A Book of Rooms by Kobus Moolman

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a book of roomsThemes such as childhood, fear, age, race, culture, freedom, romance and innocence are cemented in the ideologies at play in A Book of Rooms, the seventh volume of poetry by prolific South African poet, Kobus Moolman. Broken into four sections titled “who”, “what”, “why” and “when”, the poems, each beginning with the catch phrase “the room of…” lure Moolman’s reader into what appears to be a long narrative poem experimenting with biography and history. Natal, a region in South Africa, is repeatedly referenced as the speaker’s hometown. In obvious terms, the better one is acquainted with South Africa’s troubled past with apartheid, the better one gets at appreciating the deftness and simplicity in language that Moolman applies to his verse. Each poem depends on vignettes and images that make the reader a participant and witness in the experiences captured.

Ever present in the collection is the shadow of Moolman’s parents, especially his father. Perhaps a most telling experience depicted in the poems remains his childhood days spent with his brother in the same room.
How does a reader enter the childhood and young adulthood of a man dealing with a physical disability in a dour family during apartheid’s final years? If there is one thing that stands out in this book, it is the speaker’s relentless pursuit of the truth. This is attained with flashes of scenes depicting pain and failure, and in other instances, the will to live.
The poem “The Room of Growing” invites the reader to an innocent child’s attempt at understanding his father’s lifestyle and the world in which he finds himself as a child. The description of the scene, especially the house, presages quite a lot for the reader to speculate as to what kind of family the child was born into, the father’s role as the head of the house, the mother’s silence and perceived submissive role, and the mystery surrounding a boy’s unanswered questions that seemed to educate him on the ways of his father. Moolman begins the poem with a description of the room that extends further to the environment of his childhood:
There are two doors
that lead, one outside onto the front stoep with its shiny red
polish, the other into
his sister’s bedroom directly behind him There is a long crack in the
wall that opens and
closes depending on the weather  There is a wide window with
long green blinds
Through the wide window he watches his father drive off every
Friday night in his
brown Ford Cortina XLE (Big 6) with blinds in the back window
And he wonders
where his father goes And why his mother does not go with And
why sometimes he
wishes his father did not ever come back (18)
Moolman’s narrative verse gives his reader scenes of disparate experiences that tend to work as a collective experience of the family he describes. While he stops short of providing answers to some of his speaker’s thoughts, such as when his speaker says that he “wishes his father did not ever come back”, there tends to be need to know why and what would make a boy so young to think about his father in such a way. But the business of poetry, even in terse language, is not to reveal all that needs to be known to the reader. A room is left for suspense, and this happens quite often in Moolman’s poetry to elevate the vitality of his shared experience and delight his reader with what appears to be a trademark of the poet, since for him, as with the descriptions in this book, nothing lasts forever and a child’s knack for observing things can go a long way in educating him/her on the ways of life. This is what seems most apparent in the ending of the poem as Moolman observes:
Under the water where he can hold his breath longer than his
brother (who has no
talents to speak of, except being impressionable) Longer than
anyone else in the
whole world in fact  And he hears the sounds of the guttural voices
knocking against the
low step into his room from the polished front stoep And unknown
things that
happen in rustles behind the locked door into his sister’s lilac
Room  The door that
locks from her side only  Things he spies through the keyhole of
the bathroom door
Holding his breath so that she does not hear him  Until everything
begins to swim
around him…(22)

Perhaps the most glowing characteristics apparent in Moolman’s poetry in this volume is his deftness at handling his subject matter. Each line in the poem “The Room of Rural Teaching” dabbles into diverse subjects and issues such as the psychology of fear while living and teaching in rural South Africa, the freedom associated with being able to think and act as a writer unafraid to be sympathetic toward the less privileged, his exposure to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 and Bolero, and his confrontations with the pain, grief, bewilderment, and the complexity and chaos associated with rural living, especially for a teacher of Afrikaans background:
Excitement that he is finally out of his parent’s home and can do
What he wants for
The first time in his life  Pride that he is helping those less
Fortunate than himself
And fear that they will murder him in his sleep…(27)
These lines above, uncomfortable as they may seem for a reader familiar with South Africa’s intense race relations during apartheid, centers on the anguish Moolman feels as he uncomfortably equates his host’s reception and his learning journey as a teacher. There is also his human side, one that reveals the empathy he feels for the less privileged, especially the poor, as he describes a female child engaged in laborious activity aimed at helping a family guest:
He does not
deserve the kindness of his hosts who carry in to his room every
night an old metal
bath (which they prop up with bricks) and five litres of lukewarm
muddy water in a
rusted oil drum they had heated over an open fire He does not
take account of how
far the youngest daughter walks every day with her squeaking
wheelbarrow and her
plastic drum to fetch water for him from the Ngwenya river  Since
there are no taps
in her home Or that she is only thirteen when she bends over the
old bath in her black
school gymslip revealing a dirty pair of pink panties, to scoop out
his dirty water
(Which her whole family would have used for a day) (30)
The detours in this poem represent the poet’s success at capturing simple images that have far reaching implications. First, we see the speaker as a person of higher class among his host. They serve him and provide his needs. Second, even in his silent moments, we notice his acknowledgement of his taking things for granted, having learned from the suffering of others that there is relief in trying to comprehend the humbling way of living from the other’s experiences.
With A Book of Rooms, Moolman’s intent as a poet is clear. He captures his personal history not only through his own experiences but from the shared experiences of others, especially the less fortunate. His personal narratives, as we see it, is incomplete without noting the high and low points. Where he fails to directly apportion blame to his homeland for his oft terrifying upbringing in a society at conflict with the psychology of racial tension and class differences as a result of apartheid, his reader is exposed to the remarkable use of language that investigates, narrates, paints and pervades the pulchritude of his childhood and world.

by Dr. Dike Okoro

Wednesday, March 16, 2015
Date of Publication: November 2014
ISBN: 978-0-9870282-4-2
Publisher: Deep South

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Dr Dike Okoro, Sam Walton Fellow and finalist for the 1994 Iliad Poetry Award, teaches advanced reading and writing poetry and literature courses at Northwestern University, Evanston, USA. He received his PhD in English (with research specialization in African Diaspora literatures) from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, an M.A. in African American literature and an M.F.A. in poetry, both from Chicago State University. He is the editor and author of six books, including Speaking for the Generations: An Anthology of Contemporary African Short Stories, Echoes from the Mountain: New and Selected Poems by Mazisi Kunene A Long Dream: Poems by Okogbule Wonodi. His poems, essays, short stories, chapters and articles have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.

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