"I write you from afar" - Wopko Jensma enigmatic poet of Africa
Ex Africa semper aliquid novum
I feel the drums of my tribe
beating away in me
they are a hard long scream
a ghoul gangrene
i nibble stones for bread
yell no amen for me
they are this night
all just breaking glass
drums, i write you from afar
hear my pounding heart
- from "stones for bread", by Wopko Jensma
In 1993 a disheveled man walked out of the Salvation Army Men's Home in downtown Johannesburg and was never seen again, as far as anyone knows. This not too unusual event would be unremarkable, except that the man in question has been called the "first South African poet", an artist of whom it has been written that "he used his words as his jazz instrument and his expression is his rhythm."
Some of the facts of his life are known, but much is not known about him. There are long periods of his life which are unclear, shrouded in mystery and cluttered with conjecture.
What is known for certain is that Wopko Jensma was born on 26 July 1939 in the Karroo town of Middelburg, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. His father was Dutch and his mother Afrikaans.
Jensma studied at the University of Potchefstroom for a short while until his studies were interrupted by a motorcycle accident. He later studied again, this time at the University of Pretoria, where he enrolled for a bachelor's degree in fine arts, majoring in sculpture. During this time he also did part-time editing and translating work.
Jensma travelled widely in Southern Africa, marrying a black woman called Lydia, which meant he could not return to South Africa with her and their two children, as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was still in force.
In 1969 he returned alone to South Africa and, as far as is known, never saw his family again. He moved around South Africa, never settling long in one place, all the while producing a torrent of poems, lino-cuts and other art works.
Writing from afar
By 1973 he had had 24 exhibitions of his art works and by 1977 three collections of poetry, with many artworks interspersed with the texts, had been published. These collections were entitled Sing for Our Execution (1973), Where White is the Colour, Where Black is the Number (1974), and I Must Show You My Clippings (1977), all published by Ravan Press in Johannesburg.
Because he was writing about an experience or experiences that were far removed from those of his fellow white Afrikaners these collections aroused mostly animosity and a deliberate non-understanding. This led to his marginalisation by most in the literary establishment, at least as far as the Afrikaans part of that was concerned. Poet Mafika Gwala, after meeting Jensma, and feeling his pain, said: "I could think of only one thing: his white world was killing him, as if out to destroy him. Perhaps he had refused for too long to be the white he was expected to be" (Matatu 3/4:2).
Jensma began to slide into the shadow world of schizophrenia, living off a state pension for the permanently disabled and living in the Salvation Army Men's Home along with hobos and other down-and-outs.
From dada to struggle poetry: Pullin Strong
In the less than two decades of his productive artistic and poetic life he produced some amazing work which in my view spanned many different genres and styles - dadaism, surrealism, and the beginnings of what came to be known in South Africa as "struggle poetry," though I think to put that label on his work is to see it through too limiting a lens - his work was far broader and more anchored in the personal than "struggle poetry" could ever be.
It is true that he wrote angry and anguished poems about the reality of life in a deeply divided society, which somehow he started to reflect in his own psyche. It was almost as if he took into himself the divisions of the worlds in which he lived and then wrote his words with this almost jazz improv feeling, this feeling of ragged improvisations on life in the key of suffering.
Jensma was clearly also influenced and inspired by jazz and the blues. Many of his poems reference jazz or blues musicians, both from the United States and South Africa.
For example, the poem "Pullin Strong at Eleven-forty-five" from the first collection, referenced Champion Jack Dupree, Pee Wee Russell, Malombo (a South African jazz group), Jimmy Rushing, under the epigram: baby, i'm not a fool - champion jack dupree:
"till mornin an eevnin peewee'n malombo jazz
oh gee boys, who's dat man dere
blow a flute, boy
you's my kinda guy - oh hea'm
his byebye baby any monday walkiin a ol blues
as jimmy rushing says: any monday 'n
she aint your girl, she aint my girl
no, she's anybody's goddam girl - an i get
maself ma shootin rod
an slash anybody's skull open hea me ova, yea hea me
blowin dat to spiky blues ova
ma dea woman - yea 't aint your beloved ol
dowtown orlando: it's solid hearin, you ablo
in a shack oozin, amn feel dat dirge, oh yeya
This poem epitomises much of the character of Jensma's poetry - its capturing of the language of the so-called "underclasses" in South Africa, a street patois known as "tsotsi taal" or "vly-taal", its surreal mixing of images and the expressions of anger, sometimes of violence. It is a poem of frustration, and I think Jensma was a very frustrated man, in spite of his outpouring of words and images.
