Children of Africa remember

2008-02-13 00:00

Poets, Denis Hirson and Isobel Dixon, are “long distance South Africans” — to adopt Hirson’s phrase — resident in Paris and Cambridge respectively. Both write nostalgically of Africa and with respect for, and a deep sense of loss of, their late fathers. Hirson’s work is economical, even spare, proceeding by means of arresting images and silences, as those familiar with his lyrical and unorthodox autobiography, The House Next Door to Africa (1986), will recall. Dixon is fuller, more direct, a little less surprising than Hirson, but nevertheless rewarding.

Hirson’s Gardening in the Dark contains material dealing with a range of significant relationships and their attendant emotions. However, central to the collection are the poetic prose passages devoted to recalling the arrest, nine-year imprisonment (1964-73), release and subsequent deportation of his father, a member of the African Resistance Movement. Distinctively succinct, Hirson captures moments, memories and moods pertaining to these major events. “He neither dies nor is there. His shadow dents the cushions of every chair,” he writes of his father’s new absence.

Obsessively watching the February 1990 release of Nelson Mandela on a television screen in Paris, where he has lived since 1975, Hirson remembers his own father’s return through the garden gate, “nine years of absence strapped securely as a parachute to his back”. He feels immensely distant on the momentous occasion of Mandela’s walk to freedom and is driven to phone someone in South Africa.

Dixon’s A Fold in the Map consists of two sections. Material in the first section exhibits her nostalgia for an African childhood and for things South African, such as the protea, once considered “the nationalists’ tough bloom” and “vulgarly indigenous”. In a comparison of localities, “the Benighted Kingdom” and “manicured” lawns of Cambridge seem, despite their many advantages and attractions, less favourable than the tougher “Urworld” of birth and belonging.

In the second section, she writes, often poignantly, of the final illness, hospitalisation and death of her father. Of these, one of the most effective is Listening to the Birds, in which the poet clings to the superstition that the hadedah’s calls are auspicious, though she also hears sinister crows “coughing up dark words”.

Many will empathise with the words of Hirson and Dixon, for they write of what is familiar to children of Africa — deracination and death.

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