‘One travels in ideas as well as trains’—Simon van Schalkwyk interviews PR Anderson on his new collection of poetry, Night Transit

Academic Editor Simon van Schalkwyk talks to PR Anderson about travelling to places you’ve never been, the viciousness of history, and his new collection of poetry, Night Transit.

Night Transit
PR Anderson
Dryad Press, 2023

Simon van Schalkwyk for The JRB: Night Transit joins a number of poetry titles emerging from the stable of Dryad PressBrian Walter’s Allegories of the Everyday, Fiona Zerbst’s In Praise of Hotel Rooms, and my own Transcontinental Delay—that have been preoccupied with questions of travel. Would you reflect on the appeal of poems about travel, whether within or beyond South African borders, and why this might be an appealing poetic theme in recent South African poetry?

PR Anderson: You’re acute in picking this up. I don’t think of the poems in Night Transit as travel poems, at least not in the sense of mementos or postcards from Elsewhere. What is more true to me has to do with my psyche and process: I find—perhaps inevitably—that my notebooks thicken both when I am in transit (when scribbling is often all one has to do) and elsewhere (when there is plenty of difference to excite the senses). I find the movement instigates in me a mild hypomania, and I am both more attentive and more inquisitive and reflective. It’s also true that being elsewhere usually means there are not the quotidian demands of one’s job and the domestic round, which may also free up space to write. But there is something true, too, about the remove as a psychic space: Cape Town is in many ways far away from the world, a southern Atlantic peninsula, and one whose social economy is brutal and degrading still. Am I hiving off into a transcendental absence from that? I’d hope not. I think the book is organised in such a way as to bring the focus back on South Africa and self. Certainly my travel does that to me. One interesting thing—to me—about the volume is that I left out of it almost all of my ‘Italian’ poems, as seeming to belong to another book, down the line. I have a family in Italy, to which I’ve come to belong, and several landscapes (a subject about which I’ve written academically over many years). I mention this because that otherwhere sponsors a lot of being in transit, and those poems, or some of them, are in the book. Certainly there is much to celebrate in being beyond South Africa, but I don’t mean to evade it. I remember being at the border just inside Mozambique and noting that the birds were ‘still South African’, and thinking what an error of thought that sort of nationalism is, and how pervasive. I can’t speak for others, but movement—I’d prefer that word to ‘travel’, with its connotations of tourism—is tonic and stimulus to me, and it brings down words.

The JRB: The theme of travel, or movement, becomes more apparent in the book’s second section, where the majority of poems take as their setting a wide and possibly disparate range of countries—’That Other Country’ is set in Poland; ‘Delta’ in the DRC; ‘Heinz Guderian at Yasnaya Polyana’ finds us in the vicinity of Tolstoy’s house in Russia; ‘In the Midst’ takes us to Belgium; ‘The Goldfinch Variations’ returns to the Palatine in Rome; ‘Wild Duck in the Marshes’, a blue poem, leads us to Egypt via the craft of faience; ‘Whale Sharks, Mozambique Channel’ sees us at the east coast of Africa—before ending with the speaker quite literally above it all, in a plane, simultaneously suspended and mobile. 

I wonder if you could say a bit more about the arc of travel that holds this suite of poems together?

PR Anderson: I guess it’s important to stress that this suite of ‘travel’ poems covers more than two decades of my life, and in several instances does not apply to places I’ve actually been—I’ve never set foot in Russia or Poland, for example. Does that forbid a poetry that refers to them—not at all. These are poems of ideas, affectively (and I hope effectively) researched. One travels in ideas as well as trains. I think the altitude of poetry encourages this sort of social and historical purview, and I hope licenses it. When I put the book together I certainly clumped those sort of poems, but I didn’t have a conscious intellectual arc on the go. That’s too clever for me. That it appears to have been so is a wonderful sign of an aesthetic inclination falling into step with thoughts as yet unthought—which is what poetry does. I do think arranging a book is a poetic act—not simply in the sense of poiesis, making, but in the sense of applying to the hidden imperatives of intuition and music, composition.

