We Are Here by Niels Hav

We Are Here

Review by Vivian Hansen.

Canadian poets Patrick Friesen and P.K.Brask have translated of Niels Hav’s poetry for the long haul – fifteen years. As Hav notes in his acknowledgements, “Danish is a small language spoken by only 5-6 million people. To gain contact with the rest of the world translation is necessary. The careful and inspired translations made by Patrick Friesen and P.K. Brask … has made it possible for my poems to travel around the Globe and across the Atlantic; now We Are Here.” (59)

I share Hav’s appreciation for translators who take on the task of rendering Danish poetry into English. The energy involved in trading the subtleties of Danish for a distinct voice in English is daunting. Hav’s poetry in English holds some power, embracing the Nowness of Things. He also applies a close reading of his world, which amplifies the unbearable silliness of being. In the book’s title poem “We Are Here”, Hav recreates a scene on a Danish street:

Where are we?
I asked with a finger on the map.
They looked at me and as a chorus repeated my question.
Then they all broke into hearty laughter,
I laughed too, we were witnessing high
Comedy. – Here, said one of them and pointed
to the ground where we stood. – We are here! (17)

Some of this comedy is very likely lost to the English reader, who cannot perceive the amusement of such a scene, but this is a Danish culture entrenched in comedy.

One aspect of Hav’s poetry is his utilization of the imperative voice that characterizes the Danish language. “In Defense of Poets”, he commands:

Oh please, take pity on the poets
they are deaf and blind
help them through traffic where they stagger about
with their invisible handicap
remembering all sorts of stuff. Now and then one of them stops
to listen for a distant siren.
Show consideration for them. (13)

The work yields a tapestry of tongue-in-cheek commentary on human nature, presenting the poet as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. In “Bitterness”, Hav takes full advantage of personification:

When bitterness is fully grown
it demands to be aired. Some
take it along to the pub on the weekend,
that works. Monday they show up at work
and begin again. Bitterness longs
for 5 p.m.; it speaks loudly to itself
in traffic and may hawk a gob. (18)

Small humours dot the landscape of this book, relieving much of the more heavily molded introspection. In “Lodge Brothers”, Hav notes “… they squeeze out/dry little turds at jubilees.”(20) Occasionally, he hints at a greater capacity for soul-searching than the heavy universality of being that marks much of this collection. In “What She has Two of”, he reveals a densely creative, inquiring sensibility. As a reader, I want to know more about these feelings:

Your eyes are two huge        bonfires at the edge of the woodswhere my stone age fearsset up camp, summer        and winter  (34)

The poem that most intrigues me is “Nonsense Detector”, where Hav speaks of dialect:

Of course even in dialect
it is possible to call a shovel
a spade or a spade a shovel.
But it wouldn’t work for long,
Most people who speak a dialect
have held one in their hands. (24)

Since Danish is comprised of approximately one hundred and forty-four dialects, I am curious as to which one, where, and who are the speakers? One might like to know more about a cultural class system that underscores ‘dialect’ in such poetic terms. I would like Hav to venture further to depict the characters. I want him to quit invading the narrative floor and let the characters move into the dance on their own terms. Perhaps it is a problem of translation, although he seems perfectly capable of managing this skill in other poems. In “November Visit”, Hav tells the story of his father’s dying, although even within these lines, the simplicity of the text is insufficient to portray the full impact of the scene:

He had begun to die.I visited my father in the hospital,he lay in a white bed which was clean and sinister,        But he didn’t wantto lie there, he wanted to get up again,        get out of there. …. (26)Two nurses laid his armsacross their shoulders to help him up.Their knees trembled beneath the burden.        Pain screamed through my father’sbones, he grew white around his mouth,like a corpse.  He wanted to get up.        Stand.Later, in bed, he breathed in pain.I had to catch the train around midnight –        walking about, smoking.We could say anythingto each other now, but all wordswere crippled.  Goodbye he said.        His eyessaid something more. (27)

Although Hav’s collection holds a powerful note throughout, he could do more to utilize
poetic sensuality by opening up his similes and metaphors, and incising the text with variations on verb conjugations. I concede that these issues may be quibbles of translation more than the original cast of words, but the description patterns are not as strong as they could be.

He is, however, humbly self-reflective before the sanctity of words: In “Epigram”, he observes:

You can spend an entire life
in the company of words
not ever finding
the right one.

Just like a wretched fish
wrapped in Hungarian
For one thing it is dead
for another it doesn’t understand
Hungarian. (57)

This is an exquisite analogy that I wish had appeared more frequently in this book. That said, I applaud the efforts of the translators to move the tiny Danish language into the realm of gargantuan English poetry, and Hav for his stoic commitment to the art form.

Vivian Hansen’s poetry ”Leylines of My Flesh” chronicles the voices of Danish immigrants to Western Canada. She won the First Annual Poetry Contest with Legacy Magazine in 2007. She also reviews for the Canadian Journal of Ethnic Studies.