Richie McCaffery takes a particular and personal interest in a new collection from Dutch poet  Arnold Jansen op de Haar

The Refrain of Other People’s Lives
Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Holland Park Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781907320729
80 pp         £8.99

The Refrain of Other People’s Lives is my very first contact with the poetry of the Dutch-born, London-based ex-soldier cum poet and novelist Arnold Jansen op de Haar. I had however heard of Holland Park Press, for which Jansen op de Haar works as an editor, as a publisher of Dutch works in translation, such as the Dutch poetry anthology 100 Dutch-Language Poems. My interest in this collection is part of my larger search for, and interest in, poetry written by Dutch or Belgian transnationals living abroad or English expats living in Belgium or the Netherlands. This is because I moved to Belgium myself a year and a half ago and am fascinated to see how other poets deal with their change in surroundings. Jansen op de Haar describes himself as ‘shuttling between two countries’ and his epigraph from Socrates – “the unexamined life is not worth living” – suggests that his poetry will be of a confessional or revelatory kind.

Had I read Jansen op de Haar’s poetry before my move to Belgium, I might not have appreciated it quite as much, I might have dismissed it as rather scattered and fragmentary and even poetry of the non-sequitur. However, what his poetry does is to capture a dramatized, aestheticized sense of what it is like to be living outside your own country and flooded with memories of home and of family (and, in this poet’s case, the recurrent images of dead parents who emerge throughout the poems going about their business as if nothing has happened). What happens as a transnational (to me at least) is that you almost end up an exile in both countries and you tend to think much more about your past to the point where you almost end up living in it, weighed down with the experiential clutter and debris you have brought with you. This naturally affects the patterns of your thoughts and consequently your poetry:

have I already written to you:
my collarbones have 
been locked for days

the flight of stairs here has been 
chemically cleaned

are you still there? 
for you know
let us begin at the beginning		
                                              [‘on the other side of the water’]

Many of Jansen op de Haar’s poems go on like this, accumulating details, background noises and seemingly mundane information. This is because as a transnational (and I am perhaps only speaking for myself here) you begin to feel, rather grandly, like something of a suffering pioneer, that everything that happens to you must be in some way significant and worthy of being recorded. The way I write poems has changed, and they are now much more constructed out of fragments rather than cohesive, narrative ‘wholes’ – which may well be symbolic of the split lifestyle of living on both sides of a border at the same time. Jansen op de Haar’s poems seem to be groping for a greater meaning all the time; and sometimes this is glimpsed in arresting snippets of images: “the widows’ small dogs / with widowers’ eyes” (‘london calling’) or “the light falls like a guillotine” (‘highgate cemetery’). Occasionally, for this reader at least, the poems escape clear interpretation, their truths being rather cryptically buried in words but the atmosphere or melancholy, displacement and wistfulness still coming through very strongly:

everywhere heads are burying themselves
in pillows
with teeth of tar
from a paucity of fire-spewing spit

then the lights of taxis go out
I am one step removed
the sad necessity of life
it’s not long until the chestnuts are roasted 	
                                                                    [‘london view’]

However, I can absolutely relate to the source of some of Jansen op de Haar’s unease, such as the collection’s overarching contention that “your own life is determined by other people”. This may sound fatalistic, but it is true that after moving abroad, living people come into your life (not always invited or welcome, I should add) and at the same time the people you left behind (including the dead) come through more strongly than ever before and both sets of people conspire to influence your life. You do also become “the refrain of other people’s lives” as a poet, living out other lives in memory again and again, haunted all along by a little critic of orthodox values sitting on your shoulder reprimanding you for not being like all the other careerist professionals out there:

at night the black dog comes 
the hordes that ask
if you can live off writing		
                                          [ ‘meanwhile on the home front’]

that still later the others
the career   the girl
the car   and their money in the bank		
                                                         [ ‘wage war again’]

You sometimes feel like you do not fit in at all and your rather ‘alternative’ value-system comes under fire, thus the ‘home front’ warring atmosphere created in the poem quoted above. Jansen op de Haar’s poems alternate between that sense of personal guilt and defiance and determination to live according to one’s own inner compass. One last thing I would like to point out is that I recently read The Evenings (the English translation of Dutch writer Gerard Reve’s first novel De Avonden) and I was struck by how similar Jansen op de Haar’s style is to Reve’s. By this I mean the poet’s eye for the absurd in everyday, rather bleak and grinding existence – in fact, in ‘meanwhile on the home front’ Jansen op de Haar states that “I still have to un-everyday things” but he does that throughout this collection. It is there from the opening poem ‘an ordinary day’ where the mundane bristles with a sense of the absurd and the horrific as well as the mind of the poet, as ever trying to glimpse some greater meaning in it all:

such a day starts off
with yesterday’s meatloaf

in a dream last night
your parents were still alive

around ten you consider 
various forms of suicide


tonight you’ll dream
once more of your parents

you must protect them from something
but don’t know what