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Tuesday, 03 February 2009 05:33

Published by Deep South, 2008.

Robert Berold’s All the Days is his fourth collection of poetry. The collection evinces all the characteristics of Berold’s trademark voice, so tellingly brought together in his last collection, Rain Across a Paper Field – his refined simplicity, his focus upon sharply defined and evocative imagery, a preoccupation with the natural world and the impermanence of the human – but here in this new book he pushes these elements further and deeper; both more deeply personal and less emotional at one and the same time.

All the Days consists of three distinct sections. In the first part we encounter poems that deal in the main with Berold’s present on his smallholding outside Grahamstown. Poems that bring together the human and the natural world in clear and simple terms:

morning half-light, meeting

two foxes on the farm road,

crossing the railway line, turning

to the white moon,

looking far down to my house,

seeing the lights on.


But this interplay between the human and the non-human world is extended in poems like “To my room” and “Builders”. Here Berold looks at the interface between the interior and the exterior worlds as personified poignantly through the character of his house, and specifically his room: “The trees are coming into leaf today. / I tell you this slowly because you’ve never been outside” (“To my room”).


The second part of the collection is rather blurred in its focus. There are powerful poems that see the poet returning to places of his youth; poems like “Our Joburg home” and “Joburg zoo” reflect Berold’s concern with change, and the way in which the past and present interconnect and flow into each other. Thus, in a poem like “Things wavering”, Berold describes the rapidly changing view seen from a train window, but then closes off the poem with a memory of another sudden, flashing moment, this time from the natural world:

Once when I was driving down the farm road with a bakkie-load of bricks, a lynx flashed across. I saw its tufted ears up close. Its fur was red as an Irish setter.

In this second section there are also more poems about home like “The fire”, “Rock thrushes” and “Woman working”. And then there is a cycle of five poems written about Berold’s recent year spent teaching English at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou Province in China. Berold gave a detailed account of this time in his novel Meanwhile don’t push and squeeze, a wry and at the same time oddly affecting report of his journey through a land of startling contradictions. But it is a shame that so few poems have emerged from his stay. (Although, to be honest, I have seen more poems that he wrote whilst in China – in earlier drafts of this collection. Surely it is Berold’s own exactness as editor and poet that have kept these draft poems out, and we can only hope then that as he works further on them that they will appear in future publications.)

It is interesting to note that although these poems are indisputably influenced in style and expression by classical Chinese poetry (and here I am thinking particularly of the poems of Li Po and others from the late T’ang dynasty) they still bear the characteristics of Berold’s own trademark voice, and show just how developed and strong his own poetic voice actually is.

This last section in All the Days, returns us to Berold’s childhood years and growing up in Johannesburg. In this part, poems like “Writing”, “Sweetpeas” and “To myself at 20” evoke that bitter-sweet remembrance of the past with all its sensory specificity and emotional recall:

I was seven or so, we had handwriting as a subject,

we took our pencils and wrote sentences dictated by

the kind Miss Dunn who wrote the date upon the board

in pale blue chalk. My writing was correct and perfect,

running on invisible tramlines, not a hint of flow in it.

It was the 50s, Johannesburg still had trams, am I that old?

How could it be that her voice travelled into my ears

down my arm and fingers to my pencil, and back again

to my eyes, and somehow, even, to my ears? How could it be?


Despite what I feel is the rather unnecessary repetition of the phrase, ‘How could it be?’, at the end of the poem, the images in it nevertheless burn as brilliantly in their clarity and simplicity as those captured by Denis Hirson in his series of memories entitled, We Walk Straight So You Better Get Out The Way.

This third section also features some fine, unselfconscious examples of contemporary love poetry.  “Love poem with stone”, “Proposal” and even “In the thicket of the body”, set up three entirely different ways of reading the love poem from the lyrical and personal, to the humorous and idiosyncratic, and even the abstract.

in the thicket of the body, between

the branches, a shiver of wings, a bird

recovering after a long flight, or dying quietly.

(“In the thicket of the body”)

There are several distinct themes or preoccupations that emerge as a general impression of the collection. Firstly, as I have mentioned already, there is a strong focus on the past. This finds expression in several different types of poems. There are poems about childhood and growing up. In these poems the poet reveals his struggles with his parents as he tries to find his identity as poet and as a young person in a racially divided society. The personal voice is strongest in these poems, and they are tinged with both sadness and anger. Apart from these poems of youth, there are also several other poems that draw upon the deep well of the past, but translate the experience through short prose pieces rather than rigorous poetry, which focus in the main on the shifting relationship between past and present.

Berold also focuses in his poems on the day to day experiences of living on his smallholding outside Grahamstown. Amongst these poems are several that feature his own blue pickup as central character. There is a whimsicality about these particular poems, which is offset by some of his other ‘farm’ poems which deal in a straightforward manner with veld fires and erecting fences. His room in the farmhouse, and its reflection of him as poet, is also a recurring motif.

Berold has a finely developed eye and ear for the details of the natural world, and for the subtleties that draw together nature and history in the Eastern Cape landscape. His poems about the natural world are keenly observed, and reveal his knowledge of local flora and fauna. But they are not mere descriptions of nature. They always move beyond the appearance of the tree or animal into another realm that is part personal interpretation and part meditation. These poems, in particular, are strongly influenced by the starkness and simplicity of ninth century Chinese poetry, and seek to push beyond the material world into something that Berold has not yet clearly articulated, but that ultimately draws for its strength upon the transcendent.

All the Days is a simply-built, strong collection by a poet with a highly developed and distinctive voice. It is a collection which reveals a writer pushing through his familiar world towards a new style and thematic concern, hinted at, but not explored in his previous books.