Thicket by Harry Owen: in his own words

Thicket: shades from the Eastern Cape is Harry Owen’s ninth poetry collection. Comprising more than sixty poems inspired by the superb Eastern Cape of South Africa, which has been his home for more than thirteen years, it is both a celebration of that spectacular province, an appeal for its wealth of natural wonders to be preserved, and a call for us all to recognize ourselves as a vibrant part of the earth’s future. It is only available initially as an eBook costing R60 (£3 or $4). The print edition, from Poets Printery, is expected in 2022. Click here to buy the download. It is an eBook in a fixed layout pdf format that’s readable on almost all platforms: desktop computers, tablets and smartphones.  

This video – Amakhala Venn – has Harry reading a poem from the book overlain on the landscape he is describing. Carry on reading below for his introduction.

In His Own Words

From the moment I first arrived here in 2007, the Eastern Cape of South Africa held me captive. Rough, arid, impoverished and intensely beautiful, it is unlike anywhere I had lived before. Indeed, having spent the previous decades in ‘leafy Cheshire’ in the English north midlands, I was warned that I would probably not like the edginess of ‘Frontier Country’ at all.

Yet I loved it immediately.

For thirteen years we lived in and gradually extended a delightful house in the small city of Grahamstown where Chrissie, my wife, worked as a senior academic at Rhodes University. My particular delight at home was the garden with its sumptuous indigenous vegetation, including numerous mature trees of which a Cape coral tree, an enormous wild fig and a tall, stately tree aloe were prominent features.

Bird life was consequently extraordinarily rich, and of course I had to learn to recognize some spectacular (and to me exotic) species – collared sunbirds, paradise flycatchers, Knysna loeries, black-headed orioles, African green pigeons, laughing doves and many, many more.

This garden quickly became a friend to me, welcoming me warmly and showering me with natural rewards too numerous to list. It was (and still is) a poem in its own right. How could it not inspire me?

And one did not have to travel far from home to encounter some of the most spectacular and breathtaking landscapes on earth – mountains, rivers, deserts, ocean – so that I found myself stunned by its variety and grandeur. The typically dense and thorny local vegetation is called Albany thicket, and this is where I met and got to know at close quarters rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion and a myriad other magnificent animals.

At the same time, the Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces in the country. There is still, even thirty years after the fall of the despised Apartheid system, a shocking disparity between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots – swathes of society still struggle to survive in desperately deprived conditions, in unimaginable poverty and with almost no decent living facilities. It’s truly shocking.

Yet this too is the reality of the Eastern Cape. There’s no escaping it.

For a long time we lived within this uncomfortable ambiguity of real hardship existing alongside vibrant natural beauty. While Chrissie rose to become Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes, the people of Grahamstown – all of them, from every sector of the community – welcomed me as warmly as had my garden, and for more than twelve years we shared poetry, spoken word and occasional music every month at the open-floor event called Reddits Poetry. It was very special indeed.

But one of the worst aspects of living in Grahamstown was the prolonged and rapidly worsening ineptitude of the local municipality which, for reasons beyond my understanding, has allowed a once-thriving and exquisite little city to decay into an embarrassing imitation of what it once was. Political incompetence is certainly part of it, and so is corruption. But by the time we left, in February 2021, it was no longer the place I had loved so spontaneously in 2007.

Basic infrastructure and services – roads, refuse collection, electricity, sewerage systems, a regular supply of drinking water etc. – had all deteriorated to the point where Chrissie and I could not, in her words, “see ourselves growing old here”.

So, with sadness but a sense that this was inevitable, we left for the Western Cape and a new home in a village near Stellenbosch.

Everything works properly here. Roads are not riddled with potholes, services are invariably quick and efficient, and (importantly for us) medical attention is readily available when needed. And we’re right in the centre of one of the world’s great wine lands. Glorious!

But for me the romance, the magic of the Eastern Cape remains. It’s still a place I love and must return to regularly, as perhaps many of the poems in this new collection will attest.

Just before the release of Thicket in e-book form, my good friend and fellow poet Chris Mann died. He had been one of the staunchest supporters of Reddits Poetry and often performed there. A committed Christian, he was one of South Africa’s most loved and revered poets, his work steeped in African life, landscape and culture, and he often spoke with reverence of what he called the Shades. By this I think he meant the deep-rooted sense many African people have that their ancestors continue to influence human affairs even after they have gone, and Chris saw no incompatibility in this with his devout Christian beliefs. The Shades were significant to him too.

So the subtitle I have chosen for this book owes something not just to my profound and abiding sense of connection to the Eastern Cape, but also to Chris Zithulele Mann: Thicket: shades from the Eastern Cape.

Hamba kahle, Chris, and thank you.

Harry Owen

June 2021

Thicket by Harry Owen: in his own words