The JRB: Let’s move on to the third section, which grounds the theme of travel in more local South African settings, although here, the question of travel seems complicated by the time in which the poems are set: ‘The War of Makhanda’ reflects on an event from the early nineteenth century of South African history; ‘A Short Walk in the Zuurveld’, reminds us of a former place-name given to Albany in the Eastern Cape by Boer farmers in the late eighteenth century; ‘Quagga Foal’, which is set in the South African Museum, recalls an animal hunted to extinction in the late nineteenth century; ‘Seventeen Depositions on Two Mechanical Breakdowns’ takes place in Sekhukhuneland, the former Transvaal, a place also known as Bopedi, in 1986; ‘Night Transit’ also takes place in the former Transvaal in 1989. 

Can you say a bit more about your sense of time which, it seems to me, reflects a sustained concern with how history is understood in relation to the speaker’s present, or, perhaps, how familiar historical events are juxtaposed with more personal, even hermetic experiences set within periods of time marked with a more general historical weight? 

PR Anderson: I’m an historian by training—my higher degrees were explicitly or implicitly that—and particularly one of landscape and the frontier between emaXhoseni and the appalling colony at the Cape. So I think it’s been a long habit to think of landscape as a lot more than just the tableau against which history plays out. I think of it rather as an act of history, not merely a site. And my presence in that act of inhabiting (succeeding or failing on what terms, to what ends?) is certainly a preoccupation. It needs stressing again though that these are not simply poems of travel—my family lived in Sekhukhuneland for many years, I grew up in and around today’s Makhanda (and have a particular academic and personal interest in the Xhosa itola of that name). So in some ways these poems are poems of home, certainly, but always with the complacency of home estranged by (a vicious) history. I think there’s also a ‘new historicist’ bent to these poems—a willingness to be contingent, deft, anecdotal, as a way of evading the hegemony of history and its most determinist historiographies. I can’t escape a colonial implication, but I sometimes feel I make little raids on my memory. What is the place (the landscape) for a middle-class white male appropriation of this space we inhabit? It’s a question I’ll never settle—but I find it fertile to a poetry I began to advance in my previous book, In a Free State, with its fragmentary feints and thrusts at history and geoforms, and my transit there, in space and time, and the placement that words make. I’ve tried to make a poetry of my contingency in space, which in many ways makes these poems of one cloth with the poems set in Poland, Russia or Egypt, places of a wholly imaginary grasp. I find history illuminating but vexed, and in experience very much the domain of shallow graves, attritional. I’m interested in lives in space, how those conjure space as acts of inhabiting, and how the poems are a profound act of that inhabiting too. Like the imbongi, I silently conclude each poem with the statement of my fugitive disappearance. I’d describe all of these poems as belonging to fugue and perhaps the fugitive. So much of our lives is spent on the run from history. Covid interested me from that point of view. We were locked down in the moment(ous), and it had strange effects. I felt all my dreams were running into one long one—’The Folded Lake’ was a part of that sustained manifestation of the unconscious, and I think its central image applies to the plasticity of landscape, the precocity of our power in arranging it, and our terror of being settled by history (where death settles the matter inevitably).

The JRB: As I read through the collection, I got the impression that many of these poems convey an almost weary sense that history’s cycles recur, training a fatalistic eye on a future that seems always terminal. And that, because of this, the speaker seems to oscillate between moods of impatience and restlessness on the one hand, and one that could either be regarded as world-weary resignation or, perhaps, a more settled reassurance that things are as they always have been and that they will remain so. I’m thinking of the lines, ‘yes, people suffer,/yes, the dorps hang on under the spires, strewn/with crematorial grit, shitloads of rubble,/yes, sparrows fall, crows prosper, and who cares?’ from ‘First Light’.

PR Anderson: There’s a quote that’s always struck me, from a strange book on the paradise myth by John Armstrong: 

In the great plays of his final period, Shakespeare turned to ideal forms which present those contrary modes of fulfilment whose reconciliation has ever been the central task both of the poet and of the imaginative life common to all men. Since abstract equivalents are here a weak and imprecise substitute for poetry and art, it will be enough for the moment to say that they correspond to man’s perpetual craving for the infinitely various and his need for the sure domicile of a continuing order. And the fact that these human ends are opposed to one another constitutes […] a dilemma of the most fundamental kind.

