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THE SUBLIME SONG OF A MAYBE by Arjen Duinker
(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 north,
         One to the pepper king of the east,
         One to the ice king of the south,
         One to the pepper queen of the west.

         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 too imagination.

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.
                  (from ‘Loose Poems’ I)

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
                  (from ‘The Gable Cleaner’)

although this gable-cleaner is hardly the village idiot:

         ….. used to construing
         The inner relation between the inside wall
         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.

         ……..

                           ….the mystery
         Is an unfailing source of pleasure.
                  (from ‘Loose Poems’ XXIV)

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 country?’
                  (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 flowing,
         ………

         So the world appeared …..
                  (from ‘Put 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 come unstuck:

         To cross a sea is identical
         To the honour of your family,
         The washing machine and the music
         And the musculature of clouds.
                  (from ‘Quinta 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 four.
         Result: a squinting eye
         That has brought constant happiness.
                  (from ‘Zibes and Me’)

         There will be people who say
         It all revolves around understanding.
         So also plague of fleas. That’s fine.
                  (from ‘Old and New’)

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.


                  © Martin Stannard 2003