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Patrick Cullinan’s Escarpments PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 02 December 2008 00:53

Poems 1973 – 2007. Published by: Umuzi

Patrick Cullinan is a distinguished, grand old man of South African letters, with a writing career that spans more than thirty years, as well as several genres. If Cullinan is best known by some as a poet, he is also an accomplished translator, having received the title ‘Cavaliere’ from the Italian government for his translations of the poetry of Eugenio Montale. In addition, Cullinan has written the novel Matrix (2002), a biography of the Dutch traveller and soldier Robert Jacob Gordon, and he has edited a collection of Bessie Head’s letters, and essays on Lionel Abrahams. Since his inaugural volume of poems The Horizon Forty Miles Away (1973), Cullinan has been the recipient of numerous literary honours, among them the Olive Schreiner Prize, the Pringle Award (three times), the Sanlam Literary Award, and let’s not forget the Slug Award, given by Gus Ferguson of Snail Press to poets for their service to the local poetry scene. In short, Cullinan is among the most eminent of literary figures in this country, and as was observed at the Cape Town launch of Escarpments, South Africa’s “poetic landscape cannot be imagined without his poetry” (Szczuek 2008).

When I first picked up the volume, after admiring the cover image taken from an oil on canvas by Caroline Cullinan, I paused a moment over the title, pondering….Depending on the discipline - geography, say, or geomorphology… - an ‘escarpment’ is considered a margin between land forms, or a transition zone between different physio-geographic types. (Is there something, here, an unbidden analogy, with Douglas Livingstone’s final collection of poems A Littoral Zone?) An escarpment involves a sharp and abrupt elevation visible as a precipitous cliff, or a dramatic slope. Within architecture, the term ‘escarpment’ may be extrapolated to describe a steep slope designed to form a fortification against an enemy’s approach….Rich metaphorical pickings; a good deal of intriguing suggestion about the uncertain positioning of a poet, over time, in relation to both the slippery slopes of social change and a more substantial population mass than the solitary poet. Separate and distinctive. Elevated. And yet shifting and vulnerable. Plus, the associated metaphors of solidity in relation to faultlines, fracturing, and erosion may be worked in both directions, towards the poet, and at his uncertain audience.


Escarpments definitely shows the white poet not revelling in the certainties of his ‘white writing’, but trying to manage the quandaries even as he finds some kind of provisional hope and comfort – refuge? – in words. It may be that Cullinan’s poetry has the kind of sophistication which has led some to claim that he has, throughout his career, too determinedly sought to rebuff what he considers to be the cloying parochialisms of South African culture, striving for an ‘international’ or perhaps a ‘European’ voice which can offset various kinds of local cultural barbarism…but in these poems I find my own pleasure in the poet’s tussling with the difficulties of living and writing in Africa, expressed as moments of deep belonging alongside enduring unease. And he is so aware, too, of poetry as a genre on the margins, aptly suited to an exploration of his own increasing cultural marginality. He even remarks in the Notes to the poems, for instance, that a poem such as “Devils”, written in 1964, “reflects anxiety about the political situation and the ambiguities, complacencies perhaps, of my position as a liberal” (2008:109).

Much of this is familiar ground in white South African writing, and at many moments in the collection, the poems resonate (I won’t say ‘echo’, since this implies a prior order, as well as a deliberate, even imitative intention) with the longstanding themes of white South African writers: the topsy-turvy floodworld of “A New Year Game of Catch” brings to mind poems by William Plomer, Ruth Miller, Douglas Livingstone…. “The Garden”, with its “long green lawns; the marble steps” giving on to “Border, vista, park/To hills…” recalls for me the elite, monied environment of The High House in Nadine Gordimer’s A World of Strangers, and the speaker has something of the tone, too, of the arch capitalist, Mehring, in The Conservationist. In many of these poems, there is a drolly sardonic, even satirical treatment of privileged white life, what Chapman refers to as “the banality of domestic comfort” (2003:340).

