Stephen Watson, RIP.

Stephen Watson died yesterday morning, after a short battle with a very determined cancer. Tributes from some who knew and/or studied under him are being posted on the BookSA site, and more will be forthcoming as the news spreads, and as people realise what a loss this is – most obviously to his wife Tanya and their two children, but also to all of us who are interested in or part of the SA literary scene. In the mid-to-late 90’s, I completed my MA in Creative Writing, with Stephen acting as my supervisor. While he was never the best supervisor when it came to practical details like arranging meetings or signing forms, he more than made up for that in the quality of his insight, and his clear devotion to helping his students wring the best lines out of the loose thoughts and fragments they brought to him.

It was not only in his dedication to his students’ writing that his commitment proved invaluable, but also in the texts, and the ideas, that he exposed all of us to. He introduced me to Czeslaw Milosz, and to Bertold Brecht, and countless other writers who helped inform what I was trying to think, and say. Our shared appreciation of Leonard Cohen, and his attempts to find the numinous in the mundane, led to many a conversation which left a lasting impression on how I went about trying to find the lines I needed, or wanted, at the time.

He has left us with many books of poetry and essays, all of which have something to offer to most – and usually, quite a lot to offer to all willing to spend some time reading and thinking about the intersections between time, place and the person struggling to locate herself within the noise. For stripping down, and getting through, the noise was one of his most obvious talents – and one we could all benefit from spending some time trying to emulate.

One book that hasn’t been mentioned in the tributes I’ve seen to date is his 1997 book, a writer’s diary. Opening it now, I see that my bookmark is probably still where I left it 10 or so years ago, when I last re-read it, on a paragraph that sticks in the memory. Part of his entry for 16 March, 1996 reads:

The writer belongs to the world; but only by belonging to himself first of all. (In some cases, doubtless, last of all as well.) And this is, in good part, his ethical problem as a human being, as well as a writer.

Judging by the few times I’ve been in his company along with Tanya and the children, I don’t doubt that he resolved this ethical problem, as he seemed to belong to them, and them to him, in a way which made it clear that he’d found a place of peace, but also of inspiration, and of happiness. All sympathies to them, for what they have lost, and to all others who will miss him.

While I haven’t written any poetry for as long as I can remember, looking over those files now, I can remember how valuable his input was – and wish that I could show you a before-and-after version of the same poem in order to demonstrate my debt. While I can’t do that, there is one that I know was strongly influenced by his patient guidance, and it’s pasted below. Thank you, Stephen.

Nailed to our dreaming

Again we watch the sun climb
the tree to your window, and then again
we sleep, nailed to our dreaming
of something other than neglect,
the comfort of paralysis.

Again we shed our city skin,
and travel these parched roads
in search of a fragment of promise,
the quieting of fear. We know
that there is always more to say –

Other ways to define our solitude,
diverse shapes for our desires.
But the words are unkind, are lost
in your gaze, in my imagining
of a love that is liberty.

And though this may be filled
with the end of summer’s song,
over here is a smile.
Over there is my hate and moonlight,
my rainbow with sleep;
wishes from days slipped quietly past,

when I felt my lives begin to unravel,
but then gentled them all back;
for too many years have been lost
on these narrow streets,
edged by dirty snowbanks twice-melted,
of our wishing a poorer future than our past.

They say that all we can rely on
are those things we despise,
and that may be why
I have been frozen here so long,
a mute witness to my body.
Yet we somehow speak, finding new tongues,

until you wake me at dawn,
talk of the roads we must navigate
to find our way home. Still mute,
I wonder if you recognise me only now,
or if you even knew whose hand
you held in your sleep.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.