H is for Hadeda, Alexandra Strnad
Poetry Salzburg, 2017 £6.00
The pleasure of verbs and adjectives
Alexandra Strand’s poems travel from Central Europe to South Africa and on to India. From exotic flora and fauna, shuttered rooms to vast landscapes, the pamphlet is a sensual travelogue that pays great linguistic attention to the natural world. There are ‘stone chhajjas and arjun trees’ and ‘tobacco and tendu-leaf smoke’, ‘the brown barbet with his yellow / eye patch’ and ‘love with kura kura calls’ (‘Waiting in Lodi Gardens’).
The ‘hadeda’ of the pamphlet title refers to an ibis found in the open grasslands, savanna and wetlands of sub-saharan Africa but it isn’t the only bird — there are scimitars, scrub-robins and a ‘solitary gymnogene’ (African harrier hawk). In ‘Sky-Gardens’, a myna slakes his thirst while a ‘punk-haire hoopoe / struts with beak agape’.
It was the choice of verbs and adjectives that gave me most reading pleasure. Take, for example, in ‘Kirstenbosch’ where ‘the mountain shrugs a boulder valley-wards’, or ‘Drakensberg’ where ‘the plateaus sleep quiescent from the Limpopo / to the Karoo.’ Quiescent? It sounds a little archaic but what does it mean if not merely ‘quiet’? I looked it up: dormant, idle, passive, fallow, inactive. But when you say the word out loud, don’t you hear a ‘choir’? Indeed, a summer resort can be quiescent in wintertime, at rest.
In ‘The Burj’, the fountain ‘gleeks gallons of airborne water / into these Gulf nights, // each geyser, though high, no rival to the twenty-six / helical levels’.
What pleasure for the ear to be had from ‘gleek’! I want to be there in Arabia sipping ‘aviation cocktails’ on ‘silver travertine floors’, hypnotised by the gleeking.
There is precision and often surprise to the way Strnad paints her pictures of wildlife, a wildlife that often mingles with man. The poems suggest a well-travelled, keenly observant poet, looking on with binoculars from the shade. The poems are Darwinesque, rich in their depictions, like ‘fistfuls of powder pollen’ (‘Kirstenbosch’), each a place to be savoured because they ‘do not operate at the speed of hurried / things drawing nourishment in frenzies // of need’.