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Feature: The Low Countries
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Douglas Messerli

Three reviews: Hugo Claus, Remco Campert, Hans Faverey

A One-legged Dance

Hugo Claus Greetings (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2005). Translated from the Dutch by John Irons.

Soon after having finished a review of Hugo Claus’s novel Desire and having put the Project for Innovative Poetry anthology of the Dutch Fifiters—of whom Claus was a member—to press, I discovered that Harcourt had just published a new collection of Claus poems, which I immediately ordered through Amazon. Upon its receipt, however, I wondered perhaps if I’d ordered the wrong book. It seemed amazing to me that this poet, whose work—as the fiction above suggests—often portrayed an almost brutal depiction of sex and the human beast, might have a book titled, Greetings, as if the bitter ironist I knew had suddenly joined the card writers of Hallmark. If there was one thing that Claus never seemed to do was to merrily “greet” his readers. The strange photograph on the cover, depicting, I presume, I underside of a bridge (in Flanders?) continued my confusion. Was Claus’s dark vision being presented as a “soaring bridge” between beings. The poem which with the volume began—inexplicably reprinted on the book’s back cover—was, moreover, one of the worst poems by Claus I had ever read. Its end rhymed lines, “crow/glow,” “ways/ablaze,” etc and its conventional subject matter—the days become shorter, “slighter than a butterfly,” all because of love—seemed almost unrecognizable of what I knew of the Claus canon.
     Who was this translator, John Irons (the internet suggests he may be a British translator living in Odense, and, if it is the same gentleman, a rather tepid poet—

pa was six days gone
in a coffin of pale wood
clad in a white shroud
with pale blue ribbons

begins one of his “Pa” poems titled “Farewell”)—and what was the standard for the poems which he had chosen? The book contained neither introduction nor introductory note, no substantial statement about Claus (a short 6-line bio and photograph appear on a jacket leaf) and, even more oddly, no copyright line, which would at least tell us from which of his books the poems had been collected. It was if the book had simply willed itself into English.*
      Although I would have chosen another selection of Claus’s poems—particularly when it comes to the rhymed sonnet-sequence of 12 pages near the end of the book (the alternating and sequential rhymes—“design/Einstein,” “detect/neck,” “damp/camps,” etc nearly drown out any message that the poet might have wanted to convey)—there are, nonetheless, important poems in this volume representing some of Claus’s best writing.
     As I have indicated—and the vast majority of these poems support my argument—Claus’s Flanders is a dark world, a place of “Sparse song dark thread / Land like a sheet / That sinks… ,” a world in which “A glass man falls out of a pub and breaks.” If the recurring themes of his poetry seem predictable and almost maudlin—the difficulty of growing older (what I described above as the “rickety-boned” subject matter of Desire, and his life-long love of his wife and man’s desires in general)—Claus’s presentation of these subjects is quite the opposite of sentimentality: the wife and husband as represented in his elegiac poem “Still Now,” for example, battle out their life and love, he “scratching and clawing for her undersize no-man’s-land,” she a “giggling executioner,” beheading him in her “cool glistening wound.” The poem ends with an image of their continuing struggles:

Still now riveted in her fetters and with the bloody nose
of lovers I say, filled with her blossoming spring:
“Death, torture the earth no longer, do not wait, dear death,
for me to come, but do as she does and strike now!”

Again in the poem “His Prayers,” Claus presents the act of loving—something he often portrays in crude and occasionally scatological terms—as a kind of beautiful punishment:

I dreamed I pulled off my eyelashes
and gave them to you, merciful one,
and you blew on them as on a dandelion,
oh, hold back your punishing hand!
… …
—I submit
to your pleasure

There is a sense of submission, in fact, in nearly all of Claus’s poems. The world of his Flanders is, in its stench of human misery and flesh, highly unjust: “Do not talk about the natural hygiene of the universe / which justifies death (from “His Notes for ‘Genesis 1.1’”). In one of his most parable-like poems, “Elephant,” Claus spells out this perpetual cycle of love and destruction which ends nearly always in his work in submission and death: meeting an elephant, the narrator and the beast become “good friends,” until one day he catches the animal “giving me a look. / an ice-cold look, a plaice’s look.”

