‘Ingrid Jonker’ by Sally Bryer is a sentiment of praise for ‘Ingrid Jonker’ herself, a woman who used her words to push for change in South Africa. In addition to offering general appreciation, this work also shows a sense of similarity between the narrator and Jonker herself, as if the narrator understands and respects Jonker’s mindset and actions. Lastly, however, it is also a eulogy of sorts since the beginning line of “You walked straight into the water” is a representation of the manner in which Jonker committed suicide. Overall, though, this work addresses livelihood and possibility when taken in a less literal meaning, and is a standing commentary on Jonker’s sense of belief—as well as the ramifications that come along with such stances.
Ingrid Jonker Analysis
You walked straight into the water
like a hungry bird, your curly head
like Persephone herself,
your eyes dried seeds, your body a husk of light.
There is confidence in these lines that is nearly tangible, attributed to the “you” being described—“Ingrid Jonker.” This confidence is expressed in a number of word choices, such as the lack of hesitance that is noted as she “walked straight into the water,” which could represent her political struggles in South Africa. Since her journey was “straight,” it indicates that there was no confusion, but rather certainty and determination to tend to the task. As she “walked,” the reader can infer that she was calm in her movements, given the easy pace in comparison to something like “rushed” or “hurried.” Overall, there is a sense of strength and calm being addressed in these first lines that set the tone for the rest of the work, one continued in the notion that she was “like Persephone herself” as this occurred.
The reader can also note that Jonker, according to the narration, had a purpose when “walk[ing] straight into the water” since she was “intent as a heron” and “like a hungry bird.” Whatever her reasoning for stepping into this scenario, it was as notable as “a hungry” animal searching for food, which could indicate a high priority for her task. After all, needing food in such a moment could be life-or-death. With this in mind, the priority of what she was striving in life for—like South African politics—elevates like it simply had to be and she had to see it happen.
Going back to the “Persephone” idea, more can be inferred from that addition to the poem than just a regal poise. According to Greek mythology, “Persephone” was taken to the underworld by Hades, and because she ate food from the underworld—“seeds”—she could not completely distance herself from the realm. Instead, she had to spend months every year in the underworld, while being allowed to return to her mother for the remaining time. Given that Jonker’s “eyes” are noted as “dried seeds,” the connection is hard to overlook.
Since the “seeds” are “dr[y],” this could indicate that Jonker had experienced her time of trouble in fighting for South Africa long enough for it to become routine, much like “Persephone” would have after so many years of switching realms, but both remained strong enough burn with “light,” despite the negativity. Once more then, this speaks of strength within Jonker. Like “Persephone” must strive in the underworld to see “light” again, Jonker must push against the struggles in her life for victory. These political struggles are dealt with more specifically in the lines still to come and will be more fully addressed then.
On a literal note, as well, “Persephone[s’]” story is connected to the underworld, and Jonker’s venture “into the water” would eventually end her life. On a more concrete basis, as well, this comparison is fitting.
Your punishment was finding yourself
tried to sell themselves.
Stepping away from the narrative of the poem a bit, a look into Jonker’s life and politics is needed to fully appreciate the meaning of this series of lines. She was a rebel, in some regards, within her family and her country as she wrote poetry that her father ridiculed and stood for the Die Sestigers that confronted the South African system. Given that her father was an integral part of South African politics of the time, this would have caused great dissent between the two generations.
When that information is brought to the lines of the poem, so much can be understood. Jonker truly was “in a foreign element” since her political views were so out of place within her country and family, and to feel the need to stand for her beliefs could have led to a controversy that might have been viewed as “punishment.” She “walked” into defending her beliefs, but was “punish[ed]” when those beliefs made her the target of negativity from some people—even her own family. Her struggle against the system is accredited to her “lips and fingers,” which would have been the parts of her that were speaking and writing the words she used in her fight, but this act is noted as her being “betrayed.”
What this could indicate is that the boldness of her words led her to a situation of criticism and ill-treatment. In this, what she once was and experienced while under her father’s and country’s rule was spoken against by her own words as they “turned away from the darkness.” Essentially, the situation was irrefutable, and her words “betrayed” her by speaking against it.
The reader could label these “lips and fingers” as the “interpreters” she “spoke through” since they were communicating her innermost thoughts and “tr[ying] to sell themselves” as a voice of reason to instigate change. As Jonker herself suffered because of it, this would have been the reason for labeling it a “betray[al]” since she had to live with the words she seemed to have so little power over offering.
Your child dies, and lives on.
Your screams become seasonal.
This pair of lines has a very basic connotation in that Jonker’s inner “child” would have been brushed aside to face the conflict. In this, her “child dies.” The notion that it “lives on,” however, is a statement regarding how her hope continued despite the struggle. Perhaps the struggle was for a cause that seemed too large for a rational mind to trust in, and only the innocent hope of a “child” could carry on. Additionally, her “screams becom[ing] seasonal” indicate that everything was not horrific all of the time. Rather, the pain was endured at times, strong enough to cause “screams,” but only for certain “season[s].”
We travel in packs. Hunting and hunted
a relic of pain, stark as bone.
The perspective of this series of lines shifts into the first-person narration. This feels like a moment to try and reach out toward Jonker as if the narrator is so moved by Jonker’s stance that she feels the need to offer the struggling woman a sense of camaraderie. This is matched in the notion that “[w]e travel in packs.” Just as the narration turns to first-person then, the wording becomes focused on group mentality rather than the single woman standing alone. This could reference how each of us has our own battles to fight, but there is still a collective edge to it. One soldier, as an example, might fight on the ground while another fights from the air, but both are struggling for the same purpose. Through this one shift, this idea is represented—that Jonker fought as her own person and in her own way, but despite her turmoil, she was not alone in her purpose.
As well, these lines not only address the commonality of “pain” during such a struggle, but the word choice makes the idea seem as though harboring that “pain” is deliberate since people “carry nets” and “capture” it. Since it is unlikely that the narrator is referring to some form of masochism, a deeper look into that word choice is needed. Perhaps, with that deeper look, the “nets” are not intended for “pain.” Instead, perhaps people intend to “capture” better things, like needed social reform, and “pain” is accidentally ensnared. It is worth noting, however, that it is “a relic of pain” “capture[d],” which again brings a level of camaraderie to the poem. If it is “a relic,” after all, many generations have potentially suffered the same “pain.” Regardless of the generation, this “pain” is “stark” and is as solid as “bone.”
Those of us who never saw a likeness
I pass, your dark eyes encounter me.
These final thoughts create a division between the people the narrator is including within the first-person idea—as in the ones who “carry nets” and endure “pain”—and others who are on the outside of the situation. Those untouched by the circumstance “never saw a likeness” of it, and that distance has allowed them the unbiased nature to be able to see things from a more logical perspective. Specifically, such people can “tell the seasons of madness from the sea” to know what trouble should be embraced, like “the sea,” and what is too irrational to be anything other than “madness.”
For the narrator, however, she is clearly of those “carry[ing] nets” since she expresses that she does not see “sea” in her venture. Rather, she sees Jonker’s “dark eyes” among the “glass and shell.” This mentioning of “sea” elements shows that she has emerged into the situation, but to see the “eyes” of someone past rather than the “sea” itself is indicative of “madness.” Essentially, this writer is invested in the situation on a personal level, like Jonker was.
Is it better to be in the “madness” or see the actual “sea?” There is no answer found within the passage, but it is clear that though the narrator’s praise of Jonker, she believes the “madness” to be the respectable passage.
About Sally Bryer
Though little biographical information was found for Sally Bryer, she is a South African poet, much like Ingrid Jonker herself.