Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

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Posted: January 20, 2019 in Chat
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1
We live our lives like baited traps,
hope to catch ourselves, or someone else there,
partner, politician, stance, or cause,
to validate us, perhaps.

As though our living on longing
reconfigures us
and the thousand compromises life is
are steps back – refusals – away
from our own responsibility.

The longing for authenticity
turning lives stale;
the precincts, parks, streets
we scabbed knees on, worked on,
the cities our lives made,
are provisional,
plaster-board mock-ups.

And to remember is an act of betrayal,
almost:
an action, yes, but not itself
the living moment.

2
Waiting with the patience of trappers in the outback,
on the edge of wildness, for whatever-it-is.

You will not know it until you name it, its features
figured in red in the sounding stomach, cave wall.

Your rites and enticements are enactments,
feints to habituate wonder, excitement.

Anything to keep out the emptiness that chills.
But waiting and arrival are parts of the whole;

it carries these shadows around with it always:
promise, possibility, renewal.

As long as they are near, you say,
if only to yourself, in private, at night.

 

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From one window a woman’s voice
an aria from Mozart, a clear cool breeze
in thick night heat.

Another window, a parrot flying,
a tropical storm trapped behind glass;
a noise like heaven tearing.

This window is empty, no one home
or elsewhere: shift workers
before early call. These I have known.

Here a laugh, a conversation;
an insistence of children, rolling banter,
close-woven tones of communion.

Another a blue flicker of a tv
and nothing else; the curtains open,
the night falling in like isolation.

Here the crackle of an argument
already full-throttle, self-feeding;
ending inevitable, origins forgotten.

And in and between each window, holes
gaping in the night’s fabric.
The hot night stalking restless.

 

1
There are many more types of poetic expression than the personal lyric. The lyric has become predominant at the present time because of political and ideological factors: we look to the self as the source and sole repository of values; we value personal experience as the only trustable source of knowledge of the world.

The idea and ideal of community has been tugged from beneath us; likewise the ideal of a sense of futurity, of progress, to be replaced by an all-encompassing political climate where our lives seem wholly regulated by bodies of authority. Lecturer Peter Middleton quotes Julia Kristeva to effect here: “… capitalism has isolated us, in ‘islands of discourse’.” (i.e. from John Donne’s “No man (one) is an island” to the Thatcherite statement that there is no such thing as society. We may hate it as it is, but we do have to deal with it).
And who knows how to deal with the Big Society notion, at one point broken – a toy? a piece of machinery? – at another, the country as a private business in need of saving (- from everyone else?).

2
Christensen mostly used the playful, highly mathematical writing experiments of the French experimental OuLiPo group.
Although not a signed-up member, it can be seen that she uses many of their techniques. The most decisive are the use of strict mathematical superstructures, and insistence upon quality of sound. OuLiPo was a movement originally based around the writer Raymond Queneau, and incorporated George Perec (Life: A User’s Manual, and A Void, a novel that, when written in French only used words that do not contain the letter ‘e’). Queneau was a mathematician, and so the group tended to use highly complex mathematical structures for their writing.

One of the many listed OuLiPo experiments is that of using multiple perspectives to explore a given situation. One published example of this is B S Johnson’s novel, House Mother Normal (1971), which offers a perspective per chapter from each of the members of a nursing home, in explaining (or not) the event of the story. You cannot but wonder about Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1860), where the members of a court case each give their evidence, full of conflicting events, asides, and all the riches of the personalities involved. OuLiPo does acknowledge predecessors, designating them “anticipatory plagiarists” (: Mind Performance Hacks). One OuLiPo virtue is a mischievous sense of humour.

Christensen’s Watersteps (2001) takes us through five Roman piazzas, each with a fountain, and the same red car. There are eight similar ‘classes’ each with five ‘sections’, one for each piazza; and each ‘class’ has five components. This is a rigorous math.

Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things sequence of four lots of twelve poems, each of twelve lines in length, also points to a possible OuLiPo construction. Why twelve? Is twelve an expression of completion? We have to ask these things, because they have an intended significance.
Most recently we now have poems created upon use of the mathematical concept of pi called Pilish – or “piems” – where the number of letters of successive words is determined by pi.

All these ‘experiments’ are only unofficially recognised aspects of rhetoric, an expanded, up-dated use of age-old techniques of persuasion (can we read that ‘persuasion’ as marketing, advertising?).

3
The Fibonacci mathematical system was ideal for OuLiPo purposes. The Fibonacci sequence runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. The implications of this system, first devised by a Cardinal soon to be Pope, are astounding, both for mathematics, and physics.

In Alphabet the repeated phrase of paragraph 1:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
mirrors the first two numbers of Fibonacci – 1 and 1. The system begins with 1 repeated, and so here the phrase is similarly repeated. It is also a numerical device of implication; where 1 is a prime number; it is also the main focus of a network of negative and positive numerical sequences, of decimals and fractions: 1 is never 1, it is the consequence of its positioning, and it is that that is evoked here. The reiteration of the clause emphases 1’s position in the matrix of math. As in the Fibonacci sequence we do not begin with 1 but with 0, in effect on the blank page preceding.

We are also required to read here that apricot stones carry a poisonous pit. As we begin with the beginning: A, and a new myth of creation, we are also required to read here that within the first creation is the means of its end. Or maybe not so equivalent: maybe, just that a degree of toxicity is necessary for life. And also, that, like the mark of Cain, is a part of creation from the very beginning.

By combining number with alphabet, Christensen is taking us back to the earliest use of languages, Sumerian, Attic Greek, but with a more modern twist.

With paragraph 2 we have:
bracken exists; and blackberries,blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen.

Already on a linguistic level we have an incantatory pattern forming. On the chemical level we now have bromine and hydrogen. Bromine, like hydrogen, is potentially lethal. As, indeed, are the seeds of bracken. This new pastoral suggestion now allows us a reading that suggests an early, a volatile, Precambrian period in our scientific creation myth. We now have three levels of reading: of the text, of chemistry, and botany. If we accept the time scale, four levels: botany, chemistry, textual, and time.

As a reviewer notes: “The useless abundance of bracken, succulent berries — and corrosive bromide: the unbalanced mix all around us. Hydrogen seems, here, almost safe, but the “bomb” suffix is not long in coming.”
Alphabet was written during the 1970s, a period that lived under and reacted to, above all else, the possibility of immanent nuclear war, the atomic bomb.

With 3/C we get:
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

The levels expand: arboriculture, botany, chemistry, entomology, physiology: from basic classifications, to subclassifications. We move from Platonic forms, through Aristotelian classification, to our modern forms of knowledge. And zeroing in from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the external world to the brain’s inner world, as source and site of knowledge, intelligence: self consciousness as the self’s consciousness.

Following the Fibonacci/alphabetical systems through the book we arrive at N, with six hundred and ten lines. Mathematically ‘n’ can be any number.

So far in the poem sequence, we have moved from basic forms to gradually emerge into a world of killing, the hydrogen bomb, pain. It must be remembered that mathematics is the vehicle of proof for the sciences. And the sciences, as amply illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance work on armaments, capable of application to many and varied fields of human activity both peaceful and not.

With 5-E (eight lines) we also get, delightfully (in the Danish the predominant consonant is E, which also ushers in a dominant alliterating pattern):

early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every detail exists; memory, memory’s light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms, junipers, soreness, loneliness
exist;
eider ducks; spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future.

With 13-M and 14-N we arrive at actual times, with dates:
morning June twentieth……..evening June
sixteenth….morning June twenty-sixth.

To get here we travel through excerpts from lives, suggestions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and:

in mid-November, a season
when all human dreams are the same,
a uniform, blotted out history
like that of a sun-dried stone

a couple of mute parents stand there,
a dog, and some children run around,
an arrival they try to imagine
as water that’s raised to my mouth

I lay sleeping inside my hotel room;
:from ‘12/L’

These are the stories we have inside ourselves we cannot always make sense of, but continue to pick over in our isolated moments.