Then I put on my wishing cloak
I donned my wig of cunt-hair
and topped it with my dreaming cap
with circle, stars, and stripes,
and then I recited my formula of murder
from the Catalogue of Changeable Signs
The elephant was an instant corpse.
Without a sigh he fell on his rump
and rumbled, crumbled, tumbled into ash,

But if the world is unjust, its inhabitants are heroes for simply living. The image of the one-legged dance (reminding me of the tradition of Flemish painting) appears again and again in Claus’s poetry. It is the dance itself, as painful and impossible as it is, that redeems the brutal world he evokes. In the poem “Simple” he weaves several of his dominant themes—love, submission, fear, death—together

the two of us dance on just one leg.
When I kneel at your knees
and I bring you to your knees
we are fragments full of pity and danger
for each other.
With chains around their necks
the dogs of love come.

That is not what I might describe as a world of “greetings,” but there is no question that Claus’s vision is of a humane redemption of the sorrow and suffering we all must face.

*I have since discovered on the translator’s website that the poems include the works of Claus’s ik schrijf je neer with the exception of two poems. Irons is indeed the author of the “Pa Poems.” I believe readers would have been better served to know this information and the fact that John Irons has translated a great many other Dutch, Danish, and Swedish and Norwegian poets as well.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 2 (March-April 2006)

A Simplicity of Saying

Remco Campert, This Happened Everywhere: Selected Poems, translated from the Dutch by Manfred Wolf (San Francisco: Androgyne Books, 1997).

Remco Campert

Of the major Dutch experimentalists of the group known as the “vijt-tigers” or The Fiftiers — consisting of Bert Schierbeck, Jan G. Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Lucebert, Sybren Polet, Hugo Claus, Remco Campert, and others — Campert most resisted the radical experimentalism with which their poems are associated. Nowhere is this made more apparent than in this small, rather badly produced, collection.
     At his best, in poems such as “Sparrows,” “Falling,” “Hurray, Hurrah,” “Poetry Is an Act… ,” and “A flag on a device,” Campert combines everyday observations, social concerns, and his recurring theme of love in a disjunctive, often humorous narrative that unsettles the reader just enough to transform the banal into a kind of wondrous inevitability. Some of his best poems, collected in The Year of the Strike (1968), reveal a joyful self-consciousness that generates the excitement of the poem:

No, it was Caligula, fat
Half-bald and 29
(if you remember that winter),
a dishonorable, prosaic death
in the darkened entrance to a theater
at the whispering hands of an assassin.
… … … … … … … … ..

    (from “Sparrows”)

The poems of the new collection, This Happened Everywhere, chosen evidently from a number of Campert’s books, reveal little of that joy and even less of his considerable craft. The poems brought together by Wolf center upon two themes: love (Campert’s lifelong topic) and old age. Throughout this tiresome assemblage, the poet speaks directly to the reader about the futility of poetry itself:

The way you move
through the room from the bed
to the table with the comb
no line will ever move–

… … … … … … … … .

The way you’re silent
with your blood in my back
through your eyes into my neck
no poetry will ever be silent.

      (from “A Futile Poem”)

Too many writers, it seems to me, fall into the delusion as they age that a simplicity of saying what one means necessarily results in a more honest poetry. Indeed, most of these poems presume a shared world with the reader, and accordingly, fail to communicate much else but the sentiments of the media for the nostalgia of the past:


When I die
I hope that you’re with me,
that I’m looking at you,
that you’re looking at me,
that I can still feel your hand.

Then I’ll die quietly,
then no one need be sad.
Then I’ll be happy.

The reader has little admission to such private desires. Let him knock instead on the door of the three good poems of this collection: “As in a Dream,” “Someone Poses the Question,” and “Lamento”:

Here now   along the long deep water
that I thought I thought that you always
that you always

here now   along the long deep water
where behind the shore’s reeds   behind the sun
that I thought you that you always but always

that always your eyes   your eyes and the air
always your eyes and the air
always rippling   in the water rippling

  (from “Lamento”)

Los Angeles, 1997
Reprinted from Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, No. 2 (August 2003).


