Antjie Krog’s Country Of Grief And Grace
Antjie Krog (2000) uses metaphor and extended metaphor throughout the poem “Country of Grief and Grace” — itself an exploration of existential crisis in South Africa, ravaged by apartheid and violence. Krog descends into this maelstrom to provide the reader a glimpse, a hope, a ray of light that beams through the sludge of hopelessness, despair and grief. Through her use of metaphor and extended metaphor, Krog constructs an alternate way of looking at the world in which she lives — a framework that invites the reader to question the borders and boundaries of time and space which keep separate the past and the future, the young and the old, the black and the white. By merging or synthesizing the elements of her country into a cohesive whole, Krog shows that all is one — and in this revelation is the seed of peace, the germ of life. Moreover, by constructing metaphors out of verbiage within the poem, Krog speaks metaphorically of the war waged in her homeland as a type of battle between two entities, entwined like lovers fighting to separate even as they cling to one another.
The first vague reference to the subject of the poem — “it” — which is cited twice in the opening stanza — is as something negative that keeps the two characters apart. It is “between” them but is unnamed. The pronoun is used almost mythically in the same manner as the great cosmic force that the Hebrews recognized as God but dared not name (thus they referred to the force as I AM WHO AM) (McCarthy, 1978). Yet instead of the force that exists between the two characters in the poem being recognized as a positive entity, it is characterized as painful and fraught: “how desperately it aches between you and me.” Then a wail of grievances follows thereupon with the narrator taking on the persona of the Psalmist, bemoaning the effects of “it” — “destruction,” the suffering that attends the pursuit of “truth,” the scarcity of energy that remains behind, making “survival” a difficult task enough — let alone the acknowledgment of any kind of truth. Thus, in the opening stanzas, the poet makes plain that “it” is a conflict waged for higher ground — a higher state — a war that has brought combatants into its field and watched them fight one another for this higher claim while their vital resources and essences are depleted and drained. Another mythical reference is alluded to in the verb “slung” — the sling of David, used against the giant adversary Goliath: but here in the poem the weapon is not a stone but a “voice” — angry words — and the sounds that are breathed out of one’s lungs and given shape by the mouth are used as a metaphor for weapons — fired out of the sling directly into the adversary, now recognized as the two’s past.
The past of the two is described like a corpse — “the solid cold length of our past” — laid out flat upon a slab at the morgue. The metaphorical device used by Krog gives the poem its essential motif now: the past — the life that the two shared (the two are as of yet still unknown, undefined for the reader, but the sense is that they were once intimate) is now dead. The metaphor death sets up the hope, however, for rebirth, for resurrection, for hope springing out of the ashes, phoenix-like — and the means of this renewal is the same channel as that which robbed the two of life — the “voice”. Krog yields up another plaintive cry: “how long does it take for a voice to reach another?” The metaphor is extended now — but altered and taken in an unexpected direction, offering up to the reading a variety of possible interpretations: a voice — like a bullet fired from a rifle, or a stone hurled from a sling — must travel over space and time to arrive at its destination; does it move quickly or slowly? — does it stop, take detours? — can it be caught and considered at a later point in time? Or is it like a vaccine, medical first aid, like that which arrives on the front lines of a battle field when the din of war has been subdued? — does the voice come like a salve, healing the wounded with words of warmth, light, hope and kindness? The poet does not say — not yet — (later she will embark upon a search for the Christian concept of forgiveness, as Vosloo (2012) notes); for now, she only asks how long it takes to come “in this country held bleeding between us.” And at this point it becomes clear what the two are fighting over: they are fighting over their country. The metaphorical approach of the poet in describing their combat is now extended to include the metaphor of the homeland, torn apart and bleeding even as it remains in one piece between the two acting as a glue — a fixative that also keeps them bound to one another.
