How Can You Capture an Elusive Reality?

The Poetry of Eva Gerlach

In the speech of thanks she gave in late 1995 on being awarded the Jan Campert Prize for her collection What Is Lost (Wat zoek raakt, 1994), the poet Eva Gerlach (1948-) told her audience about the ambition she had had as a girl of ten: ‘I wanted to describe the whole of reality in order to arrive at an overall picture of creation. Once I had achieved such a mirror image, which must be completely clear, I would understand the whole, since the inner connectedness of everything would then be revealed to me.’

From her debut No More Hurt (Verder geen leed, 1979) to her most recently published collection Nothing More Constant (Niets bestendiger, 1998), her poetry clearly sets out to give an adequate description of reality, as represented in the mind. That sounds more simple than it is. Such a project requires not only exceptional powers of observation and thought, but also a versatile linguistic armoury. Gerlach possesses all these in full measure. The account of her search for the best way of representing that reality in words can be found in all the poetry she has published so far. In her poems she has experimented with all kinds of possibilities for recording in poetry a number of significant relationships that play a part in the perception of reality, such as those between present and past, life and death, motion and stasis, the visible and the invisible. The constant changes in form and content prompted by this endeavour are so striking that Eva Gerlach can rightly be characterised as one of the most innovative and self-renewing of contemporary Dutch poets.

Although the fascination with describing reality is a factor that causes constant modifications in her work, her oeuvre can be divided into two distinct periods. This division relates mainly to a difference in form. The first period extends from 1979 to 1990. Temporary Abode (Voorlopig verblijf, 1999), a selection from the six collections published during that time, confirms the validity of that periodisation. And the volume also provides non-initiates with a perfect introduction to Gerlach’s early work.

This first period is dominated by the attempt to find a more or less fixed form for the representation of a chaotic reality. In her first collection the starting point is a sometimes oppressive situation from the distant past, often with a child or parent in the main role. The fact that description of situations from the past leads to distortion and falsification emerges in the second collection, An Inverted Image (Een kopstaand beeld, 1983). Almost all the poems in these collections are eight lines long. The greatest unity of form is found in Daughter (Dochter, 1984), her third collection, inspired by the fear of losing her prematurely born child.

Here all the poems consist of eight lines with one line blank after the fifth line. This golden section proportion refers to the mother-child relationship as a division within the unity of the poem. In this way Gerlach establishes order in the face of a threatening reality. Other ordering principles appear for the first time in Domicile (Domicilie, 1987), which includes longer poems, among them a few in italics. The blurb tells us that ‘How do death and life co-exist?’ is an essential question. Any attempt to describe, to fix what is constantly in motion is pursuing an elusive goal. Fixing kills what is alive. In poems that mirror each other, Gerlach investigates how a suitable form can be found. Italicisation turns out to be one possibility.

The title poem of The Power of Paralysis (De kracht van verlamming, 1988), which opens the collection, immediately reveals a new procedure. To resurrect the paralysing moment of a fatal collision she makes liberal use of uneven lines, enjambment, ellipses, a snatch of a children’s song and colloquial language. Other poems from this collection and from In a Bend of the Sea (In een bocht van de zee, 1990) are less striking formally, but exhibit more shifts in content, which are connected with the problems of the transience of memory. Anyone who like Gerlach has set themselves the task of making poetry an abode of remembered reality, irrevocably encounters such problems. Of the vast quantity of impressions that a human being receives, little can really endure. By putting abstractions like memory and desire in a concrete context Gerlach tries to express this: ‘again memory climbs with me off the train / and loses me …’ Such metaphors give these poems a less realistic feel, besides adding a certain ponderousness to the problem.

A radical transformation is apparent in What Is Lost, which heralds a new phase in Gerlach’s work. She indicates her indebtedness in this regard to the sixteenth-century magician of memory Giordano Bruno, who provides the motto for the following poem from What Is Lost:

Which All Things

 ‘Sol qui illustras omnia solus’ (Bruno, Cantus Circaeus)

 

What was it that you said, something about pike

early in the winter morning when the dark

cloaked you and your father each separate

on the moped, each cut their ice-hole

and you cast the what’s-it rod,

such-and-such a hook, tiddly

bait from the bucket: never caught

I pike. Wasn’t there a lamp,

didn’t we have it later, a standing one,

blotchy metal, it could hang up too.

 

Keeping everything in mind,

all things, time and place, substance, quantity and quality.

Being

a god that moves it.

 

Sometimes you saw one

stop in the depths, with a pointed

snout like they have, grey patches.

The most striking feature here is that certain formal changes which occurred incidentally in earlier collections have now definitely established themselves. Ellipses, especially omission of the second part of a sentence, occur frequently, but so do casual questions, colloquialisms and quotations. All these forms are used in the description of the many moving images, but also serve to represent the complexity of perceiving a single moment of reality. A looseness and lightness previously absent from Gerlach’s work break through.

Gerlach’s interest in photography, which has played a part in her poetry from the start because it too is involved in representing reality, provides the most recent innovations. In Everything Is Really Here (Alles is werkelijk hier, 1997), an exquisitely produced collection with poems by Eva Gerlach accompanying work by the Czech photographer Vojta Dukat, surprising shifts in perspective have been introduced between photographer, viewer and characters depicted. In addition Gerlach achieves a comic effect by describing some photographs in a superficial way. These procedures add many layers to the experience of reality, and poetry turns out to have greater potential than photography for accommodating all kinds of aspects of that experience.

(In May 2000 Solstice (Solstitium), a collection of poems with paintings by M. Aartsen, was published.)

The fact that our perception of reality is of a fragmented whole becomes a theme of Nothing More Constant. The following poem prefaces the collection, which is divided into series, as a kind of point of departure:

Crumb

What is whole, we cannot see, it is

too big, doesn’t befit us nor fit

inside our heads

but what’s chopped up, minced, ground fine,

crumb, pureed, atomised, decayed —

 

all that’s divided is in us for good.

The value of Gerlach’s art is her ability to give form to that fragmented reality, creating a momentary coherence. Within the limited scope of each poem a kaleidoscopic image of a fragment of reality unfolds. This brings her very close to the ideal that she cherished as a ten-year-old. The P.C. Hooft Prize, which she received in 2000, after a poetic career spanning twenty years, confirms the esteem in which her work is held.

By Hanneke Klinkert-Koopmans
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2000