March 11, 2013

review "A Simplicity of Saying" (on Campert's This Happened Everywhere) by Douglas Messerli

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

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”)


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