Moments of Happiness

Niels Hav
Translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen
Anvil Press ($12)

by Alan C. Reese

Niels Hav’s poetry is characterized by both a joie de vivre and a desire for justice, all tendered with a playful and humane sense of humor. Moments of Happiness, his most recent collection, is no exception. The poems teem with life; they are peopled by green grocers, cyclists, and pedestrians alongside recognizable figures like Tintin, Genghis Khan, Charlie Chaplin, and Li Bai. Even though the shadow of death stretches over the poems, they tell us that the point is to live. Like Sisyphus, it is necessary for us to put shoulder to boulder and push upward and onward.

For the Danish Hav, his boulder is poetry. As he tells us in the “Afterword,” “poetry’s first duty is to be an intimate talk with the single reader about the deepest mysteries of existence.” In the face of mind-numbing chores, injustice and idiocy, and the grim realization that no one gets out of here alive, Moments of Happiness is an affirmation of life and a celebratory denunciation of the negative forces listed in “Assumptions,” which include “The unreasonable / The irresponsible / The indecent // The unreflected / The unshaven. The uncontrolled / The unsmooth / The unconditioned // The unthought through.”

Divided into three parts, Moments of Happiness contains uncountable instants of delight. The first part deals with the world of foibles and fools, the jumble of humanity in which Hav counts himself. The second part serves as an incantatory drumbeat that calls forth the specter of mortality: It starts with a sock to the jaw in a poem titled, “Of Course We Are All Going to Die,” and the bleak reality of that fundamental sentiment cannot be tempered even with the image of God wearing shorts. In “A Little Encouragement,” the speaker, feeling poorly, reads the obituaries and is cheered up when he discovers he apparently “hadn’t died recently.” In the last poem of the section, faced with furniture “falling apart,” clothes that “unravel,” and shoes that “wobble,” the speaker takes a walk with his significant other surrounded by “the dead / standing in the shadows” and “dead leaves from last year” that “have blown together / under bushes, on their way into the earth.” Yet they “confidently” dispel the despair by taking hands and acknowledging that “a happiness / flows through the universe.”

The final part of the collection celebrates that realization. In “A Party,” the speaker is again out for a walk, this time solo in the coastal Chinese city of Wenling, when he comes upon a group of card players. They welcome him into their midst, offer him tea and a place to sit. It is in this simplicity and ordinariness, Hav says to us, that we find the real meaning of existence, the holy thread that holds it all together.

Moments of Happiness is sure to provide the reader with just what the title promises, and what more can we ask for as we continue to strive to be, as Joseph Campbell advised us, “joyful participants in the sufferings of the world.” The existential musings gathered here offer comfort and solace in the face of the great abyss.

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