By Marguerite Poland
Review by Alan Muller
To refer to Marguerite Poland’s newest offering, Taken Captive by Birds, as purely a memoir would be a misnomer. While Poland has penned a work of remarkable sensitivity, Craig Ivor’s pencil lends a depth that sets this volume apart from almost all other forms of autobiography. Focusing on her childhood in The Bush, the book spans a period of roughly a decade, framed by Poland’s observations of the birds surrounding her home, Kwezintaka – the Place of Birds. Interwoven with the personal story are the myths, traditions and meanings behind birds and their names within Zulu and Xhosa culture. The book is divided into 18 chapters, each focusing on a particular species of bird whose appearance and presence can, for her, “at once recall a name, a scent, a morning full of song and exploration, an evening of sorrow, a childhood fear”.
Poland tells not only her own story but also that of her Scottish grandmother, Ninngy, who - with her love for ducks and chickens - would lead a procession of “two daschunds, sometimes the larger ginger cat, the hen and chicks and the rooster” through the garden. She also recounts the lives of her father, Jumbie, her mother, Hopie, and James Raga, “the gardener, with the large black hosepipe, dragging it looped across his shoulder”.
Poland’s reflections are tinged with sadness and longing for a time gone-by but successfully avoid becoming an exercise in lachrymose nostalgia. This memoir concerns not only a childhood and its accompanying naïveté but also the process of storytelling and the development of an authorial voice through listening to the stories of others:
The acutely observed worlds of those two great storytellers in my life – Alfred Banda and Ninngy – lodge in my heart, not in opposition despite the great difference in tradition, but in the shared nobility of words. We sat, we listened, we remembered. For Nicky, poetry became her leitmotif. For me, imagined landscapes: a pantheon of place.
Underpinning Poland’s exploration of the ‘pantheon of place’ are the harsh realisations that accompany growing up in apartheid South Africa. Whether it be the “sad, dark eyes” of the labourers’ children at Christmas-time or witnessing the daughter of an itinerant woodcutter being turned away from a hospital because she was black; Poland does not hesitate to point out her position of privilege and its concomitant sense of guilt. In a manner similar to that of Annie Dillard, Poland’s observations show not only wisdom that comes in retrospect but also show an intensity of experience that boarders on sensory overload. Minor details like the “blubber on the corned beef’, “pimples on the blue-tinged ox tongue” or the “delicate sourness” of curdled rice pudding are given such weight that one is left to wonder how you hadn’t noticed them yourself. This sensitive offering by Marguerite Poland, illustrated by Craig Ivor, and tastefully bound by Penguin in hardback is well worth the R250 and will make a welcome addition to libraries and coffee tables alike.