‘Apart’ by Catherine Taylor
“yet another way to lay claim to power”
The prologue to Catherine Taylor’s Apart is entitled “Forms of Parallel Transport,” and in it, Taylor discusses how sentence structure can produce rhythms and simulate motion through speed and punctuation. Then Taylor moves to pendulums, then resonance, then: “Resonance is produced by sympathetic vibrations. Resonance evokes associations and emotions. // Resonance can result in catastrophic failure of the vibrating structure. This is known as ‘resonance disaster.’ (Soldiers, break step.) Look how we have learned to love the wreckage” (12-13). This is where the prologue ends. The prologue was, for me, wholly mystifying but completely captivating. In its two-plus pages, Taylor introduced me to her structure (brief lyrical paragraphs). More importantly, she made me feel like I should trust her completely. I wasn’t entirely sure where she was taking me, but I didn’t much care.
After finishing the prologue, I found out quickly enough. Apart is broken in to six parts, the first being “Cape Town Journals.” Each of these parts contains several named, smaller sections, punctuated by single-stanza prose poems. Taylor opens “Cape Town Journals” with a fraught exchange she witnesses between a Black man and Coloured woman (the latter being a generally accepted title for mixed-race persons there) about racial labels. She ends the scene on a feeling of uncertainty about whose word she should trust and the complications of her own whiteness. She follows this with a prose-poem, writing, “…soak your kites in kerosene and let me be clear, this story twists on the stake of me and mine” (18). Indeed, for Taylor has revealed a few tidbits in the first scene: South Africa is the place of her mother’s birth, and Taylor has not visited the place for nearly 30 years.
The next section pulls us from the open-air market and arguing merchants to the Cape Town airport and its pristine sterility. Then to what you can experience as a tourist in Cape Town, which Taylor describes with such allure you find yourself desiring what is absolutely offensive when considering what you must drive through to get there—what she describes next—“The Hell Run, a 5-mile, six-land swath through a series of black townships…tin shacks and tiny concrete houses…home to over a million people.” And so we come to the heart of it—the horror of the class and racial divide that still exists in post-apartheid South Africa. Taylor continues, “Some say to go hell-for-leather, pedal-to-the-metal, with the doors locked and no stopping for anything since the last attack was just a week ago. But we’re going to have to stop and pull over—that’s why we’re here.” We learn of the uprisings, coups, deaths, and general violence throughout the 70’s and 80’s in South Africa.
We also follow the poet through her travels and experiences there. You see her as researcher and journalist, but also just memoirist and thoughtful observer. She interviews former political prisoners, visits prisons. At one point, the poet describes talking to her cousin, who describes the violence and torture soldiers (South Africans in Zimbabwe, Americans in Iraq) enact on others: “She says, I blame war, the institution. Blame. I think, I blame myself. But I like her answer better. Let’s send war to jail. And national identity, too.”
The second section, “Letters,” contains slightly self-conscious letters that are all addressed to “A” (“my little letter will be zinging and singing, dressed in her tourist beads”). In the letters, the poet reveals to A (and us) her potentially being part Black, and her mother’s involvement in the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement. Then we have portions from the Black Sash archives, in Courier typeface, listing death after death after death of Black and mixed-race persons. The sheer volume and matter-of-factness steal your breath. An example: “Reports of severe ill treatment: smashed elbow, pellet wound, shot and thus crippled and mentally disabled, shot through the hips by riot police, shot in the throat.” Not long into it, Taylor writes, “There are dozens of folders…There are so many [reports]. Bullets separate them.” And, arguably, tie them together. Nearly all of these accounts are of shootings, and almost all by police. One report begins to describe an attack on a family in their home and the rape of the son, followed by “[19 pages of narrative are attached here.]” You cannot help but feel somewhat grateful to be spared further description. Taylor goes and looks at jellyfish afterward to try and decompress, bringing us there with her.
The third section, entitled “Duffer’s Drift,” is the kernel of the book. There are short lyrical paragraphs (one per page) with footnote-y bits beneath, each distinct but informing each other. There are also photographs and diagrams. Mostly, it’s about the narrator being in a club as a teenager and having an odd conversation with a Black albino man, then what seems like perhaps an assault or sexual encounter (or none of the above). The lights go up, and Taylor discovers that the club is hosting a minstrel show—Black performers wearing whiteface. Taylor astutely interrogates the shows, stating the players are “mimicking whites mimicking blacks or blacks mimicking whites mimicking blacks…Yes. Maybe. The mockery is multiple. Surely both master and slave take a beating. Or maybe neither.” Then, there is the title, which references Ernest Dunlop Swinton’s book The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, a historical novel about the Boer War and the protagonist’s defending an area called “Duffer’s Drift.” And “duffer” also has some vernacular meanings. Attempting to reduce this portion to even a long-ish paragraph proves incredibly difficult, pointing to the brilliance of the form that Taylor uses here. It allows for much complexity and narrative, but not a concise description that fully honors what it accomplishes.
The remainder of Apart predominantly interrogates Taylor’s family history in South Africa, shame, her mother’s involvement in the Black Sash movement, and more from the Black Sash archives. This time, instead of reports of death, we read ways in which the Black Sash activists attempted to assist people in navigating bureaucracy (but are ultimately still thwarted by it). Overall, Apart is Taylor documenting and embracing uncertainty and engaging with grey areas of history and experience. This, and her willingness to take herself to task for her impulses (which, upon closer inspection, are hugely problematic), make her seem trustworthy, not just as a writer, but also as a person engaging with others, with history, with the landscape she describes. While driving: “Everything outside is obscenely gorgeous…I can critique the aestheticizing urge, but I can’t resist it. Driving in Africa, a constant oscillation: ecstasy, shame, ecstasy, shame.” When discussing the likelihood of her own blackness (her brother passes for Egyptian, her nephew thinks his father is black): “…insinuating, and enjoying, the possibilities of my own blackness. But then I read Nadine Gordimer’s story ‘Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black,’ in which she takes white South Africans to task for finding their one drop of black blood as yet another way to lay claim to power.” She incorporates many voices, and thumbing through the works cited will give you a sense of her influences: Judith Butler, Agamben, Fanon, Shoshana Felman, George Oppen, Lyn Hejinian, Wayne Koestenbaum. Even the title itself is savvy: Apart[heid]—the second portion of the word performing its homophone. To our benefit, Taylor has no interest in hiding much of anything.