David Latané: On Peter Horn's `Rivers'

Peter Horn, The Rivers that Connect us to the Past (South Africa: Mayibue Books, University of the Western Cape, 1996. ISBN 1-86808-303-9).

At a distance, politics can clarify like butter, and for a generation of us in the old First World, South Africa presented a clear and unambiguous solution to the problem of taking a political stance. "This country," writes Horn, "has been packaged / behind the glass of countless tv screens" (66). On the one side you had giant corporations in pursuit of gold and a strange volk with religious beliefs which were atavistic not to the good old days of shamanism but to the decidedly unsexy days of protestant fanaticism; on the other, inevitably, the good. In 1984 during a summer spent in New Haven, I daily walked past the Nelson Mandela shantytown, built by the politically righteous youth of Yale. It was assembled on the plaza in front of the Beinecke Rare Book Library, the most gorgeous temple in existence to the preciousness of the containers of the Western mind. Behind its translucent marble walls rose a crystal tower of books, from Guttenberg on down. Out on the pavement, barely tolerated by the authorities, students constructed play dwellings in a parodic reminder of those living in real shanties built from unattended debris. Politics at a distance were clean and tractable. (I also walked by the junkies and panhandlers on the New Haven common each day, and the corporate offices where many of the protesters would get high-paying jobs by virtue of Yale degrees and connections.) But what has stayed in my mind is the collaging of shanty and rare book library.

Peter Horn's poetry, with its learning (Horn is a Professor of German), its epigraphs from Ovid in both Latin and English, its willingness to deploy science and myth as the twins of the present, and its indubitable political engagement, is a reminder of that image, minus the jejune and the insincere. The Rivers which Connect us to the Past has a beautiful depth of focus. In the foreground are political tensions which Horn's poetry captures complexly yet without muddling its moral demarcations; stretching deep behind these phenomena however is the enduring land, the depth of geological time, which, served up via one mode, makes all human struggle Lilliputian and absurd, like figures seen through the wrong end of the telescope. Horn doesn't play that trick, however, and his title sequence works, I think, towards a more humanistic end.

The young John Newman, attending Buckland's lectures at Oxford, notes in a letter that geology "opens an amazing field to imagination and to poetry" (qtd. in Tillotson, Criticism and the Nineteenth Century (1967) 220). Horn's cultivation of this field through his poetic sequence is one of the more powerful recent versions, attractive because he manages to combine the calmness and disinterestedness of the measure of geological time not with the frisson of memento mori but rather with significant political engagement. Tennyson's "Dragons of the prime / That tare each other in the slime" -- a fright that would be ended by Hallam as transcendental St. George -- might be considered as a starting point. Later the American poet Robinson Jeffers had a more positive love of geologic time and also the pose of his own solitude at "Tor House," which he imagines in 10,000 years: "Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art / To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant." Jeffers strives for impersonality, even the inhuman, at times, but sounds the note of ego nonetheless. Other poets of this century have created amazing poetry -- MacDiarmid's "On a Raised Beach" comes immediately to mind, and Ted Hughes, in poems such as "Pibroch" and "The Howling of Wolves" from Wodwo, explores in a powerful way a lithogenesis as the wolves become "Innocence crept into minerals."

For Horn, the connecting rivers that he finds in the science of our day, which predicts through genetic patterns ,

the oldest human, the ancestor of us all
roasting his meat over fire
long before black and white
long before European, African, Asian
long before race or colour:
far beyond the reach of our memory
           (pp. 15-16),

stream towards the present in which we live, in which "the poet is enjoined to name the pain / which he would like to be soothed and eliminated" (19). While the "river is the same river for ever" (20) the poet wrestles with the all-too-human "will to power which never regards life / as anything but an obstacle to be crushed" (19).

The fifth poem in the sequence, "Exchange control," takes up circulation -- in the waves, the atmosphere, even "the ever circulating core of the earth" (p. 21). The earth/water/body here makes a murmur that blots out the poet's voice. In the silence, one becomes aware that the "rocks remember / the time when sons turned into solid granite." The second section of this poem switches gears; it begins in the comparative mode: "But humans set up a different circulation" (p. 22). From the physical world we enter the metaphysical parody of commodity exchange, valuation, and fetishism, which linked to desire transforms the "peaceful sand of the Kalahari" (of part 1) into the "mirages, images, heat over the desert, and honour / blood flows endlessly into the sand" (pp. 22-23). As the master trope of circulation evolves in this poem, it also becomes more personal by taking up language and writing; writing is the means of circulating such thoughts, and Horn points to the origins of writing with Sumerian accountants making scratches in baked clay ledgers. The poem concludes:

Writing is an accountant's skill
from far off temples in Sumer.
It is the writer's duty to disturb
the symmetry of debit and credit.
           (p. 25).

This ending is then necessary for the next poem in the sequence, "A hundred eyes around my head," which is a slight modification of its epigraph, Centum lumenibus cinctum caput Argus habebat; that makes the poet into Argus, but also has an ambiguity, in that the "eyes around my head" also seem like a panoptical surveillance of the self. " hundred eyes" takes up the "naming of the pain" in earnest, in a litany of martyrs:

I weep for Hector Peterson
who was shot by cold-blooded murderers in
when he was thirteen years old: hero of the
I weep for Michael Miranda shot by the police
while playing a children's game in the street. (29)

I was recently told by an young poet, commenting on one of the best Scottish poets of our time, that workshop wisdom forbade as eternally damned all lines that ended on insignificant words such as prepositions and articles. Horn's damnable line-endings demand pauses before words which would otherwise roll too easily into the cadences of the political speech or pamphlet. For me "hero of the / revolution" is a different thing altogether from "hero of the revolution," because by the end of the sequence we find "And I weep for Stompie Moeketsi Seipei / murdered by a football team." The end of the century one feels has had more than enough "terrible beauty."

The second section of the book is called "Survivors," and the poet speaks in these twenty poems in a private, colloquial voice, though rarely about purely private matters: "O.K. / that's it then / you don't want to listen / and I have no more desire / to convince you of anything" ("Statement to the press," 69). These poems gather strength from "The Rivers which Connect us to the Past," because we have more fully before us the historical situation, as well as the brevity of the individual life caught in a time and place. The concluding poem, "I have forgotten who I am," beautifully fuses the two halves of the book together:

The temptation to forget this time in which I live,
and to hand over my body parts to be redistributed
to the clouds and the sea and the mountain.

My heart feels nothing as the water rushes over my belly,
the scales are balances, the seconds equally spaced,
the mellow warmth of a late day in August,
bergwind warm for a Cape winter's day.

Meaning is a pattern of Namaqualand daisies
red, yellow and black covering the sandy soil.
When the grass begins to grow between the cobbles
the time has come: eternal green smothers
the transitory granite. (78)

The daisies colors are reminiscent of Shelley's dead leaves driven by the west wind, and represent races of men; the granite (which Jeffers celebrates worked by his hands) is cognate with Shelley's "trunkless legs of stone," and with Yeats's hearts "Enchanted to a stone," and Horn's "sons turned into solid granite" ("Exchange Control."). This is a lovely allusive ending, made strange by the strangeness of "Namaqualand" and pointing in a peaceful way to earth's eternal (and non-sectarian) wearing of the green.