‘13/M’ begins with:

metal, the ore in the mountains, exists
and then explores the hidden or covered things:
darkness in mine shafts, milk not let down
from mothers’ breasts, an ingrown dread where

whisperings exist, whisperings exist
the cells’ oldest, fondest collusion

consider this market, consider this import
and export of fathers, half bullies
half tortured soldiers, consider…..

to

layered light, as if behind
layers in a fresco the snow
on the mountains, its shapes……..

13 also replicates the Fibonacci numbering in stanza lengths. We have five, eight, then thirteen line stanzas, and then followed by new sets. The interweaving of themes and items from earlier sections tie-in here; we once again come across bromine, but applied differently, and apricot trees: their applications multiply and evoke moments from a life, from an ideal of living. The fabric grows wonderfully rich and rewarding, full of complex patternings.

4
Where the lyric concentrates images, their reverberations, networks of associations, within as small a compass as possible, Inger Christensen, especially in her earlier work It – of which Alphabet is in some ways an admitted response – schematises rather than concentrates. Structurally it is very strictly arranged into three sections whose line count is, in the original, very tightly controlled: each line of Prologos has sixty-six characters in the original; Prologos has eight sections.

The body of the book, Logos, consists of three sections: Stage, Action, Text each of which has eight sub-sections: symmetries/ transitivities/ continuities/ connectivities/ variabilities/ extensions/ integrities/ universalities.

These subsections “attempt to analyse and categorise the words that language’s use to show relationship… as applying to the network of relationships… writing builds up as it goes along “ ( Ann Carson, from Introduction). All this in no way lessens the effectiveness of expression, but allows the playout of implications to be fully explicit. The intent of It is to be a ‘philosophical and political exploration of the nature of language, perception, and reality.’

If there is a reference in this work to The Book of the It, a precursor to Freudian psychoanalytical explorations, by George Groddeck, I suspect it has been subsumed and overridden early on.

5
It must be noted that the Fibonacci system deals also with the proof of the Golden Mean.
Christensen exhibited a growing concern with ecological matters, as evident in her Butterfly Valley: Requiem. This sequence is a series of conventional sonnets, the last line acting as the opening line of the following sonnet in traditional style. The last sonnet of the sequence, sonnet fifteen, consists of all opening/closing lines. This sequence perhaps represents her approach to that Golden Mean.

Charles Lock and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, in their Guardian obituary notice, noted of Butterfly Valley: Requiem ‘the division of… 14 lines having been recognised in the Renaissance as akin to “the golden ratio“.

Can we read Christensen’s major works as working towards this great ideal, this universal; of the possibility of the concept of ultimate meaning in all the apparent randomness of the world?

Are the images Christensen uses purely random? And do we mean by that ‘mathematically random’? Is it random in the way that creation appears to be random? Is there such a thing as random? All these questions are implied by the system she uses. She requires a response from the reader: for her writing is part of a two-way process.

We may have lost all sense of security, safety; Inger Christensen here posits the possibility of a higher sense of stability, of a grand working towards/unravelling of, a nontheistic scheme of things of which we are all a part of; in effect, where we are perhaps the instruments of the process.

6
New Directions, the American publishers, are currently republishing her work. Her earlier three books were recently re-issued as one, and well-worth reading: Light, Grass, and Letter In April. See:

https://www.ndbooks.com/author/inger-christensen/

They are also to publish a collection of her essays, The Condition of Secrecy, in 2019.
New Direction also publish one of her novels, Azorno:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Azorno-Directions-Paperbook-Inger-Christensen/dp/0811216578/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1546017892&sr=1-8&keywords=Inger+Christensen

whilst The Painted Room, is published by the Harvill Press:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Painted-Room-Inger-Christensen/dp/1860465935/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1546017954&sr=1-1&keywords=Inger+Christensen%2C+the+painted+room

An earlier non-fiction book, The Meaning of Metafiction, is still available through Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Meaning-Metafiction-Inger-Christensen/dp/8200056929/ref=sr_1_50?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1546017685&sr=1-50&keywords=Inger+Christensen

 

In my piece on Henrik Nordbrandt I mentioned the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof as one reference point. Pia Tafdrup has also spoken out in favour of Gunnar Ekelof’s work. She comes in from a completely different direction. Much of her poetic sensibility is based on the feminist critiques and theories of Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous; her body-centred explorations of the here and now utilise the rhythms and languages of desire.

