Intimately Absent

by Cas Vos translated by Leon de Kock

(Protea, R130)

Pretoria theologian and academic Cas Vos published his first collection of poetry, Vuurtong, in 1999.

Since then a further four volumes have appeared. Despite developing a number of other themes in his work, it is safe to say that Vos has followed in a tradition of Afrikaans poets whose commitment and attachment to the reformed church found expression in their work.

At the same time his poems this past decade provide ample proof of an immersion in a far more encompassing and richer religious world, creating space for the representation of an almost mystical experience. And, paradoxically, the joy and pain of everyday life.

Intimately Absent is the first volume of his work in English, and provides an opportunity for non-Afrikaans readers to become acquainted with his work. The translation of the selection was done by Leon de Kock, a fine poet in his own right and an acclaimed translator.

It is a slim volume, and most of the poems are from Vos’s most recent Afrikaans collection, Intieme Afwesige, published last year.

It is unfortunate that the English title suggests a more substantial relationship between the two volumes, while it is only the poems about the ill-fated relationship between Abelard and Heloise that feature in the English volume.

There is, however, something gained: a number of other Abelard-Heloise poems have found their way into the translation, making Intimately Absent a thematically dedicated whole.

In this way the poems not only become a rewriting of the famous letters exchanged between the two lovers, horrendously separated by the cruelty of an early medieval church, but provide latter-day reflections about this relationship.

And as in all love relationships the play and the tension between presence and absence comes to the fore.

There was a twist to the tale of Abelard and Heloise: there is a son, Astralabe, born out of the intimacy, and whose absence fills another space in this collection.

To a certain extent the voice of the poet can be identified with that of Astralabe, and the section called Astralabe On Desertion should also be read in this light.

Comparing translations, especially of poetry, is an unforgiving task.

De Kock’s versions are poetically sound in their own right, but it lacks the soul, the intimacy, which I find the most moving aspect of their Afrikaans counterparts.

The very title suggests something of this.

In Intieme Afwesige it is the absent person and the mystical and paradoxical intimacy surrounding that person (or God, in the great mystical traditions) that is evoked; in Intimately Absent it is the state, the condition which is emphasised. The difference and the loss are obvious.

In a review of this nature, there is no space for a detailed comparison of the two sets of poems, but I trust that De Kock’s contribution will be properly appreciated.

Intimately Absent is a delicate and moving collection of poems, and a worthy introduction to the work of Cas Vos for those who cannot read Afrikaans. – Fanie Olivier

l Another volume, Duskant die Donker/Before it Darkens, by Cas Vos and translated by Leon de Kock has just been published.

l Fanie Olivier is an acclaimed Afrikaans poet.