Just as in a diary or weblog, you can easily lose yourself for an hour or so in the verses of Maria van Daalen, sunk in all her various moods.
I got hold of Maria van Daalen’s new anthology, opened it up, and landed in the middle of an argument. As far as I could make out, it was an argument between the poet and her lover. And it didn’t end nicely. Everything pointed to anger, a fight, destruction and physical abuse. The next day, the boyfriend has vanished for good and we see the poet picking up all the pieces – in the written form, too, as the report of this crisis is a series of loose fragments, separated by blank lines, without capital letters and full stops, five pages long.
Screaming and violence are dealt with, as are grief about the premature loss of the mother, a memory of how the father was tortured in the war, and a summary of all the men the poet has met in her life, a declaration about love and a statement about poetry. And an attempt to take at least something positive from the physical abuse. It is not the abuser who ultimately wins, but rather the victim – that’s how Van Daalen wants to see it. She “receives the force of fury / and stores it within her body, carries it with her” to obtain benefit later. The anger of the abuser is converted to energy for the victim – that is ‘the Law of the Conservation of Energy’ mentioned in the title.
I do not wish to claim that, with this, everything fell into place – that was probably not the intention anyway. I browsed through the collection and saw elements from the title poem recurring in other poems. Apparently it was an advance summary. Or, if you want to see it another way, everything in this collection evidently belongs more or less together. I read about Almere, the poet’s new home town. And about the Protestant grammar school that she attended in the sixties. About a visit to Gerrit Kouwenaar. A recollection of C.O. Jellema. About medieval manuscripts and a house-removals truck in New York. About sex and sexual fantasies. Anecdotal poetry, easy to follow, in neatly rhyming sonnets.
A little further on there was also the voodoo that was dealt with in several much looser poems. Van Daalen, raised in a Protestant family, is on the point of joining the Roman Catholic Church, but has been ‘into’ voodoo for the last little while. Last autumn, she underwent the official ordination to Mambo Asogwe. She is now a voodoo priestess, with Fouyé Racine Bon Mambo as her working name, which means “the mambo who seeks the essence in everything”. But even with all their exaltation, her voodoo verses do not make much of an essence-oriented impression. I quote from the verse entitled ‘Obatala’, from the ‘Orisha’ series: “Obatala’s crown is upon my head / Obatala’s crown is the string of beads with white beads / a single bead may be coral red / another may be shiny, transparent / Obatala is the light that suffuses the photo” and so on.
Strange of course, these dreamy and religious verses, but interesting all the same. It is completely different to the rigid, strict, entrenched word-edging poetry with which Van Daalen began her poetic career some twenty years ago. The aim of her debut collection Raveslag (1989), as she later told me, was to be a report of all kinds of personal disaster, but that turned out to be too difficult for outsiders. There is none of that in her new collection, De wet van behoud van energie, in which you can easily lose yourself for an hour or so – as if you are reading a diary or weblog. You are treated to a mixture of all kinds of experiences. It is almost too much, in fact, with all that everyday suffering, the poignant tone and the sentimental outbursts now and again, the loud words and the obscure terms. “I have forgotten all names / but language remained eternal”. And: “No one heals from immortality / or from thinking. I think eternity”. Few believers will be overjoyed to hear the mystical visions and the cosmic light ecstasies regarding the various voodoo spirits, I think.
But still, Van Daalen’s poetry does have its quality: its own voice, its liveliness, its variation. It is sometimes hard and cynical – as when she is taking a shower in her lover’s bathroom, where his girlfriend also showers. As she looks down between her legs, she sees the drain cover, which quickly acquires a bitter, symbolic significance. But her poetry is occasionally surprisingly endearing and tender, as in the poem entitled ‘Ape’, in which she is standing with an ape around her neck. She talks to the animal as to a small child, devising new words and thus together creating a “small paradise”. This succinctly indicates the range of this anthology: paradise and water drain, in close proximity.
Originally published in Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, January 25, 2008.