March 12, 2013

review "Sparse Song Dark Thread" (on Claus' Greetings) by Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli

Soon after having finished the review of Hugo Claus’ 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  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 is 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 undersized 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).
Reprinted from Jacket, No. 31 (2006).
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2008).

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