HALF ART: Harking back to Struggle days brings today’s struggles into focus

THE artwork this week is a simple sketch on a book cover. The book is Epitaphs and Dreams: Poems to Remember the Struggle by Patrick FitzGerald; the picture is a portrait of the author by Bruce Patterson.

FitzGerald is caught in a characteristic pose: black beret, red scarf, eyes looking down (presumably at the text of a poem he is reading for an audience), finger pointed skywards (emphasising a point, but not stridently — he might equally be punctuating a sentence).

In a YouTube clip posted a few weeks ago to market the collection, FitzGerald appears in similar guise, with a couple of notable exceptions. He wears glasses. The black facial hair, neatly groomed in Patterson’s sketch, has become grey and bushy.

The differences marking the passage of time between these portraits of the artist as younger and older man gesture at the fundamental challenge posed by FitzGerald’s collection of poems: reconciling then and now.

In the 1980s, the poet was a revolutionary, an anti-apartheid activist who, while living in exile in Botswana, “had two hand-grenades sequestered with his socks and an AK-47 permanently propped up against his computer”.

IT IS a romantic, perhaps even an archetypal, image — one of two competing archetypes when we think of the relationship between art and political struggle. The other is of the artist whose work is at least somewhat removed from the front lines, if not deliberately distant.

“Some of us must storm the castles,” wrote Arthur Nortje, while “some define the happening”. FitzGerald attempted to do both, and Epitaphs and Dreams is a record of that attempt. For someone of my generation, who came of age as apartheid (or formal segregation anyway) came to an end, it is almost impossible to assess the successes and failures of such a project.

When I first met FitzGerald, his Kalashnikov days were two decades behind him. He was, by that stage, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand; inevitably, as a result, he was liked and loathed in equal measure. As a young academic, I felt bound to fall in with the latter camp. I’m still a young academic, by most standards, but as I grow older I’m learning not to develop opinions based on my ignorance.

These poems and their provenance leave me in a quandary. As a reviewer and literary critic, I find myself unable to pass judgment on the formal or aesthetic qualities of the work — which are, after all, bound up in a particular historical moment.

IF I encountered these poems without any sense of contextual detail, they might “speak” to me without constraint (as a work of visual art might do if there were no immediate clues as to its provenance). But that cannot be.

I can enjoy the sound of a line, smile at a conceit, open myself up to a range of affective responses to expressions of grief, fear, loneliness, passion, tribute, and triumph. Yet each poem, in its title, or its time-and-place stamp, or its insight into the minutiae of a life dedicated to “the Movement”, moves me to ask: what would I have done?

I can comment neither on the sacrifices and the bravery, nor on the shortcomings and the cowardice of the past.

FitzGerald is careful to ensure that his portrayal of the period is balanced. The “previous ‘resistance’ era was not necessarily naive”, he affirms in his introduction, “nor was everyone, or every action … noble or unselfish or devoid of personal ambition”.

Nevertheless, given that “the memory of those times burns with a vivid and ever-present sense of purpose and idealism”, I can’t help feeling that the appearance of a volume such as Epitaphs and Dreams is timely.

It is all too easy, in 2016, to throw up one’s hands, to despair at state capture, presidential malice, and endemic corruption. Yet FitzGerald’s poetry from the 1980s, despite recurring anxiety and dread, has a quiet undertone — occasionally building into a loud declaration — of confidence. We must fight. We will prevail (somehow).

Apartheid-era certainties over who is right and what action is just may no longer be tenable. Still, readers of this collection will, if nothing else, take heart.

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