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This review is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

ELBOW ROOM Breyten Breytenbach, Judas Eye (Faber & Faber) £9.95

Extreme situations beget extreme poetry. The poems in Judas Eye were written after lights out in South African maximum security gaols where the author was serving seven of the nine years to which he was sentenced for treason. 'I couldn't see my own lines and therefore couldn't change or scrap anything', he told an interviewer after his release (Index on Censorship, June 1983). 'I wrote in a sort of new language that I couldn't read back any more; lyrical poetry, ecriture automatique'. The result is writing that is headlong, undisciplined, painful and confused, 'talking images' which 'gush from the breast to be captured / by hand from sourmouth' ('the bifid route'). 'Why bother with the word?' the poet asks himself a few lines later. It is the 'No Man's Parole', is his characteristically clumsy, self-consciously punning reply. But whatever the flaws to a reader now - and there are many - it's at least evident that Breyten Breytenbach found what he was looking for in his prison poetry: 'some elbow-room in Hell'.

The phrase comes from a motto he devised for the first volume of verse to emerge from his imprisonment - Voetskrif ('Footwriting'), which he wrote in a month, and which was published in South Africa while he was still inside, then disavowed when he came out. The motto was addressed to the colonel who conducted the preliminary investigation into his subversive activities; although subversive is hardly the word for Breytenbach's absurd attempt to relinquish ...


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