Friday, September 2, 2011

Following the flight path of the poet's imagination: Robert Berold's review of A South African Abroad

Sinclair Beiles grew up in South Africa and went into exile in his 20s. By 1958, aged 28, he was in the midst of the international avant-garde, working for the Olympia Press in Paris, living in the famous Beat Hotel, collaborating on the cut-up work Minutes To Go with William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso. In the 1960s he migrated to Greece and Tangiers: by all accounts one of the proto-hippies.

In 1969 Beiles's first collection of poetry, Ashes of Experience, was published in Souh Africa by Wurm. Five more books followed. Beiles returned from exile a few years ago and now lives in Johannesburg, where he is active in poetry readings and poetry/jazz performances.

This selection, elegantly produced by Lapis Press, is a mark of the international recognition that Beiles has received. It also begs the question why his work does not appear in any of the standard anthologies of South African verse. Could it be that South Africa is not ready for his knd of pransker surrealism?

This is not the kind of poetry we are used to, but that does not make Beiles a bad poet. The poems in A South African Abroad are literate and readable explosions. They are poems with a sense of humour - even better,a  sense of fun. They work through a loose surrealism, like playfulness reminiscent of French poets like Cendrars or Michaux.

It may seem that the poems go off on tangents which go off on further tangents until the subject is lost.  To look at them this way is to misread them. The real subect is the flight path of the poem's energy ( the aeroplane image is the poet's):

My condition is lamentable - to me anyway.
I keep a kind of old flying machine stability
On a cupboard full of drugs
And as I fly through the day
I can hear my nerves creaking...
If some small magazine editor happens to
drop into your office
Or into your soup in the form of a fly when
You eat at
The arts laboratory
Perhaps you can pull out this work for his
Tell him I have terrible dreams.
(from 'Terrible Dreams')
Admittedly whem this type of poetry doesn't take off, it crashes: as in the rhymed poems about the crucifixion. But most of the time it is full of unexpected pleasures:
You can meet someone on the train
And forget about your brokenheartedness.
Now affairs on trains are permissible.
But they will break up.
There's either not enough money to pay for the fare
Or not enough love.
"Goodbye lost love alone on the railway station!"
Maybe you'll die on the railway station
Like Tolstoy clutching an icon.
Or maybe you'll start another affair
Perhaps with a farmer who's come to collect
A prize cow from the goods train.
Life on a farm is not too bad.
There are no traffic lights but there are compensations.
Both the railways and God help the brokenhearted.
See the view from the train window!
Poppies!Yellow grass!
(from 'Brokenhearted Travellers')  
A South African Abroad, despite its title, has almost nothing in its content identifiably South African. But there is something about its style - naive recklessness, joller instinct - which is distinctly of this country. In this Beiles is as tuned in to the mind of South Africa as many a poet of irony or outrage. A selection of his work needs to be republished here, especially since the imported price of this book, about R50, is prohibitively expensive.
(Published in The Weekly Mail, 27 September 1991) 

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