Riposte to Death

Esther Jansma’s Poetry

Mourning. Cherishing the dead. Examining, delaying, outwitting, toying with, and renaming death, in order finally to let go of it again. This is the essence of Esther Jansma’s work.

Esther Jansma, born in 1958 in Amsterdam, made her debut in 1988 with Voice under my Bed (Stem onder mijn bed), an impressive collection of poems, whose tight form and grim subject matter immediately made an impact. The poems are constructed in compact stanzas, with short sentences. They have a strong rhythm which never sinks into a metric drone; alliteration and more particularly assonance are what carry it. Even so, Jansma’s language always remains close to spoken language: anyone who has heard her give a reading knows how naturally her poems accord with her own voice and intonation.

The tight form naturally also fits the content. Jansma often chooses the perspective of a child, using the short, peremptory or defiant sentences that children often utter when playing together. In Voice under my Bed play is a vital element, as the children in these poems, sisters, see themselves confronted by matters they can barely grasp or bear, which nevertheless have a strong influence on their lives: parents divorcing, a father dying and an inaccessible, domineering mother. The violent emotions are made manageable and bearable by both the children’s play and the effective form of the poems. In one of his poems the Dutch poet Lucebert wrote that poetry is child’s play; Jansma is not likely to quarrel with that.

Despite all the loss Voice under my Bed concludes on a hesitantly positive note, with poems about a pregnancy. In one of them the following lines occur, which always spring to mind when pregnant friends tell me how taken by surprise they feel by the new life within them: ‘Sometimes I am afraid. I don’t / get it at all. How perfect is a god, / who one day must fall?’

Mourning pervades Jansma’s second book even more strongly. Her first child died at birth. Flower, Stone (Bloem, steen, 1990) is entirely devoted to despair, rage and the painful acceptance of this loss. In an interview with the Flemish newspaper De Morgen Jansma said that she wrote the poems largely because her feelings could find no words and met with no response. This collection too contains extremely compact poems in which the poet flirts time and again with death, entices it towards her and manages to get a certain grasp on it.

In Blow Hole (Waaigat, 1993), her third book, Jansma makes a deliberate attempt to distance herself from the dark, introverted subject matter of the first collections. Influenced by American and South American poetry, her poems become more anecdotal. Stories to cheer herself up, Jansma called them in the above-mentioned interview. Yet even in the stories of children playing the invocation of sorrow and death returns again and again.

Four years after Blow Hole Jansma’s novel Picnic on the Winding Stairs (Picknick op de wenteltrap, 1997) appeared. In short passages of poetic prose she tells the story that had also dominated Voice under my Bed. Her traumatic childhood experiences are dealt with by three voices: the Head, the one that analyses and investigates everything; Age, fearful and conservative; and the Romantic, passionate and rebellious. The childlike logic behind the sentences uttered by the voices is captivating: ‘One more of those things that have never been proved,’ says the Romantic. ‘Someone disappears and everyone begins to weep. I can’t stand it! When is someone really going to do some research into disappearing? Someone could just as easily have gone to live somewhere else, or after being dead for a while he could suddenly wake up again!’

In the grown-up world this kind of argument is bound to be shrugged off as silly. But in the face of death everyone is a Simple Simon, and such an attitude may be all we have to hold on to. This is certainly so in Esther Jansma’s work. With the return to the first great loss in her life and to the deadly serious game of resistance to it, it seems as if Picnic on the Winding Stairs has completed a cycle and the poet has now found herself again.

Holding on and letting go

But life goes on and death continues to wreak havoc. Not only did Jansma lose a fellow poet — the Fleming Herman de Coninck — who was a close friend, she also lost her second child. ‘I certainly don’t want to be branded as the eulogist of dead children,’ Jansma says adamantly. Nothing is less likely. In the perfection of their form the poems in one of her most recent collections, Time is Here (Hier is de tijd, 1998), which received the 1999 VSB poetry prize, the most prestigious prize awarded for poetry written in Dutch, rise far above sheer autobiography.

Jansma’s approach has undergone a change. Where pent-up anger and rebellion were the hallmark of her first volumes, serenity and wisdom are more what typify the poems in Time is Here. There is, however, no question of resignation; using powerful constructions she continues to search for a foothold, a riposte to death. In the splendid opening poem ‘Safe House’ (‘Behouden Huys’), which is about explorers who are forced to spend the winter in the Arctic, Jansma writes:

I want
words, to hear what I must do, first
order, second order, tasks are
the veins and arteries of this house, rhythm
that fills the void, tell me
what to do, suffuse the white
with words like hunting cooking
chopping chores…. 

There is less active rebellion, more surrender, stoical forbearance here. The difference can be sensed even in the form: the poems are longer and more compelling and the sentences within them too. The beauty of the language sometimes gives the poems in Time is Here an exquisite tenderness and intensity. Take the poem ‘Descent’ (‘De val’) written ‘to swap the small dingy death (and when is death not dingy and small?) for a grand colourful death, one with fishes, diamonds, ribbons and bows etc.’ ‘Descent’ is an attempt to delay death for a while, to embellish it, to demarcate it, preserve it, bear it.

One of the poems in Time is Here is also the first poem in Jansma’s next book Turrets (Dakruiters, 2000). ‘Absence’ (‘Afwezigheid’) tells us: ‘What was said repeats itself, missing / is manifold, keeps opening up in the now / and you don’t know how.’

The constantly recurring sense of loss and the childish revolt against it are once more at the heart of the collection. But now more than ever Jansma seems to be investigating indomitability itself. It is this that makes many of the poems so compelling. These are no empty utterances resigned to the inadequacy of language.

Combining an almost effortless flexibility with intense concentration, Jansma discovers that tightly clutching on to death, studying it and giving it form are all parts of a process of acceptance and letting go:

…… How a rose
against all odds so gracefully, balding so gradually,
in curves like question marks, goes down in history,
beats me. Or did I arrange it so myself here,
because I’m really missing it, the point of it all,
hinted at by
curves like question marks?

And so the cycle concludes with a bold statement addressing life and the living: ‘I’ve done with questions. From now on I will know things.’

‘Only the first-rate can cope with loss / that is to say: learn to get again,’ one of the poems announces. Jansma is a past master in bringing home to the reader the convergence of death and life, of holding on and letting go, of having and not understanding, and this is what makes her one of the most important poets of our time.

By Koen Vergeer
Translated by Elizabeth Mollison

First published in The Low Countries, 2001