Thursday, December 9, 2004

South Africa and Mother-Love: A Review of Norman G. Kester's Liquid love and other longings

by Dawn Marie Kresan
Previously published in Kaleidoscope Journal Volume 3.2 (2002)

In Liquid love and other longings (District Six Press 2002), by Norman G. Kester, private and public worlds collide, bringing the reader to a sometimes beautiful and sometimes unsettling place where issues of power, colonialism and gender blur. Kester, who was born in South Africa and immigrated to Canada in 1969, brings his personal history as a child separated from his mother/ land to the collection. The spirit of Africa pervades his work — she is lost mother, female guide, teacher and lover. Her body bears the scars of a tragic history, and the poet continually seeks her through her many manifestations. It is only through love, by establishing relatedness to an other, that the process of healing can begin.

Throughout the collection, images of Africa are connected with representations of woman. Africa as mother/ land is traditionally conceptualized as the dark, unexplored continent. In “a recent photograph of the artist”, the poet searches for an unknown “she.” He is drawn to her because she fits into “the/ category of ‘other’” (16). In all her mystery, she represents “home and love” (16). It is paradoxical that in her otherness, that is, her difference, he looks for familiarity. In psychoanalytic theory, the child experiences a sense of wholeness with the mother in the pre-oedipal stage and once separation occurs the child will continually seek the mother’s body and all that it represents. For Kester, who left South Africa as a child, the separation between son and mother becomes a powerful framework for his collection. Africa’s distant lands are equated to the mother’s body, which are absent and can never be reclaimed. He must now acknowledge difference between himself and her. It is this difference, this sense of “otherness,” that reminds him of her, and the wholeness he once felt, yet paradoxically ensures their separation.

Kester uses the image of the mother’s absent body as a symbol for Africa’s pain. The mother/ land is unable to nourish her children with her milk. It is not that she has chosen to abandon her children, but that violence and poverty has forced the separation. “Africa mourning” is compared to a “beaten coloured woman at an empty train station/ her son left unnursed” (27). Aids babies “cry blindly and die nightly/ without their mothers, without their mother’s warm milk” (35). Her children were “nursed by her starved body” (47). The maternal breast not only symbolizes nourishment for the body, but also as an emotional bond that strengthens the love between mother and child. Colonization of Africa and the oppression of its people were meant to break this attachment. Her body is metaphorically beaten or starved; her children forced from her breast. By conflating the private act of breast-feeding with a nation’s struggle for survival, Kester politicizes the maternal breast and women’s bodies. The private is made political.

Severed from the mother/ land’s body, he can now experience her only through memory and feelings brought to the surface in moments of heightened intimacy. In this way, then, the female lover’s body becomes a substitute for the absent mother/ land. Her body figuratively becomes the body of Africa. The women are described as anonymous, mysterious, and exotic. She is “both exile and another/ country” (28). Her body is “veiled, unexplored territory” (28). She has “dark eyes” and smells of “wild/ rose petals” (28). These images create parallels between the exotic beauty of the woman’s body and that of the mother/ land. In his quest for the maternal body, he finds in women the warmth and security he has been looking for. Her body is described as a refuge; “you are around me in a/ semi-circle like mother nature — life/ so beautiful, so divine” (60). In “100 kisses at twenty”, the connections between the female lover and mother/ land becomes more political. Kester writes, she has “known men’s hungry/ selfish ways and angry wars” (61). Her body, as Africa, has been exploited by human greed and violence. Her body holds the memory of the nation’s pain, and she is “black with love” (61).

It has been convincingly argued by gender theorists that masculine subjectivity has a strong sense of its ego boundaries, whereas female subjectivity is more fluid. In many of his poems, Kester takes on the identities of others, thereby positioning his subjectivity within the realm of the feminine. In some instances he occupies the female body as in “I am” (20), where the poet metaphorically becomes the mother/ land. He takes on her colours — black, brown and ochre red — in order to feel “my country’s pain/ its dark stories” (20). He links the “rape of women, land and children” (20), thereby asserting that colonial and sexual domination uphold the same exploitive ideological systems. In “the market and its fruit” Kester once again takes on the identities of others. He writes, “I am... the homeless woman who mumbles to herself and asks for pennies” (6). It is not so much his ability to become the females in his poems, as much as the representation of his subjectivity as being unbounded and de-centered. He does not possess a single identity, but rather has the capability to morph into many selves. A self that continually becomes the “other,” erasing difference, is traditionally associated with the feminine.

He extends his empathy not only to women, but to all those marginalized. He is “the one who looks European... the black woman who walks slowly... the eleven-year-old daughter... [the] grey-bearded poet who left America” (6). As someone who fled his homeland due to apartheid, Kester easily identifies and has compassion with those who are marginalized in our society. In “the child cries out the answer” Kester links homophobia and racism, asserting that both arise from the same hatred and fear of difference. Kester writes, “the faggot in me/ finally killed and stomped out by the lynch mob” (30). They want to choke “my dry, flaming and tender throat” (30). Those who commit hate crimes are the same, in their desire to silence all those who are “other” than them.

As a man learning to live “without my mother” (xiii), Kester finds hope in the human potential to establish relatedness. The need for love is a commonality we all share. It is significant that Kester views common histories and stories of exile as the vehicle for deepening love. He writes, “i only want to touch/ your lips, si. to hear the stories of your people” (54). In “the long night” two lovers, both “sons of torn nations” (67), come to a deeper understanding of the other through shared history. His “life was as complex and old as the sea that he crossed perilously” (67). Being able to relate to someone else’s pain is an act of love and reconciliation. It forces us to confront our own pain, and in doing so we can begin to heal. Only then, can we open ourselves completely to another.

Kester asserts that art is a form of love, that “the making of art, is the process of giving in or letting go totally” (ix). What art and love have in common is the nakedness of the self. Both leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed to the world. If we are to break down personal boundaries, to let go of pain, heal, relate to another, find intimacy — first, we must open ourselves to the possibility of love. As Kester writes, “i’m painting love – will you sit for me?” (28).