SUBLIME SONG OF A MAYBE by Arjen
(trans. Willem Groenewegen),
141pp, £8.95, Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden,
Lancs, OL14 6DA
Arjen Duinker is Dutch, and this book (a selected poems, and number 8 of
Arc’s Visible Poets series)
is a bilingual affair by which I mean that the Dutch originals are there,
opposite the translations. Now, what I know about Dutch poetry about Dutch
anything, for that matter you could put on the back of a 36p stamp (those
are the ones you need to send a letter to Amsterdam, apparently) and have
enough space left to fill with a few lines of poetry, if you can write small
enough. How about:
Last year I sent four letters.
One to the ice queen of the
One to the pepper king of the
One to the ice king of the south,
One to the pepper queen of the
They answered all at once:
You’ve come to the wrong address,
You want our representatives.
Okay, this is too much to go on the back of a stamp. Forget that. It’s cool
poetry. It’s from a poem called ‘Samba’, which is from one of Duinker’s books,
called “The History of an Enumeration”, which was published in 2000. At least,
I think that’s what it’s called: I have a fairly well-developed mistrust
of translations: one of the books selected from here is called, in this version, “The
Dreaming Hour”. But I went on the World Wide Wait to see what I could find
out about Mr Duinker, and on the two English language sites I discovered
(most of what I found was in Dutch, not surprisingly) it was called “The
Hour of Dreaming” and “The Hour of the Dream”. You see what I mean? At least
they agree about “hour” and “dream”.
But let’s leave that behind: the book contains a 4-page preface by the translator,
which includes the whys and the hows of the translation, and an introduction
to the poetry by Jeffrey Wainwright both of which you should completely
ignore until some time after you’ve let the poetry itself do whatever it
does to you.
What it does to me is leave me feeling optimistic, and interestingly alive.
That’s no mean feat, just at the moment. And, of course, there’s a lot of
poetry I can’t begin to say this about. This optimism comes from a reaffirmation
of the (probably simplistic) idea that words can show you how life is actually
pretty startling, even when they don’t always appear to “make sense”. So
To a certain degree, much of what I like about these poems is that they have
great sequences of words in them. Lines, I suppose you would call them. Then
there are things that appeal to the way my head is. A sense of distance from
everything that’s going on around you, for instance:
If you give away secrets,
I’ll ride on a black wagon.
If you give away secrets,
I’ll feel wistfulness.
which I suppose is about feeling like you don’t belong. Then suddenly you
feel like you belong along with everything. At least, there’s an everyday
full of the commonplace:
There goes the gable-cleaner
Alone on his bike
although this gable-cleaner is hardly the village idiot:
….. used to construing
The inner relation between the
And the outer one
There’s life, the universe, and everything, which you unfailingly fail to
understand, but it’s okay:
On the one hand is the thing.
On the other hand is the mystery.
Is an unfailing source of pleasure.
And there’s invention (a term I know I use rather loosely, and often it covers
anything that I like the sound of and which I think the writer or whoever
has made up from wherever, but it’s great). Whatever state I’m in I’ll always
fall in love with invention forever, invention slut that I am:
I’d had enough
Of poetry as compromise,
Dark myth or shopping trip.
I took a cab
To the hydrodynamic factory
And looked at the test arrangement.
‘Have you given more thought
To Mister Attilio Bertolucci?’
I asked the engineer.
‘And to the fact
That his family once moved
From the coastal area to the
(from ‘At La
Camera Da Letto’)
And notwithstanding that dismissal of poetry as “dark myth”, there is loitering
around these pages a sense of myth, the idea of it, and the language of it
in these hands delivers something clean and pure, rather than dark. And for
me it’s therefore true. And therefore giving and rewarding:
Suddenly the water was orange.
That miraculous water, loyally
So the world appeared …..
To The Test’)
In despite of which, these poems seem always to have a hold of the world
we know, and of worlds the poet knows. These worlds are often the same thing,
and often they exist alongside one another. Sometimes a poem is an essay
of how one man exists in whatever world he is in that day: finding meaning
and not finding meaning, making sense and not making sense of things, taking
what he sees and what he imagines as all of a piece, and these poems: this
is it. Take it or leave it. Don’t ask “what it means”. Rather, say Hello.
I find myself asking now, having just written those last few paragraphs,
whether this doesn’t actually boil down to outlining most of the poetry I
like. Perhaps. Actually, I don’t care. And I don’t care that this is an almost
perversely insistent emotional rather than intellectual response to the poems.
I get the distinct impression that Arjen Duinker can be as intellectual and
theoretical as you like, but that the spontaneous genuine knee-jerk response
is the most valuable and valued.
I think also Duinker trusts himself, and his poetry instinct, much more than
your average. Which means that he trusts his thought, and the thought he
trusts the most is that which is almost unthinking. The result is a kind
of distance and independence it’s like unhinged ideas that, because they’re
genuine and pure, not tampered with by thoughts of the rules of poetry, and
should he be saying this, they’re indisputably reliable. The fact that they’re
also very readable is a very pleasant bonus.
Try and say what this poetry means in the conventional sense, and you’ll
To cross a sea is identical
To the honour of your family,
The washing machine and the
And the musculature of clouds.
Das Esmoutadas, For Ema’)
Not that Duinker is doing anything desperately “new” so he may not, for
instance, appeal to those who seem to lavish praise on the avant-unreadable
because it’s so “innovative”. And I could, I guess, have used many of the
phrases I’ve used here when writing about John Ashbery, for instance. I probably
already have. But he does, for all that, strike me as very individual, which
gets him Brownie points for starters. He’s recognisable. He has his own place
in the world, and his own way of looking at things:
Took off my glasses when I was
Result: a squinting eye
That has brought constant happiness.
There will be people who say
It all revolves around understanding.
So also plague of fleas. That’s
I really like these poems. I wish I could read the Dutch, because occasionally
I doubt the translation, and wonder about the phrasing. A poem set ostensibly
in a football match (albeit hardly a real one) has someone asking the question “Which
half are we playing at?” not surprisingly, the question doesn’t get an
answer. But yes, I like these poems.