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Review: At the Edge of Night, by Anise Koltz

Koltz...she allows the gift of her visionary element to dominate and marshal the rage... Existential anxiety is the blood that serves these three significant collections from Arc's ever adventurous 'Visible Poets' series. This series aims to bring those poets whose names have long foundered before English shores finally onto dry land. These latest three are native to Belgium or in one case Luxembourg. They all write in French and are European in their outlook, that is to say their work is still infected by the irrationally destructive historical traumas suffered by their continent and the existential questions this gives rise to. Philosophically poetic, yet avoiding leading their readers into thickets of unrestrained philosophising, all three of these poets are more or less grounded in what English poetry today serves as its unchanging menu du jour, that is the domestic, the everyday. But unlike much of the current English poetry of the everyday, which after a session with the self-appointed creative writing workshop surgeons, complacency sports acceptable levels of irony and seriousness, these Europeans manage something profound and truly excoriating downwind of all they have observed and privately endured. These poets are all transfixed by the void of the blank page, the nauseating underbelly displayed when language fails, when the beast rolls over. Even in the case of Maurice Careme, who appears to be at first glance a light playful poet, a stalwart with the nation's schoolchildren, there is a darkening undercurrent, a nervous scratching at the insubstantiality of belief systems as the imminent prospect of death alerts the mind to specify a final tolerable resolution.

Anise Koltz has lived in Luxembourg since 1928 and is that tiny nation's most prolific woman poet. In her seventh decade she continues to write poems that sear the reader with their inexhaustible honesty and willingness to confront the barbarism of existence. To read Koltz is to stand rooted before the oncoming blades of a combine. There is no tinsel, no indulgent peripheral detail or clever lead-ins. She begins as she means to go on, with an unequalled icy precision, each poem a minor operation carried out before the patient is even aware of what is happening. Her knife is sharp and its position perfectly judged. Over the four more recent collections contained in this volume faithfully translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen, we have a powerful slug of Koltz's vision. Straight away she leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of her poetry.

Prologue

Life is no long quiet river
but a bloodbath

yet you ask me for
poetry decorated with flowers
with little birds

I'm sorry Ladies and Gentlemen
each of my poems
buries your dead.

Like Jacqmin, Koltz is wary of language. She too is in an anxious dialogue with the blank page. Interestingly she began to write in German, but following the war and her husband's treatment at the hands of the Nazis, she abandoned her mother tongue after his death in 1971 and took up French, so again like Jacqmin, she suffered a linguistic rupture which both instills a peculiar originality to her writing process, but also dogs it with self doubt.

All my life
I have sat
in front of the blank page
lacking the courage
to turn it.

Again:

I entice the page
so that it may lie
beneath my writing.

The pared-down nature of Koltz's poetry gives it an aphoristic feel. The subject matter ranges from an estranged loathing for her mother-she throws herself on me and sucks out my marrow-to a relentless despair at God's silence-There is no ark. I smother God with my hair. And, unsurprisingly, fear of death falls like a fine rain over all her work. We are immortal, as long as we live. There is an inherent visionary greatness to Koltz's work which raises her into the top rank of European poets. Like Jacqmin or any other poet for that matter, she is most powerful when she rations the explicit, when she allows the gift of her visionary element to dominate and marshal the rage which at times threatens to swamp the craft.

The sun sets a trap
for the birds
and devours them in the evening
spitting out their shadows.