The Poetry of Miriam Van hee
1998 was a good year for the Flemish poet Miriam Van hee (1952-). The Flemish Community awarded her the Cultuurprijs for her poetic oeuvre and De Bezige Bij published her collected poems: The Link between the Days. Poems 1978-1996 (Het verband tussen de dagen. Gedichten 1978-1996).
Miriam Van hee’s poetry enjoys considerable interest and appreciation in Flanders, both among literary critics and among readers. The critical view that her poetry is superficial, facile, too transparent, is the reverse side of this public attention.
The familiarity of Van hee’s poems is above all due to her use of a fairly limited, everyday vocabulary. Her universe is made up of words like ‘bicycle’, ‘sheet’, ‘snow’, ‘window’, ‘train’, ‘stairs’, etc. Her world seems to run parallel to ours: the reader is made to feel at home in these poems.
And yet the simplicity of her poetry is deceptive. This is manifested in the concept of ‘snow’, an important motif in these poems. A snow-covered landscape appears simple, easy to survey, peaceful. The world is temporarily erased. In that respect Miriam Van hee’s poetry itself seems ‘snowed-in’, and this is also the title of her third collection (1984). Her verse is muted, subdued. This however indicates that it is not ‘shallow’, but carries a hidden unrest. Besides simplicity, snow also represents absence, longing, despair, isolation: ‘in a while everything will be covered with snow / the tram tracks, / the feet with which / she could go to you’. The only things making a mark on the snow are tracks, the remains of presences, impressions, and even these are subsequently snowed over. Snow announces hope and doubt at once.
In her snow poems, Van hee deals with her most important themes. ‘Snow is the same everywhere, / she thinks, only / here it is even more thorough (…) / only here it lasts longer, / that’s why there are no bicycles, no consolation (…)’. As so often, Van hee makes ‘here’ problematical: ‘here’ is always inadequate compared to ‘there’. Similarly with the snow: on the one hand she emphasises that it is the same everywhere, and so there is no escape, that it cannot be better elsewhere. You cannot break away from ‘here’, after all being ‘here’ is anchored in yourself, you drag it along wherever you go. On the other hand, it is precisely that inescapability which makes the snow ‘here’ more thorough and longer lasting. The Dutch word ‘grondige’ (‘thorough’) is also very literal: bound to this ground and mixed up with earth — muck.
That there are no bicycles ‘here’ means there is no movement, no passing, no illusion of a destination. The sudden appearance of a bicycle in many of these poems causes the reader and the author to feel a rush of expectation, until bicycle and bicyclist are inevitably ‘hidden away in the bends’.
Of course, ‘here’ may also refer to the poem: in this poem the snow is more thorough and lasts longer. Van hee’s ‘here’ can often be interpreted like this: ‘here / nothing passes (…) here / everything wears away: sorrow becomes stubbornness, the breath cut off / longing becomes absence’. On the one hand poetry stops the passing of things, on the other, poetry wears everything down to mere words, sounds. Effortlessly, a poem will replace one term with another, sorrow with stubbornness, longing with absence. When Van hee regrets the fact that there are no bicycles ‘here’, it is only a half-truth: she has nevertheless, albeit in a negation, brought a bicycle into her poem. Poetry is both power and powerlessness. This ambiguous attitude toward poetry is typical of Van hee:
What do I want to understand here
between shepherd and dog
what do I want to learn here
but that slowness
of callous on the feet
What do I want to find here
but a path through here to
chestnut trees the shade of leaves
In her poetry Van hee seems to want to ‘understand’, ‘learn’ and ‘find’. But what she wants to find through her poems is ‘a path through here’. By the detour of poetry she tries to find the reality of shade and chestnut trees. The ‘here’ which she creates from one poem to the next has to offer a view of a ‘there’. In poetry she seems to be searching for reality.
This idea is also expressed through her fascination with windows and shop windows. They too are places which offer a view, places where one always stands between ‘here’ and ‘there’, as if in a kind of intermediate space. Van hee stands by a window ‘to look for light / to see snow or rain / to not be somewhere’.
The same feeling of ‘not being somewhere’, which carries a positive connotation, she experiences when she is on her way somewhere. For that reason her poems are full not only of bikes but also buses, trains, trams, cars. The significance of this predilection for transportation is given a concise formulation in the title poem of her first collection, ‘The frugal meal’ (‘Het karige maal’): ‘And we of course know nothing / of the happiness of travellers / in an evening train.’ ‘Travel’ is associated with ‘happiness’. A typical example of a poem of this kind is ‘May on the A75′ (‘mei op de A75′), a contemporary variation on neo-Romantic escapism, in which roads and vehicles enrapture the poet.
Only when on the way somewhere does Van hee manage to find a ‘you’: ‘I see you standing where you are not / among pedestrians, cyclists, / by the tram stop.’ Van hee herself draws the analogy with her poems as stops, as possible meetings: ‘so this poem again looks for you’. Writing, the poet is on her way and has a chance of meeting ‘you’.
In the context of the lover, ‘you’, the motif of the sheet repeatedly appears. There too, the lover is only to be found between the folds and the sheet only briefly assumes the shape of those who have touched it. Like the snow, like language, the sheet is a blank, and nothing and no one makes a lasting impression.
Van hee’s poetry plays with a number of central concepts or constants, which change their meaning in ever changing contexts. Her verse is in this way both familiar and always different. There is no unequivocal or single truth, and the strength of her poetry is that she manages to show this by using simplicity, repetition, limitation, familiarity. The leaving out of punctuation fits in with this perfectly: it is a technique which simplifies and makes the verse unemphatic, but also makes it more ambiguous. Van hee attempts at the same time to question the simplicity she strives for. In her poetry, she searches for traces of meaning in the bare expanse of a snowy landscape, a worn down language.
By Elke Brems
Translated by Alissa Leigh
First published in The Low Countries, 1999