Ingrid Jonker: A poet’s life

Petrovna Metelerkamp

(Hemel & See, R260)

“She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life,” President Nelson Mandela said of Ingrid Jonker in his inaugural address to Parliament on May 24, 1994. That was after he had read her poem The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga in full.

Often compared to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf because of her suicide (she drowned in July 1965), sometimes to Marilyn Monroe over her tumultuous love life and sadness and used as an icon for political motivation or literary rebelliousness, Ingrid Jonker has become mythologised.

The fact is she was a truly South African poet and merits to be read in English as well.

In this attractively illustrated biography Petrovna Metelerkamp gives an expanded translation 10 years after publication of the Afrikaans version Beeld van ’n digterslewe. This edition contains new material and a different cover with a mesmerising photograph of Jonker with the sea and the poem Korreltjie Korreltjie sand in a faded background. As the author says herself in the foreword: “Rather than interpret or play the role of censor, I decided to proffer all the material gathered objectively without comment. It is left to the reader to interpret the events and absorb the influences on Ingrid Jonker’s life.” Indeed.

The book is divided into sections – Childhood (1933-1951); The City (1952-1965); Marriage (1957-1959); Clifton (1960-1962); Brink and Abroad (1963-1964) and The End (1965-1965). The story of the sad first years (mother sickly and depressed, missing father), her disastrous marriage to Piet Venter and birth of daughter Simone, dark love triangle with Jack Cope and André Brink; needy friendships with Uys Krige, Breyten Breytenbach and others; her struggle to be recognised as a serious poet and part of the Sestigers and her death when she walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay, is not unfamiliar. But Metelerkamp gives it visual flesh.

The book has the looks of a coffee table edition, but will definitely not only be paged through and put down. Telling photographs, handwritten poems and letters (some unsent) by Jonker, the diary of their difficult childhood by her sister Anna, relevant yellowed newspaper clippings and many stories and comments by people who knew the poet well and less well, are presented in a particularly attractive sepia layout. For the English version all the Afrikaans poems – additional to the text – had to be translated. Apart from those that had already been done by Jack Cope and William Plomer, Helga Steyn had the difficult task.

One has seen and heard a lot of Ingrid Jonker lately: in the past decade two plays, a dance drama, documentaries and two films have been based on her life and several of her poems have been set to music. But this book gives other insights into the poet’s life.

In April 2004 Jonker’s daughter Simone received the Order of Ikhamanga, posthumously awarded to her mother by the South African government. A memorial to Jonker was erected on 2006 Beach Road, Gordon’s Bay, in the area “where Ingrid spent the best days of her childhood”, the artist Tyrone Appollis said.

It was part of the Sunday Times Heritage Project.

To conclude, again the words of Nelson Mandela: “… in this glorious vision she instructs that our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child”. – Renée Rautenbach