I came to you through my husband, who is a huge fan of your poetry. Some of the first Dutch poems we translated together were yours (I may post some of them here eventually, if you want). Soon afterwards, he gave me a collection of your early poems, translated into English by Shirley Kaufman. But What: Selected Poems (Oberlin, 1988) is a slim volume that comprises poems from the books Zeepost (1963), Beemdgras (1968), Strijklicht (1971), Botshol (1980), and Dagrest (1984), as well as five (by then) new poems. This is just a quick note to let you know my impressions of this collection.
What I liked the most about your poems is the fact that you start with common everyday objects and invisible human relations – a box, some shoes, a kiss, some cliché -, and then rearrange them in a sharp poignant way, giving them a personal unexpected twist.
You use various poetic artifices, in order to make us experience larger, often unpleasant, emotions, in response to something familiar and very small: even your words are simple, your verses are mostly short. Some include monologues or internal rhymes, some are narrative poems, most of them are hybrids of more conventional poetic forms.
Reading one of your poems, for example, we may initially have the impression that, by using scattered words, you are describing a movement of scattered light over some landscape – but, when we least expect, a larger scene unfolds, where the light is there to shed our attention to something bigger, in the exact moment of its shattering. And we realize that the impression of light was only an optical effect, multiplied by the shards, but trapped inside one’s eyes, inside one’s way of looking (or avoiding to look).
Using trivial words, you make something uncomfortable, at once beautiful and terrible, which takes shape around seemingly trivial situations, as we go through the poem. But, as quickly as it had become tangible, and almost as gently, this disturbing feeling dissolves itself, and we are left with nothing but the small trivial situation you had begun your poem with.
(Translated by Shirley Kaufman and Judith Herzberg)
For years I had not seen such a town
Or stood at the bottom of such stairs
As on that hot day, in black Sunday best
And leather shoes. And at the top
I saw vaguely my strange mother
I’d have to give her a kiss.
Soft cuddling that night after night
I’d pretended to creep from
The war into sleep
Was dividing us now. Too grown-up,
Too skinny and countrified, I took
It all back. Was this
Really my mother?
Come up, she said,
Winking to put me at ease,
But with both eyes at once.
Right then I thought we should say
The goodbyes we’d delayed,
But I didn’t know how to look at her
With my difficult eyes.”