Book Review: Left Over (Kobus Moolman)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

Left Over (Dyehard Press, 2013) by Kobus Moolman is the kind of book that takes you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you. These are poems to wake you up. Well-known in his native South Africa, Kobus Moolman deserves to be better known and better read here. Lyric, vigilant, hyper-alert to the surfaces, textures and sensations of the physical world, the poems in Moolman's sixth collection are beautiful and dangerous, a meditation on the fraught and even perilous relationship of mind and body:

Sometimes a word will just arrive in his head
and then it will stay there for days
going round and round.

Of late the most frequent of all these
has been the word 'executed.'

("Hold Just Like That")

Born with Spina Bifida, Moolman conceives of the body as an arena of struggle and revelation. His poems are rigorously unsentimental, foregrounding the experience of the recalcitrant, watchful and mysterious body–the body which is burden but also portal to the outside, the only way we have of grasping the flux and flow, the authentic processes of the world around us. I can think of few books I have read lately that have thrust me more vividly or viscerally into the poet's world or, for that matter, into the space of the body:

Blood has been on his mind a lot these days:

Blood in the bath, blood on the bowl of the toilet,
Blood dried on the wooden bedroom floor:

It seems that with every step he takes he is leaking.

The "he" of these poems, most of which, though not all, are in close third person, is a body in the process of changing, suffering, disintegrating. Moolman has a flair for the lurid and the verging on grotesque, images that are queasily intimate and familiar but also shocking. The body as we don't necessarily want to see it makes many appearances in this slim collection–leaking, freezing, festering, ill at ease with itself; yet also close, earth-like, beloved. The mind that occupies this body often does not quite know or grasp what he is–where he came from or where he is going:

He cannot understand his hands. They are just two loose things at the end of his arms. He flaps them. They are heavy. He bites them. And they are hard. They taste of salt and oil and dishwashing liquid…

A skeleton of a narrative snakes through these poems, composed of several threads–memory, the longing for connection, and the fact of "being" in the present moment.

The poems that open the collection focus on disjointed memories of a long ago childhood, in which we see the narrator or subject "he" struggling to assemble a sense of the world as physical and psychic space:

His father's blue Ford Escort that was always clean and neat.

His grandmother who died of liver failure, although she had
   never drunk a drop of alcohol in her life.

The old plum tree that he fell out of as a child and broke his

The naked white body of his sister seen through the keyhole of
   the bathroom door.

("Fourteen things No Longer There")

Part of Moolman's skill as a poet is that this listing, while forensically precise and full of specific autobiographical detail is placed in such a way that it begins to take on a mythic and even obdurate weight–to be a grappling with the impenetrability of the physical matter of the world and how it shapes the story of the self–the self in the body:

The smell of salt

         The smell of ash

The smell of white lime.

The unnamed "he" of the poem as glimpsed through the slantwise light of memory appears to be considering the past in almost elegiac terms, lamenting an ordinary life now lost or in the process of being lost:

The thin wrist pale and dirty after the cast had been cut away.

The sound of the blue Ford Escort idling outside the gate at
  Five o'clock in the afternoon, as his father waited for
   him to come and open the gate.

("Fourteen things No Longer There")

This elegiac or "past life" tone sustains itself through poems that describe the "he" attempting to gauge his connection with the world–through love or family. Yet many of these relationships are fraught, just miss, do not entirely answer the mysterious restrictions and desires of the body itself, which are often tormented or perverse, or become so in relationship to the consciousness of the unnamed "he."

The man was actually happy. In fact, he was so happy that he decided to make himself unhappy. To punish himself. For his happiness. So that he could not be taken by surprise one day by unhappiness.

Behind this fear of unhappiness is a longing–half-voiced through most of these poems–for some kind of transcendent tenderness or healing, one that might be attained through kindness or caritas as in this untitled prose poem where he describes trying to life a weight off a "dark haired girl's" heart: "Because he wants so much to help the dark-haired girl. He wants so much to free her heart. To see her breathe again. After a lifetime of holding her breath."

Yet such attempts at tenderness are continually frustrated by the hard materiality of the physical world, the self in the body and the body's demands. Many of the poems in the middle section of Left Over are set in the bathroom–a kind of stage for the confrontation of self with physical self:

There is blood and piss in his bath

There are black wires spreading across his hand

(Blood x 3)

Besides the bathroom, we glimpse the "he" of these poems primarily in other solitary and/or transient locations–a hotel, an airport, by the side of a road–struggling to walk across an unnamed landscape, a primordial place of "tree" and "veldt" The struggle is between the conscious desire for control and the simple fact of the body–the body so unpredictable, so unreadable, the body which is most itself and at home with itself in the infinite and infinitely anxious present moment:

He looks in the mirror.
One eye looks back at him,
while the other watches
something happening off in the wings

("Back to School")

As Left Over builds momentum, we begin to see what Moolman is up to–the problem of the book is ultimately where to affirm a life and how–and how, equally pressingly, to account for the body itself–the body in the world or even define what it is to be in a body, a body one cannot control and yet one occupies so fervently, so intimately:

…And standing there, still dressed, holding on to the washbasin, holding him up, he felt always the presence of something, close as his skin and yet disinterested, something that just watched him…

Moolman goes on to describe this "something" as arising from or comprising "an outside" of the body, remarkably situating the source of alienation in the body itself as it moves through and around and also within the conscious self:

…And the feeling always made him remember that there was not just a front and a back to himself, but more importantly an outside. That he was standing up inside a sack of skin that went with him wherever he went, and this was what the rest of the house saw. That even when he was alone, as then in the slowly streaming bathroom, he was truly not so. Because something was always there with him, watching and listening, through the keyholes of his skin…

("In the Bathroom")

If poetry is partly about discovery or the uncovering of metaphor as defined by Kenneth Burke, viz: "perspective through incongruity," then the richness and even exhilaration we feel on reading Left Over, despite its often gritty, gruesome–and, yes, brutal subject matter, is in Moolman's ability to uncover new angles from which to disinter the familiar tropes of being in a body, being alive, and, most of all, his astonishing capacity to insert us viscerally into the sensation of fully being in the present:

Broken jars of sleep

The expensive shadow a mouth carries
between bedrooms.

Seven waves.

A mule dragging a cold wind
over ice.

Fueled by Moolman's hallucinatory language and spare lyric gift, this present becomes a site of intense beauty and even redemption, but one that is only arrived at–or can only be affirmed--through a profound recognition of all that is cracked, spare, strange, and hard. The nature or "wider world" Moolman's bodies are part of is one which is sere, wild, cool and also intensely alive in every part–and part of this life is the quest for naming which occupies this collection; how to speak from within the body, how to speak for what doesn't have a name, but can perhaps be given one–as in this untitled poem:

…the rain then
is not so much bestowing a blessing upon the world
but slapping the world
beating the world with
small silver hands and feet
beating it into the shape
of something that can be given a name.

Of the many things that stirred me in this beautiful collection of poems, perhaps the most significant was my sense that Moolman was using the disabled body to place us more truly and vividly within the human body–that vessel which we pretend to be more sealed off, more contained, more permanent than it is. In Left Over ,we feel simultaneously the terror and exhilaration of how that body moves through time, space, the waters of memory:

He sleeps like a pillow

The rain in his shoes

His eyes watching another sky.

the way the body is marked and marks what is around it, passing through like a blazing meteor, simultaneously vitally itself and shedding itself–things we know in our bones, but come to sense in an altogether fresh and startling way through Kobus Moolman's extraordinary poems.


Sheila Black is an editor of Wordgathering, a co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the author of several books of poetry.