In Other Words, the Impossible

Michael Autrey on Hans Faverey

In an interview in 1980, Hans Faverey was “asked whether there was a philosophy underlying his poetry. He answered: ‘The arrest of decay. The denial of movement. The search for the squared circle. In short, stopping time—in other words, the impossible.’” What’s striking, even peculiar, about Faverey’s answer: it is composed of sentence fragments. Faverey says he wants to deny movement, stop time, square the circle, and what better way to prevent events from occurring and actions from happening than to exclude verbs? Elsewhere in his Foreword to Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems (2004), Francis R. Jones, who has translated and written more about Faverey than anyone else, claims that he:

often uses language to give the illusion of representation, only, immediately afterward, to deny representation. [ . . .] This use of language not as a transparent window onto the world, but as subject in itself, is not merely a formal effect. It is also another way of distancing oneself from the world, from time, transience and decay: in other words, it is intimately limed with the content of Faverey’s poetry.

The first claim—that Faverey’s language does “give the illusion of representation”—is suspect. The second relies on Faverey’s own claim from the interview but doesn’t do justice to his words. Faverey is not interested in “distancing [himself] from the world.” His expressed wish to do “the impossible” is itself a paradox: if it’s impossible it can’t be done. Yet language allows us to contend with the impossibility of the impossible, and Faverey does so, beautifully.

Consider the title poem of Chrysanthemums, Rowers, which has been translated twice. Francis R. Jones and Lela Faverey render the opening two stanzas of the first lyric in this five-lyric sequence:

The chrysanthemums,
which are in the vase on the table
by the window: those
are not the chrysanthemums
which are by the window
on the table
in the vase.

At first glance the declarative sentence after the colon undoes the declaration before it, eclipsing it. And yet the eclipse is not total: there is daylight in the pause the colon demarcates. In fact, there is a world of difference between them, a world more apparent in J. M. Coetzee’s translation of the same stanzas:

The chrysanthemums
standing in the vase on the table
by the window: those
are not the chrysanthemums
standing by the window
on the table
in the vase.

Coetzee, one of the most sensitive writers in English, deploys “standing” in the declaration before the colon. The copulative verb comes after, as part of the denial: “those are not the chrysanthemums.” These differences are not pedantic. They are of the essence and get at the heart of how matter is classified and, more prosaically, made to matter. Joined by conjunctions or subordinated by prepositions, objects in space can be perceived in any relation but the number of ways they can be described—or, to use Jones’s term, represented—is finite. This limit that language places on the world, limiting relations between object and object and actors and objectives, is what I think Jones means by its “distancing” function. The world in which we say we see chrysanthemums, vase, table, window is not the same world in which we say we see chrysanthemums, window, table, vase. Taken to extremes this dissolves into the horror of Borges’s “Funes el memorioso” (Funes the Memorious), he of the impossibly prodigious memory, who lives in “a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world,” time congealed in an infinity of details. Yet Faverey’s second sight does not totally eclipse his first. His use of connectives is unobtrusive but crucial. As Danish poet Inger Christensen observes, “prepositions, almost unreasonably invisible though they are, keep our consciousness in the same kind of motion as the world.” Connectives determine the relations among subject, verb, object, and between subject and subject.

In the second poem of the sequence Faverey interrogates the art of photography, another naïve method for arresting time that relies on light and shade to make appearances—or “representations”—durable. The speaker considers a photograph of people no longer alive. Coetzee who, in contrast to Jones and Lela Faverey, numbers this sequence, translates the final two stanzas:

No one recognizes himself in this photo.
What is “sudden” in a mirror?
Mirrors never recognize anyone.
What is “sudden” in a photo?
If I happen to have seen a hand
before my eyes, I hope in all earnest
that it is a hand of my own,
or that it is a hand
that would like to belong to me.

To a camera, every moment is sudden; photos make the sensation of suddenness permanent and thus, in a sense, denature it. Nothing sudden can be preserved, the essence of the sudden is fleeting, and the briefest exposure only draws more attention to what can’t be stopped. The final stanza instances an almost unbearably poignant sleight of hand. He evokes an unnerving sensation, when a part of one’s own body does not feel as if it belongs to the whole. This brief eclipse, for an instant his view obscured, prompts him to wish that he might have the power to make it easier to view the world just by moving something of one’s own. The world moves and keeps moving, composed of so many different kinds of life—and so many distinct deaths and overlapping processes of decay and change.

When reading Faverey’s poems, where so many claims and observations are eclipsed by what follows, and paradox sabotages most if not all declarative statements, consider that he was born in a country that no longer exists on maps and spent his formative years in a country occupied by a force that planned to remain forever. He was born in 1933 in Paramaribo, the capital of what was then Dutch Guiana, and moved with his mother and brother to Amsterdam in 1938. Dutch Guiana became Suriname in 1975 and the Nazis invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 and occupied the country until May 5, 1945, not quite five years.

The coincidence of Faverey’s birth in a Dutch colony and his move to the capital of the “native” or imperialist “home” country just before an invading neighbor occupied it makes him an exemplar of what the South African (now an Australian citizen) Coetzee identifies as some of the limitations, perceived and actual, of Dutch literature. In his Preface to Landscape with Rowers (2004), his translations of a handful of mid- and late-twentieth century Dutch poets including Faverey, Coetzee provides a valuable overview and crucial context:

Dutch is a minor language in the sense that it is spoken only by some fifteen million people, and its literature is a minor literature in the sense that it is not widely read. [ . . . ] Not since the seventeenth century has the Netherlands been able to assert itself as a power on the world, or indeed the European, stage. While there is no reason why state power should engender a vigorous artistic life, the experience of being continually overshadowed and on occasion trampled on by bigger neighbors—France, Germany, England—certainly led in Holland to an apprehensiveness about being passed over by history and becoming a backwater, and hence to a paralyzing deference to fashions abroad.

