(The following is a review of Jan Hansen's recently published collection of poetry from Lapwing Press of Dublin, Ireland. Jan is one of the original group of contributors to Writer's Cramp and it's a thrill to see him recognized in print as well as in our online arena. Jan Hansen joins the ranks of other WC alumni who have broken into the print market and we share his pride in making an impact on the face of modern poetry. Congratulations, Jan. NOTE: You can read his newest collection in this issue, Tears of Clarity.)
Jan Oscar Hansen removes the masks of ordinariness from his subjects. Everyone and everything is alive and magical. He engages the reader on many levels and could take poetry a long way towards renewed popularity.
A merchant seaman for many years, widely-read, open and willing to be known, the poet imparts to his work the depth and range of one who has traveled the seven seas of his inner and outer worlds. Some words and phrases that have been used to describe his poems include: witty, entertaining, loving, bawdy, profound, erotic, very accessible, told by a born story teller and politically incorrect. He is a born poet and a well-disciplined professional, adept at integrating his mixes of metaphor, simile, personification and imagery into creations that appear effortless.
The poems in this collection were published in Belfast by Lapwing Publications in 2006. They are about love, hope, sorrow, joy, pride, compassion, cruelty and indifference. They capture exact, often subtle, shades of human experience with an originality that is stunning.
La Strada presents 42 poems, each a story manifesting on the poet’s road through life. The title, as well as the opening poem by the same name, refers to Federico Fellini’s 1954 film starring Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. There is often a full-blown erotic identity in the women Hansen writes about. The woman in the title poem is one of the exceptions. Quoting the first stanza of “La Strada”:
“Remember it like yesterday, in Trieste, a town
where neighbours hated each other more than
usual, when I met a tiny woman with a clown’s
face I could not help smiling at, she had bright
brown eyes and was struggling with a suitcase.”
The poet carries her case for her, and finding her garden overgrown, weeds it; then:
“Looked up and saw her sitting in a limousine,
beside a famous film director. They were both
driving down to Rome to shoot a movie about
a road and the life of the people travelling on it...”
In contrast, “Last Tango” is about sexual adventure and bondage:
“...She intertwines him in her circle and together dance
a Finnish tango less dramatic than the Argentinean
yet deeply sexy with only a hint of depravity...
“There was a time, a summer night that was merely
a fling for her but torched his heart with a desire
that a one night stand could not assuage....”
There are poems as well about fantasy and desire. With a few strokes in “Spring Morning” a woman comes alive: “By the window...in a pink silk gown/that is generously open./She has freckles/on her upper chest,/deeply cleft, pendulum-/heavy her breasts./Eyes closed/a half smile/sways as she remembers...wish I were/her daydream.”
Altogether at home with fantasy, the poet reveals it to be another face of reality. And what might sound far-fetched in mere prose becomes logical in a poem like “Ungrateful.” Here Hansen parallels, characteristic irony included, a sofa’s fate with that of Iraqi refugees, and, as is often the case, there is a metaphor in the relationship:
“The hungry sun had, through the open window,
eaten the green sofa’s colour, now it’s sagging
and grey, but still good to sit on which was well
after reading that when Saddam Hussein ruled
Iraq 300,000 fled to Jordan; then when the USA
army occupied Iraq and freed the country of an
evil tyrant and brought democracy, one million
Iraqis fled and now live in Jordan. The sun, through
the open window, still eats the green sofa’s colour,
more sagged, more grey, more hungry.”
Hansen’s use of metaphor is inspired, as is his use of symbols. “The Blue Bus,” in the poem by that title, transports workers; both the bus and the factory that is their destination are symbols of oppression for those who “...can’t cope with the ordinariness of this life.” The poet resigns from that job:
“Tomorrow, when the bus drives through my street
I shall not be on it, and whatever my mother said I will not
apologize and ask them to take me back.”
Hansen often writes of loneliness, and sometimes of those who “dream of a better life.” But he is not a sentimentalist. In “Excommunicated,” lacing experience with humor and irony, he tells us that he lives in a peaceful valley near a beautiful lake, where there are glorious sunsets and a blue rowing boat -- and is so lonely he listens to the spiel of telemarketers trying to sell him those things!
In his brilliant poem, “The Long Goodbye,” the poet and another, perhaps his alter ego, or a lover; perhaps Van Gogh himself, divided, or the artist and his brother, Theo (it doesn’t matter) walk into a Van Gogh painting and explore the classic division between man and himself:
“...into a field of poppies, yellow weed and almond trees, nuts still green and soft with down. You
struggled to remember what the fruit was called...
“During the long hot summer you struggled to
remember my name and asked in the mornings
what I was doing in your bed. When autumn
came the distance between us was ocean wide
and deep. I was taking an empty pod for walks...
you broke my heart, forgive me, sometimes my
patience too. When snow flakes fell I had to send
Although we may have read that Van Gogh had a special disorder with a label, we can recognize something of ourselves. Hansen is always transcending boundaries and asking us to empathize and understand on more profound levels.
His poetry reveals an extraordinary empathy with nature, on a level usually attributed to mystics. In “Meeting,” empathy heals separation and brings peace:
“We met, at the bottom of the lane,
the rainbow; silky rain, a sun-ray
wrapped around an oak and one
minute’s silence of precious peace:
then the rainbow paled, rain stopped,
the sun-ray came down from the tree
and we walked our own sweet way.”
In “World’s Oldest Turtle,” empathy, metaphor, personification and humor are interwoven:
“Sliding down a wall I saw in cracks tiny insects, so small
that I had to narrow my eyes to see them, they were pale....
A 250 year old turtle walked by...
hoping to see the bay again now that it was getting elderly.
Nuns walked by, so young that they still thought suffering
was a big deal, but there was no let up, they kept coming
women I had met during the time when sex was important;
my god not a pretty sight, how could I be so uncritical....
In “The Ballerina”:
graceful as a leopard whether chasing lesser prey
on the savannah or gliding up to kissing the pope’s
ring at the Vatican....”
Because of our creative role in what we see and experience, what we call fantasy and reality are always interrelated, and we are made aware through this poet’s power that any clear dividing line, however necessary, is of our own making.
Hansen doesn’t aim for technical correctness – always a false aim in art – but to tell of the living spirit and its adventures. He shows man seeking communion, often finding it, and the conflicts inherent in the impatient struggles to survive. In “End of Dreams”:
“...I sat by the river fishing for trout.
“Caught one but it was too small, lifted it
up close to my eyes so we could see and
remember each other before letting it go
back to its watery world.
“When I kissed the trout, as a gesture of
peace, it bit my lips. I wrung its neck
and gave its limp little body to the cat.”
In the poems of this collection there is an honoring and love of living things, as well as an acknowledgement of what man is. The poet has a deep humility, and unflinchingly reveals his own clumsiness and shortcomings in his efforts to love. He tells us, honestly, what there is to tell. His poems remind this reader of William Blake’s, “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”