Moments of Happiness by Neils Hav, Translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen

Jul 28, 2023

The cover art for Neils Hav’s Moments of Happiness features a wall with wallpaper and paint partially peeled away, revealing layer after layer of understory. In keeping with this image, Hav opens the collection with the line: “The battered inside of the cupboard under the kitchen sink / makes me happy.” (13) He goes on to describe this unlikely space in detail, reflecting on the passage of time and the many lives lived in the kitchen that contains the cupboard. Remarking on the original nails and a spider who can move about undisturbed, he establishes the playful—rueful, wistful—stripping down of everyday life that characterizes this collection.

Moments of Happiness is arranged in three parts labelled simply Parts I, II and III. The poems in all three parts are acts of recall and reflection, wry observations on the vagaries of modern life, or tender moments caught in a simple line with characteristic humour. In “The Cigar Cutter”, for example, Hav writes about a confirmation gift received from his grandfather, using it to consider his own choices against the backdrop of his grandfather’s social status and career. With teasing precision, he writes: “… There’s no use in saying, ‘Dear Grandfather, they’ve changed the world, / smoking is no longer allowed, even the bank director stands outside / in the rain now and smokes on the sly like a schoolboy.’ …” (24) Implicit here is the weight of expectations—how the choices we make, how we choose to be in the world, either mesh with or split away from family histories and dynamics. And how the world around us changes too, for better and for worse. He takes the idea of change further in the poem “The Funny Thing Is”, when he reflects on the ubiquitous use of cellphones and how each of us “… speaks on top of each other without concern / or with a phone held to the ear on the street, at the green grocer’s, / at the supermarkets, … .” (17) And yet, he continues, these same people out walking in the woods turn off their phones and lower their voices “… As though the majestic trees / or unknown spirits in the underbrush / are listening.” (17) There is comfort, Hav suggests, in silent contemplation and in looking closely at seemingly ordinary things. Consider the poem “Uncommon Sense”, in which he writes: “Most important is to avoid eternal things / and existential issues. Let’s talk about something ordinary, / like bicycles and the rain. … .” (36) Therein one may find happiness.

Moments of Happiness was translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen. In an interview in the Malahat Review, Friesen said that what draws him to translation is “the exercise of finding that space that satisfies, as much as possible, the original intention of the poem, and also satisfies an English reader.” In this translation, Brask and Friesen have used straight forward language to capture the humour and irreverence that animates Hav’s observations and commentaries on life.

Neils Hav is a Danish poet whose books have been widely translated. Per Brask and Patrick Friesen previously translated Hav’s God’s Blue Morris and We Are Here. Moments of Happiness is Niels Hav’s third book published in Canada. He lives in Copenhagen.

Moments of Happiness
by Niels Hav
Translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen
Anvil Press, 2021, 64 p.p., $15
ISBN: 9781772141870

Jody Baltessen is a Winnipeg poet, writer and archivist. Her work has appeared in Hamilton Arts and Letters (HA&L), Grain, Pangyrus, Poetry Pause (League of Canadian Poets), Prairie Fire, and The New Quarterly (TNQ). She was awarded first place in the 2022 McNally Robinson Poetry contest, third place in Grain’s 2022 Short Grain Contest, Poetry, and has been shortlisted for the Gwendolyn MacEwen/Exile Poetry Prize.

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