Review by Miora Richards
by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, PO BOX 53429, Troyeville, 2140, SOUTH AFRICA; ISBN# 978-0-620-37409-5, 2006, 76pp., R10 (South African), Paper

I am becoming more and more admiring of self-published books of poetry. I sense some extra craftsmanship, care, and attention to detail in the production of those I've read recently. These books are a pleasure to hold, to look at and even before I open the pages my hands and eyes have set my mind in anticipation of a good read. The myriad chores that attend the composing, creation and marketing of just one small book incline me too, to believe that a poet who is undaunted by the challenge of that learning curve, is likely also to be someone whose words are strong. Phillippa Yaa de Villiers' Taller than Buildings is a beautifully made book and one that puts the lie to that old adage about not judging a book by its cover.
The first poem, a haibun, starts with a free verse portrayal of baby in a ward full of newborns, all without their birth mothers, and waiting to be adopted. A sad, sad piece even before one reads the stark haiku counterpointed at its close:

waves retreat, expose
the beach: naked snails and crabs
sucking and pinching.

The self-publishing poet also displays a confidence in her ability to assess her work and select and sequence the poems she feels are ready to be offered to a readership - alone, and without the affirmatory boost that an external publisher lends. She has the bonus too, of being subject to no editorial screening and so is freed to present her own self. Phillippa is compassionate, insouciant and outspoken in Taller than Buildings.

The poems in her book touch on a wide variety of subjects. There is a cautionary tale about Vera, the notorious Sowetan ghost, rendered in a delightful play with the villanelle and with lilting rhythms that beg for the poem to be performed, enjoyed, aloud. After all, who would pick up a pretty hitchhiker, on that stretch of road, in the middle of the night and attempt to seduce her? "only the desperate, and only a fool, / this is the wisdom, and this is the rule." ("The legend of Vera")
And Phillippa invites Mr Mbeki to tea to discuss politics and her concerns about his leadership of the country, only to be told by him that, "to be black is to have suffered, / cash is the salve for the nation." ("Tea for Thabo")
She writes a poem 'for Khwezi, the woman who accused Jacob Zuma of rape' that empathises the turmoils and powerlessness experienced by so many women and girls when they encounter and/or try to protest sexual abuse in a patriarchally constructed society: "and now I'm not sure if it was my fault or not..." ("I don't know")

Phillippa's poetry denounces women abuse and its widespread acceptance. She does so with no apology to any reader who might feel discomforted by her uncompromising gaze at its manifestations--as here, on femicide,

It sounds like a vaginal deodorant
Something to make you feel fresh down there
So your man doesn't need to be dealing with your smell
Or your soil

This is how they bury women

And of course, as most women do, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers writes poems about the experience of being mother. One, a sonnet to her son, meditates on the joys and the sheer hard work of bringing a baby to adulthood,

       Creation is as difficult
       as it is

The poems in Taller than Buildings are stories about, and vignettes of life in and around South Africa. They're crafted from sensitive observation and narrated with a verve, an energy that on reflection, renders the collection's title particularly apt. So to close this review, a last excerpt - this about tears, so many tears from Jozie city that

They flowed until they became a river
that carried us into the night,
where our dreams grew
taller than buildings
taller than buildings
("The river")


Moira Richards: "Google 'Moira Richards' to find links to my essays on Women Abuse, my reviews of woman-authored books as well as to other writing and editing work I do for various print and e-publications. I can often be found lounging about the staff rooms of, and - usually sipping tea, sometimes Jack Daniels."



Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.