With five poetry collections published, her work presented at international festivals and translated into nine languages including Japanese, Turkish and Swedish, Ingrid de Kok is one of South Africa’s best known and widely loved poets. She is also the recipient of numerous writing fellowships and literary awards, including the Dalro poetry Award and the Herman Charles Bosman Award for English Literature.
Ingrid grew up in the ‘50s in Stilfontein, a gold mining town in what was then the Western Transvaal. “I had an extraordinary childhood,” she says. “It was free and relaxed, modest but safe. I am interested in poems about childhood and the growth of consciousness through childhood. Very little is written about mining life, a signal experience of many black and white South Africans. I am also interested in the way private life intersects with public, social and political life. Childhood is marked by a bigger experience than our own.”
She loved the hot, “austere’” scrubby landscape of the Western Transvaal, underneath which thousands of men dug and delved for the earth’s riches. Her father, a metallurgist, was allowed to take his children underground once a year and we were taken down the mineshaft with her through her poem ‘In the Cage’. Having grown up in the small goldmining town of Welkom, where every late Sunday afternoon the miners from the various homelands and countries beyond our borders would stream back to the mine” compounds” in their gumboots before the curfew siren would drown out their harmonious song, Ingrid’s description of the miners struck a deep chord.
“ The men below smiled shyly –
my mother said they missed their children-
but I was glad not to be the child
of an underground man,
eyes bloodshot, eardrums blown,
riding in a cage, crawling through a cave,
while above, only a curtain and a bed
and thick hot paste with gravy for food.”
For those of us raised in South Africa’s dry and dusty and more conservative hinterland where the Anglo Boer War still raged in the collective psyche decades after the peace treaty was signed, Ingrid de Kok’s poem, Childhood on Stilfontein Mine, is evocative.
Safest white childhood of the fifties
if your father didn’t beat you.
Cricket pitch creasing the veld,
constructed by somebody’s boys.
to mebos at the Greek cafe.
Salt, mustard, vinegar, pepper:
skipping on hot cement.
Waiting for the ice cream van
to ring its Saturday bell.
‘Afrikaner, vrot banana,’
Slime dams: for safety ‘s sake
forbidden to go near them.
Mine dumps: for safety ‘s sake
forbidden to play on them.
Men’s compounds: for safety ‘s sake
forbidden to hang around them.
She describes in her poem ‘William Kamanga’ her quest to find the Malawaian man who had served in her childhood household for thirty years. After the death of her father and her uncle and with ‘no old man to show the way’, she ended up at his home in Malawi, where she discovered that he had not received her phone calls or telegrams.
….and no one knew what to do with my sorrow.
Three grandchildren stood shyly in the shade
while in the kitchen Mary served tea
in my gran’s teacups, on my sister’s cross-stitch cloth,
while other familiars – Rhodesian copper vase,
ball-and-claw chair, old calendars on the dresser-
watched over us like Jesus and the ancestors.
And weeping for everything that had and hadn’t happened,
we opened an album of photographs….
home from home.
After completing her high schooling at boarding school in Johannesburg, Ingrid graduated with a BA in English and Political Studies from Wits where she came into contact with many other writers. In 1974 she completed her Honours degree in English at UCT. Her thesis for her Masters degree in English, obtained from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, dealt with the prolific Victorian writer and poet Thomas Hardy, who “came from a family of chisellers and workers in stone and was therefore very interested in shape. He wrote poems to fit a shape.”
Questioned as to whether she, like Thomas Hardy, wrote her poems to fit a shape, Ingrid replied that for her a theme begs her to find the appropriate form. “The poem asks you, it takes a shape. You need to be sensitive to the material and the form it requires. However, it is a useful exercise for younger writers in particular to practice strict forms.”
Ingrid spent eight years in Canada before returning to South Africa. She is a Fellow of the University of Cape Town, and a Professor in Extra Mural Studies, besides holding a number of other responsibilities in the field of the arts and education.
We were treated to poems on a variety of themes, from insomnia, to street children, to the tragedy of thirteen year olds being the head of the household, to the roadworks in Main Road Kalk Bay, camping in the Kalahari, leopard toads, marriage, the annual shooting of small birds by farmers in Tuscany using a caged canary as decoy. Funny poems, sad poems, poems written about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about childhood friends grown old, about children leaving home, about the last move of an elderly parent. Universal themes that resonated in some way in each of us held in the spell of Ingrid’s poems, beautifully written and beautifully read.
As the Scenic South celebrates life in the magnificent South Peninsula and because Ingrid resides in Kalk Bay it is appropriate to conclude with the poem ‘Signatures‘, a poem which appears in Other Signs:
And so, unexpectedly,
after an irascible year,
insomnia, low-density bones,
road rage, a torpid job,
to this: counting blessings
on a calm summer evening.
From the balcony ledge I see
two fishing boats tilt in the bay,
awash in ubiquitous snoek and kabeljou,
the durable Hottentots Holland
cradling them, and I think I hear
the clack and clatter of cart, horse and wheel,
a vulnerable sound barely in memory -
but it’s just homing cars on cobbles.
The neighbour’s duck patrols the garden,
checking its edible greens
smuggled in seed from Bellagio.
Tim the silent baker man,
crumbs like confetti clinging to him,
walks back from the Cafe Olympia
where everyone is happy and full.
Lavender glazes the salted air
and even the yapping dog is quiet for a moment
as it pees on the waxen buddleia hedge.
One, two, three blessings,
all the way to ‘overcountable’
as children used to say, still say,
despite advanced maths
and astronomy’s census of gyrating stars,
stars now incandescing their signatures
on the duomo’s ceiling, over my balcony choir.
Ingrid de Kok is the professional name of Ingrid Jean Fiske. Her collections of poetry include: Familiar Ground, Transfer, Terrestrial Things, Seasonal Fire, a collection in Italian and an anthology of poems about Cape Town compiled together with Gus Ferguson. Her most recently published collection is Other Signs, (2011, Kwela/Snailpress).