Nance Van Winckel’s Beside Ourselves

Mike gave me a copy of Nance Van Winckel’s Beside Ourselves when we met for breakfast nearly a month ago, and since we were meeting for breakfast again last Sunday I decided it was past time I got around to reading it.

I finished most of it before Sunday, but just finished the whole book last night. For a book that seems to be written so clearly, it is at times amazingly difficult to understand. It helps if you realize from the beginning that the stories are set in Eastern Europe in the mid-1980’s and are apparently told from the perspective of an American translator.

The following passage found online after I finished most of the book was enlightening:

“When I question her about specific work, she recalls a trip to eastern Europe in the mid 80s, a time when the Berlin Wall and Communism still stood. Her visit generated nothing more than a few notes, but more than a dozen years later the physical landscape of her visit found its way into a series of poems she was writing that eventually became the much-honored collection Besides Ourselves. Van Winckel figures it took a dozen years for that rich and complex place to work its way into her subconscious, until the sights and sounds were as second nature for her as any that existed in her from her childhood or coming of age.”

There are several poems in this 87 page volume that I liked but my favorite is
“If You’re Happy & You Know It” which also happens to be the poem listed at
The National Endowment for the Arts site which may indicate that I’m not the only one who felt is was one of the best, or perhaps merely one of the most accessible, poems in the collection. And it is hard not to resist the beautiful irony in the title:


A man and a woman on the window’s
glass. He touches her hair, tips
her chin. Just look at them, I said.
Who do they look like?

He whispers in her ear. Lovers,
you said. They look like lovers.
They are gray on the black glass.
Adrift into a kiss. They are us.

Below: shoestrings of light tangling
the strung-out city. People living off
angers, eons-old. Fishing the pools
of it. Thin, mercury-pinked smelt.

He and she unbuttoning each other’s
shirts, unable to bear their own bliss,
their quiet inside the chaos. Overhead
a great soaring engine roars

and the window rattles, and we
resist ourselves as we are,
as they are, trembling
there on the glass.

Overall, the tone of these poems reminds me a lot of the brooding tone found in
Bruce Cockburn’s latest songs, particularlyThe Charity of Night. While I try not to dwell on the kinds of feelings found throughout these poems, it’s hard to deny the validity of lines like “People living off/ angers, eons-old. Fishing the pools/ of it.”

I once referred to Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” in connection with my own feeling that I ought to be doing something more important than reading and writing about poetry, and while readers rushed in to assure me that I need not feel guilty about my efforts it’s still difficult not to feel a sense of guilt when your mailbox is full of cries of help for people starving to death in Darfur or, or, or …

It is amazing that against this backdrop of angst and despair that lovers and grandparents are “unable to bear their own bliss,/ their quiet inside the chaos.” How can one play happily with one’s grandchildren in front of a television screen filled with images of starving children or children blown apart by landmines or bombs?

Yet we somehow manage to do it, don’t we for sometimes it seems as if the only way to survive is to retreat to your own little world and “resist ourselves as we are,/ as they are.”