Content Warning: Hell Light Flesh deals with themes of abuse.
Du Plessis is a South African-Canadian poet, who writes in both English and Afrikaans. Her debut poetry collection Ekke won the Pat Lowther Award, and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, in 2019. Du Plessis was born in Montreal, but raised predominantly in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Du Plessis’ second collection, Hell Light Flesh is titled without punctuation and sounds like it could be the name of an art installation, beginning the consideration of form that carries on throughout the book.
The opening poem, “We are afraid” begins “That’s it. Upstairs,/ immediately.” This without quotation marks, the reader knows, is a quote and is drawn in. What better deployment of a line break? When is the upstairs time, before now. The patience is exhausted at the beginning. The dramatic monologue is brief, the “I” or speaker, tries to “diminish my size…,/ be a miniature boy child, invisible, but everything is very real.” Violent encounter’s affect on perception is one of the subjects of the book. Hell Light Flesh: hell lights the flesh? Can light be the verb here? Can we make the violent parental touch lighter with dissociation?
Withholding titles for seventeen pages in the first section of the book heightens the domination that is the subject of corporal punishment. The first seventeen pages are a long poem; however, the varying lengths of the poems presented create not only pacing, but a sense of bruising on the body, which is waiting for punishment, in the father’s art studio, which is a usual place for punishment. “The strap hangs silently/ on a peg beside the door.”
As the tension of the plot builds up, the reader is put in a position of identifying us with the disciplined and the disciplinarian. The concept presented “father and son should discuss the misconduct, giving the boy a chance to explain why and how he disobeyed.” The dichotomy of logic and the passion of striking as well: “The disciplinarian must decide beforehand how serious the punishment needs to be – once started he should not strike out of anger or lighten his hand and clemency but rather stay true to just desserts”
While her speaker attends his beating/discipline, the mother distracts the sibling, who is imagined to, one day, relish not being the punished one. The mother is imagined puncturing the campus she works on, causing the reader to reflect on the puncturing of the roles and rules of caregiver and authoritarian.
“The moment you include white in paint, you can never remove pastel from it again.” For me, this suggests that once the father beats the child he can never unveil the child. The child can never be a child who is not beaten. The child will always have the trauma to interpret. Furthermore, the art that the father produces is clouded by the violence that he perpetrates in his son's life. The mother and sibling avoiding the sounds of the beating cause the reader to reflect on the violence in her own life that she is not attending to or muting or ignoring.
“Pain is an eminence, wrote original splendor./ Sorry, prayer becomes erotica)” These assertions characterize the voice of the speaker. Disarming and vibrant.
I was able to reach out to du Plessis and ask a couple questions, including - what conversations were you hoping to spark or contribute to?
"While this book is NOT autobiographical, Hell Light Flesh emerges from a consciousness raised in South Africa where corporal punishment was very much the norm in the community I grew up in, especially so among male friends. The rhetoric is that it is a good/necessary mode of learning discipline, rather than a form of abuse. That is, suddenly violence is a form of care. So my book takes up that warped logic, and questions and critiques how it shapes patriarchal modes of thinking: "being a man," hardness, emotionlessness, and how that impacts social groupings on a larger scale."
I also asked, anything you remember having to cut that was super hard?
"I probably cut an equal amount as the length of the book itself! Because of the narrative aspect of the poetry, the relationship between what makes it into the final manuscript and what doesn't fit into the whole is very important. I had to cut lots of sections that I really loved because they just didn't fit what the book needed, or were too tangential to the main concerns. Conversely, I had to write in parts that the book needed. For example, the section called "Council of solace," which is more from the perspective of the father figure, was missing at first, but felt important to create a more balanced perspective. I didn't want to villainize the father, or I wanted to create a more complex world than a logic of good/bad power dynamics."
In summary, this book walks a fine line of potentially triggering subject matter and holds on to it even-handedly. I saw several online readings of the book; I did not see any readings from her first book. She is currently working on a PhD at Concordia University on the curatorship of poetry readings. Her very present presence and clear engagement with the reader, on couches all over the country belies the thinking that she has done about the meaning of performance and the auditory experience of poetry for a reader/listener.
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