I can’t put it better and it’s a statement I’ve quoted many times. Yes I long for liberty (from my ‘life’ and its historical agency and objecthood) and yet recur to patterns of living that console and hold and bind me to people and place. I’ve lived a life between the two—often stressful—and it is certainly a dilemma more easily reconciled in the imagination than in practice.

The JRB: A similar if more complex treatment of this presentation of time as perhaps repetitive enough to be predictable arguably informs the retrospective viewpoint of ‘The War of Makhanda’, where ‘Brereton will go on to bloody Bristol./Makhanda will drown/ […] The cattle will thin in the roadside smoke/of winter fires. You will drive carefully/north, into the hinterland of it all, and write/this poem, and the War of Hintsa will still happen’. Given the ways in which histories are written, rewritten and overwritten, I wonder if lines like these reflect a confidence in the integrity of historical fact or a willful attempt to insist upon historical order? Do I detect a degree of anxiety here with regard to your faith in history, given that we inhabit a period in which ongoing attempts to contest historical narratives have been particularly pronounced?

PR Anderson: How does one square the sense of belonging in ilanga koloni and north without accreting more English to the vicious litany of wars and woes inflicted there? I can but strive to be deft, admit myself, and disappear. In many ways the War of Hintsa, in which all colonists were driven off the land, and only held out in siege congregations in Fort Beaufort and Grahamstown, is the hidden subject of that poem. Could history have been different? Well, it wasn’t. What was the human knowledge of that defeat in Grahamstown in 1819, and does renaming it Makhanda really overwrite that? I am revisiting my boyhood a lot when I write about the Eastern Cape. It’s no less a colonial presence, but it is—or was at the time—at least innocent of its culpability. And then personal epochs mark the inhabiting—like falling profoundly in love for the first time, and ascribing the landscape to the beloved, an imaginary gift, a twelve-year-old’s pittance and fortune. How often has that happened and gone on happening, and can it be turned inside out? I do associate the attritional conflict of that political, social, economic history with the loss of personal innocence in coming into adulthood.

The JRB: To round off my questions of travel, I’d like to note poems like ‘To the East’ (set in a car), which again finds the speaker in the midst of travelling, and ‘To the West’, set close to an unspecified ocean, and that the collection ends with two poems, ‘The North Ship’ (the title begs us to head back to Larkin and, more allusively perhaps, to Heaney) and which appears to evoke the restlessness of one who longs to light out for the territory. Is there any territory left to light out for?

PR Anderson: No, there’s no escape, nor should there be. The imagination is in history too, but in a way that is still mysterious and unsettled and unsettling to me. It allows me excursions in truth-seeking and -telling. I try. The Larkinesque poem has his name encrypted in it! He thought ‘abroad’ was ‘bloody’. Taken in a less silly way, he was right, especially given that the metropolitan United Kingdom is abroad for us, and bloody in a more literal sense. But I think that poem—those sonnets—of transit go back to our yearning for both adventure, liberty, and ‘the secure domicile of a continuing order’. That’s an existential problem for me, encompassing history, but exceeding it, especially as a boy, and again especially as I grow older.

The JRB: If this tension—the oscillation between the desire to leave and the recognition of travel’s travails is familiar enough (my entire doctoral thesis was about this dilemma in the work of Robert Lowell who, I’m pleased to note, you allude to at the start and at the end of this collection)—what are we to make of a poem like ‘Llanelieu’, which seems to exist outside this dichotomy, and which accretes an almost religious significance?

PR Anderson: ‘Llanelieu’ is an elegy for the great love of my youth. The instance and the place and the person have a profound numinous presence to me. I know the poem walks in some of Larkin’s church-going footsteps, but it’s a poem of the sort that was undertaken to make a clean breast of things. I didn’t say that I lay down drunk in the bat droppings on the church floor and felt absolved of all the history I was revisiting. Some places are numinous. I can analyse that away, but life would be terribly dry biscuit if I did. So, yes, the poem is religious. I am, but in the earnest way of a rational atheist yearning. Llanelieu is a deserted church, cared for by the Friends of Friendless Churches: there’s plenty in that for me to respond to as a person. That I was there young and in love, and then again old and contrite—well, that is the kind of juncture of poetry. I’m glad I could write that.

