Well, not exactly love poems. To be sure, the poetry of Kerry Hammerton deals with the emotion that has fuelled thousands of poems, but it’s earthier than that, locating emotion in the body that is the site of lust and other longing as we age. Her verse has been called brave, but while she eschews coyness about sexual desire, it does not fall into sensationalism, because it displays a matter-of-fact authenticity. ‘I’m human, with all that entails physically and spiritually. Deal with it,” the verse says to me.
Hammerton’s gaze at the mundane realities of life is unflinching.
More than half
I have lived more than half my life.
More than half. Now a constraining sleeplessness
Threatens me at night. No more ‘long haul’
For me, no more ‘let’s see if this works out’.
Authenticity is the elusive but essential quality that characterises poetry and differentiates it from verse. We turn to poetry, not for the glossy official version, but the unflinching reality, or as near as damn, of living as expressed in Hammerton’s verse. This is honest poetry, and because she writes in plain English, for the most part ditching metaphor in favour of structure for impact, I think Hammerton should have a wider audience than is usual for poetry in South Africa.
So it was perhaps disappointing that the launch of Secret Keeper, Hammerton’s third collection, at Love Books in Melville was so sparsely attended Monday night. Then again, the start of the week is not auspicious for having a glass of wine and listening to poetry, which in any case, as Love Books owner Kate Rogan notes, does not exactly fly off the shelves.
Anyway, those who pitched up were treated not only to readings of remarkable poetry, but also to an illuminating discussion between Hammerton and fellow poet Arja Salafranca about the process of writing itself. Hammerton revealed she sets aside time each week with a writing partner. They meet and spend an afternoon writing, each engaged fully in their own composition. It’s a good form of mutual discipline.
Salafranca asked Hammerton, among other things, about poetry as catharsis, as therapy, but she rejected this, saying that her writing helped her work through things but was very much part of her identity.
Identity is for me wrapped up with place, and I find it intriguing that the poetry could literally have been written anywhere in the developed world; many of my own attempts at poetry have been inspired by precise location, in the city I grew up in, in the suburbs I lived in.
It’s also thought-provoking that politics, so much part of us that Roy Campbell wrote that South Africa was famous for politics and “little else beside”, is only evident here in the politics of human relationships. It doesn’t detract from the power of the verse, but again as part of a generation who could not avoid writing about the politics of place, I find myself asking the question: Has the end of formal Apartheid freed us from the accusation that by focusing our writing on our feelings about ourselves, our friends, lovers and our family, we are being indulgently apolitical?
Never mind. If you have any interest in poetry, go out and buy this book.
Finally, a big thanks to Kate for her small but impressive bookshop and for bringing us launches such as these.