AQ38 Autumn 2023 Book Review
Winkel-Mellish, Robin, An Obeisance to Frogs, Hands-On Books, IBSN 978-1-928215-90-5, 56 pages.
The title poem of Robin Winkel-Mellish’s An Obeisance to Frogs, seems to contain the very seed of this collection; like the frogs’ chorus, her poems, springing from an ‘animist heart’ and rooted in a deep attachment to the natural world, serve as a subtle but powerful ‘mantra to the living’.
The first section of the book is devoted to the landscape and wild life of her native South Africa, where in ‘Earthward’ she gets ‘to feel the touch of sea/ the oily perfume of bush’, to listen ‘in bodiless moments to the sounds of night and love the heavy pulse/of gathered earth’. In ‘Snake’, with precise and vivid detail powered by terror, she pays homage to the beauty of a Cape cobra discovered hiding under an old rug in her garage, ‘potent as a king’, ‘Hooded gold/it stood up and glittered/ in the half dark’, its ‘spitting, sleek silk ’ ’a swaying reed of rancour’.
In ‘Messenger’, however, a dove crashing into her window is an omen that this world is in grave peril. As she writes in ‘Oracle’, ‘when the messenger of God/ lay dead on my stoop, I knew/The old rivers of life had shifted/little rivulets of life that once flowed/had sunk, boreholes dried up/ our lives of plenty ended.’
Yet, throughout this collection, which spans both South Africa and Europe, the human connection is always present as a source of hope and joy. Hope, as embodied in the woman, a man and their son, whom she comes across in ‘Encounter’, and conveyed in images that express a free-flow of life and plenty. ‘As natural as earth and air, never/hiding the fountain of themselves’, they are the born protectors of the Africa that she loves, ‘the caretakers of a coastline’, whilst ‘the way their son danced ‘the movement/a blossoming’ expresses the sheer joy of the body in movement; this a recurring theme. In ‘Ode to Legs’ she declares ‘How precious you are, dancing/and jumping for joy just as a caracal/that swats a flying bird in the air/opening to celebrate life and great pleasure’.
Moments of self-discovery are drawn from her emotional connection to the natural world. The cicadas’ singing in ‘Cicadas’, ‘unseen but constant’, triggers the sudden realization that ‘this is the heart’s/greatest project:…’to keep on trying to make something/of the bright new surface of each day/and at the same time recognize/and cherish the great scar of demise’.
This embrace of experience, ‘learning how to hold on’ (‘Cicadas’) through the inevitable cycles of life and death, love and loss, is a constant in these poems, its presence subtly and often beautifully expressed in images of the emergence from darkness into light. In ‘Turning Point’, Winkler-Mellish describes how as a child she would dive into mountain pools, down to the muddy bottom, then turn upward, ‘weightless arms unfurled/ swimming from the bottom/ of the world towards light’. In ‘A Look at Love’ the two lovers, ‘fallen out of shadow’ are now ‘a chrysalis emerging, transparent/as shiny drops, clothed in shimmering’. This image of the lovers bound together in a chrysalis ‘by threads of silk, together/though apart. Plumed wings unfolding’ renders the nature of their contact with great delicacy and precision. As so often in these poems, humans are connected not only to each other but to a closely observed and deeply appreciated natural world.
The book ends with the long poem ‘Kaggen the Thief of Time’ in which a woman, caught at the midnight hour between the worlds of the living and the dead, as her life ‘shimmers/in the periphery of light and pall’, recovers distant memories of her lost love. In a string of images drawn from and inspired by the cave paintings, myths, stories and songs of traditional Bushman culture, she ‘shadow dances with ghosts/heeds Kaggen as he tells his vision/the last Bushman song sung into the night’.
The poem’s ending, as she waits for the moon and the evening star to rise again, resonates with one of the most striking images related by Kaggen. ‘The stars…they steal your heart and it opens/like a flower in the sky’. The same could be said for this collection of poems, whose quiet strength, drawn from an intimate and heartfelt attachment to the wild in all its aspects and the wisdom gained from it, consistently offers an opening to life, love and hope. AQ