Review: Even Now, Poems by Hugo Claus
Book: Even Now
Author: Hugo Claus (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer)
Published: November 2013 by Archipelago Books
First line: “Among us, the strays, the strangers, the ones who never landed, the deranged, a pale captain has died.”
Genre/Rating: Poetry (Free Verse) 4/5 feverish summer lands when the sun spawns its young in the corn
Recommended if you like: T.S. Eliot, nature poems, sordid Catullian tirades, beautiful imagery, or really clever re-phrasings of “get off my lawn”
Review: Flemish novelist/screenwriter/playwright/film director/poet Hugo Claus was about as versatile as a writer could get, as this collection demonstrates. Sampling from his entire poetic career, Even Now probably has something for everybody, even those of you who don’t much care for poetry. And by “something” I mean “stuff that’s going to rip your head right off and kick it around like a soccer ball and make you like it.” If he doesn’t make you laugh out loud, then he’ll make you think about something you’ve never thought about before. If he doesn’t make you think, then he’ll make you cry. If he doesn’t make you cry, he’ll just make you say “holy crap, I wish I could put it like that!” More likely, it’ll all of the above because did I mention versatile?
That arresting first line, for example, comes from very early in his career and a poem he wrote upon learning of the death of French poet, playwright and theater director Antonin Artaud, in 1948. Champion of the “Theater of Cruelty,” Artaud was clearly an idol to Claus, who casts him as a figure tortured and broken, perhaps in one of his own plays. This bitter farewell to one of Claus’ fathers in art prepares the reader well for what is to come: haunting and unforgettable images and lines, landscapes changing with the seasons and with man’s depredations, surreal and sometimes brutal juxtapositions and occasional heart-stopping beauty–like this line, which I loved: “the thick blue paint of night… drooping down into the streets/to wrap around you like a deep blue robe/this evening when you head for home.”
In another poem, simply titled “She”, Claus channels Algernon Charles Swinburne and Catullus, deifying and yet hating a poisonous woman who obsesses him:
“In every room your fussing lies in wait in every breath
your hooks still try their luck and you chatter away, my
marsupial, yes, you, who conjugates my misery as
sweetly as the verb to fuck.
He never hits that weird incantatory tone that Swinburne did, but the spirit is there. And it’s there even more strongly in the Mad Dog Stanzas of “Morning, You”, even before the pornography starts. Which, if you want to read that, you have to get the book. I’ll just tell you it’s pretty good.
Sometimes, too, Claus was just funny. I quote the beginning of “The Farmers” in full:
Thirty pigs, fifteen cows, a tractor 75 HP
a TV, fifty chickens, no kids.
(“Wed have liked some, sure, Sir,
but we’re not keen on doctors or hospitals,
’cause what if something happened to the wife, Sir,
who’d take care of the stock?”
The implied brazen laziness of the husband still makes me laugh.
For me, though, the centerpiece of the collection is Claus’ moving and weirdly prophetic “Lord Wildboar”, about his father’s last difficult days. The collection has several stark looks at death, at the ungraceful ends of fellow poets (especially Percy Bysshe Shelley and Italo Calvino), but here, with his father, it all comes to an unbearably poignant head: “He left us well before he died,” Claus observes. “It was his heart that wouldn’t die,/the engine. The chassis, the bodywork were shot but/the engine was still good.” I’m not sure that Hugo Claus’ father had Alzheimer’s, but Claus developed it in his later years, and chose in 2008 to be euthanized (legal in Belgium) rather than endure the sad and undignified decline that he had witnessed in his father. I don’t know that he ever explicitly explained his decision in those terms, but it’s impossible not to make this connection. The biographical fact of 2008 makes the poem of 1970 into an early justification for what did turn into a posthumous controversy, with the Catholic Church and the Belgian Alzheimer’s League both decrying it, the one as a sin, the other as drawing undue attention to but one of a range of options for Alzheimer’s patients.
I imagine his own words about his father haunting him as he made up his mind to choose his own end, at any rate.
There are also selections from Claus’ more overtly political work (he was a peacenik in the 60s), and a lot of beautiful and moving poetry celebrating the landscapes and mocking the humanscapes of Belgium (he’s wickedly funny on the subject of the city of Ghent “there’s not a turd that doesn’t have a fly to buzz around it in the sun and Ghent has gates that never close”), and some tart lines in “Interview” on what it’s like to be a Belgian national treasure being interviewed by a would-be son in art, who has the nerve to hector him: “Where in your work is the exhilaration of technology?/Because if technology is our divinity and our destiny/shouldn’t we join together to reflect/on the laws of the internet?” Claus’ response within the poem is to pour another glass of gin (“jenever”). I like this guy, whom I’ve watched in these pages turn from an eager young poet like his interviewer into a crusty Old Man of Letters who says “Outside I point up at the moon. He keeps staring at my finger.”
I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt that way at times, haven’t we?
I have to finish this up with a note giving tremendous props to translator David Colmer, who not only translated but also made the selections for this collection. The man sifted through some 1500 pages of Claus’ output (and remember, this is just his poetry; Hugo Claus also wrote novels and screenplays and even directed a few films. This was a busy, busy man) and came up with a wonderful sampling that shows us why Claus was someone in whom his country took great and justifiable pride. I stagger to contemplate what an effort, what a labor of love, that must have been, and offer him my eternal gratitude for it.
Hugo Claus was the man.