From Not Him by Wopko Jensma

From Not Him by Wopko Jensma tells a story of a father who is rigid in his daily activities regarding the upbringing of his children and involvement with his community, but there are other levels of his personality that exist on much subtler planes—ones the reader might have to search the poem to find. Specifically, his sternness is addressed through fitting examples, standard lowercase letters, and a lack of punctuation, but that is contrasted with the variation seen in the syllables of the poem, as well as his limited “respect” and the “wiggl[ing of] his toes.” This contrast can be interpreted as a representation of people in general since often people are a blend of stern and flexible, and this simple tale told from the perspective of a child helps to solidify that concept.

 

From Not Him Analysis

Line 1

he forbids us to dance

One of the first notable twists to this poem is its lack of capitalization, even for the beginning of sentences. For an academic work or a polished piece, this trait is a bit bizarre, to the point that it sparks wondering about the reason for the variance from normal format. It is possible that this was a deliberate choice by Jensma to give a visual representation of the steady, uniform life of this “he,” who we later learn is the narrator’s father. Just as “he” blends in with a common life through “a stable job,” punctuality, and understood good behavior, every word in this poem blends together so that none of them stand out in regard to capitalization.

Worth noting as well is that the identity of this “he” is not addressed at all in this beginning line, creating an air of mystery that contradicts the polished exterior he presents to the world. Although he seems to do all the right things, this multi-line mystery of who “he” is forces uncertainty and curiosity on the matter, almost as if hinting to the reader that something deeper lies beneath the punctuality and manners. This concept is mirrored as well in the title of the poem since it does not say who it is “From.” Instead, it labels this person as “Not Him,” and that description does not assist in knowing who he is—only what he is “Not.” In fact, the title’s contribution to the mystery makes it as though this poem could be a representation of two aspects of a person—one that is a front and one that is real. If such is the case, “Not Him” would indicate that what the world sees is truthfully not the father at all.

Regardless, he is stern in his strategies of life and childrearing, which is clear in the strong word, “forbids,” that is directed toward those children. Particularly, “he forbids [them] to dance,” and this shows a definite line drawn in connection with at least one form of fun or recreation.

 

Lines 2-3

he always leads the church service

he has a stable job

What becomes noticeable in this pair of lines is that, in addition to not using capital letters at the beginnings of sentences, Jensma is also not using punctuation marks at the ends of sentences. In fact, throughout the entire poem, there is not one single punctuation mark, and this absence strengthens the rigid flow and uniformity that represents the father’s lifestyle. Just as there is no need for separation between himself and his responsibilities, there is no need for separation via punctuation marks either.

Specifically, this pair of lines looks into his community life, as in what he does for that community. According to this narrator, “he always leads the church service,” and “he has a stable job.” Essentially, he is solid, “stable,” and no-nonsense.

 

Lines 4-6

he is always on time for work

he never gets drunk

he has respect for most people

This no-nonsense detail gains further evidence from lines four and five since the narrator refers to his constant punctuality for “work” and his commitment to full sobriety. Both of these are related to physical behaviors that would give him a firm, reliable personality for the world to note. This worldly acknowledgement is further solidified when the narrator states that “he has respect for most people” since that “respect” would be another method of showcasing a solid and community-focused person. However, within that seventh line might be a hint that more is going on with this father than just his solid appearance since he is not noted to “respect” everyone—just “most people.” Given how rigid he has been on every other spoken detail—“always on time” and “never gets drunk”—this qualified statement could punch a very small hole in what observers might see as a perfectly put-together person.

 

Lines 7-8

everybody respects him

we love our daddy

Here, the reader moves from the father’s actions and feelings to how people feel in regard to him. According to the narrator—who the reader can officially label as the child of the discussed person in response to line eight’s “we love our daddy”—this father is an ideal piece of the community in the eyes of many. Line seven states that “everybody respects him,” which contrasts the notion that he only “has respect for most people.” It could be then that he is getting more from the community than he is gaining, at least in regard to respect. This criticism is so well hidden, though, that it fits with the mindset of the child who is saying this about her “daddy.” For a younger person, questioning these scenarios might not register as a process to undertake, and this would fall in line with the passive hints that do not seem to really go anywhere. Just as a child would notice, then move on without analysis, this narrator has replicated that circumstance with the wording.

 

Lines 9-11

but sometimes I notice

when a kwela blasts from the radio

he wiggles his toes

Once more, the topic is dealt with in a very childish manner in that little thought or consideration is given to what the “wiggles [of] his toes” mean in this context. It is only an observation that “sometimes…when a kwela blasts,” the movement happens. Despite not fully analyzing the process though, the child does address the claim with a contrasting “but,” which indicates that even though the child has not fully analyzed the circumstance, he recognizes this as something contrary to what came before it. Although, basically, the father is so put together for the rest of the world, even a child can pick up on this small moment in time when his sternness slides away and something less serious surfaces.

Also, the reader can detect a variation of syllables in these final lines that contradicts the rigidity of the punctuation and capitalization absences. Granted, the punctuation and capitalization choices are variations of standard grammar, but the poem remains consistent from beginning to end with the chosen format. Such is not the case for syllable numbers. Line 1 has six syllables, line 2 has eight, and line three has six. This first-and-third match continues in lines 4-6, which have an 8-5-8 setup, but the moment they clearly fall short is in this set of lines. To match, likes 7-9 would have to pair up in similar fashion, but they do not.

Tellingly, this is when the most defined contrast happens in this poem—the “but sometimes”—concept, and the syllable issue expands so that line 10 has more syllables in it than any other line in the poem. This extended length makes this line stand out, and since line 10 deals with the attitude-changing “kwela,” the significance of that variation at this instance cannot be overstated. This moment of change, it seems, needs to be fully acknowledged by the reader more than any other idea in the poem.

This variation of personality then, when going into the deeper aspects of a person, is the central concept of the poem. No matter how stern, there is some level of flexibility there—at least to Jensma.

 

About Wopko Jensma

Wopko Jensma was born in 1939, and this South African writer was the author of a number of known poems. Much of his writing centered around racial issues and apartheid in his country, making him an artist as well as a social commentator. Unfortunately for Jensma, however, he suffered from schizophrenia, and after losing a good deal of his lifestyle because of this disease, he left the Salvation Army Men’s Home where he was staying. This departure happened in 1993, and where he went remains a mystery.

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