Hagar Peeters is one the most celebrated poets in the Netherlands. She started as a performer in youth clubs, an experience that came in handy later when Peeters was invited to perform at numerous international poetry festivals. It might also be why her early poems often have the ring and rhythm of songs, and might explain the presence of comical elements in her work.
She published her first collection, Genoeg gedicht over de liefde vandaag (‘Enough about Love for Today’) in 1999, at the age of twenty-seven. The book received immediate recognition, and she went on to publish a further five books and a pamphlet, and has also written for several major Dutch newspapers. In 2015 she published her first novel, Malva, which won the Flemish Fintro prize and was translated into English in 2018.
Even though her poems are often intimate and personal, Peeters refuses to call them autobiographical. She often uses exaggeration – to focus her audience’s attention and as an analytical tool. Sometimes she creates powerful tensions, even discordancies, by combining and contrasting simple, everyday language with a more formal tone.
There is urgency and immediacy in these poems, but also more reflective moments. The Manhattan Review critic Rick Larios compared Peeters to Wisława Szymborska – in the way that both poets are playful and serious at the same time, and mix ambiguity with empathy. Peeters has also been compared to other contemporary Dutch poets, such as Alfred Schaffer and Jan Baeke (whose poetry appears in this Riveter).
This collection, Peeters’ first in English and published by Shoestring Press, draws from her various books, which explains the strong stylistic, linguistic and thematic differences between its five distinct parts. We owe a lot to translator Judith Wilkinson for bringing this poet into English and for her finely tuned translations. As she explains in her introduction, this is her personal selection of Peeters’ work.
The first set of poems comes from Peeters’ first collection. They combine lyricism and comical elements, and they are tender and imaginative at the same time. I really enjoyed the directness of some of them, the boldness in the way she discusses big emotions – love, desire and relationships.
The second set comes from the book Koffers zeelucht (‘A Suitcase Full of Sea Air’). This set’s focus is family growing up, loneliness, longing and, memories – all of which are captured with great perceptiveness and irony.
The poems in the third set are inspired by the biblical story of Hagar (coincidentally – or not – the author’s namesake), and were originally published in the volume Loper van licht (‘Runner of Light’). The ideas explored here include exile and gender, and there is a feminist tone to the poems, especially the last one, ‘Hagar’s Ambitions’.
Part four comes from Wasdom (‘Fruition’) and contains some of Peeters’ very early poems, as well as some more recent work, although we are not told which ones were written when. The final part of the book comes from Gedichten voor Wich (‘Poems for Wich’), a commission dedicated to the set designer Harry Wich.
Even though Peeters found her voice quite early, she continues to explore new directions in her writing, and this English selection shows this variety very well. I hope that more of her work will be translated into English in the future. Because I definitely want to hear again from a poet who can produce lines like these:
‘Always in search of a navel string, since the first one no longer exists, I balance on the flimsy thread between glances, until the moment when I you and you I once more.’
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
CITY OF SANDCASTLES
Written by Hagar Peeters
Translated by Judith Wilkinson
Published by Shoestring Press (2018)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.
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