The poem’s second part of the poem introduces a new metaphor, which again uses the biblical verbiage to enrich its meaning: “in the beginning is seeing” — a reference to the Word, which is described in John’s Gospel. Fisher (1985) defines it as a “narrative paradigm” that is used to construct and thematically cohesive expression of ideas (p. 74). In Krog’s poem, the paradigm is shifted from the warring relationship of the two entities in the first part to a mystical expression of the sin and grace that exists within the “wounds of anger” (Krog, 2000). The metaphor used herein is one in which the wounds suffered by the two parties and by the country are what contain the whole of the past as well as the seeds for hope. By entering into the wounds and looking with the eyes — “seeing” as Krog puts it — and listening with the ears to the “voices” that speak for the whole of the country from out the wounds — reflection is possible and out of reflection can come a new peace. The concept of baptism by blood — baptism into a community — is used to intertwine the concepts already introduced in the poem in the first part: words, violence and unity: the voices of the country are literally “baptized in syllables of blood and belonging” — a metaphorical way of saying that the violence and fighting are not outwardly directed but inwardly directed. The fighters are only killing themselves in their attempts to kill one another. The more they spill one another’s blood, the more they are staking their eternities to one another. Krog alludes to “angel hair and barbs / dew and hay and hurt” — symbols that reference the ethereal, spiritual realm and the earthy, physical realm. Thus, Krog’s second part of the poem is an extended metaphor for the wounds of the country serving as a means of transcendence — a way for everyone to pause, reflect, and bring together the two natures of their humanity, the physical and their spiritual natures, and unite them in what is clearly another allusion to the religious allegory that underlines the poem — that of redemption — here suggested in the juxtaposition of symbols, “angel hair and barbs / dew and hay and hurt,” all of which hint at the Incarnation (the Word that is in the beginning — replace by Krog with seeing). Krog is pointing to the wounds that her country has suffered and like a saint in a religious icon pointing the finger not at the opponent but rather upward towards the divine. The “hay” is where the Word made Incarnate is laid — the food of the animals made into a bed for the Lord (Sumner, 2013).
The third part of the poem begins with the narrator “speechless” as she awaits for the words to come — the metaphor of the Word (the Incarnate Son of God who brings redemption, healing and forgiveness — which is explicitly desired at the end of the poem) is still not yet at hand. Instead, “hell” is still all around the narrator, living in a “soundless space” — a metaphor for desolation, where no voices are heard, where no human souls are healed. Thus, the poet is prompted to grieve: “what the hell does one do / with this load of decrowned skeletons origins shame and ash”. The poet has no recourse but to continue grieving as “we carry death” into the fourth part of the poem.
Death is personified as a lover — a metaphor for the way in which the country’s inhabitants have wedded themselves to an evil entity that “latches its mouth to our heart / it sucks groaningly” (Krog, 2000). Death is described as “a language without mercy,” which is another allusion to the biblical myth of Logos — the Word — being the Incarnation of mercy. Christ, Who overcomes death through the resurrection, is the voice that Krog appears to be waiting for. While she is waiting — while the whole country is waiting — death arrives like a vulture or a host parasite — a false, passionate lover groaning at the mouths of its victims, fueling their hatred, their emotions of anger, which they project at one another. Death controls the land. Thus, this portion of the poem is given over to describing the way in which the country is saddled with spiritual sickness: the extended metaphor employed by Krog is one in which death is personified, dominating the landscape and speaking a loveless language in which mercy has no part. The vocabulary of death is “violence” — and the actions of Death reek with a stench that is repellant. Death is also described as “repentless” — another clear allusion to the voice of God, which calls sinners to repent. Death is a metaphor for anti-Christ at this point in the poem — the antithesis of the healing salve of mercy and forgiveness which Krog’s country is in desperate need of. Yet instead of finding this voice, it turns instead to unleashing its desperation in a flurry of violence that only makes the wounds deeper and more painful so that Death seems “indefatigable” and even “meticulous” in its cruel destruction of the people of the country.