We shouldn’t be surprised. Cullinan is known as a poet of intellectual gravitas, and his poetry, while recognizably ‘South African’ in its subject matters and settings – stoep, thudding drum, tin roof, windmill, hovels and high-rises; wood doves calling TV too, TV too - is also often allusive and learned in respect of European traditions, both classical and modern. So reading Cullinan is not necessarily easy. Traditional forms of poetry are possibly the most marginal of contemporary genres – if brevity might be found in a poem’s favour, for many people this too often comes with the heavy, extra expense of conceptual difficulty and condensed opacity. And if a poem is long…who’s got the time? So Cullinan, these days, might suffer from a want of readers. Which is a pity, because he shows no want of poetic skill, whether we’re talking ideas, or treatment.  Many of us as readers of poetry need all the help we can get, and the publisher of the present book recognizes this, providing towards the back of the volume a collection of Notes on particular poems. These incorporate remarks on the dates, ideas, contexts, inspirations and so on associated with many of the poems, but the intention is always to clarify, rather than to offer high-handed ‘enlightenment’. Nor is all heavy-going. Not at all. If the translations of Latin phrases or explanations concerning classical allusions and references are welcome, so too are the little touches that Cullinan slips in, as in the note on the poem “Bare parts: a serenata for the fifties”. After duly giving us the route into the poem via a canzone by Dante, the aged author remarks wryly – as if speaking to us through a younger incarnation of his cover photograph - that “The 1950s were amazingly plethoric in beautiful young women”. Ah. Indeed. Those were the days.

So as fellow poet Peter Strauss reminds potential readers of Escarpments, if Cullinan’s poetry is given to “ultimate seriousness”, this characteristics should not be emphasized at the expense of the “warmth, lightness, variety and colour of the human world which this selection offers to us in so many of its moods and guises”(back cover). Levity is not forsaken for high seriousness in Cullinan. This is evident in “Witching you well”, although it is not a ‘characteristic’ Cullinan poem. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the poem originating in the experience of Patrick Cullinan, The Grandfather, as he sits down with some of his eight grandchildren to watch a Disney DVD. Something animated, with a princess, a prince, a fairytale kingdom….And if “Yes, of course the prince will kiss/the sleeping beauty” and “Marriage follows promptly, with a coach/ And six, and twelve brass bands”, the poet’s playful take recognizes that all too soon the familiar story will veer from good to bad to worse, and a reader is left laughing even while she’s perhaps uncertain about the degree of seriousness to grant some of the poet’s dismissals: 

The problems start, they multiply. The first-born, 

A lovely girl, vomits adders and the prince

Fucks the nurse maid and the princess

Starts to abuse the heir apparent. 

All colour vanishes, the world goes black and white.

The army, the peasants, the students revolt 

…and then for a second the humorous excess of the poem teeters on the verge of a telling sociopolitical carnivalesque before pulling back, righting itself, and the world, with a jesting, grandfatherly admonishment, “Don’t do it! Never believe a witch!” (Instead, as I stand here upon my hard-won escarpment, even while sometimes balanced precariously upon the edge, Trust Me, I’m a Poet. A better advisor than a Disney imagineer any day…)

As we might expect from Escarpments as a selection drawn from a poet’s work over several decades – beginning with the 1973 volume The Horizon Forty Miles Away and ending with Transformations of 1999, along with some pieces not previously published in collections - the poems are extremely various in style. They range from small, imagist moments (see the twinned glances which constitute the title poem of the collection, “Escarpments”), to forms of narrative verse – there’s a story poem written in deliberately piled-on quatrains, conveying the memory of the cruel mischief and raving madness of a beloved grandfather (“Sir Tom”); and another, “1818. M François le Vaillant…”, in which Cullinan makes beautiful use of a freer, more conversational narrative exposition that is nevertheless marked by a pleasantly metrical feel well suited to the urbane subject matter. The poems in Escarpments also include cryptic conceptual crosses between haiku and epigram (“The Construct”), anecdotes which have the tenor of instructive parable (“Mkulu Kakhulu”), cunningly disguised autobiographical fabulations (“September at the Tuileries”), and instances of metaphysical conceit in which the tight balance of the disparate images almost guarantees that a reader – I, for one – will be inclined to return to the poem on account of the teasing power of the poet’s existential inquiry (“That”).