The JRB: I want to shift, now, to the question of diction. You shuttle between levels of diction more than most—something that I imagine has been learned from a poet like Geoffrey Hill—double clutching, sometimes within the space of a line, from conversational or demotic speech to language that, while I don’t want to describe it as elevated, certainly seems more, shall we say, devotional or, perhaps, ceremonial, solemn. I detect and have always detected something of the votive in much of your work, as if poetry is a kind of purposeless offering, another stone set on a traveller’s cairn.

PR Anderson: You are inclined to love the unused word yourself! Audenesque. You’re right though to discern Hill, who has been a major, if not the major, influence on my ear. I agree with him that difficulty in poetry is democratic in presuming the most of the reader and going out to meet them dressed in its best linguistic attire. Yes, I love words, and I think it is part of the work of poetry to keep words working in the world, or even, as you say, to pile them up as they grow unused, in cairns for future directions to travellers. I’m not so postmodern as to find the signifier endlessly slippery and ungraspable, void—I think that’s an unethical attitude to language, influenced though I have been by it. But I do think the linguistic turn has had an effect on poets like you and me, in setting up a kind of reverence for the thing itself. This is why I am interested in the musical quality of the word, prior to its denotation. Often I proffer or prefer a word for that reason.

The JRB: There’s something oracular about all this, isn’t there? I must admit that words like ‘oracular’, ‘vatic’, ‘votive’, and ‘hermetic’ came to mind during my first reading of the collection. Are you aware of some kind of commitment to various types of difficulty—the difficulty of abstruse allusions, the difficulty of unusual words and diction, and even the difficulty of what one critic in relation to Lowell once called ‘pieces too personal’? 

PR Anderson: I’m not put off by those modifiers; I own them. Like I say, difficulty is only a high estimation of the intelligence of the reader or listener—and a democratic courtesy. Hill liked to quote Theodor Haecker in saying, more or less, that tyrants always want an art that is easily understood. I certainly have an aversion to falling into that estimate of the lowest common denominator. Difficulty depends a great deal on the expectation of the reader, and I do think poetry reaches to the pitch of the vatic. I appreciate that a good many people may not find the ‘sense’ in a symphony, the meaning plain, but I’d answer that they’re expecting something according to channels of cognition that are not apposite. Ultimately I suppose I find that poetry exists as a linguistic form to get at things that are hard to put into words; that some difficulty must arise from that is surely true and fair. But I don’t think eschewing difficulty is inherently democratic. And yes, like Eliot, there is some prerogative to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’—not that I do so consciously or with anything like his arrogance of his presumption. That’s not possible now.

The JRB: How does this commitment to difficulty play off against a poem’s unavoidable semantic quotient? 

PR Anderson: For me this is the greatest pleasure of composition—treading that line, finding that balance. I hope to leave—in what I consider the better poems—an apprehension of ‘the semantic quotient’ rather than a direct comprehension of it. If I wanted the latter I would stick to academic writing, which I mostly judge ghastly. But it’s no easy balance, and I’m sure I get it wrong at times. Suffice to say that the poems and lines of poems that stay with me are always ‘hooked’ with music; that is the outlasting quality. The meaning is absent, elusive, metamorphic—as it should be, I’m happy with that, the poem has to be abandoned (Valéry)—but the sonic property strangely carries it.

The JRB: You’ve spoken about your understanding of poetry as music before, an idea that returns us to the French Symbolists, Mallarmé in particular—but isn’t it true that it’s extraordinarily difficult to void a word of semantic meaning, to get words to sound off, so to speak? 

PR Anderson: The reader has to be the judge of that. It would be more pressing in my previous long poem, or sequence. This volume, Night Transit, has a mix of poetry that defers heavily to musical ‘sense’ and straight-up poems that are pretty accessible to a ‘prose’ reading. I don’t find the ‘voiding’ of meaning either difficult or quite the right idea, because the word is still—mostly—the just word, meaningful, sentient, even if a little abstruse or even arch. I think poetry should be different from quotidian speech. Why else have it? But I’m not a ‘language’ poet in the sense of letting in words wholly voided of significance, either out of a post-structuralist position or a feeling that poetry is wholly a form of musical composition. To the latter I plainly lean, however.

