In Apologetic for Joy, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poems not only explore transformation but they also elicit the experience of transformation in her readers. In “Eating Quince with Musicians,” she creates images and takes us beyond the fruit and conversation.
It begins hard and yellow,” she said, needs peeling
and long heat. Finally it is ambrosia, soft and red.
By the end of the fourth stanza, she weaves through the sensuality of experience, arriving at love and we do not question the transformation. This process unfolds throughout the collection, but sometimes there is a detour on the journey through the poem as there is in “Fingertips Are for Touching” when something discordant jars us into paying attention:
Do I leave a mark on you
when I graze by your chair?
Children understand loneliness
they sit in laps, cry
until they are empty.
Every mark I make
on you, on canvas,
is a brush with infinity, hoping
two of us under covers
see each other without light.
What do children have to do with the light mark she makes as she passes? Are the lonely children a way to tell us what the touch means to Hiemstra-van der Horst? Then we learn the marks she leaves “on you, on canvas…brush with infinity.” Infinity: an immensity, a vastness beyond quantity, beyond qualification. Notice how she leads us “under covers.” Notice how the poem takes us beyond sensuality into the deeper knowing of seeing beneath the surface, the deeper seeing even “without light.” Notice how simple the poem is on the surface of language and image and see how she transforms it into something difficult to quantify.
This is a woman like Daisy Johnson (please see Everything Under) who loves words and mines them for all they are worth. In the section Bad Things Erased by Oranges, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst travels to Southern Africa and into Setswana, a new language. The poems flow so smoothly the skill she employs could easily be overlooked. Then, with the abruptness of a phone call, she creates a shift and we see where she’s been taking us and the symbolic importance a simple thing like an orange can become.
Although seven sections make up Apologetic for Joy (most leading to sensual transformations), Notes for a Dying Amaryllis is different. It makes me smile despite its subject and situation. Here we meet George and God, two characters I have come to love. Once more, Hiemstra-van der Horst manages to reveal something easily overlooked. In “The Substance of Almost,” she once more sheds light on how she sees:
Gerald’s been complaining about a mouse in the wall.
For weeks I’ve assumed it’s in his head. Everything we see
is mixed with three colours and shades of darkness.
Nothing is quite as it seems. She uses words and painting, which she says in an interview are intertwined (please see “A Stabbing Out of Darkness”). With words, she strips the darkness away as if it was paint on her brush, making the image clear.
I have read Apologetic for Joy many, many times over the winter and into spring. Every reading has taken me deeper while also giving me more pleasure: pleasure in the insights Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst shares about what she sees and where the experience of really seeing (and feeling) can take us. I’ve touched on only three of the seven sections of this collection. If you are a poetry lover—even if you are not—this is a rare book whose themes are pared down to their core. We are both fulfilled and left wanting more.
For the writers among us: Think about the excerpts and how every word is carefully chosen to provide sensual details that lead us to insight. Think about how she uses metaphor and symbol to make the abstract concrete and how she writes between the lines. Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst is also a painter; think about how she integrates both art forms and what that adds to her writing.
Available through your local bookstore or online: Apologetic for Joy