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Congratulations to Klara du Plessis, Vallum contributor and former employee, for winning the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for her book, Ekke!

Ekke by Klara du Plessis
(Toronto: Anstruther Books, 2018, 92 pages, $18.95 CND)

EkkeCover75dpi.jpg

Eeeeeek. Ek. Ekkkk. Ekke. I play around with this word a few times before opening Klara du Plessis’s debut collection of poetry. That I have to say the word aloud, in different inflections, means at least two separate things: one, I do not speak Afrikaans; and two, the word itself contains myriad possible interpretations. Similarly, there are endless possible ways to review this book, which is a marker of its strength and complexity. One interpretation is through the lens of race; another through thinking about modern nation-states; and yet another is through the ways in which languages structure identity for the immigrant, the emigrant, the settler, the traveller, the multilingual:

I eke
out a meaning for my self.

Ek
Ek
Ek
Ek
Ek
Ek
Stottering

Stutter ringing

Du Plessis’s work signals not only how much effort it takes to describe oneself but how that description is multivarious, and therefore mutable, vulnerable to fragmentation. In Afrikaans, the word ekke, as du Plessis’s notes translate, means “an emphasis of I. / A dialect.” In English, the same word is also a sound—of terror, judgement, reaction. The speaker’s sense of self lies in the wide space between names, words, languages.

Du Plessis’s phrasing is startling, dreamlike. “I pluck at juice around the mouth” or “brushing camouflage on stones” are lines that pop. That language itself can be a landscape full of “black line(s) leading tarred to the abattoir,” “subtropical strap-ons,” “pin-pricks of white between grays and browns” is clearly, and beautifully, rendered here.

The second section of the book, “Stillframe Inbox,” is particularly compelling. There is much to be said about technology and ekphrasis, or the ways in which images (emojis and memes, in particular) have become common verse in our languages. Instead, du Plessis’s explanation of the section as a eulogy for her late friend, the artist Dorothea (Dot) Vermeulen, gives the poems an elegiac tone in which one begins to understand that language, like our loved ones, leaves traces:

It’s not safe sex, location is everything and this place
is not the wrong side of the tracks but the tracks themselves
where trains no longer make their elated way
and men walk tracing exhalations in the dust with their boots

If the book has a shortcoming perhaps it’s that I, as a reader, cannot comprehend if the narrative has a definitive political stance. The playfulness of du Plessis’s style, while clever and robust, had me itching for the theme to land on an argument. I wanted more profanity, more messiness in the language. The fact that both Afrikaans and English have been creolized—often by those whose traditional languages were made precarious by the ongoing European colonial project—does not, at least overtly, enter the text. Though du Plessis is careful to underscore the ways in which language continues to mark the landscapes of bodies:

mond oorblyfsels teen die skedel

ancestry perverted as

vertes

My language is a secret / secretion …
uncurling its animal muscles when the break is done

Diverging from the boiling anger found within Erin Mouré’s collection of feminist language-overhaul in her 1988 book Furious, Ekke is, on the other hand, meditative. It rides on “brute force.” Concerned with how power operates, the book thoroughly tests what language, as we use it, can offer:

Hunt stands adjacent to hurt
to be protected is to let that person be exposed.
Show-off masculinity and suddenly
there’s a collection of men, a natural history museum right there and
then.

That this “natural history museum” may include language, or a type of language, or a way of using language, are exciting propositions. As a reader, writer, and someone who thinks in words, my own experience of language—the language used to describe me and the language I have used to describe myself—has often felt imprecise. For example, a compound, North American word like ‘mixed-race’ does not come close to approximating or explaining my particular world-view as a mixed-race person, and thus tends to feel dead on the page. In Ekke, du Plessis holds a funeral for the limitations for every overused, empty, inanimate woord.

Are certain languages too tied up with the logic of the nation-state to be accurate representations of place? I am struck by the way du Plessis’s poems reveal the hidden strenuousness of officialised languages and the constrictive rationale of languages of colonial conquest; English, Afrikaans, French. The collection gestures toward loosening these limitations through the exercise of expansion and connection. It uncloaks how each of these languages exhaust themselves to keep themselves in power, and how observant study may allow new linguistic infinities. This is true specifically in South Africa, where the use of language—and the effect that certain languages have on those who use them, what language imbues— has always had political impact:

To reminisce is a ritual.
But to renew
a book at the library or the cells of the skin
or for a nation to officiate one language to eleven
is the hardest doubling act you’ll see

in this country.

The speaker “walk[s] across different languages as if they are flatlands.” I’m reminded of Dionne Brand’s assessment that “no language is neutral,” and as du Plessis elaborates, what if (inadequate, at times partisan) language is all one has to find a physical (psychic) closeness to place? If there is “no lingua franca of the mind,” as du Plessis asserts, how does one’s relationship with oneself operate in different locales? What happens right before “decency intervenes and the distance between thrusts / lingers?” How cavernous is the dialect between the “I” of the languages we speak, and the “I” of the physical landscapes we live in? It seems to me the closing of this gap relies on comprehensive study of what we say and how we say it.

 

Zoe Imani Sharpe is a poet and editor based in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Sang Bleu Maga- zine, Main Street, Lemonhound, The Puritan, and is forthcoming in The Unpublished City – Volume II. Her chapbook, Sullied, was published by Trapshot Archives in 2011.

To view other content published in this issue, 15:2, please visit Vallum’s website.