by Dragoș Ilca
Henrik Hoeg, Irreverent Poems for Pretentious People, Proverse Hong Kong, 2016. 112 pgs.
While in previous reviews I have questioned the act of reading poetry—what does it do today, and whether it is still worthwhile—I might have found an antidote: Henrik Hoeg's Irreverent Poems for Pretentious People. Writing the title of the collection down and opening the review with a positive remark does make me look slightly elitist, doesn't it? The almost snobbish appreciation of a collection that tries and warns the reader not to take it too seriously. They're all lies.
To that I say: Touché Mr. Hoeg.
Henrik Hoeg is probably best-known for emceeing the Peel Street Poetry group in Hong Kong. Irreverent Poems is his first published collection. Irreverent is the key word here, and it hits from page one. Drawing attention to that one "quote that captures the spirit of the book" before sending it to publishers, then moving on to awkwardly comparing Hoeg with dolphins in the preface, the collection sets expectations rather high. The good news is that it doesn't disappoint, especially since the word used in the preface to describe the poems is "perfect" (seriously?). The main reason is language.
If there is one feature that is consistent, with occasional slips when it feels the author is trying too hard, it would be the language. Hoeg employs stylistic devices and rhetoric to a larger extent than others, which might explain the appeal and flavour of his poetry. His language does not paint; it's not used to describe direct feelings vis-à-vis external stimuli, for instance an idyllic natural frame, or a painting, or an abbey. The resourcefulness of the poems comes from the little things, like a shower, or a white-collared friend, coffee, work, a kiss or even Mrs. Husserl. At first glance, they seem trivial, yet there is always a twist, a play on language that defamiliarises.
There is the obvious case that defamiliarisation is one of the primary functions of literature; that is, to make the familiar seem "unfamiliar" or even strange. In Irreverent Poems, however, this device is employed to the extreme. In "My Heart," for instance, the heart which "thumps like a heart," becomes both "truth and metaphor."
What helps the effect of defamiliarisation is the way language keeps reflecting onto itself in Hoeg's collection. The first poem, "Sentences," begins simply with "This sentence is self-referential. / This sentence has five words," and so on. The play on language here, while looking simple, sets the tone of the book as something that seems easy to understand and decipher. However, that is naturally not the case.
Such plays on language, witty and plenty, lead to an "exhaustion" of meaning. The poem "I Love Your Words" arranges "I love you" in ten different ways, with each side bringing out the gradual breakdown of language that ends with "IOU, y love?" However, the technique sometimes slips into some pseudo-rap. For example, "Three or More Dimensions" has a strong opening: "Let me explain how things came to be, / And how language gave birth to reality … The line went exploring his whole new dimension, / Moving down the page by act of indention." While by no means a shallow rhyme scheme, I do believe that Hoeg's stronger poems are the shorter ones, almost in an Imagist fashion—they seem to resonate more.
Speaking of rapping, another factor that contributes to Hoeg's charm is the rhyme. This device is strongly preferred and employed in almost all the poems. While some poets consider rhyming poems old-fashioned, Hoeg uses it to deliver his jumpy and hard-hitting punchlines. Whether it is relationship advice, the dankness of the Philippines, memories of Hong Kong or depressive Finns, the poems have a strong, lingering end.
Lastly, the poems in in the collection work because they drag you by the sleeve of your shirt, then hit you in the face as hard as they can. One might find them simple and playful, yet behind that lies a whole theory and philosophy of language—backed by ancient Greek philosophers, Daoism, myths, a bit of French, among other things. To me, it seems that Irreverent Poems for Pretentious People, moving beyond its sarcastic title, is the poetic equivalent of a Tinder match with a good opener after mindless swiping: it draws you in, it's playful, it has good pick-up lines and it asks you out for a date (the good kind), beers included.