Tools for a difficult hour - the timely poetry of Fiona Zerbst    
Mon, 23 August 2021

In Women’s Month, The AVBOB Poetry Competition focuses on Fiona Zerbst, a leading South African poet. Poets seeking inspiration and learning will do well to familiarise themselves with her work.
In difficult hours humanity has always taken comfort from the poets whose words speak to our connected humanity, regardless of our age or gender, status or standing. Fiona Zerbst’s works go beyond the purely female experience to the universal. The relentless outcomes of COVID-19 and recent social unrest in the country have exposed the world in a new and unfamiliar manner. She speaks to all who look beneath the surface, questing for connection with humanity and all sentient beings. 
We have probably all known moments when our familiar surroundings, even our own bodies, temporarily become strange to us – as if we are experiencing them again for the first time. Our senses feel sharpened, and it is as if new worlds of experience are made available to us.
Zerbst’s fifth collection, In Praise of Hotel Rooms, is a record of just such moments – of what she calls “that hush behind curtains / you can’t describe later.” This new collection was published by Dryad Press in the lockdown winter of 2020.
Reviewing it in the Johannesburg Review of Books, Rustum Kozain called her one of South Africa’s finest poets, and praised her voice as one that “pushes through the surfeit of language in our loud internet age”.
There are poems informed by her memories of a happy childhood in the Highveld, whose landscape has haunted her ever since, though, as the collection’s title suggests, she has travelled a great deal since then. In ‘Highveld Grass’ she writes about the desire “to crush its grass against my face.” But the collection also acknowledges the “growing world / of mine dumps, wire, death and fear” that surrounded this sanctuary.
Zerbst explains that it has taken her time to express that uneasy tension in her poetry. She notes: “I was always acutely aware of the grim reality of apartheid but shied away from writing about it because I did not have a particular, unique story to tell.” It is only in this latest book that she has started to obliquely address what it meant to grow up in that time. She adds: “It takes me years to process things, so this doesn’t really surprise me.”
Several poems evoke particular places (‘One Night in Kyiv’, ‘Odessa Days’), while others speak eloquently of being in transit to destinations both known and unknown. There is something about being in such liminal spaces that makes us more receptive to sensory experience, to the messages it carries. What Zerbst gains from such attentiveness is a sense of perspective, of processes “beyond / the stalled traffic of my thoughts.”
But while hotel rooms may offer the promise of “acres of sleep”, there are also presentiments here of death, and of other endings. This is not a collection that shies away from pain and loss. “To write is to cry, or cry out, perhaps,” she notes in ‘The Bay’, her beautiful evocation of her mentor, the poet Stephen Watson. 
Kozain comments: “Reading Zerbst’s poetry reminds us that there are parts of our lives that cannot be addressed via loudhailers – difficult parts, like the loss of love or the loss of a loved one to death, that are best approached through a language tempered by reflection.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who has travelled so widely, she is deeply concerned with refugee rights throughout the world, and with justice here and now. “Marriage to Omar and my advocacy for Arabs in the diaspora motivates me socially and spiritually. Faith for me is practical – it’s what I do every day, less a spiritual notion and more how I’m doing good in the world,” she says.
While there are haunting evocations of both new and lost love here, and animals stalk many of the poems, Zerbst describes her own poetic practice as a fairly reclusive one. In ‘Tools’ she movingly describes herself laying out words and shows how such humble tools can be made to shine again, as if we are using them for the first time.


Tired, as I am
of useful words –
words like tools,
blunted, numb,

stupid with sheen
and mallet-heavy –
still I come
to lay them out

row after row,
used before,
honest with use,
or stunted, solid,

rusted, worn,
dull as a hoe.
Pared them down
in dry acceptance,

worked them
to some kind
of useful blankness:
all glamour gone.
As for the animals present in her poems, she explains what it was like living close to Pilanesberg in the North West at one stage: “Animals have always spoken to human beings, and found their way into our art, from Lascaux onwards. They are part of our mythology and make good messengers.”
Zerbst admires the poetry of Ruth Miller, Gabeba Baderoon and Yvette Christianse, and speaks with great fondness of the huge amount of support she and other South African women writers have received from Colleen Higgs. She is eager to see new women poets coming to poetry via the AVBOB Poetry Competition.
The AVBOB Poetry Competition is open until 30 November to all South African poets. You are welcome to send in up to ten poems in any of the 11 official languages. Read the rules and editorial guidelines, and register online at