Menno Wigman

Posted: November 18, 2018 in Chat
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Menno Wigman, the Dutch poet, is dead.

Ok, he died in February this year.
He was aged 51. He had been diagnosed with Loffler’s (I cannot get the  a to umlaut!) syndrome. Of only forty reported cases in the world, he was one.
‘How come I manage to go running around with it?’ he’d said.

He was born in 1966, in Santpoort, The Netherlands. He eventually relocated to Amsterdam in the eighties. Drummer for a punk band; self-published early poems. His drive and commitment to his work was consuming.
From 2012 to 2014 he became Amsterdam’s own Poet Laureate.

In 2016 the excellent Arc Publications (https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/) brought out Menno’s selected poems, WINDOW-CLEANER SEES PAINTINGS. It is Number 40, of Arc’s Visible Poets series, and translated by David Colmer.

The first poem in the book, from his first book, All Cities Stink in the Summer, 1997, opens:
Ik zag de grootste geesten van mijn generatie…. translated as
I saw the best minds of my generation….

Yep, we start of with a bang, quoting Allen Ginsburg. The tone is low-key, enervated. In sonnet-form, it ends :
They came too late. Their promise unredeemed.
   The cities gleamed as black as caviar.

And whose last line gives the title of his next book.
More and more his models, his emotional brothers, became Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, poets of that period, the ‘dark Romantics.’. He described the appeal as that of recognising with them that one lived in the ‘end time.’ A fascination with a falling-off, then, that went hand-in-hand with the revelation of the riches in the here-and-now.

The poem that first caught my attention was Misunderstanding, from the next book. It starts:

This will not be an upbeat poem. And why
I’d even let the secret slip’s a mystery to me….

We’re straight into liminal regions, places where nothing is as it seems, not certain, but part of the flux of one’s being.

But no, I was wrong – the first poem of his that caught me was In Conclusion:
I know the melancholy of copy centres…


Technically he was very much a poet of steady, driving rhythms, strong metres. He used sonnet forms, pantoum (Hotel Night), half-rhyme, assonance.
‘You write poetry with a drum-kit in your head,’ another writer had commented.
It’s how to convey this layered interlacing was David Colman’s challenge. He gives in his introduction illustrations of the original sound and rhythm structure of lines, and his equivalences to these. This is priceless.

*

Menno Wigman also wrote as part of the Lonely Funerals scheme (see my last posting).
There are several pieces here from the scheme, and they reveal a lot about the way he worked, wrote, felt, hoped… was.

Beside Mrs P’s Council Coffin, begins:

Is she asleep? She is. After eighty-three years
of combing her hair three hundred and sixty-five
days a year, of walking to the shops and back….

He ushers us into an intimacy with her life, the personal and mundane; an identification with people as they show themselves to us. That is, the ordinary, that constitutes most of our lives, like it or not. It is our mastery or not, partial or fluctuating control, of the ordinary gives us our kudos, our tags, our recognisable social factors.
The last verse veers away from any demeaning sentimentality, any further diminishing of Mrs P as a person, the one lying dead there, in that plain council coffin:

…. Call it tragedy, rhythm, rhyme –
time, that dirty carnivore, ensures an end
   that stinks. But she’s asleep at last, asleep.
So cover her up, make sure her weary feet
          don’t need to tread the streets again.

What I especially appreciate about this verse is the range, how it veers from the reality of death, the dead body, to the humanity we shared and continue to share with her. That ability to shift register I applaud. And listen to its sound patterns: David Colmer gives good indications, even in this extract I quote, how the poems work to the ear.
In another Lonely Funerals poem, we see something altogether different:

Earth, Don’t Be Hard (this from his last collection, in 2016)

Earth, a virtuous body has now arrived.
A royal sun rose in it once,
its eyes shone brightly like a long July,
a breath of mellow twilight filled its lungs,
a spellbound moon traversed its breast.

He knew himself dying at this point. But if you need uplifting poetry, words to gladden and celebrate, here it is, this is it.

The palms of its hands felt water and stroked pets.
The soles of its feet kissed beaches and rocks. Insight.
A strange insight formed in its head, its tongue
grew sharp, its fingers found the fists they held,
it fought for bread and money, love and light.

Notice that ‘its‘ – there’s no ease of relationship; the sense of self has sharpened, become individualised, rather than considered a social statistic.

You can read an awful lot of books about it.
You can even written your own. Earth, don’t be hard
on this man who had at least a hundred keys,
but not a map or a compass for this blind path,
and now has come to spend his first night here.

His control of the change of register by this time was masterful: from the quiddity, the detail that could be mockery, of ‘the hundred keys,’ we go straight to the common fate, the all-end, to all our own blind endings on that same path to that first night in the grave.

– I don’t think Menno would mind me saying how that last line reminds me of that moment in the film, The Hunger, with Catherine Deneauve and David Bowie, when he was laid the first time among the ones who had gone before him, in that attic among the coffins: ‘Be gentle with him on his first night,’ she said tenderly to them. –

How well do you know the poetry of Jules Laforgue?
Let us consider this early poem, The  First Night.
It begins:

Here comes Evening, sweet to the old lecher…

It is the last verse, though, I call you to:

I imagine myself in the heart of the graveyard, and I put myself in their place, and I enter the coffins of those who are about to spend their first night here.
(plain prose translation by Graham Dunstan Martin, 1998, for Penguin Books).

This does not distract from Menno’s poem, but enhances. Jules Laforgue’s poem is almost flippant, it has the bravura of youth (he did not live long enough to outgrow it), but he given gravitas. It is interesting to see how that has been done.

Jules Laforgue was greatly enamoured of Schopenhauer, but his greatest love was Hartmann. With him he found a fellow-in-arms against the bourgeois world. Hartmann (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Robert_Eduard_von_Hartmann) created a distance, rather than empathy – though acknowledging that the two positions are intertwined, co-dependent.
It is here that I think Menno’s ‘it‘ (above) was found, his love-hate relationship with life, the world.

So, how do Menno’s poems work? I mentioned above his extensive use of metre and regular forms. For him metre and rhythm are what pulls the reader through the poem. Not following the sense, the argument.
This is important.
For Menno Wigman this was his secret, and on this he worked all his short life. There was an lot of ‘attitude’ in those early poems – Jules Laforgue, at times, seems all ‘attitude’ – but he matured into a compassionate writer.

https://www.trouw.nl/cultuur/menno-wigman-1966-2018-was-poezie-al-kon-hij-er-ook-aangenaam-over-somberen~a1192853/

https://www.neerlandistiek.nl/2018/02/in-de-poezie-heeft-niemand-gelijk-interview-met-menno-wigman/

 

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