on Light Everywhere, poems by Cees Nooteboom, tr. by David Colmer (Seagull Books)

Cees Nooteboom’s first novel, Philip and the Others, was published in 1955, and the following year brought his first book of poems. Thirteen more collections and seven novels have followed. Born in The Hague in 1933, Nooteboom is a renowned literary figure in The Netherlands and Europe, though in the continent’s popular culture his 23 books of travel writing have eclipsed his achievements in poetry and even his novels. In fact, he received the Austrian State Prize for Literature several years before his own country awarded him its highest literary honor in 2009, the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren.

NooteboomFace.jpgThe 1983 publication of his novel Rituals in English opened the way to his first trip to America as a visiting writer, and in 1986 he arrived as Regents’ Lecturer at Berkeley. This residency led in turn to the first selection of his poems for an Anglophone audience, The Captain of the Butterflies, translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr (then respectively professor and comparative literature graduate student at Berkeley), published in 1997 by Sun & Moon Press with Nooteboom’s collaboration.

David Colmer’s new translations of selected poems, again with the poet’s involvement, represent only the second such sampling of Nooteboom’s poetry in English, though we have Colmer to thank for his translatioins of Nooteboom’s prose poems in Self-Portrait of an Other, published by Seagull Books in 2011. Light Everywhere begins with the entirety of Nooteboom's 2012 collection of that title, some 36 poems including “Trixy”:

Desolate species, humans.
Everything needs to be conquered,
a thousand Buddhas can’t reverse the stream,
the stone in the middle remains unpolished.

The teachings of the titmouse.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Minus ten and it’s been working all day,
searching the hedge for a morsel.

In the distance I see the world,
in the corner, behind that car,
deeply passionate music
sweeps the litter into a heap.

It’s here alone or more.
Woe to those who have the most words.
They’re up to their knees in night,
their book of faces full of names
and mould.

In the stable thirteen goats are born.
Trixy barks at a shadow of white.

NooteboomCoverA.jpgNooteboom has much in common with Eugenio Montale (whose work he has translated into Dutch, along with Pavese, Stevens, and Neruda). Both poets have produced poems that are erudite and allusive, rhetorically spare yet often exclamatory, engaged with and amazed by the density of experience yet verging on transparency. To follow Nooteboom from the newer poems to those of the 1960’s is to watch a string of uncertainties unspool, the speaker in an unending attempt to scope his place in the world, the shape of his spirit shifting but not necessarily changing with the times.

In the late 1950’s, Nooteboom sailed out of Rotterdam on a freighter as a ship’s hand, heading to South America where he intended to ask a woman there to marry him. “Golden Fiction” (below) was published in Closed Poems in 1964, the year he divorced her. Like so much of his work, the poem seems to merge the classical with the urgency of the moment, is unafraid to handle words like “soul” and “life,” and offers a trenchant image of the writer, situated in the gap between words and knowledge:

Look! They’re opening up the fires.
The heathens fight for a handful of ash.
Tomorrow I leave again on my ship.

My friends are buried.
Under the trees their bodies continue.
Their souls are thousands of leaves
in the wind.

I hang my head in the gusts
and wonder. Why am I so sad
if my expectation goes no further than looking at fires
and a ship that is sailing?

The fraud sits in his room and writes it down.
Which lives give rise to his words? Which era?
Will real life ever reach him
and carry him off?

No, it will never carry him off.
The fraud sits in his room and writes
what the voices tell him.

NooteboomBW.jpegIn an earlier piece on Nooteboom, I noted that his poetry is often elliptical and fragmented, streaked with fissures, and spoken in transit between cruel fact and alluring semblance. In Nooteboom’s world, big ironies are too easy. He seems to speak while backing away. When he describes the sun as “a ruined beast with a lens,” I think of him.

The enigmas of time, and the sense that Europe’s tragedies are informed by prehistoric calamity, have haunted his work. When Nooteboom was twelve years old, his father was killed in a bombing in The Hague as the Germans retreated from The Netherlands. Nooteboom’s obsessions and reluctance to dismiss a speaker who has been wounded have sometimes been regarded scornfully by younger poets. In his fiction, Nooteboom has written with the more whimsical, less ponderous gestures of the postmodernist, but he never disavows the looming topics that have shaken him and the continent. In his travel writings, the eye shifting between the stability of place and its apparent transformations, one can hear the call of a timeless zone that informs the poetry.

For instance, in Nomad’s Hotel, published in the U.S. in 2009, Nooteboom tells of a trip to Penobscot Bay in Maine with a group of émigrés from central Europe. On Thanksgiving Day, one companion, an elderly Nobel Prize-winning scientist, reads Rilke aloud in German:

He had opened the book, yellowed, falling to bits, signs of nostalgia on every page, as the place where he was required to read from -- and he had read. The Americans had kept very quiet, he could hear the fire crackling in the grate, but he had not read for the others, just for that white head bent over and thinking of God knows what, something from 50 years before, when he had not yet been driven out or forced to flee; something old, and when he read, it was as if a globe with ancient air had been revealed and his own voice was mingling with that rarified, carefully preserved, ancient air.

In the poetry, this “ancient air” is a constant flow within one’s own breath, and the words are spare, the moment is addressed, the view is both broad and focused, time is immeasurable, and the figure in the poem can’t quite keep up through his art. Below, “Friend” was published in Bait (1982):

With the former glories run down, the idea
ripped apart in dreams and violated,
we dance past the fading frescoes,
never master or servant.

While you are alive I love you, as you write
I keep my eye on the registry of what we were,
a company of words and rhymes
in the city’s open palace.

Today is later, a polluting summer,
and in this Theatre Today I look back and sketch
two croaking frogs, armed and
bent on the trough of farewell,
throats ragged from song,

but the slowest pages still blank.

Not only has Nooteboom been steadfast in honoring his fixation on mortality, futility, and unyielding mysteries, but he refuses to dilute his mode of addressing these actualities, to allow the surfaces of language to distract his attention. Light Everywhere is a much needed representation of Nooteboom’s poetry and will have to suffice for now, even as the poet anticipates the end:

And on the last of days
nobody collects the names. Nobody sees
how the fire that had always fed him
slowly loses its leaves
and dies.

[Published February 24, 2014. 194 pages, $21.00 hardcover]

For my review of Nooteboom’s Self-Portrait of an Other, click here.