Nachoem M. Wijnberg
Translated by David Colmer
New York Review Books ($18)
by Thomas Moody
Walking on the beach he gets an idea
and immediately guesses its incorrectness
Nachoem M. Wijnberg’s poetry possesses the disconcerting quality of being at once extraordinarily strange and very close to the feeling of life as it is actually lived. Wijnberg brings the world close to us (and it is a sweeping world he attends to: religious and philosophical investigations, encounters with historical figures, and domestic affairs of the most trivial nature) by being exact about the indecisiveness of the human will and by favoring the processes of our understanding of experience over the particulars of experience itself. Take “Letter to the Corinthians”:
Awareness of the world as well as ourselves
is as difficult for us as self-awareness for fish or foxes
although they in their behavior take their own existence
into account as we do the existence of the world.
These poems deal with the obstacles we face in “taking into account . . . the existence of the world”: the incompatibility of desires, the misapplication of attention, the strangeness of the other (particularly when the other is familiar), and the oddity of the revealed self. Here’s the opening to “Replying”:
Starting with what is the same for everyone
or can be (can everyone come over here),
looking at oneself and leaving out what reminds
one of oneself
to be able to say what can be said
without waiting until the same thing has been said in reply.
Understanding and loving, so that one of the two
can rest while the other watches.
Having the courage to say when no one is there:
how I wanted to live is incomprehensible to me
but maybe not to everyone.
Wijnberg is a professor of business studies at the University of Amsterdam; value systems, and our attempts to ascribe them coherently, are recurring themes throughout his poetry (“Continuing with what I do, recognizing what might be important enough to / justify putting everything I have into it — both of those are brave, aren’t they?”). Over the course of the twenty volumes collected here, from 1989’s The Simulation of Creation to 2022’s Naming Names, there is arguably little in the way of formal inventiveness—we are presented with songs, jokes, parables and ghazals—however, Wijnberg’s approach doesn’t require new forms to astonish; his singular voice makes existing forms seem new.
This is due partly to Wijnberg’s casual poetic register, which flattens any hierarchy of concepts and abolishes the mind’s value rankings of the quotidian and the profound. “Power and Knowledge and Justice,” a meditation on the existence of God, reduces the divine to a doorman “who does have power / over you but not much, and you can take a lot of it away by walking off and / standing somewhere else.” The poem opens:
Imagine there is someone far away who has almost no power but loves us—
our existence matters to him and he wants to know as much as possible about
each of us.
Or else he could have power but has set the condition that he only wants to
know that much if he doesn’t have to have power.
If you have had a lot of power, you can never give it back entirely, you still
know something about how it works.
Such cursory language unmoors us; it reproduces the disorientation we experience when thinking about such enigmatic concepts. Much of this is achieved through Wijnberg’s syntax, which employs a bewildering repetition of pronouns (especially “it”) with their exact referents often difficult to determine, as well as run-on sentences and other devices to produce complex layers of meaning. Take, for instance, the short poem “What an Actor the World Has Lost in You”:
An actor on another actor: he turned from left to right and stopped, at the
same time gesturing with his hand.
Being an actor was unbearably lonely if no one noticed him doing it, the chill
from its beauty went right through me.
Someone who always comes in too early or too late comes in like that, a bad
actor can do it now and then, only a very good actor can do it all the time.
They are acting and they go on for too long or stop suddenly and you can see
they’re glad to be allowed to stop.
We are never entirely certain what any of the four “its” are. The poem seems to turn on the line “Someone who always comes in too early or too late comes in like that,” but Wijnberg leaves us unsure as to which of the referents in the previous lines “that” refers to. This uncertainty destabilizes us as readers, but it replicates our understanding of the world as we experience it, and the accompanying feelings of surprise, confusion, and disorientation. To create such ambiguity through simplicity is Wijnberg’s greatest talent as a poet.
Increasing this uncertainty is the way the logic of many of these poems progress. Wijnberg’s associations often have no obvious point of contrast or connection; his declarative sentences are always slightly askew and his statements are just shy of making sense—close enough to be intelligible, far away enough to be obscure: “A poem must be about something; otherwise no one can say / if the poem is superfluous if it is about him. // What can he say, what is in his heart: a poem if one is bigger than the other, / disappointed if it is not a good poem.” His poems register the large impact of small differences.
They also make innovative use of those things we normally associate with poetic effect. Wijnberg’s rare similes are paradoxical in nature: “like wanting to fight / far above your weight, / but not against someone else”; “More reason to assume / someone is the Messiah / when he arrives / like someone politely leaving / at the earliest possible moment.” He also has an obvious talent for aphorism—“Where words mean something, Ghalib’s are law”; “No one knows what desire is until Ghalib says something about it. / He reads the history of the world and when he is finished, he says what is / missing”—though he rarely utilizes it, perhaps because this kind of rhetoric tends to take the reader out of the poem, or make us realize we are in a poem, devolving the feeling of lived experience into literature about it.
Perhaps it is fitting that one of Wijnberg’s most convincing and effective modes is that of the parable. Take “Laziness and Patience,” which echoes the Biblical story of the prodigal son:
The three sons of the father who says that when he dies,
The entire inheritance will go to the laziest son.
A judge has to find out which of the sons is the laziest.
The first son says: I go quiet when I think someone loves me.
That’s not bad, especially the haste, like someone
who has come to tell someone they don’t love them.
The second son says: my father has worked hard his whole life
to say that the inheritance goes to the laziest son
and that it’s up to a judge to find out which son
is laziest. If it was more I know what I’d do,
says the third son to the woman he spends the inheritance with
in just one night. The woman tells the judge.
The judge asks the son: how did you know that she was the woman
who would tell me about it?
Auden wrote that anyone who attempts to interpret a parable only ends up revealing themselves, but Wijnberg’s poetry compels us to try by asking us to find our bearings in disorientation. Here as elsewhere we might conclude that Modernity, with its pitch of distraction, its savagery masked in convenience, and its slogan- and corporate argot-riddled double-speak, forces us into constantly making sense of the world through the nonsensical. Confusion is our natural state, Wijnberg’s poetry confirms, and where we find meaning.
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