On Days Such as This -Poetry Book Review

On Days Such as This, Gail Dendy. Botsotso, Johannesburg, 2020.ISBN: 978-1-990922-48-0. 60pp

The poet wrestles with an intimate flashback, the perception of future, and becomes a human animal shaped by possibility and miracle. She builds a mysterious weapon in ink that is embellished with scriptural mandate and the question of existence, the relationship between universe and humanity, history and reality, opinion and relativity, incoherence of death and the departure of human frailty and infirmity breaking through from this dimension into the eternal. The lines are cyclic and shift with mood, swinging from low to high, impulse and synergy of thought, the spinning tumultuous and glorified image of birth shattering the illusion that the arrival of life is not brutal or violent in the gathering up of the sum of wonder and incremental goal. This is how every individual’s future is marked and it is important to realise the significance of the jarring incident of a car crash, iron meeting road and a child meeting the reality of determined strength (the innate and physical strength of the mother) and the simplicity of its own weakness and predisposed nature in the first minutes of entry into the world. The words come from a source of personal velocity, from the poet’s profound introduction to the universe and the reader comes face to face with seclusion and oblivion, a territory marked by trepidation and curse. The future is the curse. It is the unknown. It is the startling and unfamiliar. In the hands of this poet, it can be depressing. The lines veer from the trajectory of the riveting to the narrative and conceptualisation of mortality. Life for human beings is finite. It comes to an end. It begins and comes to an end, but the future remains cloaked in a shroud of uncertainty and with that uncertainty comes hardship and despair and the days of our lives are sequestered, kept apart from our embryonic understanding from trial to tribulation.

I am decades younger, howling, slippery with blood.

I have just begun my future.

(“Birth as a Car Crash”, pg.6)

Tolerance is small here. The footprints are ‘hopelessly too small’. Here the poet in “The Deserted Beach” is questioning herself, putting herself in the present moment and placing herself in the past simultaneously. She allows herself to reach for something which is cataclysmic. The realisation that she is aging. That she is imperfect. She is growing older and with time comes the observation and study of the process of this passage from youth, from the ability to reason when you are young and younger than you were now. I could relate to this as a reader. There is a dark sadness imbued with the essences of the day, the vibrations of her selfhood. There is a case for reflection and introspection on the behalf of the poet. The poem for me on many levels is dark. It resonates with the functionality of something coming to an end. Perhaps the thought that you (since it came from adolescence) were going to live forever. It carries with it an abyss filled with a negative mindset to the personality and confrontation of life becoming calm. Can it be confidence, emotional maturity at the blasé acceptance of this occurrence which is far from passing? She is coming face to face with the departure of her father and why I say that tolerance is small is that there is so little forgiving on the poet’s part. So much to forget. The dress that is pretty, the winter of that year, the footprints, the gate being left open speaks to the physical, the verbal reasoning of a child, an abandoned daughter by an absentee parent, the malevolence and cruelty of a world that is often not fair and unjust to its most vulnerable citizens. The reader is reminded that there is a season and time for everything, a season and time for both harvest and plunder under the quizzical sun. Again, there is a sensibility that there is an unflinching honesty here in this verse that captivates the soul, but it damns and breaks the heart and the ending when it comes is a fierce commentary on the actions of the male figure in the poet’s world making his exit at a time when she was of an impressionable age. The poem serves as a reminder that the walk we are all on is a spiritual walk with a malevolent outlook on life hidden from view.

I fitted my feet into footprints

hopelessly too small,

walked half-a-dozen paces

(“The Deserted Beach”, pg.14)

The images, in the following lines offers us a glimpse into the backlash of an apartheid- engineered-regime and the conflict that ravaged a nation, that turned a society into a death machine that came calling for children, that brutalised young people, and that gave rise to a novel intellectualism amongst liberal politicians. It was a period that felt like swallowing razor blades. Where the tendencies were rampantly suicidal and of tyranny, of murderous intent and vicious hatemongering. This is the monster that incompetent individuals can devise to serve an inhumane hierarchy in which no good can come from. This is the capacity that can develop and become formulated into a life and death situation, a miserable situation that is not a winning strategy for anyone involved. All life is of value and perhaps this gives rise in the poet of the strangely positioning of ‘stone’, ‘gun’ and ‘catapult’. The words seem distinctly heinous on the page. There is again the seismic depth of a manic-depressive. The mood shifts from high to high to a low and then a slump.  We lived through tragic shootings and a state of emergency during apartheid that is a spiritual reckoning for every individual who lived through that time and the generations that came after as witnesses.

I think of ‘stone’, ‘gun’ and, oddly, ‘catapult’.

Or do I mean the soft furriness of caterpillar,

Its pliable segments, the overabundance of legs?

