in Africa: //Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter, Alistair Patterson takes on nothing less then the history of humanity – or, more specifically, our collective origins deep in the continent of the title. In his forward Patterson reveals the genesis of the poem in Neil Bennon’s The Broken String, an account of Victorian linguist and philologist Wilhelm Bleek’s studies of the language, culture and mythology of the now vanished /Xam-ka !ei, a branch of the San people, a tribe of bushmen who dwelt in South Africa. The //Kabbo of the title was one of the /Xam-ka !ei who Bleek, along with Lucy Lloyd, interviewed and learned the language from.
Patterson Writes of reading Bennon’s book that: “I was unwell and increasingly aware of my own mortality. The visionary views and beliefs of the /Xam-ka !ei – their conviction that animals, people and their spirits, the past and present, coexist with each other […] resonated with me” (7). These conceptions of history as perpetual and the universal oneness of things manifest themselves on the poem’s narrative structure, which flits backward and forward across millennia. It is through these techniques of temporal distortion that Patterson once again proves himself one of this country’s most skilled practitioners of the extended lyric. Through the almost exclusive use of the present tense as a means to lend immediacy to the past, he brings events such as Pearl Harbour and the voyage of the Beagle into the present, placing current events alongside half-forgotten myths and the legacy of the colonial past. This juxtaposition intertwines events, causing them to imbue each other with a new significance:
heard about it –
about what happened
in the Middle East
of how Israel’s dawn raid
‘rocked the truce’
& if he’d heard of it, what
Would he have thought:
of his brother
who’d been murdered
while he slept (28)
And one of the most powerful lines, given a stanza to itself:
_______________The British have left India … (64)
_______________the indies … (39)
which we are told earlier “was always there” (25).
This is a beautiful book, and not just for what it contains. Puriri Press’s effort is to be commended. The book is a hand-stitched hardback, and the interior paper stock has a beautiful heft and weight, which makes for a wonderful reading experience, and emphasises the book as an object. This lends the poem a sense of permanence, and adds to its treatment of time and history.