Cees Nooteboom
(The Netherlands, 1933)   

Cees Nooteboom has won international renown as an author of novels, novellas and travel books, but likes to think of himself as a poet first. As a poet, he made his début in 1956 with a collection entitled De doden zoeken een huis (The Dead Seek a Home). He never joined any literary circle or group, but remained a loner who felt at home in many rooms of 'the house of poetry'.

He edited the literature section of a stylish magazine and contributed his own translations of Wallace Stevens, Vallejo, Pavese and Krüger.

An 'I' with personal sentiments is hard to find in Nooteboom's poetry. For him, poetry is a form of concentration, meditation, reflexion. In his poems he asks himself questions about the essence of time, about the migrations of man's soul in his lifetime, or in what ways he himself or his (classical) colleagues are affected by poetry. Poems about such existential or philosophical questions risk being dismissed as 'abstract' by the wider public.

Despite epithets like 'hermetic' or 'mannerist', the early poems are far from impenetrable to those who really try. They are exercises in pain, the self torture of a defenseless spectator who desperately tries to find out where he stands. These 'cold', 'black', or 'mannered' poems penetrate the mystery of time, of 'fragmentized' life, of death, with mathematical, often moving precision. The poems are at once transparent and mysterious. The paradox is Nooteboom's favourite figure of speech in this early work, witness a title like Aanwezig, afwezig (Present, Absent).

Nooteboom's later poetry is concerned with mental and sensory perception, with 'the eye' in a literal and figurative sense, with seeing and the seen, and with the realms of thought they imply. 'He who does not break appearance, sees nothing,' he says in his collection Het gezicht van het oog (The Sight of the Eye), which contains some fascinating sequences of poems dealing with a reality that is intractable and many-faceted and essentially unknowable: 'each thing fallen from its word / and crashed without a safety net.' Nooteboom's new collection, which comes out during the festival, is concerned with the idea that the once cohesive world of poets and thinkers has disintegrated over time. The poet watches this apparently inevitable process with quiet nostalgia: 'To have existed there / with time like a shock of hair,/ (…) that, dear friend, is life'.

© Daan Cartens (Translated by Ko Kooman)

[Cees Nooteboom took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 1999. This text was written on that occasion.]


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