Gabeba Baderoon’s first collection teaches us the art of Parallax and the gut-wrenching pangs of distance.
by Alex Ashford
Gabeba Baderoon. The Dream in the Next Body. Kwela Books, 2005. (61 pages)
After a quick skim through Gabeba Baderoon’s first poetry collection The Dream in the Next Body, stopping here and there to read a few lines from a poem (usually a short one) with a catchy title, I’d decided the book was a bit disappointing. I’d bought it in the first place because I’d never read anything written by a South African—and a woman at that. I expected the first few poems I flipped through to exhibit the kind of warfare and suffering anyone might expect from an African writer. I think I may even have expected the African version of Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes From the Divided Country. When the tension in the collection proved to be less obtrusive, I lost interest. As an Afro-Diasporic writer myself, I was unsure there would be anything in her collection I could really connect with.
Weeks later, it was still on the coffee table.
I had to admit the book was pretty, the title typed in a wispy ethereal font across what appears to be a bare wall shadowed in a gradient of browns, exuding mystery and other-worldliness.
I decided it was worth another look.
In the opening poem, “True,” the speaker opens:
To judge if a line is true,
Banish the error of parallax (1-2)
Parallax is defined as the “displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight.”
The most important aspects of parallax are distance and perception. The speaker of this poem invites us to “banish the error of parallax” which is essentially caused by an error in human perception directly affected by their distance from the object of interest. The body of work is characterized by poems that are essentially meditations, and meditations are inward journeys aimed toward discovering some elusive truth. The truth, however, is found in the transcendence of meditation.
The strength of the collection are the short, spare poems sprinkled throughout the 61 page text. Poems like “Cinnamon” croon demure, soft language emboldened by the pleasure of desire. The poem reads:
I find you
open as a tent.
You are cinnamon
Curved around me (6-9).
Poems like “How to Find Something Lost” and “The Art of Leaving” pay homage to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, while poems like “The Call” cement Baderoon in my canon of favorites. The speaker recalls a telephone conversation with her mother as she is preparing to move away. The speaker concludes:
Across the growing distance
I hear her voice receding from me.
I make her leave me
So I can be still (25-28).
The speaker here grapples not only with physical distance, but with emotional distance as well. The “mother” figure in this poem is not just the biological mother of the speaker, she is a symbol of Africa. Baderoon, having come of age during Apartheid said in one interview “Apartheid aimed, like a religion, to shape everything in our lives” (Ede). She goes on in the interview to explain that she thought Apartheid had been unsuccessful because people resisted. The speaker at the end of this poem forces her mother to leave her so she can “be still.” In essence, a simple poem about a daughter moving far away from her mother is also a dialogue between Apartheid and one of its daughters. Only this daughter breaks free.
What I found among the reticent confines of the collection was an edginess I didn’t expect—a coyness that I connected to as a woman. The collection lacks any clear indicator that the poems are divided in any way. Unlike most poetry books, there are no sections—none of the characteristic dividers marked by roman numerals or short lines meant to introduce or sum up the theme of the poetry in those sections. Instead there is an interspersal of poems in various lengths and formats that make the impression from even the briefest flip through its pages, that whatever theme this poet is working with, she believes in its many manifestations—she is a dreamer. Each poem is its own dream. Told from points of view that could belong to separate people continents apart or simply the complex journey of one speaker, Baderoon manages to be both soft and grave, simple and intelligent in this dream catcher of a collection.
Ede, Amatoritsero. “Beauty in the Harsh Lines.” Sentinel Poetry Online 37.3 (December 2005).