Antje Krog: Positive and Subjective Readings of Body Bereft

Year mark 81%, Exam mark 79%, A distinction. The professor remarked in one of his lecture notes that nothing pleases him more when a student offers independent thoughts and analyses when responding to a particular rubric.

It was in the course Advanced Theory of Poetry that I was asked to respond to subjective reviews of Antje Krog‘s controversial volume of poetry in Body Bereft which was published by Umuzi back in 2006.

Familiar readers may concur with what I wrote. Here, I offer you an abridged version of an earlier essay I wrote on Body Bereft.


I responded to subjective, but qualified reviews given by South African critics Stephen Gray, Lina Spies, Louise Viljoen and Helize van Vuuren.

I disagreed with Lina Spies’ conservative sentiment and Stephen Gray’s review. I agreed with Viljoen’s astute observance and Van Vuuren’s important recognition of art for art’s sake.

Spies regards Krog’s volume of poetry as “prejudicial”. In my view there is no deliberate intention by the poet to discriminate or prejudge, nor to agitate against oppressors. Derogatory language, where used, is internal and addressed to the self.

I was disappointed with Gray’s observations. He did, however, raise the valid point when questioning the direct translation of original Afrikaans language poetry into English, but made no suggestions on how to overcome the supposed undignified and course texture of the translations. I suggested that the complexity of translating poetry cannot be overcome without losing the context in which the poems are written and its overriding semanticisation.

Contrastingly, Viljoen remarked that “Krog’s work shines in translation”. The translation is successful and does not depart from the immediacy and intimacy of the original Afrikaans works. Further, Viljoen mentioned the phenomenon of “breaking new ground”, which is evident throughout Krog’s works in which she shatters taboos and emancipates herself from conservative and Calvinistic observations of the woman’s body and mind, particularly amongst white Afrikaans-speakers.

Van Vuuren reminded her readers that poetry is an artistic endeavour contrasted with imparting a message, or theme, singularly and plurally, to a confined audience with a keen eye and passion for the genre. She believes that Krog is aware of her transgressions. I found no evidence to deliberately titillate or sensationalise for mass media effect. Rather, Krog’s mission is to accentuate the important message of overcoming subjugation, misconceptions, submission and inferiority and achieving emancipation. We bear in mind Antje Krog’s background as a white, female South African from a conservative Afrikaans-speaking background which stems from colonialism and Calvinist and Anglo-Dutch perceptions of society.

body bereft

Spies’ statement was unfortunate. She was repulsed by the book’s cover which starkly depicts a naked and ageing woman. By invoking Fleur Adcock’s acknowledgement of prejudice and disinterest in the intimate nature of the woman, she disqualified herself as an informed critic. David Goldblatt’s  photograph is important in placing the volume of poetry in context and discerning the theme within it.

Contrary to Spies’ sentiment, references to menopause and hot flushes are important within the context of the volume. It must be recognised and acknowledged that these physiological events are part of the ageing process and specifically that of the middle-aged woman. It is not just a physical process, but, a mental condition unique to the female.

In Part One of the volume, a body of poems entitled “Eight menopausal sonnets” vindicates the decision to controversially place the intimate photograph of the naked woman on the book’s cover.

The process of ageing evolves throughout Part One with the composition of three poems which can be viewed as a story in three parts about marriage from the perspective of the woman. I detected a sentimental recollection of the youthful exuberance and romance experienced in the early throes of marriage in “marital song 1”. The opening lines “ since / birth our faces have been turned / towards each other” connotes the physical intimacy and necessity of bodily actions required to cement emotions. This intimacy is emphasised with the simile in the next line “as one calls the / names…”

“marital song 2” descriptively connotes the security of marriage as it matures after a few years. There is no longer a sense of youthful insecurity, but rather a sense of comfort in knowing the “other” while “marital song 3” becomes the culmination of a long and successful marriage.

“it rumbles softly” is a metaphorical introduction to the “seven menopausal sonnets” and clearly indicates the descriptive nature of the messenger’s sentimental journey into old age. The body of “sonnets” takes on a more grotesque meaning in “bronze bull of Lavigny” where the observed female body becomes the observer. Again, metaphors are used to describe the ageing process, and here it is done coarsely by comparing the ageing male’s genitalia with that of a bull.

Referencing Viljoen’s praiseworthy comment on Krog’s translation, the non-literal and ungrammatical translation of “drooggebakte poes” to “drybaked cunt” is, to my mind, deliberate. The use of unconventional and ungrammatical language in poetry is, by now, a familiar device which, in the case of “sonnet of the hot flushes” nakedly emphasises the physical nature of female ageing and it’s attributes during the cycle of female menopause in which the absence of menstruation, as encountered in a younger woman, is vivid. It would not have been possible to create an emotive and dramatic word picture if a mild form of grammatically correct translation had been used.

In recognising the artistry of Krog’s prose where Van Vuuren makes reference to literary criticism of Rodin’s art by Rilk where he says that “the truth about the ghastly and the ugly versus the insincerity of attenuating, beautifying art”, she mentions that Krog may be deliberately transgressing taboos, but to my mind, Van Vuuren quotes the incorrect poem, “God, Death, Love” to substantiate her observance of Krog’s banal approach to conventions in society.

What this poem emphasises is the gulf between women and patriarchal society in general and uses the vehicle “God” and the diminutive, submissive functions of the woman’s body; “menstruation, childbirth, menopause, puberty” as subject-verbs and strikingly in un-chronological order of the stages of a woman’s life, to emphasise how patriarchy has influenced society.

I affirmed that the messenger acknowledged the existence of God and used it to emphasise male dominance and precedence over women, particularly within the context of Southern African multicultural society.




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