Mary Kingsley (1862 – 1900) English writer and Explorer

Mary Kingsley grew up in a home from which her father was often absent ~ leaving his daughter alone to care for her invalid mother. During thus time Mary busied herself with reading her father’s library of science, memoirs and travel books, including those notes that he brought home which detailed his scientific work – work which Mary would then annotate. 

At the age of thirty, when both of her parents had died, Mary travelled to Africa herself, collecting the material to complete her father’s unfinished book about the culture of the African people.

Thus, her own adventurous career was born. She wrote Travels in West Africa and West African Studies, both of which were bestsellers in England, garnering the widest respect from the scholarly community.

Isobel Dixon is a contemporary South African poet who has now travelled to England where many of her own observations are collected in wonderful poems, about which Clive James has said: 'Isobel Dixon was born with the gift of lyricism as natural speech. A measure of her accomplishment is that 
all the sense impressions of Africa, even if the reader has never actually been there, live naturally in her poetry as if it were the only landscape.'

Isobel's latest collection, published by Salt, is called The Tempus Prognosticator. Amongst many
others it contains this poem inspired by, and dedicated to, the work of Mary Kingsley –

Beetle, Fish & Fetish

‘Look, my mouth and it be sweet, and palaver done set.’

the dreary Forcados, the Bonny River
Sierra Leone, the white man’s grave
the Bights of Biafra and Benin, the Congo Français
how changing at Lagos Bar throws
changing at Clapham Junction into the shade

the all-asideways-tiptoe comic pomp of crabs
the Handel-Festival-sized choruses of frogs
the crocodiles’ strange whine and sighing cough
the parrots’ squark, the reeking, stinking swamp
(a thing the English seem to love)

the pretty M’Pongwe and Igalwa boat songs
with their elaborate tunes, in a minor key
how to be ready for submergencies
a damp, dilapidated Horace
with which to read yourself to sleep

crickets at their vesper-hour controversy
hornbills confabulating scandal all night long
a leopard swearing at the storm
tail whipping in the forest’s under-gloom
the thump, thump, thump of beaten manioc

how to cook a juicy hippo chop
how a snake is to be caught, with a well-cleft stick
how plantain leaves can render even boa
constrictor palatable,  but cannot remove
the musky taste of crocodile – how nothing will

Gray Shirt, Singlet, Silent, Pagan –
a strapping chap of wolf’s-mouth black –
your companions, paddling the Ogooué’s broad road
of burnished bronze, into the heart of the Gabon
blue serge skirt, hairpins and fetish charms

beware mosquito bites on feet, the rub of a boot
a sore when it comes in Gorilla country comes to stay
but you’re no more human than a gale of wind you say
duty’s daughter, in the ruck of life and war
bind up the jaws, bind up

the final bound, that first league out, last coast
your almost unsinkable boat
now anchored to a southern ocean floor

I wish you the lily of the spirit of the rapids
a gift of a Goliath beetle, an Ogooué canoe
and some distant river’s upper reaches
red sandbanks glowing like the Nibelungen gold
the forest Turneresque, owing to effects of sun and mist

and there is always this: Dr Günther has approved
one absolutely new snake, three absolutely new fish
and a lizard that the B.M. has been waiting for for years

For Mary Kingsley

 By Isobel Dixon, from her latest collection, The Tempest Prognosticator

A Tempest Prognosticator

ADDENDUM:  The Tempest Prognosticator or Leech barometer was 'invented' by George Merryweather in 1851. It was a contraption in which leeches were kept in small bottles. When a storm was approaching the leeches would become agitated, attempting to escape from the glass containers and setting off little bells - the greater the tinkling sounds, the greater the risk of a storm.


1 comment:

  1. What interesting poems, I like how they incorporate the sounds and words that they heard over there, creates a fascinating mixture of perspectives!