Adam Aitken Reviews Nicola Madzirov and Jan-Willem Anker

By | 1 September 2014

In formal terms Anker’s collection is of short prose poems in a semi-satirical mode, written by a Dutch poet who once wrote sonnets, but has exhausted the form. As Daljit Nagra writes in his in-troduction:

good prose poems … exert a definition that probably only applies to that set of prose poems … [and Anker’s] are mini-conundrums, ephemera, witticisms that look as though they could impart a narrative but choose to go down an unexpected trajectory.

The lyrical ‘I’ is there, but clearly Anker’s persona is urbane, sardonic. As the blurb notes, these are poems by a prankster. They are also complex, ranging in topic from football, to masturbation, epicureanism, wearing hats and social networking. The writing is coloured by the self-consciousness of a young informant who realises he’s getting older. The clichés of lyricism are satirised: a poem about clouds becomes a poem about being trapped by the poem about clouds. The sensual world veers from the erotic and beautiful to the repulsive. In one poem the smells associated with love-making remind the poet of a sewer.

Indeed the traditional subjects of poetry, like love, are reworked in order to comment on, or interrogate, the persistence of such concerns about desire and its ongoing commodification in contemporary media. For Anker, however, advertising is another form of creative re-use of age-old subjects, and poetry can at least partake of it. Take the poem ‘Love’, for example, as a humorous and gently ironic attempt to wrest back some of the potential of the idea from the rhetoric it has accumulated through advertising:

I loved. I wanted to love and so I did. I wanted to consummate my love, a type of
commerce that slightly stained it, though I admit that love was best expressed on an
airplane banner. My love was not a fabrication and certainly not an invention of clever
advertisers. It belonged to the sky. When eventually the wind carried my love away I
wasn’t surprised but hurt nevertheless. With a butterfly net I chased the sounds of
revving airplane engines.

In some ways these are the poetic equivalents of Breugel paintings: the world is a scatological spectacle, a ship of fools; though Anker has little interest in pursuing a Christian war on the sensual (and wasn’t Breugel, like many a painter, also somewhat ambivalent about human flesh and desire?). These are postmodern allegories informed by a hint of Protestant suspicion of consumption. At the same time the poet who claims an engagement with the contemporary scene cannot claim to operate outside the rules of consumption. In the poem ‘Epicurist’, Anker states: ‘One day I will retreat. Let fools enjoy their present. I’ll travel to a Pacific island where different seasons reign.’ Anker works by inverting commonly held principles like the binaries of inside/outside, natural/man-made, civilised/uncivilised. I enjoy the way that the poems, gently and without the rancour of bitterness, undermine the rationalism that can sometimes characterise life in Northern Europe – and govern everyday living by imposing an ethics of ‘respectability’: ‘my hallway was a mess, my house in ruins’ (‘Outside’). Dreams of overseas trips (to Beirut or that Pacific island) reference the theme of modernity’s consumption of the other, as those people and places that exist to relieve us of boredom and repetition. In the poem ‘Get Away’, Europe in crisis is itself a discourse and self-imposed cliché which Anker can satirise through his persona’s impotent desperation to escape it:

I wanted to get away because I didn’t feel well. I thought about escape but I didn’t
know from what. My environment was no good. My country was in even worse shape.
Partly it lay below sea level. It was enjoying one crisis after another. I walked the streets
as if at any moment a huge ball of shit was about to explode.

The point is Europe doesn’t do ‘Kultur’ with a capital K any better than anywhere else; nor can it do revolution as it once could. There are no explosions, linguistic or otherwise, but plenty of lovely moments of wit and humour, and the poems are beautiful machines for making sense, casual but highly structured, compressed, almost logical, never random or ‘de-syntaxed’. These poems seem completely at home as expressions of a native of Amsterdam (and the brilliant cover design by Vagabond Press’s Chris Edwards affirms the urbanity of this collection). Certainly Anker has applied the skill of a formalist to one of Modernism’s most successful forms and this book shows the influence of the prose poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, Czeslaw Milosz, Mark Strand and John Ashbery. If prose poems have an advantage in their unstopped lineation, it is the potential for them to become arguments, like sonnets, but arguments that conceal their rhetorical operations and the poet’s desire to reveal the ‘punchline’.

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