Oberlin Press Prints ‘Plural of Happiness’
Perhaps it’s democratic sensibility, but literary America’s anthology craze sometimes makes it seem that every poet needs his own canon.
Originally it seemed that only dead European males were allowed into The Canon—then they snuck in a few Anne Sextons for looks, passed up an entire generation of fine African American writers in favor of Phyllis Wheatley, decided that, because the Beat poets used the F-word, it could be ignored that they were white guys, and on and on.
Of course, in the meantime, all the good poets around the country who couldn’t care less about The Canon started their own yearly anthologies, which is why, if you have the late-night munchies for Nuyorican poetry, you can find a whole book of it at your local poetry library.
This is all well and good. The “rest of the world,” however, seems to be interested in “definitive” poets. Granted, the U.S. has Uncle Walt, but he died a rather long time ago. So it is often surprising to pick up a book of poems from a place whose poetry doesn’t seem to get translated much, read the introduction (which you sometimes do), and hear the translators refer to the poet as “most renowned” or “best-beloved.”
This is exactly what translators Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown say about Herman de Coninck, the European post-war poet you won’t study in DeSales Harrison’s class. Their selection from the Flemish poet’s life’s work, The Plural of Happiness, is new from Oberlin College Press (hidden in Peters basement).
Perhaps most jarring about reading the work of a “best” poet from a place of whose poetry you are ignorant is that you expect him to be “best” like you know “best.” You expect to recognize in his words-from-another-world a poet like William Carlos Williams, or some mysterious international poetry sensibility that defines “best” or even “good” across oceans and political borders.
Williams and de Coninck were evidently not chums. Reading the first poems in the book, from de Coninck’s first collection Lithe Love, I found myself stumbling over lines like “huge meadows lie steaming / like hot plates.”
Where was the subtlety of metaphor and voice? — a whiney little person inside my left eye asked. Why did he have to say everything?
The first half of the collection is filled with just-sex poems, for which de Coninck was well known, and these, too, upset my contemporary, American, love-poems-are-difficult sensibilities. How did he get away with the simplicity of a poem like Triangle?: “It was a good triangle / I loved you / and myself. / I loved you like / the first time: as if each time / were the last.”
He’s not trying very hard, I thought, but secretly I was jealous of its plain effectiveness.
In others of his poems, however, the difficulty of executing the Dutch-English translation pokes through. The translator’s note in the introduction said de Coninck was a poet disposed to punning, slang, curse words and double entendre, all notoriously difficult to transfer from one language/culture to another.
In some instances they do it elegantly, as in the poem “Elephant”: “And then his trunk / right between the eyes. How would you look / if they stuck your dick in the middle of your face?” But other times a word in English (such as “darlingest,” in one love poem) would give me the sense that there was an evocative word in Dutch for which the translators just hadn’t found a natural English equivalent.
The endings of many of the poems occasionally gave me the impression of arrogance, mostly because de Coninck is not afraid to answer his own questions, upturning a trend that has been prevalent in contemporary American poetry.
He even slyly and humorously answers clichéd questions that no one is supposed to answer, like the ones at the end of Pointillism: “How many grains, granules of sand to make a beach? / How many humans for humanity? / Two. / Someone with freckles, and someone to count them.”
As I worked my way through the 1980s and ’90s and finally arrived at the selections from Fingerprints — first published in 1997, the year of de Coninck’s death — it became clear, or at least visible, that he got away with things like simplicity of language, the occasional clunky metaphor and the matter-of-fact ending because he did not take them too seriously.
This is not to say that de Coninck is not a “serious” poet — although he was born in 1944, many of his meditations on the suffering endured in World War II ring somberly true. But even in these, a less-than-tight technique is acceptable because he, the poet, questions his words even as he writes them. The last poem in the collection, “Ars Poetica,” appropriately brings this questioning process to light.
“‘Not much is needed to love here. / Someone says “here” against the unmeasurable. / A coin on the mantle, / a passport photo. The unforgettable / is that small.’ End quote. / What originally stood there was: / the unforgettable is ‘that huge.’ I changed / it to ‘that small.’ It took me a year to do that. / A poet must work hard learning to be silent: / a gravestone listening to what is etched in it. / Letters that listen until they’re filled with rain.”
It’s pretty rare to begin a book feeling one way about it and end feeling entirely differently, but Happiness works hard. It may be owing to the determined arrangement of the poems — the translators claim they occasionally ordered them differently than in the original collections in order to “allow the poems to speak to each other.”
But even if the book begins by flouting some poetic conventions typically honored by Americans, it ends with a rough sense of how de Coninck may have felt about writing: passionate, but relaxed.
As he wrote at the end of “Yes, sleep,’ I say”: “It’s like words. Things happen. / They’d happen just the same without words. / But without words then.”