London Grip Poetry Review – Toon Tellegen


Poetry review – A SLIPPERY SLOPE: Colin Pink admires translations of Toon Tellegen’s two most recent collections.

A Slippery Slope 
Toon Tellegen (trans Judith Wilkinson)
Shoestring Press, 2023,
ISBN 978-1-915553-27-0

Toon Tellegen is an important Dutch poet and this latest collection (translated by his regular translator Judith Wilkinson) includes his two most recent collections: Till Winter Follows (2021) and A Slippery Slope (2023) so you get two books for the price of one.

Tellegen is now in his eighties and these two collections thematically look back on life from old age, with its attendant sense of looming finitude and regrets over things done and not done. Many of the poems are a profound meditation on death but not in any mawkish or heavy-handed way. In fact the poems have an unexpected lightness about them. Most of them, like life itself, are full of questions rather than answers and this technique strongly engages the reader, raising questions about their own life in response.

The imperceptible approach of death is beautifully suggested in the proverbial slippery slope:

I’m sliding down a slope so gradually
that it’s as if I’m standing still,
the way the hand of my watch seems to be standing still
when I stare at it

Mortality is confronted head-on in “On the Other Shore” where the poet suggests: ‘In your mind, always be on the other shore / in reality you’re on this shore’ but the need to grasp life is emphasised in the poem: ‘the river is wide, you will drown, but swim across, / swim across’. Continuing, in “Playing Field””, with the image of the river (this time the mythical river Lethe where the dead forget their existence) Tellegen imagines:

If I stood on the banks of the Lethe,
would I drink?

I know exactly what I want to forget,
but do I really want to forget it,
do I want to stop feeling the pain of it?

In his conscience ‘good and evil sleep in each other’s arms’, a phrase that neatly sums up the complexity of existence where things are rarely wholly evil or wholly good.

Tellegen writes particularly effectively about grappling with feelings of regret and guilt, and being a victim to a kind of free-floating anxiety, which he tackles in a number of deeply resonant poems, such as “Small Demons”:

Small demons gently nibble at my ear,
tickle my neck,
whisper things they want that I don’t want,
conjure up words, sentences that I shouldn’t say,
make me remember what I don’t want to remember,

Or in “My Mind Stumbles, Looks Around” where he employs the image of the mind being a ‘black suit that is a little too tight’ and cries out: ‘Where have my feelings disappeared to this time? why do those / wretched feelings of mine keep letting me down?’

And in “Me And My Thoughts” ‘My thoughts want to be free, / I’m in their way // they collect spectres, final warnings and aversions, / they scratch me, bite me, cover me in shortcomings and shame, / I deny them freedom.’

In the unsettling “A Bedtime Story” (the sort that gives you nightmares) a man keeps falling apart, and people put him back together again, except a piece is missing that cannot be found, and each time he falls apart a piece goes missing until there is nothing left.

In “Going Up in Smoke” the poet burns God to cinders. He doesn’t believe in him so ‘he went up in smoke and disappeared’ but the poet is cold ‘…I poke about in his remains, / in which I don’t believe either.’ This illustrates Tellegen’s rather anarchic/surreal imagination and in a highly condensed way captures the feelings of (I suspect) many people who can’t bring themselves to believe in God but can’t resist poking around in the ashes in search of something missing.

Another very witty poem about God is “Time” where if God created time he’s a genius, if he created life he’s slovenly, if he created death he’s sensible, and ‘If he created himself I think he’s stupid, / bordering on imbecilic’. But if he created time the poet is ‘…prepared, once in a while, / at moments he doesn’t see coming, / just briefly, for no more than a fraction of a second, / to believe in him.’

One of the most powerful poems in the collection is “Quarrels Live”, which has particular relevance at this time of tragic hostilities in so many places:

In the beginning were quarrels and the quarrels made man
and man quarrelled.
A quarrel’s big brother is war, its father rancour,
its mother jealousy.
The first thing you learn: I quarrel, therefore I exist.

In “Autumn” the poet describes himself as ‘an old, untuned violin’ yet the intense music of his poetry, the original insights into human existence, resonate long after each poem is read. This is a very thought-provoking, witty and imaginative collection of poems which I highly recommend. In one of the last poems, “At The End Of Our Life” Tellegen states:

at the end of our life we sit down with angels,
drink red wine
and forget reality.

I must say, I’m looking forward to it already.