Yet Krog is not satisfied to leave the poem and seemingly her own country in such desperate straits. She turns now to a more reflexive position — to her heart, again echoing the Psalmist as he looks inward to find the truth and depth of his conviction and faith: “deepest heart of my heart / heart that can only come from this soil” — the soil which is black, black like the African people with whom the narrator now identifies. The reference to a black heart is similar to the Song of Solomon’s reference to the love who is “black but beautiful” (Sasson, 1989, p. 407). The heart acts as a metaphor for a window — a gateway — into the soul of the country, a soul that yearns for understanding, for empathy, sympathy and love. By moving into the heart of hearts, Krog looks inward and upward, transcends the violence and rage of the community, and sees that she is the same as the other with whom she is fighting: the two entities from the first part of the poem are not different from one another, even if they think they are. They are brothers and sisters, neighbors — one — members of the same land, the same home, the same community. Turned against one another they only effect the evil will of Death, which seeks to destroy. The metaphor that Krog now weaves into the poem is one that provides the narrator a moment of illumination, of clarity, of hope: “for one brief shimmering moment this country / this country is also truly mine / and my heart is on its feet.” The narrator is emboldened and emblazoned by the meditation on the heart of hearts — a possible metaphor for the Sacred Heart, which hovers over all with its healing balm and hand of mercy.
The poem progresses then to its sixth part and the narrator, now alive with light and hope, addresses the “you” who heals — the spirit that calms — the God that loves and brings aid — the divine assistance: “Because of you / this country no longer lies / between us but within.” The intimation of rebirth is beheld in the lines: “in the cradle of my skull / it sings it ignites / . . . I am changed for ever I want to say / forgive me / forgive me / forgive me.” The that the poet’s dead-state is now having a Lazarus moment — and “out of the cradle endlessly rocking” moment (Whitman, 1900). The moment is one of self-realization: the narrator recognizes her own fault in the fighting and warring and now pleads for forgiveness and for unity: “you whom I have wronged, please / take me / with you.” The metaphorical journey that the narrator has taken, by entering into the country’s wounds, reflecting on the war, lifting her eyes upward, and praying for illumination, now moves towards its end.
The seventh part of the poem continues in this vein, extending the metaphor by asserting that “the price of this country of death / is the size of a heart.” The heart becomes now both the gateway to grace and salvation and also the price that must be paid. The heart that gives life also must be sacrificed. The heart must be broken. The metaphor comes to life and beats within the poem like the same heart that so soon acknowledged and filled with grace now bows down to take its place, like the Man-God on Calvary — dying so that the country might live. A sister is recognized in the closing lines of the section and the union of souls begins.
The poem’s eighth section now takes that union and applies it to the generations — the young merging with the old, the black merging with the white: “what does one do with the old / how do you become yourself among others / how do you become whole / . . . because all our words lie next to one another on the table now.” The poet returns to the earlier metaphor of the past lying dead upon the table — and now places the words of the generations and the races, of the men and women, the neighbors, brothers, sisters, foes and friends — all the words — now lie beside the corpse of the past on the same table. The metaphorical journey is now complete. The poet’s own words illuminated by the Word now joins the dead past and revives it on the table in the morgue where it lies: “we are slowly each other / anew / new / and here it starts.”
The final section of the poem — the ninth section — a number that conveys a metaphorical-mystical link to the medieval religious journey of Dante, traveling through the nine circles of Hell, up the nine levels of Mt. Purgatory, and through the nine layers of Heaven. The poet’s nine sections reflect this same symbolic journey motif and conclude with a poetic aside that is stated in parantheses — acknowledgement of the need for confession — of the need for souls to admit their sins and receive grace and the life of the divine, which alone can really heal the soul and the country. The poet reminds one and all that “if the old is not guilty / does not confess / then of course the new can also not be guilty / nor be held accountable / if it repeats the old.” The reminder is direct: for things to get better, everyone must be willing to hold themselves accountable, to open their souls to the divine light.
In conclusion, Antjie Krog’s (2000) “Country of Grief and Grace” uses metaphor to describe the situation of her homeland, how hatred, anger, racism, apartheid and violence have torn the people away from and against one another — even though in reality they are all brothers and sisters of the same land and soil. The metaphors that Krog constructs and extends depict the country’s past as a corpse, the individuals at war as victims of Death, who feeds on them like an inflamed, passionate, false lover — while the one, true divine source of peace, love and mercy waits with its redeeming words to reignite the soul and give it the grace needed to heal the wounds of so many generations of violence.
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