The JRB: It’s a typically modernist attempt to empty words threatening to lapse into conventional meaning or dead metaphor, presumably either to make us see, hear or understand language anew, or, more politically, to resist the automated diction of politicians, corporations, branding management agencies and so on, all of whom resort to varying degrees of cant. Do you think this heroic understanding of modernism still has any purchase? Are there other, less combatively engaged, alternatives?

PR Anderson: The older I grow the more I see the persistence of epochs, and the flowing into one another of categories that were held out as stark antipathies when I was being taught. In short, I think that vision of modernism still does have some purchase—it may not be on any grand socially engaged scale, but the lonely undertaking of an isolated person late at night; it still seems to me better to be done than not. I think of that isolated late-nighter and I think of ‘Frost at Midnight’ and the vigil kept on the owl’s cry and the ‘eavesdrops’ by Coleridge two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, and I wonder about how much modernism really refuted Romanticism. I suppose I see instances more than collective contours as I age.

The JRB: What, then, would you say about your particular stance with regard to an audience? This question also seems to me to be about how you see yourself in relation to the wider field of South African poetry. Will you pass judgement on that field?

PR Anderson: I certainly won’t pass judgement on any field that cares to read poetry at all! I read my fellow poets and like them each in their way, though there are many I could not emulate, nor want to. It’s good that we’re a broad church. I am happy to occupy an end in language that is not easily understood, and I hasten to add that I find myself difficult at times too. The little renaissance of local publishing that followed 1994 has been a wonderful invigoration of our culture of letters. There are spaces for many types. When I set out, in my student years, there was an explicit and an implicit argument for a wholly socially engaged literature. We all felt it and responded in kind—for, against, betwixt—and a confusion of voices was as much the order of the day then as now, despite the very great gravity of a magazine like Staffrider, and of the moment itself. I’ve always felt poetry, so central to me, is a marginal yet ubiquitous human undertaking. It needs to be everywhere on the edges of things. If it meets its audience there on the edge, instead of in the supermarkets and clothing emporia, which are so much the centre of our culture, well, that’s better, for now.

The JRB: I’d like to end by noting a couple of poems that I feel may have emerged from the experimentation with voice that characterised your last collection, In A Free State, and which seem to me to do something that is perhaps new for you: the dramatic monologues of ‘A Full Confession’, ‘Heinz Guderian’ and perhaps a couple of others like, say, ‘Cutting’, which recalls the sorts of anecdotal orality one might find in Bleek and Lloyd or Stephen Watson’s translations from the /Xam and the !Kung. What are your thoughts on the dramatic monologue as a formal alternative to the problems faced by lyric or modernist modes of poetic expression? 

PR Anderson: I hadn’t quite thought of these poems as dramatic monologues, though ‘Guderian’ certainly is. I’m much persuaded by Bakhtin or Voloshinov as to the dialogical nature of the utterance, even in our own heads, our undramatic monologues, even especially so. This means that I am always using poems not to state an integrated self, but to perform a divided one, to ventriloquise for myself in the poem as act rather than entity. Like the old lady at the Left Book Club meeting about the Spanish War, responding to the callow Oxbridge chair urging her to get to the point: ‘Young man, how can I possibly know what I’m trying to say until I’ve said it!?’ Of course, that is wildly overstating my absence from what gets said in the poems—most of them have pretty finite denotative destinations in consciousness. But you’re right in prompting me to urge upon readers a great caution in presuming the ‘point’ of a poem to be that of its author. Many a love lyric I have written with no object in mind, or the merest detail as a hook. There’s a high degree of performativity in all utterance, and the most arch of genres, poetry, must own to this too. And celebrate it, for the performance liberates energies, ideas and words in hitherto unknown permutations, and complicates us and the world as it ought to.

The JRB: Thank you for an illuminating conversation.

  • Simon van Schalkwyk is the Academic Editor. His latest work is a collection of poems, Transcontinental Delay. Follow him on Twitter.

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