For Pia Tafdrup writing the body is very much that of the ‘Écriture feminine’ of Helene Cixous, and of Elaine Showalter who writes, “… the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text.”. Écriture feminine places “experience before language, and privileges non-linear, cyclic writing that evades the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.”

The book Spring Tide, translated by Ann Born, Tafdrup describes as just one aspect of her writing: Spring Tide and White Fever constitute two parts, while The Bridge of Sounds became a third quantity, which could not have been thought of without the preceding ones. Seen like this the three works are related to one another as thesis-antitheses-synthesis… A continuous, dynamic praxis.’ (Walking Over the Water. 1991).

It has been noted by some that Tafdrup set out from the beginning to be one of the top Danish writers; something like W H Auden’s career plan in English. And yet she has not been so beholden to the Danish canon. Her earlier works have been controversial, foregrounding the body, sensual experience, women’s perspectives. Her travelling companion in this was Marianne Larsen, whose writing, “analyse(s) sexual repression, class struggles and imperialism…”. Pia Tafdrup’s  previous book, The Innermost Zone, 1983 “sets out to explore unknown regions of the body and mind…” that is, unknown in literature. Pia Tafdrup’s assault on the canon has always been from a radical perspective. Her concerns echo Rosemarie Tong’s comment on Helene Cixous: “(Helene – sic) Cixous urged women to… the unthinkable/unthought… in words”.

Pia Tafdrup’s two major volumes are Spring Tide (1985) and Queen’s Gate (2001). There is detectable a move from “short lines… mounting impatient rhythm… ‘(Horace Engdahl) to “a many-voiced, multi-layered…” (Bloodaxe) style. In between we have the Arkpoem (1994); a very different experiment in form, it opens:

I was writing this long and labyrinthine poem in which I opened up

 and at the same time stepped into that openness, stillness, with a white voice

 as word after word drank from its stream, and the further the poem extended

 the more difficult it became, its syntax gradually transforming underway…

 

Her structure here is the cyclic exploration of self and the world as outlined by Elaine Showalter in her writings on feminist theory.

In 1991 she published Walking Over the Water. Outline of a Poetics. (part-translated by David MacDuff), a long series of meditations examining and elaborating upon her working methods. A key part of her strategy for major recognition. At every point it can seen her intent has been to situate the feminist perspective within the Danish canon.

The great appeal of Spring Tide lies in its sensuous, breathless lines: “…to write the syntax of desire…to a great degree demonstrate it…” (The Syntax of Desire, author’s foreword). The book is based around the first recognition, enjoyment, waning, and loss of desire “in all its manifestations…”:

Spring Tide

                 I lie down

                 bare myself

                I’ll be your animal

                  for a moment

                 with senses stretched out

                 between neck and heel

spring tide

           ……………………………………………………..

Spring Tide is a book honed on public performance. The incantatory effect, the feel of transgression, the building rhythmic force of these lines all must have been electrifying.

In the structure of this poem, its paralleling of clauses, we have something of kin with perhaps, a rhapsodic, biblical style.

It is not all pleasure and sunshine, however. As Horace Engdahl comments: “Her poetry has a shadow side… the prevailing season… is actually winter, the harsh, windy Danish winter with its endless wet snow.” And it is. The reader does not notice at first, but predominantly it is very much desire in warm places.

