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Separating the Seas by Kobus Moolman PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 November 2008 18:00

I like the title of Kobus Moolman’s recent collection of poetry, Separating the Seas. The turmoil in the words encouraged me to do this review. For as I grow older and begin to understand myself more, I find contentment in chaos and in storms. I am impatient with light which I find false. The dark principle to me explains everything, including absurdity, absence and loss. I know now that humans are exceedingly weak. Poets must deal with the rising complexities in human language with the understanding that life is in its most demoralizing and absurd stages . And therein lies the meaning in the struggle to which Kobus Moolman refers: a search for man’s elusive sanity.

There’s a perceptive urgency in these finely crafted poems to use language to undo life’s persistent puzzles:

      The mist comes in

      on the slough of the sea.

      The sea appears

      out of the mist in scraps.

      There is no border

      to the wound all around,

      and the thinning of the grey

      far away into doubt.


Separating the Seas is divided into five sections dealing with perspectives derived from  experiences of everyday life. Poems in the section titled “Travelling Shots” focus on sojourns and short travels through small dorps and towns. The poems capture the emptiness that has become the defining feature of life in these small towns in the countryside: the realization that life has changed irreversibly, “i walk with weak knees/down a road/whose end /i cannot see” (p15); the loss in feeling and compassion, “nothing at all/left to get away” (p19). The images are of a human landscape hardened by loss of faith in human solidarity, of a territory of little remorse or mercy:

      Hills are wan in the distance,

      grass is dry and yellow.

      Somewhere an old fire burns

      a dead man’s dreams.

      (“Auto da fe”)


      The sky goes slowly

      away behind a smoky hill.

      Nothing at all left of its leaving,

      except the abandoned cry

      of a hadeda.



Poets must be able to discern the consciousness of the living and the non-living. Their poems must inform us of the energy that constitutes all forms of relationships, both human and non-human. For it is not only in the physical or in the organic that we must have appreciation. All things exist in the world for a reason, sometimes to unlock the many secrets of our world.

      A heavy moon 

      Hovers at my shoulder…………

      I had not imagined

      Loss to be such a release.

      (“Winter fire”)


In a poem called “Limpopo village”, Moolman depicts a rural setting. Dismal scenes of neglect and of people trapped in poverty abide where

      - The dirt road is

      dry, entirely red 

      and dry.


      - Red clay pots lie

      broken on both sides

      of the red road


      - A white chicken squawks

      under the arm

      of a young girl.


      - On her head the girl carries

      her old wooden bed

      to her wedding.

As an aside, I was a bit disappointed with a few poems in the section titled “Cost of living”. Here the pared language numbs the intensity of some poems, for example, in a poem like “When there is no food”, which I found cold.

Moolman’s strengths as one of the leading voices in South African poetry come through when he’s most vulnerable – when he battles the varied manifestations of ordinary life. This response works to his advantage because immediately, like a star, the light in his poetry shines through. Human suffering works wonders at times in an extremely sensitive soul, as in the poem “Absence”, which deals with fatigue, human disillusionment and loneliness in a robust, yet soft language:

      The house is cold now.

      I wake up in the early hours

      shivering, my teeth chattering

      like a helicopter.

      The cold burns

      through blankets, sweaty tracksuit

      down to my bone.

      This bed is too big to keep warm.

      Your half remains frozen

      like a lake

      missing the sudden smile of fish

      surfacing for sun.

What distinguishes excellence in poetry is the ability to extend human imagination, to discolour time and space, to dislocate human assumptions. The aim is to increase complexity through raising doubts – exposing heresy and showing human weakness and fear. The truth is we do not have the answers to ninety percent of our biggest problems. Poetry can help us in the task to formulate suitable questions.

      where is the sound of the sea?

      where is the long train of the sea

      drumming its low song through the night?

      where is the sun honing a bright blade

      on the stone of the sea?

      where is the sea?

      (“Stoning the sea”)

Separating the Seas is an excellent collection of poems of startling beauty and leaping images. The fleeting imagery helps us to discern the magnitude of the ordinary, the strength in powerful dreams.