It is this use of language which led many to think that Jensma was in fact Black.
Kippie: No Dream
Another poem calling up the spirit of a jazz man is entitled "No Dream", and it calls up famed sax man Kippie Moeketsi, known as the "sad man of South African jazz" and also revered as the "South African Charlie Parker" for his embrace of the bebop style of jazz, well before any other South African musician did so.
stroppy kippie moeketsi
in a pea
we softly walked the holy of holies in
some MP laughs, jeers
and holds up his hands in cleanliness
shattert we a'
all feelin -
dem all in a pea
stroppy kippie moeketsi
Kippie Moeketsi is again called up in the poem from Clippings called "klop en vir julle sal toegemaak word" (knock and it will be closed to you), a poem about schizophrenia (was it prescience or knowledge of his own condition) written in Afrikaans, which calls up artists who have been alleged to have been schizoid: Beethoven, Gauguin, Baudelaire (who, according to this poem, was not only shizoid, but "boonop is hy aan syphilis dood" - "in addition he died of syphilis"), French outsider poet Francois Villon, Flemish poet and activist Paul van Ostaijen, Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, and a whole list of others, including Moeketsi.
Black Bottom Stomp and Binsey Poplars
In the collection Where White is the Colour Where Black is the Number appears this remarkable poem, entitled "Black Bottom Stomp", in which Jensma calls up a strange, Surreal mixture of jazz and blues with high Victorian English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, specifically his poem "Binsey Poplars". It makes for a heady mix:
she sings her sorrows no more
no booze bottles
ma rainey dear -
my black-rim hat don't fit
my heads polluted with grief
also my binsey poplars
all felled, felled, are all felled
mama, da bleedin moon
cuts no ice, split no dice -
bloody bustin - oh hell
if i died her
oh yea, my day'd neva eva end
The line "all felled, felled, are all felled" is a direct quote from Hopkins' poem. The point of touch between the poems is I guess the fragility of loved things, and perhaps Jensma was harking back to Hopkins' lines about nature: "Where we, even where we mean / To mend her we end her." Did Jensma feel that about his relationships, perhaps with Lydia? Is that what he meant in that haunting last stanza?
Whatever, this poem carries a heavy load of meaning, a "head polluted with grief."
Finding himself in a situation
Wopko was clearly aware of his "situation" especially in respect of his schizophrenia. A poem called "Spanner in the What? Works" from the Clippings collection speaks about his situation, about his sense of paradoxical connectedness and disconnectedness. After listing his place of birth as four different towns or suburbs in South Africa, although always on the same day, he writes that "i found myself in a situation":
"now, when my mind started to tick
i noticed other humans like me
shaped like me: ears eyes
hair legs arms etc....(i checked)
we all cast in the same shackles:
flesh mind feeling smell sight etc..."
The next stanza gives personal details:
"date today is 5 april 1975 i live
at 23 mountain drive derdepoort"
and the next stanza a list of possessions:
"i possess a typewriter and paper
i possess tools to profess i am an artist"
Then follows a stanza which begins:
"I brought three kids into this world
(as far as i know)".
And I wonder about that capitalised "I" all of a sudden - why at that point in the poem is it capitalised? Just another question to add to all the others I have about this enigmatic poet.
In the next stanza he shows how, in spite of everything, he still hopes, he still wants to have meant something in the world, and it's a stanza I cannot read without a sense of loss and sadness, knowing the kind of end he did have.
"i hope to live to the age of sixty
i hope to leave some evidence
that i inhabited this world
that i sensed my situation
that i created something
out of my situation
out of my life
that i lived
And I guess this is "some evidence" that he "lived / as human/ alive" that we can still read his poetry and wonder about it, wonder about what was happening in that head "polluted with grief"? We can still marvel at the works of art he produced with the "tools to profess i am artist", which he certainly was.
The final stanzas of this amazing poem tell of his death on "26 July 1999" in four different circumstances and places: the Costa do Sol, the "grasslands" and the Kgalagadi (usually Anglicised as "Kalahari") desert and "in an argument." Was that last a prophecy about how he would die? Did he in fact die in an argument? Perhaps we will never know. What we do know is that however and wherever he died (if he is indeed dead) he will have found himself "in a situation."
On Sunday he would have celebrated his 70th birthday (or perhaps he still will, who knows?) and this tribute to him is my humble birthday gift to him. I wish I could give it to him in person. Instead I write it to him from afar.
22 July 2009.
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