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Absorbing and stimulating
06 Mar 2013

Ingrid Jonker: a poet’s life
Petrovna Metelerkamp
hemel & see


INGRID Jonker: a poet’s life is not — in the strictest sense — a biography. Petrovna Metelerkamp has abdicated the role of biographer in favour of amassing a selection of source materials — letters, diary entries, memoirs, newspaper articles, interviews and poems — and presenting them in a glossy A4 publication, boasting numerous photographs and a variety of fonts.

The result is a handsome, visually stimulating product, which makes considerable demands on the reader, who is recast as researcher and must exercise the skills required of that role.

Fortunately, the material is absorbing and the chronological information prefacing the book provides a helpful framework for what follows.

The figure that emerges in these pages is a troubled, intense, often difficult personality, driven to write, desperately searching — through a number of stormy relationships — for love, and moving inexorably towards her suicide on the night of July 18, 1965, at the age of 31.

Jonker’s suicide turned her into a cult figure — the young, gifted Afrikaans poet who, given her unstable personality, the sum of her experiences of life and an accumulation of personal physical, financial and emotional problems, particular to 1965, walked into the sea at Three Anchors Bay, in the Cape, and, in drowning, became South Africa’s version of the doomed Sylvia Plath.

In his tribute to her, fellow poet and central love of her life, Jack Cope, claimed: “ ...poets ... are not buried with their bodies, but remain to shake and confuse us, to awaken the living ...”

Posthumously, a number of collections of Jonker’s poems have been published.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela elected to read her poem, The Child who was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga (1960), at the opening of Parliament. The reading of the poem, not only by Mandela, but also, earlier, in Harare, 1987, by Oliver Tambo, has contributed further to Jonker’s iconic status in the post-Apartheid dispensation.

Jonker’s childhood was marked by her parents’ separation, her mother’s protracted illnesses and death, a damaging relationship with her father, whose views on race, lifestyles and censorship clashed with her own, and frequent moves.

Although she married in 1954 (aged 21) and had a daughter, the union was fraught, and, on leaving her husband, she pursued relationships with a number of men, notably writers, Jack Cope and André Brink, and the young artist, Herman van Nazareth.

Her collection of poems, Onvlugting, was published in 1956; and her second, the award-winning, Rook en Oker, in 1963.

Her posthumous life — including further publications and the tribute, In Memoriam Ingrid Jonker, a compilation by literati friends — began after her second funeral on July 25, 1965, an attempt by those close to her to redress the farce of the family funeral staged on July 22, and memorable for the palpable grief of Jack Cope.

He must surely have felt the weight of Jonker’s own words: “My hand of dust/cannot protect you” (I Lament You); and the seemingly prophetic: “My body lies washed ashore in seaweed and grass” (Escape).

Moira Lovell

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