(“Aftermath”, pg.18)

Freedom comes with the cage and imprisonment and being held captive comes with the same cage. In the beginning the poem is a bird that must learn to leave the constraints of the cage and feed itself. In the last stanza of the poem comes a spiritual knowledge that life is what it is. Filled with a wilderness university of wildflowers (the cognitive understanding of human personality) and lion stalks (the grappling of animal instinct), grapes and vines (the sacred contract and assignment issued by God), branches, trees, and leaves that defy gravity with insurmountable ease that reign supreme in a garden built on the meditation and prayer of both divine freedom and the ministry found and invented in captivity. What the heart reiterates here is to have a kind of passion for the division found within our livelihood. As it exists and as we co-exist alongside it. There is both a hunger and a thirst that needs to be sated within that cage, the poet reckons and to find the way out is to find the entrance of humanity in history.

Let your heart out of its cage

and throw away that cage

(“A Time for Waking”, pg.29)

The final stanza of the poem reads as follows. We need to breathe in our flaws with awareness, reconciliation, and self-acceptance as well our limited vision of the world around us and the environment impacted by climate change, global warning, pollution in those spaces of ‘unconfinement’. We must be careful the poet warns of the ‘answer’. To let it answer our call, speak to our purpose, let it come to an agreement with our souls and find the key there. It would be easier to remain confined, imprisoned in the cage and not to realise that the living lies in the manifestation of the spiritual embodiment. We must remain loyal to this breath-work and the lesson in dysfunctionality that the poet writes about with so much efficiency and consistency here.

Let it breathe.

Allow it its unconfinement.

Let it answer you.

The severe depression of the poet is ‘blue’, ‘hibiscus blooms’, a ‘transcendental word’, ‘large’ and ‘clumsy’ and a ‘tower’ ‘dismantled and submerged’. Perhaps there is another understanding and meaning for this poem, but I like to see it the way I imagine it. Through the gaze of suffering and the sufferer. Life is supposed to be meaningful, filled with the art of living, finding joy and purpose in activities giving rise to vigour, restorative powers and the renewing of mind and health outside of the bedroom. The bedroom being a place of rest, for sleep and sleep hygiene, cleanliness, and sanctuary. It is here the depressive is found lying down in the afternoon or evening contemplating the language of sadness, of helplessness fostering a spirit of hopelessness. Often, we cannot begin to fathom or imagine what happiness means outside of the ‘blue’ world that we live in. The depression sufferer is marginalised, disadvantaged by isolation and stigma. The words lean into each other, a physical crutch that hammers sensibility into a feeling of domestic non-bliss. There is a certain remote longing in the last line of the poem ‘My bedroom dissolves in your mouth as I wake’. What does this mean but more importantly, what is the reader left to feel as the poet leaves her blue world behind her? The reader is left to inhabit the dreamlike world of the creativity and imagination of the poet. Perhaps the blue world is the world of a lover and the destruction and sabotage that they leave behind. Perhaps it is the lover that colours everything in the poet’s world blue but the poet within me sees sadness, emptiness, a search for meaning and solace and individuality. The certainty of futility and a sense of aloneness.

My bedroom exists in another language,

The one that has no meaning

Other than itself. I cannot work it out.

(“Room for Us Both”, pg.32)

There is no funeral but there is a grave and the poetess buries all her bone, marrow, and the prize of her flesh in it. Here ‘Grief’ is addressed head on with the themes of spirituality and detachment and the physicality of animals and the science and indoctrination of religion are the stakeholders. Suffering is productive here and there is nothing that is unusually predictable about the text or the sorrow that is bursting at the seams of the texture of this language. It is fighting to get out and experience voice and reason. The grief of aloneness and of being on one’s own answerable to absolutely no one. Couples are viewed as the wanton enemy to the reader but what was the poet thinking, feeling and was she trying to escape, find the exit out and not think and not feel and not reason with herself. The ‘echo’ is the shadow of the poet following her wherever she goes. She commits herself to nature. The ‘long grass that gathers up its limbs’. There is church too and a ‘congregation’ and bipolar horses that is holding onto the acknowledgement of sanity of the poet and the assignment that she has been given. The assignment is this. For her to have a conversation about herself and her personal success at finding satisfaction and fulfilment within divine intention and intervention. Earlier on she makes this statement telling all of us, ‘I am a woman once more.’ The reader must realise then the frailties and dependences that a woman must align herself with in this life to cry strength, to belong and to live with stamina and loyalty from her tribe. It takes more than wit and grit. It takes the culmination of a lifetime.

I began to wonder if Grief was not real at all, but some sort of/ angel. She was ugly

though, and her moods reared up like horses breaking through/ the yard at night.

(“On Days Such as This”, pg.40)

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is a researcher and historian. Follow her on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.