Lights up in sound

simon van schalkwyk reviews skinned by antjie krog


Local audiences familiar with the poetry of Antjie Krog may experience a sense of déjà vu when reading Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems. The volume reprints, with occasional revisions, a number of poems originally collected in 2000’s Down To My Last Skin. The reason is simple: Skinned is the first of Krog’s poetic works to be launched in the USA, and the volume is intended to introduce a significant body of poetry to a new, trans-Atlantic, audience.

The thematically-driven arrangement of Skinned foregrounds Krog’s long-standing commitments to subjects such as familial intimacy, South Africa’s colonial and contemporary history, and the body. Additionally, as the welcome inclusion of poems derived from /Xam narratives, praise poems, and griot songs from across the African continent attest, the volume also showcases her more recent interest in the pitfalls and possibilities of translation.

The shadow of translation arguably falls across all of Krog’s work. In the prefatory note to Down to My Last Skin, she admitted that she felt “alienated from the translations” of her poems into English, even as she “longed to interact as a poet with South Africans who do not read Afrikaans.” Skinned demonstrates Krog’s willingness to engage with the ambivalent impulse that drives her work into the zone of translation. At the same time, however, her attraction to the translated (and the occasionally untranslatable) word might equally imply that she has never been entirely comfortable in any language.

This may account for the unsettled and unsettling nature of her voice. Krog’s poems are characterised by a devotion to the closely observed, intimate, frequently harrowing confessional detail, as much as by their suspicion of language’s ability to bear the substantial, and seemingly obligatory, weight of authenticity demanded by the codes of poetic witness or testimony. It is for this reason, perhaps, that she sometimes yearns “for that precise moment in which / a poetic line lights up in sound // when the meaning of a word yields, slips / and then surrenders into tone.”

Skinned cements Krog’s local legacy even as it introduces international audiences to a uniquely South African poetic voice. Umuzi’s handsomely produced edition is a welcome addition to a formidable body of work.

Skinned is published by Umuzi, R190, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK teaches in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Skinned: A Selection of Translated Poems by Antjie Krog. To enter, email competition(at), with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.



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