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“Ruth Millers poetic vision is situated in the public space and time of apartheid South Africa in the 1960’s. It is also situated in the personal space and time characterised by bereavement ”
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“Ruth Millers poetic is fragmented into a conflicting cacophony of voices seeking separation and reconcilement, trapped within a crisis of meaning”
Ruth Miller’s poem, “Sterkfontein”, presents a burdensome allegory of a comfortless journey through the caves after which the poem is named. It speaks of injury and entrapment and separation. Its pessimistic, depressive position leaves little to be hopeful for in the reader. The diction of the poem, its eerie tone and forlorn themes, its form, with five tightly rhyming quatrains(ABAB), and its seemingly hopeless movement of thought are all key elements that coincide to convey the disconsolate, trapped reality of the speaker. Through her symbolism of the Sterkfontein caves, Ruth Miller is speaking to the experience of this kind of uncomfortable, quasi-free reality which, given her life and times as a female political dissident in apartheid South Africa as well as the tremendous personal losses she endured, is not surprising.
It is clear that themes of separation and disassociation are tied into this poem. It is set, as the epigraph makes clear, in South Africa which indicates something of the importance of reading the poem with the South African context in mind. In stanza one with, “Our caves do not go Boom! And make one nervy,”(4), the distinction of “Our caves”, which pre-supposes a separation of ‘ours’ from ‘theirs’, and the use of “Boom!” alongside the reference to the caves in India in line nine stanza two, coincide to implicate the novel ‘A Passage To India’ by E M Forster and its relation to the Sterkfontein caves. The novel details a tragic and uncertain event that takes place in the Maramar caves; whereby the caves where the event takes place come to signify the resultant polarization between the English and Indians and by extension, the subjugate past they share. At this juncture, the subtle comparison between the subjugate past of India and the subjugate present of South Africa has, embedded in it, a subtler contrast or separation between the two. The speaker conveys the idea that these caves, the caves in Sterkfontein, are more sinister than the caves in India. They are “underground, and dark and hard,”(2). They signify a separate, more wicked and deeply rooted conflict than that which the Maramar caves signify. The reader is shown this sense of separation again stanza three with, “In India the smooth sides make one shiver,”(9). This line conveys a sense of relief from the dark feeling of the Sterkfontein caves, due to it being softer and less prickly. The alliteration of “smooth sides” and the word “shiver” enhances the contrast between the two places. The sinister aspect to the Sterkfontein caves, however ,is brought in again with, “but here the walls have teeth,”(10) as if to say that there is deeper level of frightfulness to the caves in Sterkfontein. This separation emphasizes that there is something about the caves in Sterkfontein, South Africa that is perturbing in a profoundly malevolent way. Anna Salkinda explains from her work ‘The poetry of Ruth Miller: The Word and her words’ that “Ruth Millers poetic vision is situated in the public space and time of apartheid South Africa in the 1960’s”(pg 1). Given that this period was especially fraught with atrocities and executions of political activists, it is blatant that Sterkfontein signifies this atrocious reality. It is distinct from Maramar. Its evil runs deeper than Maramar and it is exceptional in its evilness, separated by its unique status. It is clear that Miller is commenting on her times and gives a subtle commentary about the source of the separation that characterises these times.
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It is implied that this source is authoritative. It is trapping, fascistic and dominating. This can be seen with, “The skulls are dumb, and who would dare say less”(6). This line, perhaps slightly sarcastically, indicates that there is an authority that stakes claim on which skulls are dumb or not, where this authority is not to be trifled with. One would be brave to speak contrarily to this authority as the line intimates with “who would dare say less”. This authority is not unlike the apartheid authority which was dictatorial and fascistic. Following on from this with, “we throw away a flag to flaunt a banner”(10), there is a subtle conveyance again separation or disassociation. The connotations of ‘flag’ conveys a sense of unity and ‘banner’ conveys a sense of fighting, factions and disunity. The speaker is therefore implying that the reality of peace is being tossed out in place of a reality of factions and fighting, where the use of ‘flaunt’ shows that this bannered life is being aggrandised. In line “Our caves have echoes which say no to yes”(11) this sense of peace and unity is being cut off, forcibly. Here, the interpretation can be made that there is agreement and disagreement about this bannered life but they are faint and in the background, repeating, getting softer each time but ultimately unheard in the wake of the separate, aggressive authority which itself does the separating. It separates out which realities are to be thrown away and which are to be aggrandised. The South African context of the poem characterised by 1960’s apartheid – of gender, political and racial segregation and aggression – and the fact that Ruth Miller is speaking to realities and feelings of separation through her poetic, bringing them to light, is not fortuitous. Her thoughts on these realities are delivered, however, quite subversively and underhandedly and this possibly gives the reader an insight into the pressure of living under an oppressive, patriarchal regime as a women and political dissident as Mia Salkinder explains in her work on Millers writings.
Following on from the sense of separation present in this work , the reader, in the beginning of the poem, is told of the Sterkfontein caves that someone, long ago, has died there, their ‘skeletal remains persisting, perhaps eternally trapped. Injury, entrapment and hopelessness are themes and feelings which, quite strongly, come across in this poem, particularly in the first and last two stanzas. The line, “some of the time we walk upright, though slowly,”(13), again, has embedded in it, the pre-supposition that most of the time the speaker ,who all through the poem is mostly talking as a representative shown through the constant reiteration of “we” and “our”, walks in a constrained, quasi-erect state, stooping, crouching and aching. The speaker is limited or trapped by the low roof of the cave. It is a site of injury and entrapment, the sound device of “craggy corridor” enhancing the image of the jagged, sharp sided, wound inducing corridor. In stanza one, the image of injury comes through with “A scot a Van der Merve/Has notched his name, and left the crystal scarred”(3-4). The word ‘notch’ conveys an image of incision or cutting and‘scarred’ leaves the reader with the sense that the crystal, the beautiful artifact of the caves, has been injured or violated in some way by the incisions. The cuts are permanent. Stanza five conveys a sense of despair and hopelessness. This is shown through the idea that even when eventually the burdensome reality of the caves has been relieved, shown through “and when we reach the light”, line twenty, stanza five, there is still a sense of the prevailing harshness of the “bare veld and boulder” unto which the speaker is being delivered. The hard, “hidden bones” in the caves are not so different and all the speaker is confronted with is the familiar, cold draught that will “blow us to the kingdom of shared graves”.This shows that there is no relief, not even in the relief itself, and the speaker’s reality is hopeless. The paradoxical nature of this last line, where kingdom and graves are in conflict, enhances this idea of despair. It is truly “a crisis of meaning” as Mia A. Salkinder puts it in her critical appreciation of Millers work.
1960’s South Africa was a time of great trauma and violence as well as immense separateness of gender, politics and race. The fact that Ruth Miller felt trapped and injured or felt that these ideas where worth confronting in her poetic is not surprising since these realities were inextricable to hers. Her use of symbolism and diction brings these elements of her experience to light very subtly and underhandedly, giving the reader an insight into the difficult and despairing reality of trying to express ones truest feelings; of trying to have a say in an oppressive patriarchal regime as a women and political activist.
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