Blesok no. 50, September-October, 2006
A dead-accurate desire
– On Hans van de Waarsenburg’s poetry –
Hans van de Waarsenburg is quietly working on an impressive œuvre. He possesses great technical skills, which he uses to vary and intensify his standard themes and motifs. He is no innovator, nor does he slavishly follow the latest fads. Neither is he a poet who forces himself on our attention in that loud entourage which more and more replaces literature itself.
Loyalty is the key to Hans van de Waarsenburg’s work. His poetry expresses a loyalty to the people around him, loyalty to their motives and desires. He has an eye for their vulnerability, their futility and their restrictions. It is first of all expressed in the earnest and careful way in which he uses language. Thus a careful listener hears an individual and unmistakable voice rising from the poetry.
Zuidwal (South Wall, 1995) confirms the image of Hans van de Waarsenburg as a melancholic. One is aware of gloomy tones, tones of sadness and nostalgia. Again and again the poems point out that man is transitory and all his efforts in vain. It would be an injustice to this work if I left off with this characterization. In these poems there is no hint of inertia or resignation, so often associated with melancholy. Here melancholy rather frees the way for an active, pugnacious attitude. His awareness of transitoriness intensifies life both in sadness and in pleasure. His awareness of man’s vulnerability encourages comfort. For us comfort lies in how Van de Waarsenburg strives not to use language as a means of (self-) deception. It is equally found in the intensification and recording of our desires.
This process is well illustrated in the cycle ‘The thirst of harbour towns’ from the collection of the same name (1990). The harbour town is a region of transition, just as evening or dusk in other collections. Not yet at sea, about to leave the shore, now the desire to be elsewhere is strongest. Already adrift but not yet cast off. Regular time is already out of joint, so near the hour of departure. The unquenchable thirst of life makes itself felt. Van de Waarsenburg has turned the utopian longing for the unknown into a bodily property, thus giving it a firm and promising basis. One that cannot be drowned in booze. But poetry is good at arousing thirst: that is what these poems maintain, even when reality has shattered the illusions about other places. ‘Antwerp’ ends in disillusion yet also relies blindly on that inner space from which the future may be visualized again:
Once you have started on thirst
Water will follow you around
Now silently taking shape
Lip service rendered to the glass
Sham feasts, the entire life
Until the sunlight is cast out
The glass, the dream broken
The eyes now useless and glazed.
There are many examples of the melancholy vitality of these poems. One of them is found in ‘Since all must pass’ from South Wall:
I shall lift the tears from your eyes
Kiss the salt from your cheek
Be silent about the death of day
And dusk against your skin
Since all must pass
I shall allow the wood and the fires
Steal a feather from your head-dress
Reach for the beaker and leave the smoke
Till water burns and wait.
Because life is transitory it must be fully embraced and lived to the full. There is comfort in the first stanza, devotion and love. The ‘death of the day’ is a formula with several connotations. It refers to nightfall: a day is closed at dusk, creating a feeling not unknown to melancholics. The formula also opposes the temporal trivial occurrence to the all-embracing ‘all must pass’. His beloved addressed here need not feel paralysed by the short-lived moment. Since all must pass this daily death loses its supreme power.
Dusk is a situation in which one thing can change into another. At daybreak the day comes alive; at dusk the day dies. By using the Dutch term in both connotations Van de W turns this transitional phase into a territory where life is possible. People live because they are transitory. And dusk in this line becomes a tender gesture. The poetic persona lounges in the dusk like a caress against the skin of his beloved. Eros is fed by intimations of death, of living a transitory life.
I have used the word pugnacious to characterize Van de W’s melancholy more closely. The choice of this term is partly inspired by the poetry he wrote earlier in his career. Pugnacious, militant was a positive qualification for those people in the sixties and seventies who wee active in political parties or trade unions. Hans van de Waarsenburg published his first collection of poems in 1965. His writings at this time were politically engaged. The war in Vietnam is present in his poems, the destruction of human beings by industry in the twentieth century, the exploitation, the destruction of our environment. Some of this can still be heard in South Wall. This collection contains two cycles about the potato, ‘Divine Spud’. The first cycle evokes in lyrical terms the discovery of potato chips, against the background of the Great War and the heydays of the Roman Catholic Church. The second cycle refers to the potato as the staple food of the poor, evoking images, which resemble Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’. This picture is contrasted with the potato on the tables of the rich. Van de Waarsenburg calls this paradoxically ‘an insult full of bitter regret’.
Hans van de Waarsenburg remains true to himself. His melancholy is comparable to that of Hans Tentije, whose first collection Alles is er (It is all there, 1975) contained poems full of commitment about shocking political events and the working conditions of miners. In his work, too, references to social and political situations have become less prominent. This development in the work of both poets may be related to their awareness that political alternatives coloured by utopian expectations are no longer possible. But they preserve their utopian dreams in melancholy.
To describe Hans van de Waarsenburg’s poetry as ‘pugnacious melancholy’ does not refer specifically to political commitment. It rather refers to a total commitment of which political commitment is only one, historically defined form. It brings out the poet’s efforts to preserve the most insignificant and vulnerable even against reason, to recognise their value. Although all must pass it should not be lost: this is probably the best description of Hans van de Waarsenburg’s commitment to writing. It is borne out in the title poem of South Wall. It describes someone returning to the ‘South Wall’, the place where he lived in the days of his youth. The memories are so strong, the images are so compact, that past and present are intertwined. The man is not just the man reminiscing, he is that boy again in the paradise of his youth. The boy comes alive again with the return to the scene of his younger years. The images do not suggest an idyll. Stories of paradises are invented to express the problem of Sin. Anxiety and a longing to escape have been written into these images. Van de W does not just preserve life as it used to be in this cycle, but he also preserves the dreams, desires and expectations in this way. It is a fact of life that people have vain and fleeting ideas of their destiny. To keep these ideas from oblivion is the commitment in Hans van de Waarsenburg’s poetry.
This commitment is implicitly a fundamental quality of all true poetry. Beschrijvingen van het meer (Descriptions of the Lake, 2000) opens with a long cycle. The writer does not merely describe an expanse of water, but also the mainsprings of poetry and what it adds to life. Once more there is a reference to what Walter Benjamin has called ‘the weak Messianic force’, a ‘hidden heliotropism’ in all that has been swept away:
Describing the lake
The shot is at the heart of the
Poem, dead-accurate desire.
Describing the lake
The decoy duck honks.
The end of this cycle also reminds us of one of Benjamin’s theses. The ninth of these characterises history in figure of an angel by Paul Klee: ‘His eyes are wide open, his mouth is open and his wings are spread. This is what the angel of history must look like. He has turned his face to the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe piling ruin on ruin and throwing them in his way. He could pause, raise the dead and reassemble what has been destroyed. But there is storm blowing from Paradise which catches in his wings, and which is so strong that the angel can no longer close them (…) We call this storm progress.’ Hans van de Waarsenburg expresses this Messianic desire for healing in the last stanza. Not to close one’s eyes to death and mutilation turns out to be a condition for that accurate yearning which is the strength of his poetry:
Describing the lake
Blood is wiped off, wounds are
Healed and fringes repaired.
Describing the lake
Equals scraggy carcass.
The poems of this writer will never seem loud again.
Translation: Peter Boreas, 2002