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Dutch poet Nadia de Vries’s debut collection, Dark Hour (Dostoyevsky Wannabe) captures the plight of poets writing in the digital age. Often composing scenes involving sickness, lassitude, abandonment, and death, she pokes fun at the seriousness of these themes, as though playfully provoking them to bite her. “I love how poetry has given me something sensible / to direct my anger towards” she writes in “Ultimate Survival.” In this way, she wryly invokes poetry’s ivory tower intellectualism, while setting the stage for a personal theater of rage, at times directed at parasitic ruptures to domestic routines. More importantly, though, what underlies these intimations of anger is a desire to overcome the distance between word and thing, sign and signified. For de Vries, this distance is compounded with the way English has become the official language of Internet culture. Frequently echoing phrasings from memes and social media conventions more generally, de Vries’s language is a cross between chat-room brevity and Minecraft-inspired Romanticism. In “Her Errant,” she writes,
I’m looking for a noose
I’m asking for a friend
Even angels are lazy now
They prefer escalators over stairs
Candor bores them
This is why they like me.
De Vries’s work could be considered Symbolist Poetry for the Internet age. Not unlike Rimbaud, she bears witness to great social upheavals — although hers are domestic rather than militaristic. The minutiae of interpersonal frustrations occasion images of spiritual conflict, which are condensed into laconic, jewel-like poems, many not more than six or seven lines. “Rosella’s Room” reads in its entirety:
Your sense of peace is disturbed.
A bug falls into your chamomile
and disturbed as you are, you drink it.
You were never a lost cause before.
You thought the goblins carried you away
but in truth, you let them carry you.
Much of de Vries’s poetry evokes interiors: the introspective solitude of a bedroom or an ongoing conversation between two people in a chatroom. I can’t help but wonder if she’s playing with the etymology of the word “stanza,” which unpacks into a literal “standing place” or room. Within this circumscribed space, metaphoric entities appear that are impossible to imagine outside the confines of literature: vampires, magic fruit, living dolls. These entities are not meant to scare us, so much as to discountenance us with the implication that we could be afraid. In de Vries’s poetry, objects, both animate and inanimate, exist in an ether of their own creation — little ghosts that populate a poetic world of rooms. “Without Ornament” reads:
I sing to the ferns in my window.
They are made of plastic,
but not less real.
Sometimes they sing back to me
“Leave us alone,” they hum.
Each poem in Dark Hour seems part of an unspecified narrative; however, the glue that ultimately binds the collection is the poem “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” composed entirely of these three lines:
The painting is called “Girl on a Swing”
The painting is three thick smears of red paint
The painting is called “Girl on a Swing”
Reading this poem, what strikes me is the placeless position of “three thick smears of red paint.” What is the material support? Is it canvas? Wood? The smears have no substrate; they are not on, but are. Yet they exist so clearly and quantifiably, with mass, texture, and shape. In a similar vein, de Vries’s poetry mimics the immaterial quality of online identities (avatars). Her various references to shadows, ghosts, and other “gothic” images can even be read as representing relationships experienced online — especially those that wistfully decay into an ephemeral game without a lasting sense of poignance. In “Dear Vanessa,” she writes,
My beautiful vampire, come back to me.
I will wait for you in the dark
I will refrigerate my blood
Butterflies in intensive care units
Being sick is not the same as being unloved.
De Vries’s Internet-inspired poetics isn’t the only game in town. What distinguishes her work from, say, Bunny Rogers or Sparrow (both of whom write short, tweet-friendly poems) is what I identify as her resolve to find a historical ancestry for her style of writing, and to contextualize it as a new form of literature. The social media-savvy poetry of alt-lit introduced a willingness to write about one’s life directly, which was fine until you stopped caring about the life of the writer. What saves de Vries’s work from the kind of obsolescence that generally befalls alt-lit is her way of interweaving cultural symbols and literary references into a critique of stereotyped social and romantic relationships. The book is the quintessential format for her poems, which scrape against the pages with nail-polished talons.