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Douglas Livingstone: A Critical Study of his Poetry Introduction
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Douglas Livingstone A Critical Study


1932 -- 1996

I first met Douglas Livingstone in 1977 at the Berea Hotel in Durban.  At the time, I was researching his poetry for my Masters study.  He treated me warmly, generously, not as a student but as a colleague, and shared with me his devotion to the human and natural landscape of southern Africa.  Over lunch he explained the intricacies of the Indian Ocean tides as analogies of poetic rhythms, and when my thesis appeared in book form, Douglas Livingstone: A Critical Study of His Poetry (1981), he presented me with a bottle of dry white wine and the latest edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary.  Commenting laconically that to have one's poetry analysed by a critic was like being bitten by a dead sheep, he added that when, one day, or one night, he joined the great African family near the singing stars -- the San/Bushmen, not Galileo, Newton or Einstein held the key to the universe -- he would wish to be remembered as a poet only if had he managed to write one or two poems that could withstand the tide of time.

This new Selected Poems -- it is not a reprint of the 1984 Selected edition -- confirms that Douglas Livingstone has produced some of the most striking poems of contemporary times.  The selection is a tribute to a career that spanned almost 40 years until the poet's death from cancer in 1996.

Born of Scottish parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, in 1932, Livingstone moved to South Africa at the age of ten and, after completing his schooling near Durban, trained as a bacteriologist in what was then Southern Rhodesia.  In 1964 he returned to Durban where he continued his work in marine bacteriology at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).  His collection A Littoral Zone turns to poetry the water-testing stations along the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, the source of Livingstone's PhD research in Science.  Holding honorary doctorates of literature from the universities of Natal and Rhodes, Livingstone was the recipient of several important awards including, in the UK, the Cholmondely Prize and for his earlier Selected Poems (1984) South Africa's premier CNA Award.

Written while he was in Rhodesia his first two collections, The Skull in the Mud (1960) and the more substantial Sjambok, and Other Poems from Africa (1964), focus on aspects of modern life on the subcontinent: our isolations and need for love; religious crisis in an age of science; the transitions of decolonisation.  Livingstone's animal poems as vivid correlatives of human behaviour struck both readers and critics as 'utterly new'.  Here the poet displays his salient strengths of verbal invention within intricate metrical and rhyming patterns.  The inheritance is modernist: metaphors of complexity predominate over the plain-speaking voice.  Reaching towards 'internationalism' in Eyes Closed against the Sun (1970), Livingstone seeks the redeeming moment, the enriching fragment, the mythic synthesis amid the detritus of urban experience.   A Rosary of Bone (1975) explores sexual attraction in a variety of styles: the collection is as much about the making of poetry as the making of love.

Livingstone's work, however, never loses connection with southern Africa.  His settings are geographically African; his concerns take power and accent from the locality.  In registering the wind of change in the early 1960s he debunked the image of the heroic colonial hunter while remaining wary of cries of Uhuru.  The Anvil's Undertone (1978) captures, sometimes directly, at other times subliminally, the crisis of the 'Soweto' years of the 1970s.  In responding to the rise of Black Consciousness poets, Livingstone considered their oral, rhetorical voices often to lack poetic form and, in poems such as 'Under Capricorn', he shaped his own intimations of 'living in the interregnum' into elusive evocations of his role as a white person in a time of massive political change.  The implicit question was: can poetry be more than a weapon of struggle?  The insights are both disturbing and rewarding.  'European' values grate against 'African' demands.  The search for common decency across racial barriers on occasions threatens to founder on the scientist's measure of a continent trapped in ignorance and poverty.  Livingstone's perceptions offered little comfort to either idealising Africanists or utopian Marxists.

During the state of emergency in the 1980s Livingstone published very few poems: it was as though silence were his authentic response to the exigencies of the decade.  He continued to write, however, and A Littoral Zone appeared in 1991.  This is a strong, dense sequence of poems that evinces a 'radical' turning away from the political question to that of human life evolving from the pre-history of an elemental Africa.  Sea, sand and rock are the deep constants against which the poet observes the sometimes strident, more often vulnerable participants in the everyday scene: beachgoers littering the sand after a picnic; the clearing of a polluted bay; the grandeur and comedy of small people in a large universe.  There are fantasies about love and sex -- Livingstone remained a male poet in the manner of raillery -- and there are attempts to balance the unsteady ego against the buffetings of loss.  The scientist, the poet, the modern, the white African, intertwine in metaphysical image and thought.  In its exploration of the uneasy divide between our physical and psychical selves, A Littoral Zone poses questions after apartheid about ecologies of destruction and creation.

As a poet Livingstone wished to speak somewhat outside of history; ironically, his career paralleled the trajectory of a massive historical upheaval in the south of Africa.  This Selection permits the reader today to return to his work from a vantage point less determined by the sociological imperative, more attuned to the imaginative alternative.  The texts prove equal to the challenge of celebrating their own poetry.  In fact, the abiding concern for symbiosis between the creatures of creation, whether of the four-footed or two-footed variety, and the fragile planet we all inhabit reminds us, in retrospect, of a ‘green' Livingstone: someone who one day may be regarded as this country's first 21st-century poet.

My involvement with this continent as a white African is to me a profound and passionate and (I hope) compassionate one.  If I could I would heal the earth on which I stand, the waters I sail on, swim in, work with, look over, drink from; and of course, myself, my fellow humans and the fauna and flora.  The only scalpels and medicaments I have are a limited scientific training, a little insight, and a small writing talent.

(Preface, A Rhino for the Board Room, 1977)

Hambe Gashle, Douglas.  Keep it clean!

Michael Chapman

University of Natal




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