Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 25, 2007

In art, as in life, we desire something between the familiar and the unfamiliar. If the person or party, poem or movie is completely predictable, it is repellent, boring. At the other extreme, if there's absolutely nothing recognizable, that too is repellent, boring in another way. We want that tension or uncertainty or balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The South African writer J.M. Coetzee has compiled and translated a collection of 20th-century poetry from the Netherlands, including poems by Gerrit Achterberg (1905-62). Achterberg's sonnet sequence "The Gasfitter" involves an eerie borderland between the ordinary and the obsessive. Part naturalistic story, part allegory, the sequence tells of the fitter's hopeless, consuming love for a mysteriously unattainable "You." As in horror narratives, the disguise of a familiar surface makes underlying obsession more terrible and disorienting. Here's the second poem in the sequence:

At your address, by daylight, on the job

disguised in workman's clothing, I wheel round

and behold You standing there. Walls turn to ground,

ceiling slowly becomes a marble slab.

We fade to each other in murky light.

The room is saturated, won't hold more.

This can't go on. I turn the screws down tight.

As long as I devote myself to this chore

we can proceed as we are, incognito --

as long as I stay busy, bend or kneel

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