July 31, 2011

review of Hans Faverey's Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems, "Standstill" by Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Hans Faverey, Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems, translated by Francis R. Jones (New York: New Directions, 2004)

Born in 1933 in Paramaribo, Surinam, poet Hans Faverey moved to Amsterdam as a child and lived there until his death in 1990. Faverey was one of those rare individuals who combined the scientific mind—he worked as a clinical psychologist—with music—he played and composed for the harpsichord—and poetry—he published eight volumes of poems and won several of major Dutch literary awards.

Now, through the good graces of New Directions and translator Francis R. Jones we have a new US edition of his selected poems, Against the Forgetting. Faverey wrote short abstractly modulated lyrics, most often in sequences or cycles. Unfortunately, in this collection we get very few complete sequences, with 28 of the 33 sequences represented being incomplete. It is difficult therefore to get the sense of Faverey’s poetic “pace” in English. It appears the separate sections of each sequence are only tangentially related with regard to images and subject matter, and are generally connected only through formal devices; but it would have helped to have a just a few more complete cycles in translation to see how they function.

One of my favorite works of the volume presents a complete cycle: “Chrysanthemums, Rowers,” which begins with a seemingly static image: chrysanthemums in a vase on a table, an image Faverey immediately deflates as, with Gertrude Stein-like logic, he reverses himself: “these / are not the chrysanthemums / which are by the window / on the table / in the vase.” Clearly, the words with which he has begun are meant to be understood differently from a still-life in someone’s house or apartment. As he makes clear in the second part of the cycle, these words are like a photograph, an image of something real, a mirror of reality which, like a mirror, reverses its image (just as he has reversed his original image in the second stanza of the poem), making it difficult for the perceiver to recognize that it represents himself and the world in which he stands. As objects, moreover, photograph and mirror cannot recognize anyone. It is only in the human mind, one’s own living hand or “a hand that wants to belong to me” that actually “is” something that, as it covers the eyes, can be understand as a part of the self coming towards one from space. Objects, like the still-life he has first presented, might be misunderstood as revealing meaning, but it is only as these objects are internalized in thought that their “meaning” can be revealed. The poet perceives “The utter emptiness / in everything, which actually is.” Mind over matter, so to speak, is Faverey’s true subject in this poem; as the rowers row further inland, in their mythology, they row until the water is gone, rowing into the overgrown landscape, a land without rowers,an “over- / rown land.” The final pun closes the argument, as we recognize the poem as a thing of art, an artifice as opposed to mimesis or a representation.

Even though the translator does not feature many such complete texts, the reader does quickly perceive that this issue is at the heart of most of Faverey’s writing, and the processes of composing and decomposing, building and unbuilding a world of language, are at the heart of his vision. I will present three examples as a kind of random evidence of this pattern in Faverey’s poems:

It is snowing

but is no longer snowing.
When it started to snow
I went to the window;

I went missing.

Sometime then,

just before the snow started
falling again, into great,
ever slower flakes,
it must also have

stopped snowing.

[from “Sur place”]


Now it is here;

now it is not-here.
How it thrusts through itself
takes place between not yet

and nevermore. Once under

way, it moves neither where
it is, nor where it is not.
Given free rein
it keeps slipping from who
stands fast: now from one

now from another….

[from “My Little Finger”]


Where the apricot tree
stood still then
I stand still now.

Between the gladioli
I know the spot
where she stood then:
she threw me the apricot—
then. Now,

as memory does with itself
what it will, we begin
biting once more, almost
in unison, between

the maize plants; she her
apricot, I my apricot;

while the little foxes still prowl
through the vineyard, and the sea,
whispering: she is not with me;
no, you will not find it here;
she is not in me.

[from “Lightfall”]

In the earliest poems of this collection, this process of evolving and devolving images and language results in a kind of “standstill,” a word repeated in several of Faverey’s poems. The poet alternates between these two actions as he moves from the “real” world (or perhaps we should say the “unreal” world) of space to the world of the mind, the truly “real” world of experience. As each “reality” takes back its own meaning, the reader is left with a sense of emptiness—like a lover who was there but is no longer, like a perceiver who, in lifting a stone, finds in his hand an object that is “no longer a stone,” but a thing of language.

In later work Faverey recasts this image of a “standstill” into a image of a spider at work on its web, a Penelope-like figure who weaves and unweaves each day, destroying its creation and itself in the very process of creating it:

The dolphin swimming in front of the ship
keeps swimming in front of the ship
until there is definitely no longer
a dolphin swimming in front of a ship.

 Faverey’s work, accordingly, will not be for those who see a poem as a lifesaver of meaning in a world a chaos. Rather, his poems reveal the process of life itself as an ever-shifting, changing force that destroys the perception at the very moment of perceiving the world’s “merciless beauty.”

Los Angeles, September 21, 2005
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, no. 1
(January–February 2006) and Jacket, no. 31 (2006)

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