Photo Credit: Jo Kearney
Isobel Dixon is a poet and literary agent. Her published collections include Weather Eye (Carapace 2001), A Fold in the Map (Salt 2007), The Tempest Prognosticator (Salt 2011), and Bearings (Nine Arches Press 2016).
Isobel’s latest pamphlet The Leonids was published by Mariscat Press earlier this summer.
Hi Isobel. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your new pamphlet The Leonids which focuses on your late mother and family life. Over how long a period were these poems written and when did it become clear to you they were their own thing that needed to be published separately from a full-length collection?
Thank you. I’m so very happy to have The Leonids out with Mariscat. My mother died last year, and I’ve been writing about her since before my first collection Weather Eye, which Carapace published in 2001. The title poem of Weather Eye was dedicated to my parents, Ann and Harwood, and was written as a gift for their 40th wedding anniversary in 1997. My mother plays a central part in the poem and ‘the loving regulation of the burning days’ of my youth, as she closes the house up against the blazing South African sun to preserve the cool night air, then opens up again after dusk.
That’s the first poem in Weather Eye, which was published only in South Africa, and so it was reprised in my first UK-published collection, A Fold in the Map. ‘Plenty’, the first poem in A Fold in the Map is also about her, though the collection revolves around my father’s illness and death. She closes that collection too, in ‘Night Skirmishes’, written after my father died – a poem of uneasy adjustment, ghosts and cockroaches.
In one way or another, these poems featuring my mother are all about thrift and making do, creating and maintaining order, and keeping fear at bay. My mother was at once both fragile and powerful, a determined woman capable of fierce energy, but prone to wearing herself down to sheer exhaustion and collapse as well. She had suffered from depression all her life, particularly post-natal depression after I was born, and was hospitalised for a while when I was a young girl.
I started to write poems exploring this time in-between the poems that went into my first collections, but it didn’t feel right to publish them then. But as with all my poems about family, gradually I showed them to my sisters – I have four fine sisters and their presence is felt in the poems as well. My mother was wholeheartedly positive about A Fold in the Map, because it was so much about my father, and she was also always very direct and open about her depression too.
I showed her the short poem ‘Louder Than Words’, which recalls how she knitted jerseys for her daughters when she was in hospital. She read it and approved, in her way, without undue praise. The family archivist in her liked the idea of a record, I think, of showing people how things were, even the tough things, telling it straight. My mother was never one to flinch.
When I sent a selection of family and nature poems to Mariscat to consider for a pamphlet, Hamish Whyte wrote back and said they’d especially liked the cluster about my mother, and did I have more about her? I did – and was writing more all the time, also about phone calls home, her lively turn of phrase and local gossip gradually changing to her stiller listening face on Skype as Parkinson’s disease slowed her, then took most of her power of speech away.
I told my mother more poems about her had been specially requested by a publisher in Edinburgh and I could tell she was really pleased. I flew to South Africa to visit her every few months, each time knowing it might be the last time I’d see her, and so it was that she died, with her family around her, before The Leonids was published. That changed the shape of the narrative arc, and the pamphlet closes with two poems about the last day of her life, and one written a year after her death. I like to think she would still be pleased if she could read what is on the pages, and hear what people have said about the words. I hope readers who didn’t know her can still feel her strong presence in the poems.
A number of the poems evoke your childhood in South Africa. As someone who has roots both there and in the UK, I’m curious how much you feel your upbringing has affected your outlook and informed your poetry writing over the years?
The answer above blends into this one of course – the heat, the landscape, a childhood with little money, but many sisters, and a lot of love among the squabbles. By virtue of being about that force of nature, our mother, The Leonids is a very family-focused collection, and if my mother is the stem, my sisters are its branches. The pamphlet is dedicated to them.
We grew up in a rambling old double-storey house with a big garden in a little town called Graaff-Reinet (also proudly described as ‘The Gem of the Karoo’ – and it is a beautiful place). The house also looms large in poems about my family – my father and mother died in the same room, in the same bed, and my father left the house jointly to his daughters, so we all return and gather there regularly.