This darker side makes itself more known in the later book of aphoristic four-liners The Thousandborn:

                            Don’t look for poetry’s black box,

                            it hasn’t recorded any answers,

                            ……………………………………………………………….. 

 It is perhaps she is indeed “demonstrating …all its manifestations..”, even the desire for the dark, the cold, that is a part of all our make-ups.

Queens Gate (translated by David MacDuff) at times achieves a great elegance of line and phrase:

                             Clear is the water, blue as in a flame,

                            like a sky that floats,

                          ………………………………………………………

from The Shining River)

and

                            Here an undercurrent gathers,

                            here is a well with water

                            ……………………………………………………….

                            and the creatures still cry.

from The Acacia Valley

There is the kind of almost classical reticence here, and a tone that the Scottish Gaelic writers often achieved.

As can be seen, the two poems are water-based in their imagery; the whole book with its nine sections gestates a mythology of origins:

From water you have come.

                                                          The Shining River

The “white voice” of the ‘Ark’ poem echoes the ‘white ink’ of Écriture feminine.

1
When we consider modern Danish poetry three names come uppermost: Henrik Nordbrandt, Inger Christensen and Pia Tafdrup.
Why these three in particular? It is probably because their work has met with the best response from European readers.

They also define three main directions of modern Danish poetry.
The late Inger Christensen worked within the wide field of textual experimentation. This field is, in many ways, the most challenging; it calls into question, through its reassessments of language use the meaning and value of the self, of society, ideas of progress, the intrinsic possibility of reform, change, improvement etc. Her use of structure is very original, employing rationales and bases from outside the literary field.

With Pia Tafdrup we meet a writer very much a part of a feminist exploration of the world. Hers is a sensuous and taboo-breaking poetry. Her European best seller Spring Tide (1983) explored an erotic, sensuous awareness of the body in and through nature.
Her prize-winning Queens Gate (2001) further explored the author’s myth-making nature, while with her later long single poem Ark, written for a Nordic Prize occasion, she breaks out of the short lines and breathless rhythms, into a much longer line and more extended cyclic structure.

Inger Christensen and Pia Tafdrup both look to France for ideas: Inger Christensen to writers like Stephane Mallarme, Paul Valery, for their focus on the text, and further, to the writings of Roland Barthes and the Semiotic movement. Her name is often connected with the French Oulipo group (Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino etc) of text experiments.
Pia Tafdrup can be seen to respond to the feminist body-consciousness and language ideas of Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Henrik Nordbrandt, on the other hand, shares some of the awareness of the musical possibilities of language inherent in Stephane Mallarme and Paul Valery, that Inger Christensen also applied to her own work.

What is of particular interest is that Écriture feminine places “experience before language…” (Elaine Showalter).
This is also one of the great appeals of Inger Christensen’s writing method, her part in the ‘systematic poetry’ movement: where Pia Tafdrup takes the pressure from the solely textual concept of writing and focuses it on the intent, the ‘desire’ of language: not so much Roland Barthes, more Jacques Derrida, Inger Christensen mediates language through the interpolation of artificial forms. The poetry of both is enabled by the use of non-poetic structures, whether of thought/theory, or of form. For Henrik Nordbrandt the non-poetic enabler is the objective life, in effect, his peripatetic lifestyle.

2
With Henrik Nordbrandt we have a finely tuned classicism, a classicism against which other experiments in poetry measure themselves. His is a gay, slightly exotic presence, reporting back from Istanbul, Greece, the Mediterranean, to the northern, and by necessity of geography, and climatology, buttoned-up sensibility.
With a number of his Danish contemporaries still tangling with the strictures of Christian belief, Henrik Nordbrandt must represent something slightly pantheistic.
He has been greatly influenced by the mood and temperament of Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, and like him writes an exquisite line, full of snatched joys and melancholy.

