The Journey Back, C. J. Driver
Artwrite, 2020 £5.00
The past travels with us
In his preface, Jonty Driver describes the complications he endured in attempting to return to his native South Africa. His prominence as a campaigner against apartheid during his student years in the early 60s marked him out as unwelcome. For many years he was refused a visa.
In this pamphlet, he offers sequence of poems telling the story of his eventual return, starting with ‘SAA 230: Mission Statement’:
And at the entry desk I hesitate,
Come back an Englishman: which queue to choose
I know quite well, but still resent the sign
Which tells me what I am and what I was.
We begin with the unsettling experience in ‘Uplands School, White River: Elegy’. The poem tells of how it is ‘strange to be a stranger in a place / Which once had seemed so much my own.’ Cryptic memories, and those of parents and others, are told only in part. For example, in ‘Kroonstad: A Ballad of Remembering’, the poet’s ‘mother told me all the things / My father couldn’t say.’
Throughout, the poet uses a melancholy tone, which well conveys his spare sketches of trauma and remembered violence. The effect of this restrained retelling is poignant, suggesting some memories are too difficult to be recalled in detail.
The South African landscape serves as a resonant backdrop, allowing the narrator the opportunity to reflect on the full scope of his nation’s past:
It has its own magnificence, to fail
In such a large-scale way. The view from here
Goes all the way to where the desert ends
In light reacted through the very edge
Of sun obscured by mountains.
[‘The Valley of Desolation’]
As the sequence concludes, it moves towards a kind of resolution, or at least one where the narrator has made peace through gaining a certain perspective. However, the overriding sense is of sorrow at so much brutality and needless loss.