Elisabeth Eybers, a Monumental Poet

The poet Elisabeth Eybers is an unusual figure in contemporary Dutch literature. In the first place, of course, she owes this to the power and the originality of her talent, which makes her one of the most important poets in the Dutch-speaking regions. In that too she is unusual, because Elisabeth Eybers became a Dutch citizen in 1986, but is originally from South Africa. This is why the language she writes in isn’t Dutch, but Afrikaans, which is derived from Dutch. She was born in 1915 in Klerksdorp, Transvaal, the daughter of a church minister, Dr John Eybers, a man who spent his whole life studying, and an English-speaking mother, Elisabeth Le Roux, who was already the principal of a girls’ secondary school at the age of 26. So their daughter grew up in an intellectual environment, enabling her to go to the University of Johannesburg at the age of sixteen to study literature. She graduated in 1937, got married, had three daughters and a son, got divorced in 1961 and settled in Amsterdam.

Her first volume of poetry, Confession at Dusk (Belydenis in die skemering), appeared in 1936. The fact that she wrote these poems in Afrikaans is less obvious than it may seem. Her English, which she spoke with her mother, was as fluent as her Afrikaans. The first literature she came across was English and her first inspiration came from English poetry. So it isn’t surprising that she wrote poems in English as well as Afrikaans and repeatedly rewrote her own poems in English.

The publication of her first volume – which was also the first volume of poetry written in Afrikaans by a woman – opened the way to an oeuvre that consists of twenty books. Her 75th birthday was marked by the publication of her Collected Poems (Versamelde gedigte), since reprinted with the addition of later volumes.

Although Elisabeth Eybers is a poet for ‘the happy few’, there has been no lack of admiration for her: apart from several honorary degrees she won the most important literary prizes, in South Africa as well as in the Netherlands, such as the P.C. Hooft Prize (1991). When I call her a poet for ‘the happy few’, I mean that not only the intellectual and cultural level of her poetry but also the language in which she writes, Afrikaans, requires a special effort on the part of the reader. The fact that this readership keeps growing and is extraordinarily faithful proves that her poems strike deep roots within the reader.

This is due primarily to her use of a particularly authentic language, undoubtedly also a result of the unique combination of two language worlds and two environments: that of the spacious African natural world in which she spent a large part of her life, with the psychological implications that go with it, and that of European urban constriction. With all the necessary nuances and reservations, one could speak of the opposition between a damaged and an undamaged world.

But the penetrating quality of her poetry reveals itself even more strongly in a different way, that is in the fact that those oppositions take shape within the barely hidden intimacy of the autobiographical. Elisabeth Eybers carries through a rare paradox: revealing the highly personal within that hidden intimacy. That is the mystery of great poetry. The deepest emotions, passionate or painful, that are nobody’s business because they are extremely personal, take on a universally true significance because of their hidden authenticity. Through poetical transcendence, the intimate reality of the personal experience becomes the intimate truth of ‘everyman’.

But the universality of recognition, of resonance, isn’t reached without the ceaseless, painful acknowledgement and acceptance of the reality which damages and is damaged, – and the capacity to reveal the resulting wounds in all serenity. Poethood is not a profession. It doesn’t replace life. It is an expression of it. Elisabeth Eybers formulates it as follows:

Hereby I say farewell to poetry.
Anyone who can add up one and three
and match pain to poetry shall see
how profit is eclipsed by origin.

It is the conclusion of a development which has understood very early on that the value of a poem is not what the poet feels, nor what the poet says the reader feels, but that it hides what the poet feels. Within that paradox, poetry is not the poet’s aim in life, but life, in all its facets, positive but especially negative, is the object of poetry. What is exceptional about Elisabeth Eybers’s poetry is that she keeps approaching reality more and more closely by penetrating more and more deeply into her own reality and what is damaged in that reality, what attacks dreams, longings, joys and hope.

Assembled in splendid spectacles
from the inexhaustible environs of the Styx:
a foretaste of re-assimilation in Everything and Nix.

One of her recent volumes has the dual title Tydverdryf / Pastime (1996), an ambiguity that relates to various things. One half of the title is an English translation of the other half and indeed, the book contains an equal number of Afrikaans and English poems, the English ones being a re-composition of the ones in Afrikaans. ‘Re-composition’, because ‘translation’ isn’t the right term to apply here. The poet allows herself great freedom of movement, resulting in two sets of poems of equal originality and thematic resemblance, but each with their own idiom.

This is not the title’s only ambiguity. It suggests time slipping by in an agreeable, playful manner. As is often the case with this poet, this is irony and self-mockery, the weapons she uses to fight off her own hypersensitivity. In reality the passing of time represents inescapable decay, the irrevocable crushing of the past, the present and the future. It seems to me that one has to go back to Emily Dickinson to find a poetry in which humour and irony are so steeped in tragedy, in which tragedy is so deceptively bedded in a capacity for camouflage from which no escape is possible. More and more Elisabeth Eybers’s poems refer to the process of ageing, mortality, dilapidation, disintegration, physical collapse and powerlessness. She applies an unsentimental keenness of observation, an honesty that would come close to cynicism, if that possibility wasn’t cancelled out by two supplementary qualities – supplementary because that honesty itself is unusual.

These qualities are the following. In the first place, her sensibility is utterly refined, to such an extent that her honesty remains completely unsentimental: a vibration in the words, a tone, a modulation which makes the emotion permeable while reason remains sober and the eye level. In the second place she has the capacity to turn that upheaval and powerlessness into a strength that renders the disintegration almost futile. It may sound slightly over-dramatic if I say that mind conquers matter here, but the creative force in this poetry makes that miracle come true. The fact that the material for Elisabeth Eybers’s poems derives from daily reality, from her own emotional physical experience, her own conscience, means that what she has to say retains its authenticity within the framework of familiarity. Loneliness, seasons, memories of her childhood, of her parents, the awareness of old age, of illness, sleeplessness, death, love and friendship, nature in the two worlds she lives in – all of this is an inexhaustible reservoir that never stops, but is more than ever before present as a ‘pastime’. And the striking thing about the poethood of Elisabeth Eybers is that this is so essential, so inherent to her nature that it never diminishes. On the contrary, later poems may show variations in content and theme, but however much they remain uninterchangeable, they penetrate more and more deeply into her own essence and lose nothing of their poetical intensity. One could say that they have become monumental in their poignant simplicity.

Lately she has demonstrated this once again in her recently published collection, which also has a double title: Verbruikersverse / Consumer’s Verse (1997). Its meaning may not be common usage, but it is clear: poems for everyday use. As always with Elisabeth Eybers, this has to be taken with the necessary irony. For it is true that these poems, some in Afrikaans, some in English, have their origins in and are prompted by events and experiences in her own daily life; but it is no less true that from these everyday things she continually penetrates to depths which are in their essence tragic, though with masterly refinement she veils that tragedy in humour, irony, absurdity or ambiguity. And as always that seeming light-heartedness is overshadowed by a lowering fear.

By Pierre H. Dubois
Translated by Ria Loohuizen

First published in The Low Countries, 1998