reviewed by Shane A.
It’s on the plane to wherever it is you’re headed that the excitement for the adventures yet to come begins to bubble up in the pit of your stomach; generally mixing a smidgen of nervousness and a dash of wonder. So when Kate Noakes, in opening poem ‘Hirundine’, forges the words, "by the pent and twist of my energy flying/from one hemisphere to the other as I crook/my fingers and turn your milk to blood", you can’t help but feel the beginning of her adventure.
Cape Town is the Welsh poet’s third collection and in its fifty-plus short poems you’re carried along on her shoulder as she seeks out the histories and magic of the city, embedding herself among the locals and offering a lyrical take on all that catches her gaze. "The sun edges over the ring of hills,/over the known world. A red-winged starling/choruses on my balcony, beads of honey/in its throat. Sea fog blocks the city view." (‘Waking up in fairyland’)
Through Noakes’ honed words you’re introduced to the characters, most simply immersed in their daily lives, whose actions are foreign to the uninitiated visitor. Take the shark watcher, who "looks for the coming darkness, shadows/moving through the surf." but who has also adopted the modern eccentricities of his trade: "Now he fishes with a two-way radio/and polarizing lenses." (‘Number one shark watcher’) Then there's Ebrahim, whose love and loss of his pigeons echoes that which he feels for his place: "last of all my beauties are packed/ into five old wicker baskets, ten abreast/ for the ride to the new place. I won’t/ call it home…’ (‘Ebrahim’s Pigeons’) You can feel the camaraderie of strangers meeting strangers when in ‘Razor Wire’ a scene is painted of a man who "thrusts his hand through a gap/braves its metal thorns to shake mine."
These poems show Noakes' strength of observation and her keen interest in examining the people that make a place. It’s only later in the collection that the magic of Cape Town’s characters appear to have worn off. In a piece titled 'Green and yellow blanket man, Long Street’, Noakes, her eyes now accustomed to her surroundings, berates a beggar who we must assume has asked for help one too many times: "There’s no-one who can/ruin my day quite like the green/ and yellow blanket man."
This same progression from wonder to fatigue, a feeling known to anyone who has been away from home too long, is also evident in Noakes’ pieces touching on the visual ephemera which make-up a place. You’re able to escape onto the sharp, sanded shores when she writes of how ‘the day… hides the sun’s heat in its mouth and spits at you turquoise water’ (‘Kite surfing, Milnerton’). Or when on a trip to the Cape Town Bestiary she becomes enamoured and humoured by the Hadedas, a native ibis to Sub-Saharan Africa, when a group of them fail to yield to a keep off sign and pervade a freshly seeded cricket pitch. "Hadedas can’t read" she writes as they “spike the grass for worms, oblivious/ on the first cool evening of March" (‘Hadedas’). But this love of the land and its inhabitants grows strained when near the end of the collection; in a poem titled ‘Signal Hill’ she writes: "And so I wait until the day (make it soon)/ when on the dot of the Noon Gun/ you’ll come with tickets/ and inky palms to fetch me home." That open-eyed, jet-lagged, excitement of just dissolving into a new location that Noakes gave us at the start has given way to a wish for something more known, more regular.
Travel, of course, is not without its pitfalls: lost luggage, unreserved rooms, and transit strikes are bound to sneak in to any well planned escape. In Cape Town these take various forms:
An excessive use of lists. There are times it’s as if you’re just reading the author’s notes, scribbled on a napkin for later use; lists of what she saw but lacking any daubs of color; ‘Under a knot of highways by the foreshore/men sleep on cardboard and dirt/They fight over blankets bottles, tin foil.’ (Central reservation equinox); ‘Later, two men bird-watch indoors./ The world premier of Fugard’s new play/ opens with an ephiphany:/mamma and baby birds,look, Cape Dippocks.’ (‘A stone curlew for you’).
A lack of bite to the political comment. Apartheid has a voracious history, but in discussing it, Noakes is reserved, more like a dog licking its own wounds after an unplanned fight. I almost felt pity for the tyrant in ‘The dictator’s last days’ when it’s written that "after a few more years/ his Shakespeare was thin, its pages/ rubbed by his thumb". It’s possible, given the poem's location near the end of the collection, that she was seeking to needle an emotion here, draw us into what she was feeling, whatever it might have been, but if that was the case it came out unclear.
The choice of words in ‘Split Estate’, by far the weakest poem in the collection and one manufactured with elementary rhyming ; "racking will give us energy anew/ Fracking will break the land with its ju-ju/ Fracking will do more than spoil a great view"; is not saved by the interesting form of the poem and doesn’t speak to what should be Noakes’ strengths, given her background in teaching at Oxford and her MPhil in Creative Writing credentials.
But as in travel, the mishaps make up little of the trip and in the case of Cape Town these slips shouldn’t keep you away.
Overall the collection is an intriguing view into how we as people come to relate to places; both the ones we visit and the ones we call home.