South African Poetry Analysis Creative Writing

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Antjie Krog's Country Of Grief And Grace

Antjie Krog (2000) uses metaphor and extended metaphor throughout the poem "Country of Grief and Grace" -- itself an exploration of existential crisis in South Africa, ravaged by apartheid and violence. Krog descends into this maelstrom to provide the reader a glimpse, a hope, a ray of light that beams through the sludge of hopelessness, despair and grief. Through her use of metaphor and extended metaphor, Krog constructs an alternate way of looking at the world in which she lives -- a framework that invites the reader to question the borders and boundaries of time and space which keep separate the past and the future, the young and the old, the black and the white. By merging or synthesizing the elements of her country into a cohesive whole, Krog shows that all is one -- and in this revelation is the seed of peace, the germ of life. Moreover, by constructing metaphors out of verbiage within the poem, Krog speaks metaphorically of the war waged in her homeland as a type of battle between two entities, entwined like lovers fighting to separate even as they cling to one another.

The first vague reference to the subject of the poem -- "it" -- which is cited twice in the opening stanza -- is as something negative that keeps the two characters apart. It is "between" them but is unnamed. The pronoun is used almost mythically in the same manner as the great cosmic force that the Hebrews recognized as God but dared not name (thus they referred to the force as I AM WHO AM) (McCarthy, 1978). Yet instead of the force that exists between the two characters in the poem being recognized as a positive entity, it is characterized as painful and fraught: "how desperately it aches between you and me." Then a wail of grievances follows thereupon with the narrator taking on the persona of the Psalmist, bemoaning the effects of "it" -- "destruction," the suffering that attends the pursuit of "truth," the scarcity of energy that remains behind, making "survival" a difficult task enough -- let alone the acknowledgment of any kind of truth. Thus, in the opening stanzas, the poet makes plain that "it" is a conflict waged for higher ground -- a higher state -- a war that has brought combatants into its field and watched them fight one another for this higher claim while their vital resources and essences are depleted and drained. Another mythical reference is alluded to in the verb "slung" -- the sling of David, used against the giant adversary Goliath: but here in the poem the weapon is not a stone but a "voice" -- angry words -- and the sounds that are breathed out of one's lungs and given shape by the mouth are used as a metaphor for weapons -- fired out of the sling directly into the adversary, now recognized as the two's past.

The past of the two is described like a corpse -- "the solid cold length of our past" -- laid out flat upon a slab at the morgue. The metaphorical device used by Krog gives the poem its essential motif now: the past -- the life that the two shared (the two are as of yet still unknown, undefined for the reader, but the sense is that they were once intimate) is now dead. The metaphor death sets up the hope, however, for rebirth, for resurrection, for hope springing out of the ashes, phoenix-like -- and the means of this renewal is the same channel as that which robbed the two of life -- the "voice". Krog yields up another plaintive cry: "how long does it take for a voice to reach another?" The metaphor is extended now -- but altered and taken in an unexpected direction, offering up to the reading a variety of possible interpretations: a voice -- like a bullet fired from a rifle, or a stone hurled from a sling -- must travel over space and time to arrive at its destination; does it move quickly or slowly? -- does it stop, take detours? -- can it be caught and considered at a later point in time? Or is it like a vaccine, medical first aid, like that which arrives on the front lines of a battle field when the din of war has been subdued? -- does the voice come like a salve, healing the wounded with words of warmth, light, hope and kindness? The poet does not say -- not yet -- (later she will embark upon a search for the Christian concept of forgiveness, as Vosloo (2012) notes); for now, she only asks how long it takes to come "in this country held bleeding between us." And at this point it becomes clear what the two are fighting over: they are fighting over their country.

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The metaphorical approach of the poet in describing their combat is now extended to include the metaphor of the homeland, torn apart and bleeding even as it remains in one piece between the two acting as a glue -- a fixative that also keeps them bound to one another.

The poem's second part of the poem introduces a new metaphor, which again uses the biblical verbiage to enrich its meaning: "in the beginning is seeing" -- a reference to the Word, which is described in John's Gospel. Fisher (1985) defines it as a "narrative paradigm" that is used to construct and thematically cohesive expression of ideas (p. 74). In Krog's poem, the paradigm is shifted from the warring relationship of the two entities in the first part to a mystical expression of the sin and grace that exists within the "wounds of anger" (Krog, 2000). The metaphor used herein is one in which the wounds suffered by the two parties and by the country are what contain the whole of the past as well as the seeds for hope. By entering into the wounds and looking with the eyes -- "seeing" as Krog puts it -- and listening with the ears to the "voices" that speak for the whole of the country from out the wounds -- reflection is possible and out of reflection can come a new peace. The concept of baptism by blood -- baptism into a community -- is used to intertwine the concepts already introduced in the poem in the first part: words, violence and unity: the voices of the country are literally "baptized in syllables of blood and belonging" -- a metaphorical way of saying that the violence and fighting are not outwardly directed but inwardly directed. The fighters are only killing themselves in their attempts to kill one another. The more they spill one another's blood, the more they are staking their eternities to one another. Krog alludes to "angel hair and barbs / dew and hay and hurt" -- symbols that reference the ethereal, spiritual realm and the earthy, physical realm. Thus, Krog's second part of the poem is an extended metaphor for the wounds of the country serving as a means of transcendence -- a way for everyone to pause, reflect, and bring together the two natures of their humanity, the physical and their spiritual natures, and unite them in what is clearly another allusion to the religious allegory that underlines the poem -- that of redemption -- here suggested in the juxtaposition of symbols, "angel hair and barbs / dew and hay and hurt," all of which hint at the Incarnation (the Word that is in the beginning -- replace by Krog with seeing). Krog is pointing to the wounds that her country has suffered and like a saint in a religious icon pointing the finger not at the opponent but rather upward towards the divine. The "hay" is where the Word made Incarnate is laid -- the food of the animals made into a bed for the Lord (Sumner, 2013).

The third part of the poem begins with the narrator "speechless" as she awaits for the words to come -- the metaphor of the Word (the Incarnate Son of God who brings redemption, healing and forgiveness -- which is explicitly desired at the end of the poem) is still not….....

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Fisher, W. (1985). The narrative paradigm: In the beginning. Journal of Communication, 35(4): 74-89.

Krog, A. (2000). Down to my last skin: Poems. South Africa: Random House.

McCarthy, D. (1978). Exod 3:14: History, philology and theology. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40(3): 311-322.

Sasson, V. (1989). King Solomon and the dark lady in the Song of Songs. Vetus Testamentum, 39(4): 407-414.

Sumner, D. (2013). The twofold life of the Word: Karl Barth's critical reception of the Extra Calvinisticum. International Journal of Systematic Theology, 15(1): 42-57.

Vosloo, R. (2012). Traumatic memory, representation and forgiveness: Some remarks in conversation with Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi, 46(1): 53-60.

Whitman, W. (1900). Leaves of Grass. Bartleby. Retrieved from

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