The Extraordinary Uses of the Ordinary

The Poetry of Judith Herzberg

From the early 1950s on, a great number of fine poets has been writing in the Netherlands. They have adhered to many schools, and some to no school at all, but on the whole they have relied on a casual, conversational style, an easy and unpoetic manner. Not that they are easy to read, exactly: often enough, their casual-sounding tones go along with a compactness, a density, or an elliptical vagueness, and like almost all modern poets everywhere, they are occasionally accused of obscurity.

In her thirty-five-year career, Judith Herzberg (1934-) has rarely diverged from the casual manner. And like her fellow poets, she often dwells on the ordinary things in ordinary life. What stands out in her work is the way she turns the ordinary at a moment’s notice into the extraordinary, how – without loss of clarity – she jumps from innocent observation to significant insight. Thus in writing about the ‘Day-After Pill’, she swiftly tells her auditor that we have all on occasion been cast off, and continue to be. That leap occurs in the first stanza:

An unwanted person? So what,
you’re polite, you have been one
yourself still are now and then.

Translated by Shirley Kaufman, from Slanting Light (Strijklicht, 1971)

Herzberg’s adjective ‘polite’ is crucial here; ‘beleefd’ means polite but also suggests in this context thoughtlessness, euphemism, superficiality. The person addressed in the poem must be reminded how momentously such casual matters apply to herself, and by implication that we have a way of seeing others as unwanted but not ourselves. In fact, the poem suggests that we can be regarded as unwanted all the time, that the conditions of life itself ensure it, since we are ‘all in that difficult phase / of being older than before / and younger than we’ll be.’

In large part, Herzberg draws us in with her superb diction. In ‘The Day-After Pill’, she coined the word ‘groeierigheid’, bravely translated by Shirley Kaufman as ‘growingness’:

Now it is nothing but growingness
an old man who isn’t here yet,
maybe a party-goods salesman?

The word indicates the impersonality of what may be made to disappear, but also its eagerness to live, while the other two lines of this stanza imply its unattractive, humdrum potential, though also its all-too-humanness. At the end of the poem, she calls the newly conceived

… a small crayfish, thinner than
a gnat’s wing, unfit to defend itself–
almost like everyone.

and heightens the connection between its delicacy and human vulnerability. Such fine word choices abound in this and other poems: in the title poem of the volume Slanting Light, she refers to gulls as having both the slowness and the quickness of the ‘bemoeiziek’ (‘meddlesome’) bleating of sheep. Elsewhere, she talks about ‘het bewegelijke leven’ (‘the ever-mobile life’).

‘The Day-After Pill’, it seems to me, embodies the qualities that have made Judith Herzberg so accomplished a poet and so largely accessible. She makes it possible for the reader to travel large emotional distances quickly. It is this, I believe, that is responsible for her popularity. A recent anthology of selections of her work, Comings and Goings (Doen en laten, 1994) has been a best-seller in the Netherlands as well as a critical success. Now sixty-four, she has won many important prizes, from the Jan Campert Prize in 1981 to the P.C. Hooft Prize in 1997. (Her father, Abel Herzberg, also got this latter prize in 1972). Her reputation has grown steadily. Active too as a playwright for both stage and television, and as a writer of film scripts, she has had an enviable career in those media. But she continues to be best known as a poet.

Some of her nature poems are striking, but they seem to me to have an urban touch; on the whole, Herzberg is a cityish poet, who will most quickly move to human foibles and human emotional extremes. Not that she always does: she sometimes falls into the same trap as other contemporary poets: sketches that are presented as having more significance than they do. Her first volume, Surface Mail (Zeepost, 1964), contained some of these, tiny vignettes where people speak to each other wryly or wistfully, about lying in hotel rooms ordering room service or immortal nightingales that make a lot of noise. (The volume also includes two charming poems written in English, one of them with the fine aphorism ‘Not to translate is the greater art.’)

Herzberg seems aware of this possible weakness and, at her best, the anecdote is quickly transcended:

Sick Call

My father spent a long hour in silence at my bedside
When he had put his hat on,
I said, Well, this conversation
is easily summed up.
No, he said, not really,
Just give it a try.

Translated by Manfred Wolf, from Wire Grass (Beemdgras, 1968)

The poem hints movingly at a whole world of thought that the wordless father experiences, and while the exchange between father and daughter in this visit is laconic and terse, the emotional realm of the poem is vast.

Similarly, in ‘Every Morning’ Herzberg transmits an emotional dimension through the simplest activity.