It’s like our sixth sister, I sometimes feel – and she too makes her way into the poems. There’s a poem in Weather Eye called ’42 Somerset Street’, which is really more about the garden than the house, but my ‘beloved sisters’ house’ reappears in poems in The Leonids too, including one called ‘The Breathing House.’ It’s a special place, my home magnet.
I do love working in London though and Scotland is my second heartland. My father grew up in Perthshire, a science teacher who was also ordained in the Scottish Episcopal church. He came out to South Africa as a curate to the Cathedral in Umtata (now Mthatha) and to teach science in its mission school, St John’s College. We moved inland for a drier climate because of his asthma, and I love and miss that whole expanse of Eastern Cape landscape – from the hardy Karoo where I grew up, with its wide plains and jagged mountains on the horizons, to the misty green hills around Mthatha, where I was born.
My father often used to say that the Transkei region reminded him of Scotland, and I feel a strong affinity to the Scottish landscape too. A scholarship that enabled me to do my postgraduate study in English in Edinburgh was a dream come true, and the start of a new path into poetry and publishing in Britain, though I didn’t know it back when I arrived in 1993.
A sojourner longer than I’d expected to be, I wrote the poems of Weather Eye and A Fold in the Map out of a desperate longing for family and African nature, my homeland’s vistas and creatures. No matter how many times I return, that oscillation of departure and arrival stirs up the trove of image and memory, each journey a twist of the kaleidoscope. This continental double vision is something I’m grateful for.
I love city life, as long as I can escape it. Nature is everything, and I’m currently working with Scottish artist Douglas Robertson on a project inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers, enjoying the sporadic visits of the snakes and bees and crabs and ant lions of my childhood. The tortoises are a bit slow to show up, but I’m hopeful.
Congratulations too on the publication of your latest collection Bearings with Nine Arches Press. In what ways do you feel it is a continuation of or departure from your previous collection The Tempest Prognosticator?
I like the word ‘departure’ here, as Bearings is so much about journeys, finding my way through the world, experimenting a bit with poetic form en route. I’m a very happy traveller, like my father, who loved nothing more than planning a trip (especially ‘an overseas trip’) and writing out the ‘Itinerary’ in his distinctive spidery script, making copies for us all. I kept a journal as a girl but not now and the poems are both itinerary and diary: probe, foray, wish list, log.
Some of the poems in Bearings are flashes of narrative from real journeys – to Hiroshima, Egypt, the Occupied West Bank and further afield. The ‘In Which’ quartets interspersed throughout play with form and sound, while some of the poems explore science and ideas – two longer poems ‘Dark Matters’ and ‘Doppelgänger’ were written commissions alongside new musical works by composer Roberto Rusconi. And there are poems that explore political questions, particularly on my country’s apartheid history and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
What The Tempest Prognosticator and Bearings both steer largely clear of is the familial focus of A Fold in the Map and The Leonids, though the family still finds its way into a few poems. My father features in ‘Late Knowledge’, about the Cradock Four – Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Sicelo Mhlauli and Fort Calata – who were killed by the South African police. Matthew Goniwe was a teacher like my father, appointed to a couple of the same schools, though they never met.
There was a poem in A Fold in the Map, ‘Shaken from My Sleep’, about the way the apartheid state conscripted (literally) and militarised civilian society, making all white people complicit in the oppression. It took me years to write and ‘Late Knowledge’ was the same, several drafts over more than a decade. Big subjects, inadequate responses, but personally necessary for me.
I will always write in both narrative and more free-range modes. The subjects find their own variant forms. So the alternating rhythm between collections like Bearings and The Leonids feels very natural to me.
I enjoyed the ‘In Which’ sequence which is interspersed throughout the book and reads like a series of vignettes. I’m curious if they began life simply as a desire to write something specifically for the Poems in Which journal, and when did they start to take shape as a larger body of inter-connected poems?
I’m glad you enjoyed these – I’ve enjoyed writing them, and continue to write in this form, I have a couple coming up in publications over the next few months. I began before the Poems in Which journal was launched, though some of the early quartets were published there, a pleasing fit.