Back in the Netherlands, at home in Amsterdam and summering for many years on the Dalmatian coast, Faverey, by contrast, thrived in his own idiom. In his short life his work was honored with three major prizes: his first volume, Poems (1968), won the Amsterdam Poetry Prize; his third, Chrysanthemums, Rowers (1977), won the Jan Campert Prize; and, shortly before his death in 1990, he received the “prestigious Constantijn Huygens Prize for his life’s work.” Jones claims that Faverey was “famed in his lifetime for the perfection of his Dutch.

If his early poems are short, hermetic, cryptic, the later ones are a bit longer and modestly less difficult. In his capsule biography, Coetzee tells us “[Faverey’s] later poetry, more accessible and also more genial, grows typically out of paradoxes of thought in which the influence of the pre-Socratics, particularly Heraclitus, can be detected.” Other commentators find the presence and influence of the pre-Socratics throughout Faverey’s oeuvre; and “genial” doesn’t quite do justice to the warmth of his later work. The crystalline hardness of the first two books, the poems inviting as specimens seen through a microscope, softens, melts: air and light get in, the poems become aware of the world they describe and inhabit.

The transformation begins in his third book, Chrysanthemums, Rowers, the only single volume of Faverey’s work presently available in English. The title, two nouns, one a proper name, the other for figures defined by their motion. The flowers are static, or are in very slow motion—if we think of growth and decay as motion. Having bloomed, they attract pollinators or admiration, while the rowers advance, seated in their shell, under their own power and only in one direction. Co-translated by Faverey’s widow, the Croatian poet and comparative literature scholar Lela Faverey, and Jones, Chrysanthemums, Rowers contains eight unnumbered sequences, each several pages long. The lyrics in these sequences never exceed a page but they are modified in light of or in the shadow of what stands nearby. What time does and how to reckon with it, what it adds to and subtracts from life and lives and the poet’s art and the arts: every sequence in Chrysanthemums, Rowers is shadowed by Zeno’s arrow. The final three lines of “Homage à Sapho” read: 

I’ve grown to love Sappho
since destruction 
abridged her texts.

The shade hovering over Chrysanthemums, Rowers is cast by “Mr. Lepinski.” The only freestanding poem in the volume, it falls almost at its center. “Mr. Lepinski” is notable for two other reasons: in a book that includes three “Homages”—to the Baroque composer Couperin, to the Attic poet Sappho, and to the Dutch landscape painter and printmaker Hercules Seghers—“Mr. Lepinski” is a name we don’t recognize because it names a person Faverey knew personally: “Faverey’s teacher[,] murdered in the Holocaust.”  

The final line of the first stanza of “Mr. Lepinski” functions as a refrain that divides the first two from the final two stanzas. “What can you do?” The rhetorical question repeated, excruciating and fruitless in light of what and who can’t be recovered. The second stanza records a cruel parody of the exchange of the obol, the coin the dead pay Charon to cross the river Styx: 

I stand in front of Mr. Lepinski
while Mr. Lepinski 
stands in front of me and 
hands me a zinc quarter
guilder: 1942?

 In 1942 Faverey turned nine years old. The poem asks two further fruitless questions that describe two futile exercises:

Take pathetic flight
only to crash
to the ground, without having
been guilty myself?
Or take a carafe of red wine
and empty it down
the sink, and listen as
the shades murmur on
in the drainpipe?

Faverey modernizes the classical encounters with shades requiring the sacrifice of blood before they speak to the living. Instead of a fosse for blood he pours wine down the sink, and eavesdrops while they “murmur.” He cannot understand them; they do not speak to him; and to evoke their speech would be an example of the “pathetic flight” he refuses since it risks absolving himself at Mr. Lepinski’s expense. Faverey is acutely sensitive to what it might mean to put words into the mouths of others. To do so puts them in the shade.

Acknowledging that Coetzee’s translation of Chrysanthemums, Rowers better accounts for its strangeness is not to underestimate how much we owe to Jones and Lela Faverey who translated the whole volume. After the triumph of his third volume Faverey wrote steadily, publishing a new collection roughly every three years, even as he continued to work as a psychologist. By the time Against the Forgetting (1988), his seventh, appeared, he was already ill. Jones’s choice of the title of Faverey’s second-to-last volume for this selection is honorable, in that it does justice to the poet’s concerns. However, in honoring Faverey’s concerns and his peculiar, exacting language, he did not do Faverey’s reputation in English any favors. The infelicitous title does violence to idiomatic English, and promises difficulty instead of seriousness. In 2004, when New Directions reissued Against the Forgetting (which had been published in the UK by Anvil Press in 1994), Jones added eight lyrics from Faverey’s posthumous Spring Foxes (2000). Unfortunately, on the evidence of this volume there is no way to be certain if these eight lyrics are a sequence, part, or all of the volume’s title poem, or freestanding lyrics. And if the translated selections are representative, almost all of Faverey’s poems are unnumbered sequences, which would mean that the decision to write so many freestanding lyrics would mark a striking change in his work. But Jones’s introduction doesn’t clarify the matter. The final sentence of the fourth of these poems begins mid line:

Where is it,
now that I am writing it: where am I, 
now that you are re-reading this?

Compliments to the author, who believes he is read more than once; and compliments to the reader, who reads more than once. “It” is a—or should I say the—subject of many of Faverey’s poems, and in this case “it” could very well refer to everything that has come before, even the life of the writer. A major writer in a minor language, Faverey died, aged fifty-six, just days after he had held a finished copy of Default (1990), his eighth, in his hands.