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

or lie flat on my belly trying to feel

what's wrong; thinking to myself, It's better so .

Dead silence by a hammer blow dispelled.

Death hush by which the hammer blows are healed.

The original Dutch appears on the page facing Coetzee's translations. Thus, a reader can see that the word "fitter" looks identical in the two languages. "Fitter" suggests "maker," the Greek root of our word "poet." The secret life of the gasfitter suggests the poem's maker, laboriously fitting words and sentences into a pattern befitting turbulent feelings and metaphysical dilemmas, as in the ninth poem of "The Gasfitter":

The higher I ascend, the wider space

yawns between You and me. Life seems to be

enclosed in steel and nickel. Every

last rivet of this structure is in place.

There is no gas here. God is the hole, and pours

out his depths upon me to reveal

to a presumptuous fitter how much more

exalted he becomes with every floor.

Beneath me storey after storey falls.

I don't know where I should begin, or what.

Perhaps a final word will spring to mind

if I ask him what was the first cause.

A shock runs through my frame. I must get out.

I give it over. Be it as he finds.

In Coetzee's artful translations, these poems suggest the power of the half-known.

(Gerrit Achterberg's sonnet sequence "The Gasfitter" is from "Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands," translated by J.M. Coetzee. Princeton Univ. Copyright 2004 by J.M. Coetzee)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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