Book Review

Examining the legacy of Dutch colonialism in Cape Town, South Africa, Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa constitutes part of a wider movement, in contemporary poetry, dedicated to post-colonial treatment of historical and autobiographical material. The most celebrated examples of which—and the closest in scope, perhaps, to Rossouw’s own work—have been Mai Der Vang’s Afterland and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Like those texts, Xamissa is heteroglossic and formally experimental, its documentary poetics incorporating meticulous archival research, Marxist and post-colonial theory, linguistics, geography, economics, and critical race studies, all integrated with Rossouw’s return to the city of his birth after nearly a decade away. If, like Afterland and Whereas, Xamissa too had come sealed with the imprimatur of Graywolf Press—irresistible, these days, to critics and prize committees—and if its historical concerns were more neatly allegorized to our present political moment, the collection would be a staple of this year’s longlists and “best of” reminiscences, heralded, I suspect, as a contemporary monument in race writing and a fearless investigation of its own complicity in historical violence. As is, the collection will have to labor its way into the literary spotlight, though it is testament to the vision of Fordham University Press—particularly series editor Elisabeth Frost—that they have brought out such an innovative, incisive, and nuanced work, a signal contribution to the important and recently reinvigorated field of post-colonial poetry.

Consisting of six long poems and a prose prologue, Xamissa takes its title from the legendary springs beneath Cape Town’s Table Mountain, where, under the eighteenth and nineteenth century rule of the imperial Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), runaway slaves would gather in outlaw communities visible to those who remained enslaved in Cape Town proper. “At night,” describes Rossouw:

            through the iron Lodge air-slit U see

            the camp fires of resistance, kin, abundant
            on the mountainside,            as if another

version of the future is visible . . .

“Xamissa” constitutes, then, what Rossouw figures as a wellspring, or “water archive,” from which the people of Cape Town—past and present—might draw in their work toward fuller realization of racial and economic justice. In the same way, Xamissa itself works back toward an elusive archival presence—namely, the figure of Lena van de Caab, reportedly the first runaway, to flee Cape Town for Table Mountain. In the collection’s final and signature long poem, Rossouw reconstructs van de Caab’s narrative from VOC slave records, signaling, at the same time, that such reconstruction necessarily remains partial. In so doing, Rossouw asks us to consider language itself—the power to name and rename, to transliterate, to elide, to archive—as an exercise of imperial power, evoking Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that “the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery.” As a kind of counter-discourse, therefore, to VOC bureaucratese, Xamissa incorporates subaltern languages and caesura-like lacunae in order to recuperate, if only as silence, those lives and narratives otherwise obliterated from the archive.

The move, of course, is a standard one within left-oriented postcolonial poetics, letting oppressed languages and peoples ostensibly speak back to or disrupt official discourse. More compelling, in Xamissa, is Rossouw’s imaginative renaming—after his grandfather—of the anonymous VOC archivist, marking his own inherited complicity in racialized violence. “I recognized . . . my own hand in the document,” Rossouw writes. “I named the functionary Pieter Fourie, after my grandfather, as a proxy figure both for myself and for my Huguenot ancestors, French immigrants eager to benefit from slavery.” This focus on the hand—literal and synecdochic, as in “handwriting”—recurs throughout Xamissa, Rossouw questioning van de Caab in absentia as to whether “the patina of this hand on the rag-paper / re-silence[s] U.” VOC shareholders, he writes later, “vote[d] by a show of hands. // Here, this hand / open on the page.” In place, that is, of the self-righteousness that too often hampers contemporary poetry, Xamissa offers self-implication, refusing to exempt itself from thoroughgoing critique. At moments, however, even this self-implication can feel familiar. Rossouw, a graduate of the MFA program at UMass Amherst and the PhD program at the University of Houston, has learned well what Xamissa’s back copy calls “the ethics of address,” carefully situating his own witness to and writing out of subaltern experience. These are the ethics of the creative writing program, eschewing true self-exposure in favor of self-reflexive positioning of the act of writing itself. Where, I found myself wondering, are the material ways this speaker has benefited from apartheid? Where are those inevitable chauvinistic tendencies—“in my thoughts and in my words,” the prayer used to go, “in what I have done and what I have failed to do”—which this speaker surely inherited along with his grandfather’s “fleshy cheekbones, his Y / chromosome, his shoe-size”?

Xamissa is most forceful, therefore—and most urgent as a contribution to contemporary poetics—when it reveals Rossouw’s personal investment in Cape Town geography and those histories it both marks and conceals. As Rossouw returns to the city of his birth, for example, he brilliantly reads the urban landscape as an effect of VOC imperialism:

The streets emerge
beside the canals


outside canal outside crescent outside
side and the Dutch outsiders separate

land from water                     rights.

The canals are buried

Relatedly, Rossouw keenly tracks the evolution of seventeenth and eighteenth century imperialism into twenty-first century global capital, documenting a contemporary archive of sorts in “[f]lotsam advert- / isements” for “TEKKIE TOWN | Sneakerville             ATLAS / FINANCE” and anonymous underpaid laborers “inside the CASH 4 GOLD / sandwich board.” Rossouw’s Cape Town, in other words, is a palimpsest of names and languages that encode competing pasts, a historical text the meanings of which proliferate beyond our ability to archive them. “[S]o too am I trampled // now-now / by your exodus, O / crowd of Xamissa,” Rossouw writes gorgeously in “The Water Archives.” And later that trampling is literalized, as a pipe bomb explodes in a bar where Rossouw is drinking with friends.  The moment is one of the strongest in the collection, and I quote it at length:

                                                                  the closest

I have come to rupture                      of privilege—

the summer night in 1999 the home-made
bomb an eight-inch galvanized steel pipe

crammed with fertilizer
perhaps and shrapnel

seeds an instant
corn field on fire

and throws me from one end of the barroom to the other.

Subject position—

. . .

The doors, blown off, reveal the sidewalk and swirling

blue lights outside.

Here, as elsewhere in Xamissa, Cape Town’s violent past “rupture[s]” the surface of the present, asking us, in Rossouw’s words, to reconsider the various “subject positions” we simultaneously occupy and perpetuate on others. If subjectivity is constituted within and by language, Rossouw reminds us that all discourse is fragmented, pieced together from some archive we are always endeavoring to reconstruct, some “Xamissa” toward which we are always working. Shuttling deftly from first-person narratives to language pastiches, seamlessly integrating historical material, razor-sharp in its intellectual investments, Xamissa is a powerful new text in contemporary postcolonial poetry, which builds both within and against the texts of history—that archive we’ve inherited.

About the Reviewer

Christopher Kempf is the author of the poetry collection Late in the Empire of Men. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Chicago.