Interview between Michèle Betty and Joan Hambidge

Metaphysical Balm was launched at David Krut projects in Newlands on 23 March 2017 and below is the interview between the author and Joan Hambidge conducted at the launch.

1. Explain the title of your book, Metaphysical Balm

During the course of my Masters at UCT, I began to read the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his text, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche refers to a metaphysical comfort in the context of humanity. All humans will one day die, but Nietzsche finds comfort and redemption in the notion that when that transpires, we are becoming part of one great living being. This notion of a metaphysical comfort resonated with me. The idea that it is possible to derive comfort and consolation by achieving wholeness in another realm is an interesting and comforting thought. The notion of the Balm is activated by the biblical reference in Jeremiah 8:22. The Book of Jeremiah portrays a nation in crisis and introduces the reader to an extraordinary leader on whom God placed the burden of prophetic office. Jeremiah was born about 650 B.C and while still young, he was called to his task during King Josiah’s reign, who instituted many reforms supported by Jeremiah. However, after the death of King Josiah, idolatry returned, which Jeremiah began to vehemently oppose. He was arrested, imprisoned and subjected to public disgrace. The final words of this poem – “Is there no balm in Gilead?” – is a quote from Jeremiah 8:22, where in a metaphorical plea for healing, Jeremiah laments: “Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there?” Interestingly, the Balm of Gilead was a medicinal salve sought to help cure illnesses. The question that the passage raises is how a people, known for balm trade, had become so broken and so ill. And concomitantly, one of the central questions raised by the collection is how is it possible to find wholeness and healing in relation to the metaphysical – in other words how is it possible to connect to that which is remote, yet still remain grounded.

2. You refer to the Bible:

No evil shall befall you, nor shall affliction come near your tent, for to His angels God has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.
– Psalms 91 (10–12)

Owl invokes a paraclete for Christopher Clohessey

Holy Spirit
Spirit of Truth
Lightful Spirit
Holy Breath
Almighty Breath
Giver of Life
Lord of Grace
Who can you be?
What will you look like?
Grace infused
with virtue,
light to distil
dark corners,
tongues of fire
to empty a tomb.


The notion of spirituality is a theme central to the collection. I have used many biblical references throughout in order to highlight the notion of the possibility of another realm or dimension existing if not in this world then in another dimension. However, the references are not limited to pure Christian concepts of religion. Any means of tapping into an external spiritual world are embraced and so for instance you will see references to Hinduism, to concepts like the God-shaped hole in the soul (a concept that Blaise Pascal wrote about in his Pensées), to religious icons and saints and to many ideas inspired by Carl Gustav Jung (La Bête Noire) and so on. The idea of liminality, crossing thresholds from this life to another is also central – the bible seemed to me to be able to provide key insights to this other dimension that we all search for.

3. T.S. Eliot is an important inter-text in your work.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know/ And what you own is what you do not own/And where you are is where you are not.
– T S Eliot, “East Coker”

Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant.
– T. S Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

Reflect on this.

The themes contained in T S Eliot’s work The Four Quartets are universal and underpin many of the themes in my collection. Each section in the collection is prefaced by a quote from Eliot and works as an introduction to and clue to the content of the section. I read a valuable work on Eliot by C A Cahill titled T S Eliot and the Human Predicament. The author maintains that Eliot’s central view of human existence is that it is challenging, perplexing and fraught and to live with any degree of consciousness is to recognize the conflicts that need to be resolved. Eliot’s poems are concerned with the human predicament, the conflict between good and evil. These themes are touched on in many different parts of my collection, in the sections where Crow and Owl encounter one another, in the sections dealing with illness and death. The realities that we encounter as humans of illness, death, abandonment and other forms of suffering, are acknowledged, however, they become subordinate to the human ability to find redemption and comfort in a spiritual place, call it God or heaven or whatever you particularly choose to believe is out there.

4. Discuss the trope of the owl as an “objective correlative” and the Ted Hughes poems. Why did you choose Hughes?

The inspiration for my owl motif came in an almost fateful way. For the purposes of my MA, I attended Imraan Coovadia’s course on creative writing. During a particular workshop, Imraan, after reading some of my poetry, asked whether I had read Ted Hughes’s Life and Songs of the Crow. Two days later, while wandering through the shelves of a second-hand bookstore, I curiously came across a copy of this book. The poems thumped a metronome in my ears for days, his Crow haunting me at night and pursuing me in the day. The anguish and despair of the poems were all consuming. I resolved to attempt to create a portfolio that, while acknowledging the pain of living in this world, would be the antithesis of the despair and anguish imbued in Hughes’s crow poems.
T S Eliot’s doctrine of the objective correlative is expounded in his essay on Hamlet, Hamlet and His Problems. In it, Eliot famously describes Hamlet as “most certainly an artistic failure” as the work did not, in his view, contain an objective correlative. Essentially, the technique of employing an objective correlative entails using an object that serves a symbolic purpose, or evoking emotion by means of a symbol, (which becomes indicative of that emotion). The object becomes a translating mechanism that poses questions that are not necessarily on the page. It allows the poet to achieve greater detachment. I used the owl motif as an objective correlative in an attempt to achieve greater detachment in relation to the themes that I was tackling. By repeatedly invoking the object, the reader begins to recognise that the presence of the object (in my case the Owl) is a kind of bridge that draws the reader to larger thematic meaning in the work as a whole.

