There could not be a better title for this selection of new poems by Linda Ann Strang than the one she chose - WEDDING UNDERWEAR FOR MERMAIDS. Nor could there be a more fitting work of art than the one by Deborah Donelson that graces the cover. This lady minstrel form Africa sprinkles potions of beauty and of insight and of inner secrets and tenderness the way most lovers of gardens cast seeds: put these superbly crafted poems before the reader and the good harvest is assured. In an interview with the artist she is quoted as saying, `I live in a country where, as a woman, you have to be crazy to be a feminist and crazy not to be one. Feminism is frowned upon by many people, including females, so admitting to being a feminist draws a lot of hostility and ridicule, as I know from bitter experience. That's why it is crazy to be feminist in South Africa. This is why it's crazy not to be one: South Africa has been called "the rape capital of the world" (its main competitor for this `honor' being the Democratic Republic of Congo). It's been said that a South African woman has a better chance of being raped than she has of completing secondary school; and this isn't just some arbitrary information for me. I've witnessed the suffering of my neighbors and friends. One acquaintance was raped and strangled. Another was raped and stabbed in the throat - but she survived. Yes, South African society is characterized by crime and violence. But the women here identify vigorously with their aggressors - and, quite frankly, I do too most of the time. So feminism for me is not so much about theories as it is about surviving another day and holding onto a bit of self-respect.'
One would think that with experiences such as these Strang would offer poetry that is heavily accented with loathing, but in reality the exact opposite occurs. Her way with words is musical and richly colorful, and the best way to demonstrate that is to offer a couple of examples:
THE FEATHERED SAXOPHONIST
When she was deflowered
it was as if the world was bereft of baby's
breath because her lover did not love her.
When they went to the fairground
together they looked into a magic mirror
that showed their hearts: he had
none, only bones bandaged in black lace;
her heart was plump with gold stars
like the Pleiades by candlelight.
In spite of this insight, when he died
she wept. All over the place.
Now she's met a man with jazz and angel
feathers in the Palm Sunday of his hands.
When she sees him the Aretha red roses
in her soul's renaissance sing torch songs.
But she beats them down, as if roses were fire
in the violins, embarrassed
because they give her away.
Surely the saints say: Love is! Like climbing
flying stairs till you find yourself in clouds
of feathers and saxophone music
at the top - there your heart's so full of 'whats'
that no-one can earth it. Forget the feather tax
on your flight plan, baby. It's worth it.
Or in a more somber whisper, she offers:
She moves the children's clothes
away form the balcony door
and finds a measure of broad moonlight
between the geraniums.
She wanted to be a ballerina
before polio took over her limbs like a lover.
She lifts her arms high and tilts her head,
owns for one minute a square metre of Swan Lake;
feels invisible wings brush across her face.
And finally just one more to allow the reader to grasp her sense of country:
MISCENGENATION FOR SWALLOWS
I am a hybrid like swallows,
transforming myself as I fly:
black and white blue, black, black, black.
My passport is a page torn from the sky.
I sleep with my head under my wing,
dreaming of homeland
where chameleon people walk through the sugar
can of sunlight, their tongues long enough to teach
anyone. Their children are swallows in cradles.
My parents were migrant labourers, attending
the orchards of each other's hearts. Colours
flowed through them as the held hands, lost
in the pollen, their bed an equator, their tails
entwined: black and white blue, black, black, black.
They cling to the twig of their love.
I cling to their love of the twig.
I dream of having a homeland,
and my navigation point:
the latitude of starlight.
And the reader may wish for more examples of Linda Ann Strang's gifts but that is why the book is published. This is as rich a collection of meaningful and dazzling poetry as has been placed before the public in a long time. Read her and fall in love! Grady Harp, June 12