “Words become me,” she says in the opening poem of her collection The Everyday Wife (Modjaji Books), and later, “Words are fish. They nibble/ at our nipples and tickle/ our clitori and we scrabble for the right one to/ describe/ the absoluteness, the this-ness of this….”

I first heard de Villiers read in Berlin this summer, and there was a charge to her, something of the provocateur, that is always so thrilling and necessary to hear. Much of her work is concerned with race, sexuality, class and gender within the South African context. “A unified experience doesn’t really exist here. It has never had a moral compass, so every crisis seeks to articulate itself in some kind of healing.”

If Johannesburg, Maputo, Accra, Mombasa are the teeth of her poems, then the rest of the world sidles up to occupy the peripheries—a poet getting to know herself in the museums of Amsterdam, a hurricane in America, all the wars between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The position of the outsider/tourist against the insider/African is always posited, explored, reversed, in an effort to arrive at certain poetic truths. “The tourist is the authority./ They know how to stay alive! We are still learning./ Politely we wipe our mouths and give thanks for what we / have/ received: pronunciation, and chicken, on Sundays.”

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s work is clearly political, but she sees the function of poetry as going beyond politics, existing beyond the edge of time. “Poetry builds the language of human experience in a sublime way,” she says, “If we don’t remember what is beautiful around us we become monsters.” But beauty in de Villiers’s universe always arrives coupled with ploughs, empty cartridges, a boat of bones. Hers is a world where god must be as close at hand “as the dishwashing liquid/ and as affordable as toilet paper.”

 And even if the poems themselves exist outside the ambit of time, the issues they deal with are afforded no such luxury. One of the most moving poems in the collection, “The Middle Promise,” deals with ageing, specifically, a woman’s ageing. “In the beginning we are promised nothing but/ the firm hunger of our perfect bodies.” De Villiers admits that she finds the memories of being able to dance all night and the brute resilience of youth, cruel and humiliating. “But I’m still on the hot brown earth of my fattening and falling body. I used to have a friend who always noticed and paid tribute to ‘older, more grateful women.’ It’s fine, but gratitude feels like a cop out as well. I’m a punk at heart, but suicide doesn’t attract me.”



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