By Harry Owen
The sad truth is that, before I first came here ten years ago, I knew almost nothing about South African poets. That changed very quickly, however.
One of the first books I was given (in May 2007) was called Dog Latin by someone I had never heard of at the time but whom I would later come to know as both fellow poet and friend – Norman Morrissey. A year later, in June 2008 at the launch of his new collection, Triptych, at the old Reddits Books & Coffee in New Street, he signed my book with the note: “Harry, The first copy sold!” I had come a long way in twelve months.
So it was with a sense of profound sadness that I learned of Norman’s death last week. He had retired owing to ill health in 2002 from his career as a lecturer in English at several South African universities, including UCT and Fort Hare, in order to concentrate on his writing at his home in Hogsback.
But before that he had to undergo lengthy treatment for profound depression, a debilitating condition which he faced with candour and courage. As he writes in ‘Preface to St Mark’s Diary’ about poems written during this period: “I was working through a breakdown, doing cold turkey on years of sleeping pills and painkillers, and at last getting full clinical diagnosis on a condition that began with an infection trashing my nervous system in November 1962, a month after my 13th birthday.”
Undoubtedly, Norman struggled – and so, inevitably, did those with whom he shared his life; he could not then have been easy to live with. Yet he wrote his way through it all, latterly with the love and companionship of another poet – Silke Heiss, whom he married in 2013 and who added immeasurably to the quality of his final years.
That same year I was privileged to include a wonderful poem by Norman in the anthology For Rhino in a Shrinking World. Called ‘Lord of Life’, it tells the magical true story, from when he worked as a ranger for the old Natal Parks Board, of Norman’s relationship with a bull rhino whose “quiet gravity saved me, I’m sure/ many a vanity or vagueness of phrase”. I heard Norman read this poem twice: once at Reddits Poetry here in Grahamstown and once at the McGregor Poetry Festival in 2015.
So while I will certainly miss Norman Morrissey I shall also continue to be inspired by his courage, his fortitude and his unrelenting belief, enriched ultimately by the devotion of his wife Silke, in the power of love to prevail over all hardship. This was his prayer, and I think it was answered.
The candle gutters down
till the wick floats in the last wax,
burns at both ends,
gives twice the light
of its nearing extinction:
the whole thread of my life
from childhood to old age
(from Strandloop, Echoing Green Press, 2016)
Norman’s Memorial Event in Hogsback will be held tomorrow, Saturday 5 August 2017, in the Vula Vista Conference Centre at 3.30pm. The Memorial Event at Outeniqua Moon near Mossel Bay will be held on Saturday 2 September 2017 at 3.30pm.
- The image featured shows Harry Owen (left) chatting to fellow poet and NELM outreach co-ordinator Zongezile Matshoba at a tea to celebrate Harry’s 100th column published inGrocott’s Mail.