#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews VIRGULA by Sasja Janssen

Sasja Janssen is a poet and a teacher of creative writing based in Amsterdam. First she published two novels; later her focus shifted to poetry. Her works have been very well received, her most recent collection, Virgula, (2021) was nominated for five Dutch prizes and awarded the prestigious Awater Poetry Prize. Her first translation into English was Putting On My Species (2014; Shearsman, 2020). And now also Virgula has its English version (Prototype, 2024), thanks to Michele Hutchison, the very accomplished translator from Dutch, who in the past rendered texts by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Raoul Deleo, Octavie Wolters, Gerda Blees, and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

‘Virgula’ is a Latin word for a comma. In Janssen’s collection it grows into something that is way more than a mere punctuation mark. It is a symbol of a pause, of an empty space and time, of stillness, but also of unasked questions and secrets, of pain and scars, of what remains untold, unexplained. It symbolises breaks and shifts between words, it is what is halted but it also becomes an opening to something else, new, other. And finally, it stands for a body as something that is both vulnerable and oppressive, that can receive and deliver pain. Janssen looks for those moments of change and fluctuation like somebody using a divination rod looking for water, metal or other minerals. And guess what a divination rod was called in Latin? ‘Virgula’, yes!

I cannot live in my poems, it’s windy, there’s a threat of hurricanes
the silence strikes the earth like a square, poppies on an embankment
tumbleweed everywhere,
I don’t want a break, no tumbling, I want to reach the end
in a single sweep, I want the means to break the chain
but I allow myself to be chased along
by the commas, my she-devils

I set the glass of milk that remains mottled on my desk.

In Janssen’s poems ‘Virgula’ is also fleshed out in a different sense, it/she gets embodied, becomes the addressee of almost every single poem in the set, like a friend or a lover, or perhaps the poet talking to herself? Or a protector or some mysterious goddess that the poet keeps invoking. Divination, indeed. With quite a sprinkling of surreal imagery.

I spend one last night with the boy, then the morning
blares for me to leave and I steal the low bed
with my woolly blanket, stiff with age, the white cat
and together we wait, we wait for someone to fetch us from this room
I hang rattan in front of the window you rattle at, I get a sideboard
from the street and paint it white,
it’s no use, all of eternity has moved house with me, Virgula.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

VIRGULA

by Sasja Janssen

translated by Michele Hutchison

published by Prototype (2024)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer, translator and Managing Editor of the European Literature Network. Recently she translated According to Her by Maciej Hen (shortlisted to the EBRD Literature Prize 2023), published a bilingual poetry and photography book with Lisa Kalloo Café by Wren’s St-James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, and a book-length interview with a Holocaust survivor, Lili: Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak.

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Category: March 2024Reviews

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