What a wonderful poet is Judith Herzberg. On the recommendation of my friend Cath I read Herzberg’s But What: Selected Poems. The poems are selected from five of her published collections with an additional section of five new poems. This book of selected was published in 1988 with early versions of some of the poems appearing in magazines and books as far back as 1980. All of the poems are translated from Dutch by the same person though, Shirley Kaufman.
The collection provides selections from Herzberg’s first book of poetry, Zeepost, published in 1963, to Dagrest, published in 1984. During that time period Herzberg published seven books of poetry so two of them are not represented in this collection. Still, it manages to provide a nice line of development through time. However, since Herzberg is still living, you could say it covers only her early work.
The poems tend to be one page, two pages at the most. Her style is short, crisp, she has an edge as opposed to being gentle and musical as some poets are. She writes of every day things. Her tone is often melancholy, musing on life, death, place. Her poems don’t flow over you as you read, they stick to you and ask you to stop and consider for a while.
Herzberg writes things like,
We live off the intentions of our intentions.
To know there are rhododendrons on
the slopes of the Himalayas
is not enough.
We are tomato flowers
in our buttonholes and will never grow up to be
Herzberg doesn’t do humor so when it shows up in ‘How Far’ it took me by surprise:
He always used to look out through the OO’s
of his DOOR, but now there are glasses in front
of his eyes that enlarge the business.
Except I should have known that this was a ruse, that this man with “eye-hunger” was not going to remain funny.
One of my favorite poems in the book, “Shoes,” comes late and is this short little gem:
Every morning, between putting on
his right and his left shoe,
his whole life quuickly passes by.
Sometimes he almost doesn’t
get around to the left one.
These are poems not to be rushed through. They are not terribly difficult but they do agitate the brain. Sadly, not much of Herzberg’s poetry has been translated into English. Even if you are not a big poetry reader, you are sure to find something to like in this selected collection.