      And yet the poems also imply the ‘otherwise’ turn in times within which Cullinan struggles to situate himself. For instance, in Part I of “Spring Coming: Zoo Lake” (1978), we are given the howl of factory hooters and the barking of suburban dogs – “the echo/We never lack”. These details contribute to a sense not of incipient growth and flourishing in the poem, but of a disquiet which feeds into Part III , where the weather has turned cold and there’s  

…wind along the streets:

Crates of empties pile

And crash upon the pavement

Outside the bottle store.

Half drunk, black workers

Curse all passers-by.

Somewhere beyond the shops

Metallic and monotonous,

A burglar siren starts,

It rises to crescendo, falls

Away, then starts again

To howl across the sky. 

Parts I and III, then, depict a bleak environment in which such niceties as ‘spring’ and ‘parks’ are vulnerable to the weathers of social change, and the white poet feels – “Another false alarm/ Or is it real this time?” - serious anxieties about place and belonging. But still we cannot simply write off Part II, sandwiched like a pleasant picnic in between. For in this middle section he tries to forge a fragile link between worlds, without investing all his hopes in the simple, “deep and shallow light” of people gathering together at the lake in the mild outdoors. Even to “call it spring”, he ventures somewhat sadly, “Would make it seem too much”, but despite this he gives deft and sweet attention in this middle section to the “Various, multicoloured” families which visit the park, children with “teased-out hair” in which ribbons  

…flutter as they walk:

Black families,

So well dressed,

It seems they come instinctively

To act a dream of middle class,

And here they find it,

Warm and modest,

Gentle by the Lake. 

So there is something incredibly lovely in lines that lead a reader deep into the little world of the poem – surely too real simply to be imagined? - and then out again, blinking, into the brighter, harsher light of day.

Cullinan’s mastery of tone sometimes slips – I could do without “The Astrologer” and his patronizing manner, even if I’m partly to blame, as a reader, for refusing to play along. Similarly, for me, the insistent rhyming of “The Mediterranean Idiot Somnambulates” renders rather brutish what might otherwise have been the poet’s evocation of potential pathos: an idiot’s imbecility that is probably meant to mirror the crudely human weaknesses of others. But that said, I do respond to Cullinan’s craft, the range of his ideas and his registers. I like, too, the tensions in his work between belonging and alienation, perhaps because they speak to my own predicament as a white South African writer.

      In the 1992 interview "A Modern Sense of Disquiet", Cullinan explains to Michael King and Stephen Watson that:  

I spent seven years, from the age of 14 to 21 in Europe (mainly, because I had no choice, in England), so I certainly ingested a great deal of European-ness. Therefore, when I came back to South Africa at the age of 21, I had a problem. Was I in fact a European, or an African? I remember sitting in a cottage in the Eastern Transvaal, on the Escarpment, thinking it through one night. When I woke up in the morning, I didn't have to think of it any longer: I was an African, and I always would be. 

So he might wish it to be, simply achieved through the simple, unaffected statement. But as the very title ‘Escarpments’ suggests, his poems of 1973 to 2007 reveal constant evidence of just such thinking, thinking long and hard, thinking even longer, constantly trying to imagine ways in which poetry, most often experienced by Cullinan as a scholarly space of quiet contemplation, is nevertheless a form of deeply-felt engagement with what it means to be human.

And so what if Cullinan doesn’t pull it off, if he isn’t an adequately-representative Everyman charting social change? That’s an exorbitant imaginative burden to dump on anyone, and to me it’s enough that as a white, liberal poet he has so deftly weighed up words and rhythms and ideas, all in relation to his experience, over years, of his experiential time and place. If Cullinan’s poetry won’t grab every reader – you have to work at it, in places, although in others he grants the quick release - there’s still something to be said for not being in a hurry. For taking a volume and taking a seat; taking, with the poems, your own shared, sweet time. 


Chapman, Michael. 2003. Southern African Literatures University of Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg.  

Szczuek, Karina Magdalena. 2008. “SA Poet with a wider flavour”. Sunday Independent 13 July. Accessed at on 21 November 2008. 

King, Michael and Stephen Watson. 1992. “A Modern Sense of Disquiet”. An interview with Patrick Cullinan. New Contrast (December).