A Dutch poet laureate offers her unique, subtle, fascinating, sometimes weird, and sometimes creepy voice for our consideration.
In “Delay," from Ester Naomi Perquin’s newly translated collection of poems The Hunger in Plain View, she remarks “We are modern. It’s the wrong century for love." Yet love is everywhere in this collection, complicated by the messiness of modernity, true, but appearing all the same, if not always where we expect to find it. Perquin's love is instead the contradictory kind, simultaneously mundane and surreal, and shared by criminals and prison guard’s wives, just as it is by family or lovers, and this perspective, style, and poetic play are expertly handled by translator David Colmer, in whose English none of the weird is lost.
Perquin's poetics are conversational, intimate and direct, such as in her poem “Quiz:"
Cross out: I am not a woman / I am a stupid woman.
In recent years there are at least six things
I have regretted. On my fingertips, I prefer:
gold leaf, paint, tomato juice.
The Hunger in Plain View provides a good overview of her three previous collections, Napkins at Halfmast, In the Name of the Other, and the captivating Cell Inspections, the last of which was partially inspired by her time working as a prison guard. This experience crops up in other places as well, like in her poem “Guard Duty” from In the Name of the Other. But it is love that appears again and again, providing the connecting thread throughout the collection, as in “You Are the Wrong Man:"
You always were the wrong man
and you, incontrovertibly, are the wrong man still.
I don’t like love and never have.
I’ve stayed with you because I am so sure of it.
Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, but Perquin’s dismissal of the subject only serves to heighten the end of the poem five stanzas later, “Maybe I do love you, as long as I don’t stop / meaning it as something inalienable, / as long as I can keep it safe and well.” For Perquin, keeping something safe is a form of enclosure or confinement, whether it be in a prison or in our hearts. Personas and characters often appear celled or walled off, physically as well as emotionally. Take for example “Enclosed” where she begins:
Being alone in the sense
of constantly your own smell,
over the wall a view
of unfinished sheds
She juxtaposes the narrator's view of what lies beyond with the immediate surroundings:
But the perfect company
of a wallpapered cell, clippings
of glossy sluts, mothers
breastier than ever, girls
climbing onto laps, daughters
who feed the ducks.
Likewise, in her prose poem “Within Limitations” she begins:
You get used to your format. Walls built up out of patience, the height of the ceiling with peculiar stains, a sticky floor, your unstoppable breath feels out the room and rebounds, in the dark your hands know where to find the switch.
As in “Quiz,” the persona is aware of the poem as a prison, and in both poems is able to joke about things like “format” or telling herself to cross out words or phrases.
There are many solid poems in the first two collections, but it is the selections from her third, Cell Inspections, that really show off the nature and breadth of Perquin’s imagination, her eye for detail, for inhabiting character and voice, and her ability to imbue humanity into criminality. She worked in a prison as a way to pay for creative writing school and it is clear that the experience was formative. So many of the poems deal with specific prisoners, their crimes, their interiority and identity as something more than simply those convicted of a crime.
Many of the crimes described are difficult sounding to deal with, yet Perquin’s gaze is unflinching. Consider how Perquin describes love in “David H.”:
Of course it was love—but love can’t lie, it doesn’t scream
when you say, quiet, it doesn’t run out of breath and
doesn’t force me into anything. Love lies down
before you and listens. True love
is always willing.
Love here is the specious delusion of someone who can’t quite confront what he’s done. And indeed Perquin gives us the ending we expect, though in such a quiet, breathless way that is stunning:
As far as that goes, I know better now. I wouldn’t have looked
at her like that, I would have loved her differently,
not in a hurry with my two hands round her neck,
but thoughtfully, mournfully, gently.
At the same time there is monstrousness, there is also humanity, and Perquin’s knack for getting us there is nothing short of amazing.
My only regret with the book was that Cell Inspections wasn't translated and included in its entirety, as it was the strongest section of the book for me. Yet all the selections in The Hunger in Plain View are spellbinding, weird, and completely different than so much poetry I have read recently. Perquin was recently named Poet Laureate of the Netherlands through 2019, and based on the work on display here, it's no wonder. Hers is a unique, subtle, fascinating, sometimes weird, and sometimes creepy voice.