Hans Faverey, Against the Forgetting: Selected Poems, translated by Francis R. Jones (New York: New Directions, 2004)

Hans Faverey

Born in 1933 in Paramaribo, Surinam, poet Hans Faverey moved to Amsterdam as a child and lived there until his death in 1990. Faverey was one of those rare individuals who combined the scientific mind—he worked as a clinical psychologist—with music—he played and composed for the harpsichord—and poetry—he published eight volumes of  poems and won several of the Dutch major literary awards.
     Now, through the good graces of New Directions and translator Francis R. Jones we have a new US edition of his selected poems, Against the Forgetting. Faverey wrote short abstractly modulated lyrics, most often in sequences or “cycles.” Unfortunately, in this collection we are presented very few complete sequences, with 28 of the 33 sequences represented being incomplete. It is difficult therefore to get the sense of Faverey’s poetic “pace” in English. It appears the separate sections of each sequence are only tangentially related with regard to images and subject matter, and are generally connected only through formal devices; but it would have helped to have a just a few more complete cycles in translation to see how they function.
     One of my favorite works of the volume, indeed, presents a complete cycle: “Chrysanthemums, Rowers,” which begins with a seemingly static image: chrysanthemums in a vase on a table, an image which Faverey immediately deflates as, with Gertrude Stein-like logic, he reverses himself: “these / are not the chrysanthemums / which are by the window / on the table / in the vase.” Clearly, the words with which he has begun are meant to be understood differently from a still-life in someone’s house or apartment. As he makes clear in the second part of the cycle, these words are like a photograph, an image of something real, a mirror of reality which, like a mirror, reverses its image (just as he has reversed his original image in the second stanza of the poem), making it difficult for the perceiver to recognize that it represents himself and the world in which he stands. As objects, moreover, photograph and mirror cannot recognize anyone. It is only in the human mind, one’s own living hand or “a hand that wants to belong to me” that actually “is” something that, as it covers the eyes, can be understand as a part of the self coming towards one from space. Objects, the still-life he has first presented might be misunderstood as revealing meaning, but it is only as these objects are internalized in thought that their “meaning” can be revealed. The poet perceives “The utter emptiness / in every thing, which actually is,” Mind over matter, so to speak, is Favery’s true subject in this poem; as the rowers row further inland, in their mythology, they row until the water is gone, rowing into the overgrown landscape, a land without rowers, an “over- / rown land.” The final pun closes the argument, as we recognize the poem as a thing of art, an artifice as opposed to mimesis or a representation.
     Even though the translator does not feature many such complete texts, the reader does quickly perceive that this issue is at the heart of most of Favery’s writing, and  process of composing and decomposing, building and unbuilding a world of  language, is at the heart of his vision. I will present three examples as a kind of random evidence of this pattern in Favery’s poems:

It is snowing

but is no longer snowing.
When it started to snow
I went to the window;

I went missing.

Sometime then,

just before the snow started
falling again, into great,
ever slower flakes,
it must also have

stopped snowing.

[from “Sur place”]


Now it is here;

now it is not-here.
How it thrusts through itself
takes place between not yet
and nevermore. Once under

way, it moves neither where
it is, nor where it is not.
Given free rein
it keeps slipping from who
stands fast: now from one

now from another… .

[from “My Little Finger”]


Where the apricot tree
stood still then
I stand still now.

Between the gladioli
I know the spot
where she stood then:
she threw me the apricot—
then. Now,

as memory does with itself
what it will, we begin
biting once more, almost
in unison, between

the maize plants; she her
apricot, I my apricot;

while the little foxes still prowl
through the vineyard, and the sea,
whispering: she is not with me;
no, you will not find it here;
she is not in me.

[from “Lightfall”]

In the earliest poems of this collection, this process of evolving and devolving images and language results, indeed, in a kind of “standstill,” a word repeated in several of Faverey’s poems. The poet alternates between these two actions as he moves from the “real” world (or perhaps we should say the “unreal” world) of space to the world of the mind, the truly “real” world of experience. As each “reality” takes back its own meaning, the reader is left with a sense of emptiness—like a lover who was there but is no longer, like a perceiver who, in lifting a stone, finds in his hand an object that is “no longer a stone,” but a thing of language.
     In later work Faverey recasts this image of a “standstill” into a image of a spider at work on its web, a Penelope-like figure who weaves and unweaves each day, destroying its creation and itself in the very process of creating it:

The dolphin swimming in front of the ship
keeps swimming in front of the ship
until there is definitely no longer
a dolphin swimming in front of a ship.

Favery’s work, accordingly, will not be for those who see a poem as a lifesaver of meaning in a world a chaos. Rather, his poems reveal the process of life itself as an ever-shifting, changing force that destroys the perception at the very moment of perceiving the world’s “merciless beauty.”

Los Angeles, September 21, 2005
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 1 (January-February 2006)