Jeremy Simmons considers a new volume of poetry from Hong Kong, which reveals the pretentiousness in all of us.
Henrik Hoeg, Irreverent Poems for Pretentious People (Proverse, 2016), 112pp.
When I started out reading Hoeg’s poetry collection I believed that my first impression -based on its title- would be proven correct: here was a talented poet who would amuse me while occasionally eliciting a nod of respect or even impress me with a pithy reflection on the sadness of life for which humor is such a necessary foil. Therein lay the trap; it was I who was ‘pretentious’, I confess, because this collection stirs the reader on a different level, well beyond such paltry amusements, and I had presumed to understand it beforehand.
Collating his collection of poems into categories that favor the letter ‘P’ (Parlance, Places, Past and Present, Plots, etc.) the author gives us at least this much structure, while the poems themselves fool us, temporarily, into believing they have none of their own. No formal structure, anyway. Where are the couplets and quatrains? No refrains to speaks of, no sestets…not really. There is some rhyming, some detectable meter and regularly the poems cascade through enjambments not meant to be understood, I thought. This is free verse, without doubt, but it would be impossible to reach the end of this collection of verse without perceiving a structure within it all, and an overarching structure to the book. Irreverent Poems is more than a compendium or collection, it’s a timeline. In its modest themes, “Why I’m Single: Reason #3” or “Without Answer” that seem like poetic hopscotch, is encapsulated all that makes up a life, or for the moment, a life in progress. From one stanza to the next (if most of his writing can even be boxed into anything so banal as ‘stanzas’) the reader might alternate from laughter to breathtaking pangs. His writing is sly, it seems unassuming and, dare I say it, common…then a line pivots away from the expected and sticks a pin in you, almost without trying.
Hoeg’s slender volume of poetry, without giving in to parlor tricks like tiny font or single-spaced pages, contains an astonishing amount of verse and I could’ve read another volume’s worth. It’s like the physical impossibility of the room that’s larger on the inside than the structure that contains it. Page after page of hilarious send-ups of himself (others are rarely the target of his withering critique) and then he’ll drop something like:
Just further proof, that youth
Isn’t just distance from death
But nearness to life.
How can a poet who can so carefully break down the foolishness of our whims in the dating game (see: again, “Why I’m Single: Reason #3”) then turn around and devastate the reader with a poem like “Nineveh Forgotten”
Through history they speak in brass relief:
Pillar of flesh, children burning alive
Sadistic kings smiling at endless grief,
Torture and sin no reason could contrive.
Is this a book on politics? If so, it is a powerful and serious one. Yet there is much within it that is light-hearted, that speaks of life’s simplest pleasures and irritants…away from the acidic burn of political strife. Yet that is part of Irreverent Poems’ power, that in the midst of the laughter and ignorance of a man blundering through life, we are never fully released from the political, and that in reverse, amid the heat and dust of political struggle, the need to look within for answers is crucial for our existence, let alone any attempts at happiness, a pursuit which Hoeg shrewdly hints might be a fool’s game, even if its a necessary one to play.
These poems are, at times, irreverent, but never blankly obtuse. They are not for pretentious people, unless we admit the uncomfortable truth that we are all, in fact, a little pompous and in this case they have a powerful ability to reveal our pretensions to us. Hoeg’s poetry is for all people because in this little book he has achieved what so few modern poets have; he ‘kept it real.’ Blunt honesty is difficult to make readable but Hoeg has shown us how in a collection that aspiring poets should pay attention to.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.