Flow Wellington is a well-known figure on the Johannesburg poetry scene. Her book Gau-trained adds to that presence. The book, Gau-trained is about Johannesburg and about the city-region in which the city resides. It captures poetically what we know about major cities in the developing world. They are magnets for people who hail from different parts of the country (and beyond) and migrate to the metropolis in search of a better future and a decent livelihood. At the same time, the cities are often poorly prepared to receive them; their plans for roads, houses, schools are often several years or even decades behind the wave. And those who come must (for a seemingly indeterminate period) use all their resources to keep the flame of hope alive amidst the precariousness that afflicts the poor and marginalised. Those who come — we now know — are a self-selected group: they are the ones who are more resilient, determined and entrepreneurial, and, indeed, we can learn much from them.
Flow translates this story into a captivating creative work. She gives it her own slant. She makes the story concrete and visceral by her close observation and her skill with words. I showed my 16 year old daughter the Park Station poem. Not knowing the churning of emotions, edginess, bustle, hopes and fears that happen at Park station, she said she found the poem “dramatic”. And yes, that experience of in-your-face descriptions speaks to the grittiness and immediacy that comes through in many of the poems in Gau-trained.
At one of the launches (Saturday 24, 2018), Flow described herself as a storyteller. The storyteller’s skill is to draw everyone around; he or she lays great store by communicability. Although Flow’s poetry uses figurative devices and images/references that makes you see old things in new ways, there is also a great communicability in her writing. It is the kind of writing that can have old and young sitting together, nodding and finding points of identification. In this sense, storytelling taps into our being human; in the hands of a great story teller, even if the narrative is about something more brutal and rawer than we have personally experienced, we can — even in a small ways — relate.
This book is divided into sections that in themselves constitute a narrative arc: The Platform, Derailed, Crossroads and Full Steam Ahead. With all the poems, we see images of the city: the high-rise buildings, the sex-work, the “doctors” that promise penis enlargements, the feelings of depression, women’s particular insecurity in the city, the hustling and the many instances of people ‘making a plan’. The poetry is written in manner that you can smell the smells, feel the claustrophobia of cramped space, touch the stickiness of drool on a train-station bench and hear the sirens ringing in your ears . In one of the poems, “Second Floor”, the birds have nests (a space that provides some ‘holding’ and repose) while at street level there is “women screaming” and people being robbed for “small change”. The contrasts that arise from these observations, as well as the poet’s reaction, gives this poem clout.
As the poems roll out in the book, one gets a sense of the poet becoming more resilient, on the one hand, and clearer about her positionality in this, on the other. In one of the poems, the poet states: “Drink your tears when your heart begins to parch/And blood is cleansed by oxygen;/ so breathe … breathe and exhale the toxins of your conditioning.” One gets a sense that the poet is crafting her resilience as much as she is fashioning poems.
But this movement (towards a greater sense of comfort and belonging) is not a straight line; progress is interrupted by depression, identity issues and a discovery, in return trips to Port Elizabeth, that “where I’m from” is not the same anymore. The identity poems are particularly engaging. These poems add an additional core of authenticity; they convey the sense of ‘finding of self’ and a continued grappling, the very sensibilities which often fuel powerful works of art. In “Mixed Enough”, the poet speaks about having names thrust on her and issues of acceptance/being properly accepted within the melting pot that is Johannesburg: “They call me yellow bone here/Where I grew up, I was brown skinned”. The poem ends without resolution and with the poet taking note of the unenviable distinction of being a novelty at social gatherings and of being “(j)ust mixed enough” to be accommodated.
The poem, “Afrika Kind”, also in the book section called Crossroads, continues with this theme of searching for truth about self and finding acceptance. The poem, in Afrikaans, exhorts the poet (or indeed any child of Khoi descent) to stop hiding her beauty behind relaxers and concealing mother-tongue rhythms behind the constant use of lingua francas. Through this poem, the poet situates/defines poetic works like the ones in Gau-trained, and indeed much of the storytelling tradition, as a connection between the ancient bloodline of the Khoi and the culture, creativity and humanity of the entire continent.
The last section of the book, entitled Full Steam Ahead, is less about an easy resolution and the gold-filled potjie at the rainbow’s end. Rather, it is about the ways of carrying on and, despite the scars and continuing turbulence, finding ways to face the future. It is about finding meaning (a factor so critical to elevating human existence, as Viktor Frankl has noted) and moments of pleasure and happiness that are still there for the taking. In “Instructions for Chaos”, Flow advises those who want to make it in the concrete jungle to live life to the fullest, to “wear your cap back to front”, to “show your bra straps,” to “bulldoze boardrooms in a doek” and to speak out when words of courage are needed.