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This article is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.

Cherry Clayton

I suppose we always develop an intimate response to poems which engage our own deep memories and affections. Thus, when I first read David Wright's "Cape Town, 1937: Embarking for England" and came to these lines:


In hallways at Kalk Bay
Fishing-tackle waits beside a salt-stained surfboard;
The electric trains flicker by
Washed colonial gables, rainweary oakwoods,
And expensive small hotels,
Stucco villas elbowing for maritime vistas


I thought, Good Heavens, there's my entire childhood, though I was born six years later, when the hotels had become even more expensive and the oakwoods wearier. The next and last stanza of the poem is commentary, the commentary of a semi-outsider who would perhaps like to distance himself from an illiberal, philistine society: "O spectacular home of mediocre visionaries" and "one of the more terrifying middleclass paradises of the shut mind and eye". I like the commentary less than the evocation, not because it isn't true, but because it is at a critical remove from the country and the experience; it seems to validate withdrawal, whereas the evocation is the experience.

The straddling of two countries might make for personal tensions in a poet, but in David Wright's case it issues in the illumination of re-visitings, the emotional pressure of arrivals and departures which pushes up the creative barometer of poetry, as many of the poems in A South African Album testify. Absence makes the eye ...


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