Robin Fulton as admirably translated Henrik Nordbrandt for Dedalus Press.
Henrik Nordbrandt’s China Observed Through Greek Rain in Turkish Coffee – the title itself, with its digressive clauses, is as much a précis of his poetic style as it is an example of his characteristic wit – is on one level a poem concerned with the resourcefulness of the imagination, how it can bend time and space, and through the image of the semi-willow pattern figure within the cup, take us further from the humdrum into the possibility of hope:

…the Chinaman
sees the sun appear through a green leaf
which has fallen into the cup

the cup whose contents
are now completely clear.
(ibid)

The cup can be said to symbolise the insularity of the self, a self reliance – which in itself is a commentary on a state of emotional poise, a pause between the pull of desire, and the fall of loss, that brief state of self possession.
A Greek rain falls into the cup, displacing the contents, revealing the Chinese figure: this encapsulates Immanuel Kant’s ideas of the self and the world each in their separate sphere, as well as demonstrating the classical objective correlative of T S Eliot, but taken on, made Henrik Nordbrandt’s own.

In another reading, this is a poem ultimately of loss, using the standard pathetic fallacy of rain as tears. Again, he takes it further: the rain overflows the poised cup of the self, self possession becomes the loss of the possession of the other. Just as the narrator’s self is absent as a persona from the poem, so, by extension, is ‘the other’ absent as a presence.
The old man in the cup, with long white beard and eyes either burned to cinders or self absorbed, reflects a possible future as a survivor of desire, an ascetic in his self sufficiency. (Odd how many who claim to have sublimated desire are of an age when desire tends to die down naturally.)

Fullness and emptiness are two of the possible readings, and map out Henrik Nordbrandt’s particular developing metaphysic, as elaborated upon by Lars Arndel:
“…double consciousness… on the one hand actual presence is a constant point of reference. The other presence becomes most conspicuous and authentic when it is withdrawn…”
Gerald Rosch notes: “ (Henrik Nordbrandt)… conjures up a world where loss and fulfilment occur simultaneously. Presence, arrival and possession cannot erase absence, departure and loss… man is on the move without knowing where to”. We can see this clearly in the very fine poem below:

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
…………………………………………………………

But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
…………………………………………………………………….
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each
other.

: Sailing

Henrik Nordbrandt has developed an experiential system of values; the active imagination is capable of bridging memory and time. This is the motif behind his award-winning book Dream Bridges, which won him the Nordic Literary Prize in 2000. Memory cannot be trusted, any more than time itself, to record and hold human values.

The summer is over.
It was like the other summers
as much as they were like each other
and were different

and as the Easter Island statues
opened their eyes
the moment one turned one’s back on them.

And each summer
remembered more than what happened.

: Portrait Of The Heroine, Far Out At Sea
(Off-Shore Wind, 2001)

One reference point is the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof. We can see Gunnar Ekelof’s influence in the epigrammatical concrete form capturing a metaphysical content:

No matter where we go, we always arrive too late
to experience what we left to find.
and in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it’s too late to spend a
moonlit night

…………………………………………………….
that disturbs us with their intangible presence.

: No Matter Where We Go

This is especially prominent in the later poetry:

The light stands flickering in its column, that
bears nothing.
.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
I asked for water and you gave me sour wine.
I drank from a corroded cup beneath dark icons
I asked to die, you gave me gold to stay.
I asked for a story, you gave me my own.
…………………………………………………………………..
Each day here costs us a century in the kingdom of
death.
: Near Lephkas

Henrik Nordbrandt and Pia Tafdrup look to the language of desire, a predicated use of language.

 

The Poet’s Wife

Posted: December 2, 2018 in Chat
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All he remembered was her undressing
and tuning into the night sounds of Venice.
For her it was the night fragmenting
around their son’s cough, and all that went with this.
She purposely did not look his way, to not betray
her irritation: He obviously would not
be fretting all night. Sleep had taken him anyway.
At least he won’t be pestering: she just could not.

The setting perfect, a cheap flight.
She blamed herself for coming to this bathtub’s
off-season chilly canals; the vapour rub
much more expensive here. She thought it might.
She counted off the minutes to their departure,
one for each cough. She wrote this
threw it away.

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/