Every morning between putting on
his left and his right shoe,
his whole life flashes by.
Sometimes it almost gets to where
the right shoe isn’t even put on.

Translated by Manfred Wolf, from The Remains of the Day (Dagrest, 1984)

Both this and ‘Sick Call’ are almost jokes: the father’s witty reply in the one, the odd image of the shoes and the play on the drowning man who sees his life passing in review in the other. But the weight of experience referred to is serious; a lifetime’s worth of suffering makes it hard to continue, actually to put on that right shoe. Herzberg’s great gift is in keeping such weight from being merely heavy. The place we are moved to emotionally is important but not necessarily crushing.

In fact, Herzberg has a sense of the abundance of life, its plenitude, which can make us ‘greedy, trembly, besotted’. There is a vitality and bounce to much of her work, and a certain bracing romanticism. ‘I’d rather be left, I thought, / than that I stop loving,’ she proclaims, or ‘keep close to those who’re in love’, and throughout her work there is a scattering of love poetry. She exhibits a healthy contempt for those who are merely cautious. At the very least, she often represents herself as speaking out, loudly and boldly, though sometimes indirectly, as she does in ‘Bad Zwischenahn, 1964’, when she confronts the German pastor who has officiated at a wedding and is now blandly explaining the figures on the altarpiece of his church and telling the guests the legend of the Wandering Jew.

Being Jewish, Herzberg spent the war years in hiding. From 1941, when she was seven, she was moved around several times until war’s end in 1945. Her parents survived the concentration camps, her father gaining fame after the war as an author and jurist. In 1981, she wrote the film Charlotte, about the life of Charlotte Salomon, the German-Jewish painter who died in Auschwitz. As it does in many Dutch writers of her age, the War surfaces occasionally, sometimes in seemingly off-hand ways. In this, Herzberg resembles the poet Hanny Michaelis, who also was hidden during the war. Inevitably, the off-hand quickly turns up the depths that had appeared so well covered.

Boxes

Because all through the war we always heard
about before the war and how naive
they were, I am very careful now.
If I throw out something, for instance
a carton, I hope
that box will never catch up
with me in the shape of blame:
just think how innocent,
to throw out boxes,
if only we’d kept one,
kept only one!

Translated by Shirley Kaufman, from The Way (Zoals, 1992)

The poem expresses magnificently the wry contentment of having learned, almost against one’s own nature, to be more careful now, more self-protective, and in the last two lines leaps to the retrospective wish that we had been more careful before, had given ourselves greater protection during the war – that more could have been done, more lives saved. The repetition is anguished and beautiful. It is the ‘If Only’ cry of every survivor, here embodied in Herzberg’s typically casual incident.

Which is not to say that Herzberg’s poetry is despairing. It is energetic, quirky, sometimes self-interruptive, occasionally funny, compassionate and yet hard-headed. Her legacy has come to be a kind of buoyant sense of how difficult things are, how hard it is to be understood and to understand, and yet how worthwhile to be engaged in the process.

Sentimental

They’re sitting in the car in a traffic jam,
the radio turned on, exhaust fumes
and music, a song of which he says
that he finds it pretty, about
burning violins and a dance which continues
till the end of love.
Not the song but what he says
makes her unable to look at him.
Now something is added in the car:
music and exhaust fumes and embarrassment.
Embarrassment because the dance
till the end of love is much too much,
reaches too far back, too far ahead, his soul
suddenly so bare, so vulnerable,
she only says: ‘Sentimental.’
Yes, he says, sentimental.
Never will she know if he knows
how she has used that word.
Never will he know what she
understood, how far, how far,
never will she know that he
understood that she understood
what suddenly came over him, unless
someone, a historian maybe,
later reconstructs exactly how it was
then with people and radios in traffic jams.

Translated by Manfred Wolf, from The Way (Zoals, 1992)

The poem is both suggestive of character difference and definitive in its delineation of the limits of understanding, and it provides an undespairing look at the chasms between us. Yet it also shows how we understand more than is often apparent, more than we are willing to admit to ourselves. And the poem itself pushes back the borders of misunderstanding and allows some solace for our human inabilities. Unlike many poets, Herzberg makes few claims for poetry, but her body of work nevertheless demonstrates what actually can be uttered between human beings. And ultimately, it tells much about what can be said by human beings about our world and our condition.

By Manfred Wolf

First published in The Low Countries, 1998

Translations

But What: Selected Poems (Tr. Shirley Kaufman, with Judith Herzberg). Oberlin, 1988.