Moments of Happiness by Niels Hav

Translated from the Danish by Per Brask & Patrick Friesen

Review by Walter Cummins

In his Afterword, Niels Hav writes, “Poetry’s first duty is to be an intimate talk with the single reader about the deepest mysteries of existence.” But how do “two honest” nails reveal one such mystery? They are featured in the collection’s opening poem, “The Battered Inside,” hammered into boards in a cupboard under an apartment’s kitchen sink, remnants of the building’s original construction, their survival making the poem’s speaker happy. The sink itself and the appliances are replacements. Over the years, this kitchen has seen laughter and tears, the apartment new life and death. At the end of the poem the speaker, who someday also will be gone, gets down on his knees to honor a plunger, a spider, and the two nails in what is a gesture of reverence.

Here the poet finds a moment of happiness not in a transcendental illumination but rather a quotidian detail. Such details are all around us, mysteries in plain sight that take a poet’s—Hav’s—perception to reveal.

“Uncommon Sense” makes Hav’s point directly:

Most important is to avoid eternal things
And existential issues. Let's talk about something ordinary,
Like bicycles and the rain. Or just about mosquitoes.

As in “The Funny Thing Is,’’ all we have to do is walk in a quiet forest and silence the naked voice that constantly speaks into phones for just seconds and then “the smallest lie dies in its birth.”

Words become unnecessary in “A Party,” the speaker who does not know Chinese, on a frigid day in Wenling, stopping to watch card players trying to keep warm at a brazier. They welcome him with a cup of spicy, strong tea, amused at each other’s presence:

I didn’t even recognize the cards. But they allowed me to sit with them while winter arrived in Wenling. I was permitted to warm up by their fire, to recover, to be a human being in any case. We laughed, we drank tea, we smoked, it snowed; it was a party.

The poems in this collection accept the small gestures of being human, rejecting pretension, welcoming survival in the ordinary, open to laughter, and happy about such existence.