Richie McCaffery admires both the wit and the poignancy in this generous selection from Remco Campert’s poetry
Over a decade ago now, when I first started reading poetry of my own accord outside of school and collecting old poetry books, I came across a 1960s English translation of Campert’s In the Year of the Strike and it left a lasting impression. I knew that I had to remember the name and find anything else by him in translation. I did not know then that Campert is considered to be one of the foremost living Dutch poets, but I can now appreciate such an appellation. It is hard to say what it was about Campert’s work that appealed to my 16-year-old’s nascent taste in poetry, but his ringing simplicity was certainly a factor. I was impressed by how a poet could write so insightfully and critically on social issues and tensions in such an immediate way. In his poem ‘Poetry’, Campert claims that ‘I never cared much for beautiful poetry / unless you didn’t notice it was beautiful’ and many of Campert’s poems strike me as not setting out with a clear emotive design on the reader, often surprised by their discoveries. To a certain extent, Campert’s poetry reminds me stylistically of Georges Simenon’s novels: neither employ a wide vocabulary, but the work is strong, vigorous and marked by the patterns of conversational utterance. Here is Campert cutting through two centuries of received poetic/romantic sublimity in a stanza. He is talking about climbing mountains:
Also the conversations with gods,
which you can’t avoid when you’re on a mountain
that’s what all that climbing was about in the first place
are dizzying in their inhumanity
and if you ever do get back down which seldom happens
you’ll be bringing nothing with you
but an unpleasant smell of immortality
. [‘This is not a Poem’]
The mention of ‘immortality’ brings us to one of the major themes of In Those Days which is a selection of Campert’s poems from 1951 to 2014, made and translated by Donald Gardner. The later poems make up the bulk, and whereas Campert’s poetry of the 1950s and 1960s was about social/political engagement and commentary, the newer poems are more concerned with ageing and mortality. I have always had the impression of Campert as an observationally and imaginatively agile poet, but a physically sedentary one, unless he is indulging in a spot of his own kind of flâneuring, which Gardner describes as of a ‘lower-case’ to that of Baudelaire’s:
Walking in the street and reading
you don’t see that so often these days.
If I still do it sometimes
I’m walking in the past.
There’s not much traffic
I hear radio music from an open window
a girl in a new-look dress
brushes past me.
The book I am reading,
is Gerard Reve’s The Evenings
and it’s ‘just out’.
. [‘Notes of a Flâneur’]
Gerard Reve’s The Evenings was published in 1947 and this says something about how Campert can deftly mix the hauntings of increasing age with wit. These poems are very seldom of the ‘in those days’ rose-tinted kind, but Campert is always aware of the march of time such as the bags under the eyes of the wristwatch salesman in ‘Like’. Campert shows that he has little truck the usual trappings of literary seniority that his advancing age affords him. For instance, in ‘Against Collected Poems’ Campert says he resists any attempt to collect all his poems because:
To put it bluntly
I’d get the feeling
I’d had it
that nothing more was expected of me
just to sit a little in my usual place by the window
next to the flowerbox with the ferns
and drivel on about my insulin injections
and from time to time unplug
the forbidden bottle of gin
and take a slug.
Campert causes mischief at book launches and loses his concentration with an interviewer in a café when his mind drifts to the contents of his shopping bag and tonight’s bottle of wine:
‘Forgotten Field’ that’s its name
never entered in the land register
I’ll have to go there some day.
. [‘Forgotten Field’]
Other poems are more poignant, elegies for dead friends and a phone call from a newspaper for some words on the death of a famous friend:
and so for the last time
the deceased and he are still news
trapped in the receding time of their beginnings.
. [‘In Memoriam’]
Campert also, particularly towards the end of Gardner’s fine selection, indulges in a lot of what I have noticed Michael Longley doing in his poetry recently – preparations, plannings and imaginings of death and its aftermath. ‘Tomorrow’ lists all of the ways in which the speaker will go on living after their death, such as my hair and fingernails / that go on growing without a heart and ‘Light of my Life’ imagines the moment of the speaker’s death:
I will dissolve for ever and merge
with the fine dust of the city,
with the reflection of the sunlight
in the water of the canal
and be carried off with the smile
and the dreams of the girl
I once saw at a tram stop.
Putting aside all memento mori, two of my favourite poems here show us ways in which the living poet is still very much anchored in this realm. ‘I Just Wanted to Say’ shows the speaker trying to write a love poem in a cold, impatient and bureaucratic age:
Can you round off your speech please
your time’s up
I just wanted to say
keep it short then
how she came to me that evening
in that other city where I was living aimlessly
how she’d give anything
to visit me that evening
soft rain in golden lamplight (…)
Finally ‘Sailor’s Song’ takes us back to Campert’s childhood and is a poem so moving as to deserve being quoted in full. It reminds me particularly of W. S. Graham’s ‘Loch Thom’ where the poet returns to a childhood scene to discover that everything he knew is dead. Campert’s poem serves to show us that he is never a poet for false consolations or pat sentimentality, which is one of the hallmarks of Gardner’s translated selection. Here macro and micro views of the world jostle in the stark vision of the ageing poet:
When I was little
I wore a sailor suit
my mother took me
to the pond in the woods
I let my sailboat float
on the end of a piece of string
there was a murmur in the trees
the wind blew from the sea
Many ports of call later
and my mother is dead
never since have I found
an anchorage so secure.
Richie McCaffery is the author of two pamphlets (Spinning Plates from HappenStance Press and the 2014 Callum Macdonald Memorial prize runner up, Ballast Flint) and the recently published collection Cairn from Nine Arches Press. He is a PhD candidate at The University of Glasgow’s Scottish Literature Department and has written reviews for a number of publications, such as The Warwick Review, Northwords Now, Elsewhere, Sabotage, Sphinx and The Edinburgh Review.