An unsettled time – an invitation to reimagine heritage with Simon van Schalkwyk    
Tue, 21 September 2021

How do we celebrate Heritage Day (24 September) in an unsettled time? In the face of a pandemic, ideas of identity seem as superfluous and dangerous as flames on “Braai Day”. The AVBOB Poetry Project exists to put poetry in reach of those who grieve. It also serves to educate and encourage aspirant poets to expand their horizons by studying excellent poetry. Simon van Schalkwyk’s debut collection, Transcontinental Delay, is the most fitting recommendation in Heritage Month.
“Has there ever been a time in South Africa that has not been unsettled?” asks the poet, whose work explores the loss of language and culture and the nostalgic sense of settled time. He studied at the University of Cape Town, has travelled widely and now lectures on American and world literature in the English Department at Wits University. 
As a so-called ‘coloured’ with a traditional Afrikaner surname, Simon van Schalkwyk is sometimes perceived as ‘white’. In a fabulous interview with Lidudumalingani in the Johannesburg Review of Books, he answers the Delphic question, and it is from this position that he is especially well placed to explore the themes of disrupted time and language. Implicit in the title of his book are issues of delay – the one-way-ness of language, the impossible slowness of translation, of decolonised identity, of colonial redress.
Transcontinental Delay, published in March this year by Dryad Press, explores experiences of internal and external location and dislocation wherever the poet finds himself, both home and away. The collection traverses continents and ages, compressing transcontinental and tectonic shifts into translucent verses. It’s as if the elemental delay that is our human history underpins each poem while inherently questioning: Who knows what happened next? Who visited them? as if the poet is investigating the meaning of belonging and connectedness in every poem – to the place where he stands, to the country, to the time, to the other (beloved or not), and even to the earth. 
The volume is suffused with a definite geography, revealing the influence of his mentor, Stephen Watson. Various towns, rivers and vistas appear alongside the fault lines of who we are – where we come from, our multiple identities and various histories. Considering that all our ancestors were travellers – both those who arrived on ships and those who roamed the continent – the poet invites a new reading of migration.
Simon says, “I like the idea of ‘fault lines’ as a way to think about the relationship between place and identity. WH Auden, for whom questions of place and landscape are arguably vital, says somewhere that we are ‘faulted’ [1] into being. The geological and moral dimensions of ‘fault/faulted’ speaks to the relationship between place and personality: they never quite match up, can’t be easily reconciled.”
“‘Floating Points’ was an attempt to signal some sense of drift as much as to suggest that one carries one’s personal and political history along like luggage, and that one can unpack this in and onto places that seem quite far afield from ones’ personal concerns – but then also to recognise that and to try to leave the baggage ‘at home’, so to speak; to try not to burden other spaces, places, or things with personal preoccupations, if only to see some elsewhere more clearly.”
“But, of course, the fault here is that one invariably fails to do this. I am less preoccupied with ancestral histories because of this commitment to faults: I am more interested in differences and failures than similarities, commonalities, successes.”
The yearning for rootedness and the tendency towards rootlessness are curiously competing dimensions of human nature and feature consistently in the collection. Simon wonders whether that yearning is for some kind of return to a lost place or history – a lost home, if you will – or whether it’s a yearning for some kind of liberation from place, history, home. He consciously kept this question in mind. 
He says, “The collection depends on a tension between, on the one hand, an attempt to acknowledge how familiar places may be decidedly undesirable and unsatisfying and, on the other, that unfamiliar places may be as desired as they are discomforting.”
The poem ‘Infauna’ has an ancient quality to it, as if it might have been written by a Strandloper, whose signs are now lost, whose language of clicks was rendered too late with apostrophes and slashes, dashes and exclamation marks.
Cloudless before sunset, a day without fog,
clear as white handkerchiefs waving away
ships and present commitments.  
An apostrophe also for the duneless future.  

Who wades, shin-deep, between sculpins,  
silver and quick, in the pellucid shallows  
of the Kromme? What are these murmuring flues,
submerged corridors, enclosed labyrinths,  

suggesting a deeper habitat? Inter-tidal plateau,
crystalline floodplain, freshwater, salt,  
stray aquarelle of urchin, isolated hydra, detached
polyp, sessile and repeating: the ghost crab’s lair.
Speaking about this poem, Simon says, “A sense of inability to see clearly, or perhaps to imagine clear alternatives to what seems to be an increasingly claustrophobic contemporary moment is evident in ‘Infauna’. The poem speaks to the idea of somehow knowing that there are these other spaces, that there are other modes of life and living…”
“Reading this as written from the perspective of the Cape’s indigenous ancestry works as a suitable allegory – the detached polyp speaks to the kinds of detachment and alienation I was aiming at when developing this particular poetic persona. Given the scale of our current global ecological crisis, I increasingly feel that it might be time to discard allegorical readings and recognise the natural world – such as that evinced by the poem – as alternative spaces of life and living that are profoundly more than human and which are perhaps best left alone.”
What the poet touches, what is left alone, and where his gaze falls must be experienced first-hand. Read the work, or better yet, hear the poet reading it himself. You might have a visceral sense of the ground beneath your feet dropping away, of falling into a reality from which you have become estranged... Transcontinental Delay could be a homecoming, even if its words and vistas are utterly new to you.
Do you have a poem that explores other modes of life and living in a time of crisis? The AVBOB Poetry Competition invites poets to submit poems of hope and comfort in all 11 official languages. The competition closes at 23h59 on 30 November and poets may enter up to 10 poems each. To register and enter visit:

[1] Auden’s “New Year Letter”, line 1110.