I’ve always loved the convention of old novels with chapters headed with a précis title – In Which the Heroine Makes a Big Mistake, etc. – and wanted to play with shape and sound in the stanzas, echoes of phrases, lyric snatches, Dream Song-influenced in form, but not autobiographical, and without an abiding Henry-like presence. Though Berryman’s hero does have a word or two to say along the way.
At one stage I considered giving them an over-arching title, as though they were fragments rescued from some bigger journal, and in one draft I grouped them all together under the heading ‘From The Fractured Log’, but I jettisoned that. I took excellent advice from my workshop group not to include them in Bearings as one solid block, but to scatter them throughout. Someone referred to these as aperitivi, or palate cleansers, an idea I like – the writing feels a bit like that too.
The book also contains a cosmological sequence ‘Dark Matters’ which was commissioned for the premiere of composer Roberto Rusconi’s De Materia Nigra et Obscura. Can you give a bit of background on how you came to be involved in the project and what it was that drew you to the subject?
I love commissions and collaborations, for the fruitful pressure of the deadlines, and the way you’re stretched to think beyond your own immediate concerns and inclinations. A friend put me in touch with London-based Italian composer Roberto Rusconi, who was looking for a poet to work with in providing complementary text for a couple of commissions.
‘Doppelgänger’ was the first of these, which is also in Bearings, written to accompany his new work De Imago (Materia) Sonora, performed at King’s Place in London by the Kairos Quartett and EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO des SWR, Freiburg. Jack Wake-Walker made a short film of the poem, Döppelganger, without Rusconi’s music, which was shown at the premiere in April 2013.
When he told me about his project De Materia Nigra et Obscura, about dark matter, I leaped at the chance – with a science teacher father and a love of astronomy myself, it was a pleasure to dive into some science reading again. There’s great poetry in the language of cosmology anyway, rich pickings for poets.
If you’re interested and want some insight into the history and politics of the field, I recommend Richard Panek’s The 4-Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality. Enlightening and entertaining. I read ‘Dark Matters’ at the premiere of Roberto Rusconi’s work, which was performed by Klangforum Wien for ‘Music in the Space-Time Continuum’ at King’s Place in June 2013.
On the science front, right now I’m preparing for an event on poetry and the Periodic Table (I have poems called ‘Mercury’ and ‘Carbon’ in The Leonids, with more to come). And musically, I’m looking forward to working with American composer Stephen Montague on some of the poems in the Birds, Beasts and Flowers project.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘My mother’s sad pharaoh face’ is one of a number of poems that came out of my regular phone calls with my mother, but this is the only one included in The Leonids, given pamphlet length restrictions. We’d generally speak once a week over the years I’ve been in the UK, but after my father died we spoke on the phone more frequently, long chatty calls about family, friends and small-town life.
Over the last few years Parkinson’s began to affect her mobility and eventually her speech, and she needed full time care at home, so we switched to Skype and I would call almost every day. The technology was a real blessing, as she could see me and I could watch her eyes and expression when she was finding it hard to say much; though she would still often come out with particularly pithy things to say. She understood what she heard even when she found it hard to speak. This poem is from her last year.
There was a launch for The Leonids in Graaff-Reinet in September, and it was so special to see so many of my mother’s friends and some of her carers there, as well as my sisters. The benefits of community life in a small town. I’m running a ten kilometre race in Havana this month, to raise money for Parkinson’s UK, who do such good work. If anyone is interested, my JustGiving page is here.
My mother’s sad pharaoh face
My mother’s sad pharaoh face
on Skype. There is no escape
from what its angles say.
Some days she turns it
wearily away, grave profile
of the stubbornly alive.
Some days she gazes straight,
and blinks her thoughts. Lip-mime.
Some days I understand.
Sometimes the words come
rasping out, half lost.
The coast, I think she says.
The cost, the carer helps translate.
Mom, did you say ‘cost’?
The cost, my mother mouths
again, the cost. I see: she means
this talk, the distance, us.
It’s free, I say, cheaper
than the phone, but there’s
the knot between her brows,
that cloud in her eyes.
I know that look, that anxious fog.
Shall I put some music on for you?
my sister asks.
A whisper: No.
I don’t think I can afford it.