Peace Corps Writers
Review
   
Nomadic Foundations
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
Minneapolis: Elixir Press
2002
68 pages
$13.00
(Buy this book)

  Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74, Ethiopia 1974–75)
 
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SOUTH AFRICAN PLAYWRIGHT Athol Fugard, passionate about apartheid, shows us in “Master Harold and the Boys,” a world that separates those who in a different setting, might love one another, or at least avoid collisions. Collisions are everywhere in the Africa poet Sandra Meek describes in Nomadic Foundations. The world of Cecil Rhodes and his hegemony is coming to an end. In Meek’s “Possession” — “lizards swarm Rhodes’ grave,” yet the mining company and its powerful presence still dominates the landscape. This is a world stagnant, sunk in sorrow, battered, nearly destroyed:

Tonight, what have we left of ourselves/
to excavate? The arch of surviving night/
spanning the stars

     Botswana is finally independent. Men leave their families and work in the mines in South Africa, still under apartheid. A Peace Corps Volunteer is a privileged person: passes are required from anyone who is not by definition white. Nelson Mandela has yet to step out of prison and burn his pass.
     Right away, Meek shows us that we are in a sorrowful place. “My blue country wins me border stamps,” crossings that are not available to Africans. Apartheid and passes and fear are woven into the often beautiful landscapes she describes. Beneath her exquisite language, lies desperation and the stark facts of existence, “the greed of shovels.”
     This is an Africa different from what the tourists or the folks at home expect. In “Reply Without Gazelles” the person at home naively writes “What is it like to wake to gazelles every morning tell me about Africa.” Death seems to be everywhere, in the “faces coming off on our hands,” on the pamphlets being passed around, to the digging of graves, and the “grief of the black widow shaving children’s heads.” This is the “month for funerals.”
     Sandra Meek calls her writing about Africa “Deep Travel.” She looks intently at landscape for its mystery and its truth. And she is brilliant at description. Sometimes the landscape seems surreal, and the reader has to rub her eyes to remember that Meek is talking about a real landscape. In the poem “Toward Gestures,” she refers to Luderitz, Namibia:
In streets/bare of trees and shrubs is the finest collection of German/colonial architecture in the world. In front of the town,/the Atlantic ocean; behind it, the Namib desert.

     In the poem “Refugee,” Meek departs from her usual visionary glimpses and gives us a complicated story about how violence is passed along. First, she shows us the division of schoolchildren by race at the beach:

The White children had embroidered emblems like shields/
on their uniform breast. When the Black children/
went by in their solid blue, no emblem,/
no shield over their hearts, I saw/
you at 10 . . before Soweto, before you joined the wave/
of children spilling out of the schools, before/
solid rows of soldiers, shored up with guns,/
suddenly lunged forward like a law of nature?
broken.

     The breaking of human beings and the passing along of terror to the weak and innocent underlies Meek’s poem, one of the most affecting in the book. But even what seems beautiful is deathly. In “Evolution:”

A girl scoops up a barnacle still/
sealed, sleek as liver, glossy-black./
Her fingers trace its ear-like curve, wrench it open.

     Joy makes its welcome appearance in “In Translation”:

In the village, children practice for Independence./
Girls clap and stamp, strung ankles rattling/
dry pods of seeds. Even herd boys/
sing, one ear tuned/
to the bell-pitch of their goats, their music.

     Something is coming to pass that will change everything, all the suffering ("The Way We Used to Believe"):

Deep in this earth, always a mother lies/
curling into a black fist, ancient heart, and I’m not/
listening for the child/
but for the mother cradled in her grave;/
if death is a shell to split open, I want to hear?/
the rocking inside.

     The mothers are rising from their graves, and we can hear the rocking. With the end of apartheid, “death is a shell . . .split open.” The war, over. “All those broken bodies spill what’s left of light.” Submerged under nearly every scene of Nomadic Foundations is the pain of apartheid and the longing for freedom. Meek has given us an enigmatic book that cries out for clarity where there can be none. She shows us the shadowy and terrifying history of Southern Africa printed on its earth and its people.

 
Margaret Szumowski is working on a new manuscript, Night of the Lunar Eclipse.
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