A poet confident in her mastery of the medium -- J.M. Coetzee
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About Isobel Dixon
Isobel Dixon was born in Mthatha, South Africa. She studied English at Stellenbosch University, before pursuing postgraduate study at Edinburgh University. She now lives in Cambridge and works as a literary agent in London, returning frequently to Cape Town and her family home in the Karoo. She has been published in The Paris Review, The Manhattan Review, The Guardian, The Dark Horse and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. Her work is included in several recent anthologies: Birdbook I, Coin Opera II and Psycho Poetica (all published by Sidekick Books), Penguin’s Poems for Love, The Forward Book of Poetry, and The Best of British Poetry 2011. She is the author of three full collections of poetry, Weather Eye (Carapace, 2001), A Fold in the Map (UK: Salt, 2007; SA: Jacana 2007) and The Tempest Prognosticator (UK: Salt, 2011; SA: Random Umuzi, 2011), which J.M. Coetzee described as ‘a virtuoso collection’. In 2016 Mariscat published a pamphlet, The Leonids, and Nine Arches will published a new collection, Bearings. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the South African SANLAM Award for Poetry, the Olive Schreiner Prize and the Oxfam Poets for a Better Future Prize. Her work has been translated into German, Dutch, Spanish, French and Turkish.
Dixon is also an active collaborator. She took part in the multi-media Hitchcock tribute Psycho Poetica, produced by Simon Barraclough, and together with Barraclough and Chris McCabe co-wrote and performed in the Titanic centenary show The Debris Field (both published by Sidekick Books). In 2013 she completed two projects with Italian composer Roberto Rusconi: Doppelganger, inspired by Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, and a sequence on cosmology, Dark Matters. In 2014 she collaborated with composer Stephen Montague on The Brewdog Howls, an original composition and musical performance with poetry at the Brewdog brewery in Ellon, Aberdeenshire. She worked with Scottish artist Douglas Robertson on a project linked to D. H Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts & Flowers.
Dixon’s poetry is distinguished by its elegance, clarity, humour, and penetrating emotional directness. Her poems deftly combine biographical material with more abstract argument in a way which, at times, recalls the early work of Jorie Graham. With an acute sensitivity to language as a material, Dixon unpacks and lays bare the elements and mechanics of individual words, re-assembling them endowed with new and unexpected resonances. Her poem “Certus Incertus”, from A Fold in the Map, achieves this with characteristic precision, opening with a childhood memory of being unable to speak aloud in a classroom, before elaborating movingly on the enduring anxieties and perils of speech:
Alone, a poem was paradise.
Aloud, an ambuscade.
And still my name is treacherous:
the first an easy swim,
a sibilance, soft labial,
and then warm lateral rest.
A stubborn plosive bars the last,
refusing. The mouth’s tough muscle trapped,
a clumsy toad that’s scarred and furrowed
as if mapped with all its failed assaults,
the long embarrassments
as listeners’ lips chew silently,
rehearsing what they think I mean.
The mouth “mapped with all its failed assaults” described here recurs in many other poems whose subjects relate to identity, place and the difficulties of expression. A powerful sequence of poems about her father shows Dixon at her most direct, and yet the poems are full of unanswered and unanswerable questions. “Meet My Father” mixes humour and pathos in its description of a parent—whose voracious appetite had once earned him the nickname “the dustbin man”—refusing food late in life. The poem concludes not with an easy resolution or simple act of memorialisation, but with a painful, unanswerable question: “He wants to stop. Why do we keep on / spooning dust and ashes down his throat?”
For all the unflinching emotional precision of Dixon’s work, a rich comic vein also runs through it, particularly in her poems about animals (a particularly vivid example is the love poem “You, Me and the Orang-utan”). Through their combination of precise observation and cool, even deadpan delivery, these works bring to mind the American poet Jane Yeh. Of “Upupa Epops” (the Hoopoe), Dixon writes:
Who knew, so dapper in your black-barred
cinnamon-cum-chestnut raiment, you’d turn out to be,
back home, a smelly nester of the first degree?
The sins fine feathers and a rather natty crest can hide.
These are the works of a scrupulous observer whose attention is directed inward and outward with equal intensity. Dixon’s careful, even delivery of these poems only adds to the atmosphere of strangeness and mystery they create.
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 9 January 2015 at Soundhouse Studios and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.