With the poetry of Sofie Verdoodt you descend into the underworlds of the mind

With the poetry of Sofie Verdoodt you descend into the underworlds of the mind

anker Cross Heart is a compact collection of poems that requires rereading. Although formulations are precise, the possible interpretations of the stanzas continue to move and rumble like a threatening sky before a thunderstorm.

The clear division of the collection, into three untitled parts, does not coincide with the trinity of hope, faith and love evoked by the title. Although opposites of it Anchor Cross Heart certainly play a role, they cannot be demarcated by divisions: despair, dejection and loss seep into all poems. It fits with the combative nature of this collection that what you hope or expect does not coincide with reality.

The title appears as a tattoo on the cover, as if on the poet’s skin – which gives rise to the suspicion that this is a personal collection. But here too the poet seems to want to mislead us, because this collection touches on personal as well as social issues.

Sofie Verdoodt (1983) has been nominated for the Grand Poetry Prize 2024 with her second collection, which will be awarded this Thursday. Other nominees are Dewi de Nijs Bik, Jens Meijen, Merel van Slobbe and Peter Verhelst, and it is striking that both De Nijs Bik and Slobbe are debuts.

Is it a prize that celebrates ‘great poetry’ or does this prize mainly want to present itself as something great? In any case, the amount of money is generous: the poet who wins can look forward to 20,000 euros. There is no clear favorite. The jury has chosen five strong titles from the nominated collections, each of which deals with a world in crisis in its own way.

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Verdoodt’s collection stands out because the human drama unfolds from the domestic and nearby, with subjects such as farewell, death and birth – where the underworld is never far away. That might have to be ‘underworlds’, because that’s what seems to exist beneath every description of Verdoodt: another layer, and another layer beneath it. Everyday tasks, such as cleaning up a house, therefore come under tension.

The house is tidied up,
people are keeping it afloat with all their might.
A cage is placed on the sidewalk now that every bird has flown.
There was never a break-in, there was no fire,
the house cat gave birth in the softest hay.

Everything seems fine in ‘Before the Millennium’. The title makes it seem as if this is a description of an era, possibly coinciding with the youth of the lyrical self missing in this poem, who is part of a ‘we’. What seems right must be enforced with all your might. But the very mention of fate averted evokes possible horrors. Verdoodt virtuoso sketches the abyss between the need for social security and always being vulnerable – the abyss that is life.

We wanted to be left alone,
there was enough for everyone.
The lights were left on at night, which set off evil
on the wrong track.
In Breton beds the children slept,
mother’s silver-blonde knives in their cutlery drawer
suitable from large to small.
The windows looked out through their tears.

Fittingly enough, in this stanza the soothing of the unrest becomes almost a lullaby or fairy tale, complete with end rhyme and a thick image of rain like tears – because what does one fool to be able to sleep peacefully? The great disaster is not mentioned, but it is made tangible.

The children are sleeping and lying like knives in a drawer. Are they the weapons that must provide defense against faceless evil? In these times of war, every mother can take the thought that her children have to fight literally. Children also help distract from the gruesome side of life, they offer hope for the future – and in that sense they can also be seen as weapons.

Fortunately, there was always boxing
broadcast on TV, especially for fathers
invented for those who had little to gain at home.

It is great how Verdoodt portrays in an almost light-hearted way the internalized dejection of those for whom there is little to gain at home, in front of the TV. This can only be done by a poet who does not just want to point out something, but who comes to the surface from the underworlds themselves, permeated by everything, to gasp for breath. I, as a reader, agree.

It became sick to our stomachs
then there was always the hitting and stomping and cheering
that was turned up a little louder.

Until then, our powerless resistance.

The use of ‘us’ has a moving effect, because those who were drowned out by the sound on TV find themselves converging with the father, who could also be counted as ‘us’.

It is not clear in the poem who exactly ‘we’ are, which reinforces the impression that this is a resistance that transcends the domestic. And because I am immersed in the underworlds of Verdoodt, I can see the father as an entire generation, fighting its battle from a distance, through watching other people’s struggles. Our own struggle has been given up, slaves as we are to a capitalist system that celebrates winning and that is too complex to resist on an individual level.

A poem like ‘Curriculum Vitae’ makes me see that something as trivial as a CV is symptomatic of a society that demands degrees and achievements (and Grand Poetry Prizes) to appreciate someone. The CV is a dark song: ‘It’s a song you’d rather never have heard./ It’s a word you want to take back./ It’s a piggy bank you want to break./ You ask if it’s pointless, this to live.’

The ‘you’ would have preferred never to hear the song, and the song the ‘you’, just as the word and the piggy bank can be both subject and direct object. This creates room for different interpretations.

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With a language that sometimes seems classical and does not shy away from rhyme and internal rhyme, Verdoodt succeeds in layering the experience of everyday reality. The a sounds in the opening stanza of the poem ‘Orpheus’ all seem to work towards the invocation of the father, which sounds at the end:

I met you in an underworld
where you were a welcome visitor.
I was trying to explain your banging at the gate.
In all languages ​​you shouted: father!

It’s a huge power of Anchor Cross Heart that mythological, biblical and literary references are not imposed stylistic devices, but are part of how the poet views the world. Just as girls in front of a crush barrier in the poem ‘Carpe diem’ look to the poet like flowers hanging half out of their beds after a rain shower, so she sees in a nearby Orpheus, in ‘an underworld’, one of the many underworlds that exist there. apparently be.

Verdoodt makes the reader part of a descent into the underworlds of the mind. She succeeds in creating space for a layered reality that reveals itself from the small and, moreover, in imposing freedom on oppressive systems of language, society, life. The fact that this battle can be fought in and with poetry offers hope – despite all the disappointment. Perhaps this hope is a form of faith, perhaps even love.