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Death By Water

Ross Moore

The World by Evening, by Menno Wigman, transl Judith Wilkinson, Shearsman Books, 133 pp, £12.95, ISBN: 978-1848616615

Browsing online, the cover of this collection from the work of the Dutch poet Menno Wigman caught my eye. A quietly sedate, slightly formalised urban scene. Look more closely at the picture, with its bicycles chained to railings by a canal, and it is unmistakably Amsterdam. Wigman, I later learn, had been both a musician (playing drums in several post-punk bands) and a poet with five collections to his name before his early death at the age of fifty-one in 2018. The World by Evening consists of poems selected from among each of Wigman’s collections, translated and introduced by Judith Wilkinson. In the introduction, she points to the French poètes maudits of the late nineteenth century as Wigman’s major influence. Wigman himself translated extensively: notably these translations include poems by Baudelaire into Dutch. He edited the literary magazine Awater for a time and held a position of poet-in-residence with a psychiatric institution rather than with an academy. Already, these biographical fragments, gleaned from the introduction to The World by Evening, prepare us for a latter-day flâneur, strolling by the canals and bars of Amsterdam.

While the first poem here, “Jeunesse dorée”, opens with an extravagant take on Ginsberg, “I saw the greatest minds of my generation / bleed for an uprising that didn’t come”, it ends on a Baudelairean note, “The cities shimmered, black as caviar.” At times, the poems recall Eliot’s bleak vision of a city’s denizens: “There was the metro, crammed with all that flesh, / those surplus people who brushed past like fish” (“Body, My Body”). More effective are those poems where Wigman’s colloquial realism brushes against darkly surreal, almost fairy-tale, imagery:

That afternoon, at a crossing,
   I noticed cracks in the road.
I thought: beneath the asphalt lies the dark
   and saw two fishermen peering by a lamp.
The moon shone on an open safe.~
   A plunderer was burying his loot.

                         “Beneath the Asphalt”

Or the surreal dystopia invoked in “Letter to a Lazy Friend”:

You’ll stare at ghostly streets day in day out.
      You won’t get post anymore.
No doorbell will ring, no telephone, the gas will soon stop
   flowing through the pipes, you’ll see your garden wilt
   and hear the water stir under your floors.

Wigman, aptly for these times of climate emergency, links death with water. “Insomniac” ends: “… You close / your eyes but your mind’s still in motion. / Why get your feet wet in death’s ocean?” In “Intensive Care”, he states it plainly: “For two weeks I had stared into my grave - / and Death is made of water, I believe.” This trope reached its apotheosis in the poem “Rubbish Dump”:

Then everything speeds up: a church floats past,
seaweed and fish inhabit Dam Square, wet, grey.
What was a city is suddenly a sea.

Musing over Holland and the future,
I write for those who read this under water.

Here, the pararhyme linking Holland’s “future” with “water” is exact, the ending seems inevitable once read, the lines work. However some of the poems in the selection suffer from a tendency of the final lines to reach too quickly for an obvious play on words by way of conclusion. “Herostratos” for example, ends, “Just google me tonight: I guarantee / no one will have more hits than me.” But this is the risk run by poems which tend to be built around a principal idea, which are constructed with an admirable clarity, and whose structures propel them towards a conclusion. Several of Wigman’s poems are structured in stanzas of ever-decreasing size; they start with a five-lined stanza and finish on a two-lined one. These are chancy ‑ the form encourages pithy endings, which can then be left to carry too much weight. In the introduction to this selection Wilkinson quotes the poet-artist Frank Starik’s comment that the musician Wigman wrote “with a drum set in his head”. If so, maybe this has something to do with these definite, abrupt endings. Elsewhere, the cadences of the final lines are perfectly rendered in these translations. As with poems such as “You’ll See, All Things Will Be Made New.” Or “Vondel Park”:

Now it’s dark. One more kiss
   and our bed sinks to the bottom\
of the night – so gratefully,
   so strangely fast.

Wigman was poet laureate of Amsterdam from 2012 to 2014. He also took part in a “Lonely Funeral” scheme for the Amsterdam municipality whereby poets commemorated the lives of those in the city who died alone. Some of these elegies are included here and, while unflinchingly realist, they can also display a lyrical tenderness: “So tuck her in and make sure her tired feet / will never have to tread the streets again” (“At the Council Coffin of Mrs P”), or, “… Earth, be gentle / with this man who held a hundred keys or more / and now enters the dark without a compass / to spend his first night here.” (“Earth, Be Gentle”) It seems an apt scheme for Wigman to have been involved in, memorialising those that might otherwise have passed unremarked, and indicative of a particularly humane and democratic sensibility.

Notes of realism and ambiguity flow through the poem “The Last Page” (written for the fifth anniversary of Amsterdam’s public library). Humanity is pictured as “… a fungal layer / of intellect”, over the planet earth, which “carries our houses” while, “we build and build and keep on covering her / with power stations, malls and libraries.”

Then it turns to the particular:

Take this library: a fist of stone
where you can lose yourself and live in hope.
A quiet crew-cut spells how to split atoms
and a hundred thousand eyes combine
to build a book that sparkles like honeycomb.

The earth’s asleep and everything stands.
Beware the last page, when your house falls down.
Be smart, avoid the bitter end.

The above poem, from Wigman’s final collection, Slordig met geluk/Squandering Happiness (2016), displays a satisfying symmetry between idea and the formal structure of the poem: both the scope of the world under consideration, and the stanzas, narrow and shorten down through the poem until we reach “the bitter end”.

Wilkinson comments that in translating these poems she strove to keep both the structure and rhyme schemes of the work intact. While the sounds of the Dutch language are far beyond this reviewer, helpfully the edition includes the original poems facing the translations. This is enough to get a sense of how faithfully Wilkinson has retained the structure of Wigman’s verse. A crafted and restrained use of rhyme or half-rhyme is also apparent in these versions. One caveat: reading David Colmer’s earlier translation of the poem “Tot besluit”/“In Conclusion” he captures a rhythm and causal demotic that makes Wilkinson’s version of the same poem appear slightly overworked. Where Colmer has the line, “your head crammed full of cribbed and clever hopes / of peace, promotion, kids and piles of cash”,  Wilkinson goes for “your head crammed full of cleverly copied hope / of peace, promotion, offspring and bank notes”. But, thankfully, it’s not a question of either/or. While covering similar ground, the selections of poems Wilkinson makes in The World by Evening differ widely from Colmer’s 2016 selection; the collections complement each other and together make a greater amount of Wigman’s work accessible to an international audience.

Allowing the rhyme and structures to shine through, as Wilkinson does, gives us versions of Menno Wigman’s poems which are crafted, structured, slightly philosophical, rhythmically driven. There is an unusual degree of concision and clarity in the poems selected here. This, taken together with their attention to metre and form, gives us poems which, while fully attentive to and alive in the world at hand, appear slightly out-of-time, maybe about the same distance as the flâneur from the crowd. Maybe not a bad thing.

1/7/2020

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