JUDITH HERZBERG: Poets who deserve to be better known

Posted: July 19, 2014 in Chat
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jh2

Judith Herzberg was one of the group of Dutch writers who appeared in print in the 1960s. After the experimental ‘50s there emerged a plainer style. She writes accessible poetry in a language and style many find easier to understand and warm to. Along with Rutger Kopland they found a ready audience.

Her English translations occur in two main sources: BUT WHAT: Selected Poems, translated by Shirley Kaufman, Oberlin College Press, Field Translation Series 13, 1988. And excerpts in the Seren Books collection IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT, Fourteen Contemporary Dutch-language Poets, 2002. There is also a good selection of her translated poetry on Poetry International’s Netherlands page

Born in Amsterdam, she has made her home both there and in Tel Aviv for much of her adult life.
She has since branched out into plays/theater, children’s books, film.

ButWhat

One of her earlier poems was On The Death of Sylvia Plath, from her 1964 book Zeepost/ Sea-mail. This shows a precocious awareness: even the English poetry world were not fully aware of Sylvia Plath’s writing until later. Her identity was being mapped out in this first book: we have May Fourth:

Just when he was about to say:
but everyone provides himself with problems
not so large he can’t see past them
to an unattainable, better life,
it was time for the two-minute silence…..

May 4th is the Dutch day for commemorating the dead of WW2.

Later in the same book we have Bad Zwischenahn, 1964:

The bride hobbles out church on too-high heels,
and smiles her chafed smile under top-heavy hair

…………………………………….

Now the pastor can explain
the old altar-piece to us.
The man beating Jesus must keep roaming,
he is the Jewish people, the wandering Jew
……………………………………………….

 

I swallow and ask him in this warm and stifling Germany
why his church honours the heroes of the First War
not those of the Second with a plaque.
He speaks to himself, me, god,
the photographer, the dead:
It doesn’t come easy for any of us
to fit into ourselves and go on.

As enigmatic a comment as any could have been uttered there, at that time. Here is a fully realised image of the pastor ‘s equivocations, unable to look anyone in  the face, looking fully everywhere but at the narrator.

The poem opens with a classic image of stilettos, beehive hairdo – wedding photo from the early to mid ’60s bang on!

Immediately before this poem in BUT WHAT we have Yiddish. It begins:

My father sang the songs
his mother used to sing,
to me, who half understood.

And already we have three vital points: the father who sang reminds us of those wonderful cantors in the synagogue; the mother who passed on the songs, is the mother who passes down the religion; and then there is the break-away post-war generation.

She later ends the poem:

Sad intimate language
I’m sorry you withered
in this head.
It no longer needs you
but it misses you.

The tenderness and toughness of the ending cannot help but warm us, no matter what religious or secular beliefs we hold to.

Her poetry seems wholly modern; her titles tell their commitment to the experiences of our lives: The Day-After Pill, Political Consciousness, Sneakers, Pain Killers. She can catch transient moments effortlessly: Between

Between your shoulder and your ear
I see the grey underside of the ping-pong table.
…………………………………………………………………………..
suggest the true difference between ah! and gone.

IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT contains poems from all books, as well as new poems (up to 2002). Here she shows her range: page poet and performance poet. Her wonderful The Waiting at the Bus Stop is printed here. It is a nearly three-page witty and droll rumination recognisable to all who have ‘spent time’ waiting at bus stops:

The seeing of a taxi.
The thinking: not yet. I’ve only just got here.
The noticing someone else arrive.
The sizing up of him/her.
The pretending I’m not looking at him/her.
The not pretending I’m not looking at him/her.
The looking past him,/her into the distance as if to see if bus is coming.

……………………………………………………………………..

And ending on that agonised and self-blaming cursing for not having got the taxi, then being so wrapped in this as to nearly miss the bus.

Let me end with Disturbing the Peace:

The raging next door has no end…

……………………………………………………

When I ask: why don’t you leave?
she’d say if she were honest, but she isn’t
she says, so I don’t ask.

………………………………………………………..

The she could say oh meaning
that’s what you’d like, and I could say no
and think yes and not be able to explain.

This poem deserves to be better known, deserves its place amongst those uncomfortable but essential life-saving poems. Its impact lies in how it breaks open our sureties and complacencies. There is a toughness here combined with sensitivity that is really quite admirable.

JH1

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