5. You write:

Scotus’s haecceitas,
Hopkins’ inscape,
and I stand back
in awe of Him. (42)

What does “inscape” mean to you?

Gerard Manley Hopkins was influenced by medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who developed the notion of haecceitas: everything created has its own distinctive character, which makes it unique and shows God’s purpose in creating it. This is its “self” or “thisness”. Hopkins developed a theory of inscape based on his reading of Scotus. According to Hopkins, in the ideal moments of inscape, various elements of a scene or thing come together and God can be seen there. Each thing has its own distinguishing characteristics with a natural urge towards its proper function. The revelation of God occurs in the revelation of the “self” of a thing. This is the ultimate beauty, a moment of oneness or fusion when all the separate qualities come together to form what it essentially is, and God is seen there.
Rilke expressed it another way when he referred to in-seeing. He uses the example of a dog to describe what it is to “in-see”. By this he means not just seeing through the dog but, as he describes it, situating yourself in the dog’s centre – that place where God, when He sat down for a moment after creating the dog, would have acknowledged that nothing in it was lacking and that it could not have been better made. Rilke urges poets to write from that place of God-like in-seeing.
So inscape for me, is a combination of Hopkin’s inscape and Rilke’s in-seeing.

6. Please reflect on “duende” and Lorca.

The term Duende is difficult to define in English. It is a Spanish word that connotates a heightened state of emotion, coupled with authenticity or “having soul”. The quote no formar más que la médulla de forma can be translated from the Spanish as “not form, but the marrow of form”. It is from a lecture that I came across at UCT on the topic of Duende in Spanish art “Juego y teoria del duende” (Theory and play of the duende), given by the poet Frederico García Lorca in Buenos Aires in 1933. Essentially, Lorca advocates that strong emotion is impossible without the arrival of duende. It is a subtle force that surges from the soles of the feet and rouses the blood. In dance it is often referenced in the Flamenco, the dance that Owl performs in Duende.

no formar más que la médulla de forma
– Federico García Lorca

Owl felt the blood surge
from the knobbly soles
of her feathered feet
rushing up her sinewed legs,
ascending in a rhythmic tempo
to balloon in flexible arteries,
passing through hollow
cavities in her neck,
pooling in minute reservoirs
at the base of her head.
As she swivels her neck 270 degrees,
“Olé! Vive Dios!” exalts Owl,
listening to the stamping
of her feet, flamboyantly roused
by the curved sensation
of this unearthly, flame-coloured,
swell of blood.

7. Reflect on the themes in your volume. Who do you regard as major English South African poets?

The Owl in Metaphysical Balm represents religious longing, introspection, transfiguration and femininity. The reader embarks on a journey with the Owl, from birth, through baptism, illness, fear, dangers, through a process of individuation to end, transfigured, wisened, liminal and crossing boundaries from earth to the next dimension.

One of the aims of my publishing company is to turn South African poets back to understanding and recognizing their own canon of sublime poets. In my blog, I feature, on a bi-monthly poets, Featured Forgotten South African Poets. Ruth Miller and Douglas Livingstone were my first two choices and I consider both these poets as seminal South African poets. On the more recent front, I am currently reading and enjoying the underrated Wopko Jensma and Arthur Nortje.

8. You were enrolled in a Creative Writing course at UCT and attended workshops with Afrikaans poets. Did you register the importance of Afrikaans poetry and reviews? How did you experience the “collective of workshops” and the reading material on The Anatomy of Poetry?

Afrikaans poetry has a more vibrant and exciting poetry “vibe” than anything English has to offer. Their poets have many more opportunities to come to publication, there are critical and academic debates on Versindaba and Litnet, that we just do not experience in English. And their understanding of the Afrikaans canon of writers is beyond anything I have experienced in English: Van Wyk Louw, Opperman, Cussons, Eybers, are assumed reading for any Afrikaans poet. My exposure to the Afrikaans poets taught me the value of understanding and embracing language, as a mechanism to understanding and embracing different cultures.

Workshops are an invaluable means to improving on your work. On a practical level, they compel you to prepare work that you know must be read in front of critical colleagues. Feedback from a trusted circle of contemporaries is fundamental to improving your work, gaining ideas and understanding different types of poems, sonnets, villanelles, haiku, sestina – whatever. Reading aloud is also essential and workshops offer you the opportunity to do so in an unofficial forum.

9. What are the aims of the Dryad Press? Why should people read poetry?

Dryad Press is dedicated to the promotion and publication of poetry in South Africa. It recognizes that one of the fundamental reasons publication is so difficult is because people do not purchase poetry collections and the reason for this is because they don’t read enough poetry. To try address this impasse, Dryad is planning to launch several pop-up poetry mornings at high schools in and around Cape Town. Our project has been taken up by The Cape Academy of Performing Arts, who introduced the idea as an assignment for their final year dance students. Students will select poems in English, Afrikaans and IsiXhosa from the matric syllabus and transpose them to music and dance. They will be assessed in June 2017 and we will be performing a selection of their best pieces at poetry pop-up events, to be held at various Cape Town high schools in the first two weeks of August 2017. Be in touch with Dryad Press if you wish to book a slot for your school on!