An Intractable Cathedral of Language

The Poetry of Kees Ouwens

The first poem in the collection Dream (Droom, 1988) by the recently-deceased Dutch poet Kees Ouwens (1947-2004) opens by speaking of a journey, a journey into the past. ‘A good twenty years we had to travel back in time.’ The reference is to the beginning of his career as a writer, the year 1968, which saw the appearance of his poetic debut, the collection Arcadia. It is the period when he shuts the door on his youth and leaves his home village of Zeist, a community situated in the centre of the Netherlands on the border between well-wooded sandy country and the archetypal clay plains of Holland with their polders, meadows and farms, a landscape that is omnipresent in Ouwens’ work.

The world of his youth underlies the whole of Ouwens’ writing. This is certainly true of his poetry, but applies equally to a number of his novels. Both The Strategy (De Strategie, 1968) and Loneliness through Pleasure (De eenzaamheid door genot, 1987) are set in and around the castles and country houses found in Ouwens’ native region. In an interview Ouwens put it as follows: ‘There are lovely stretches of country around Zeist, where I come from. When I started writing poems I became susceptible to their beauty. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one I visited a number of places in that landscape very regularly either on foot or by bike. In those years my emotional life was shaped, and I acquired a sensibility. They are an important source. Looking back, it was a mythical period.’

When he was about seventeen Ouwens broke with the Catholic tradition in which he had been brought up, and in which he had risen to the position of altar boy. There is some irony in the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Ouwens’ first collection as ‘the chubby mother’ and the ‘merciful whore’. The break with his childhood faith and the loss of a self-evident meaning to life is the principal driving force in Ouwens’ creative work. The conferring of mythical status on nature and landscape in his writing can be seen as a surrogate for the loss of faith. In the collection Stuck (Klem, 1984) the sense of a lost Arcadia, a past that has shut itself off, also becomes a prominent theme. It confronts the poet with the question of a possible future and a possible justification of his own existence. The option of withdrawing completely from the visible world is restricted by the presence of one’s own body, which links the ego to reality and brings with it the promise of youth. In the poem ‘Robe’ Ouwens formulates this as follows:

and I could be nothing but the repetition of
myself under the roof beams of the youth of this body,
I could be nothing but the utter destruction of what
my father destined me for in the glorious light of
and of the unfolding of a final goal, yes, I married
myself, for I was completely ignorant of the materiality
and the inescapability of my choice.

Linguistically Stuck pulls out all the stops as a defence against the futility of youth and the condition of being ‘lost in dreams’. The last verse of the poem ‘Detention’ (‘Detentie’) puts it in a way that for Ouwens is exceptionally simple and in a tone that seems to point forward to the more sober orchestration of the collection Dream:

I remembered the day I bade home farewell;
showing my stature
turning my back on my street
outgrowing my district
abandoning my village;
planning to clothe myself;
being irrevocably my footwear and
insurmountably my appearance.

The style of this poetry and the size of the oeuvre – the cumulative collection All the Poems So Far (Alle gedichten tot dusver, 2002) contains over 500 pages of poetry – suggest a huge rocky massif, whose intransigent form is intriguing but which seems barely accessible. An extraordinary body of work, certainly when seen against the background of the fairly flat landscape of Dutch-language poetry in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Despite its somewhat hermetic quality the work has always enjoyed ample critical attention, especially because of its exceptionally driven and ‘authentic’ nature. Ouwens has the reputation of being mainly a poets’ poet. His work also suggests an intractable cathedral of language, constantly under construction, composed in countless different styles to the design of a monomaniac architect, cutting things down to the poetic bone, in search of a sacred space to celebrate the rites of his poetry. An oeuvre like a temple, referring only to itself, without a god or a doorway admitting a wider public.

The collection Dream (1988) can be regarded as Ouwens’ most accessible. It is one of the principal pillars supporting the mythical edifice of his poetry. Its content represents the result of a poetic investigation of the purport of the poet’s own lot, in which connections are made with broad social, ecclesiastical and economic developments in the post-war Netherlands.

In a sense Dream represents a pivotal point in Ouwens’ development as a poet. It is also his most ‘committed’ collection, with a striking use of the ‘we’ form that makes the poems appear to tell the story of a generation: the generation that grew up in the period of post-war reconstruction in an ideologically polarised society and in the 1960s became socially active in a relatively prosperous, secular welfare state. In some ways there is a close thematic connection between these poems and Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles (Particules élémentaires). In Dream Ouwens depicts a generation for whom the abandonment of traditional religious, philosophical and moral structures led to personal upheaval. The empirical life style embraced by individualism did not produce an existential solution that was felt to be meaningful. ‘I was a man, not a boy any more’:

So I was a product of the final year of the war and grew
up during reconstruction
Later I dwelt in abundance’s house of
Beneath the roof of illusion I
took shelter
In the lee of the affluent state I frittered away my time
till I wasn’t a boy any more but a man and
although I rejected the latter state
the cards were shuffled once more
the house was demolished and my mature self grew

After Dream, which was a merciless commentary on the poet’s own existence, Ouwens’ poetry gradually moved beyond the sensory fixations characteristic of the poems in Intimate Acts (Intieme handelingen, 1973), Like a Stream (Als een beek, 1975) and Stuck (1984). In later collections Ouwens’ poetry moved markedly in the direction of a kind of earth-centred mysticism, in which ‘light’ often makes it possible to experience reality as transcendental and to behold the sublime. It is poetry that in a supra-personal way tries to lift a corner of ‘Maya’s Veil’ (‘Maya’s sluier’), the title (taken from the philosopher Schopenhauer) of a poem from the collection Of the Loser and the Light Source (Van de verliezer & de lichtbron, 1997).

The fact that all Ouwens’ later work, from the collection Dismissals (Afdankingen, 1995) onwards, centres on saying the unsayable, uttering the unutterable and describing the indescribable has not made his poetry any easier to understand. On the other hand, many poems can be traced back to primeval images, deriving mainly from the Bible, such as the image of the river of life. ‘On the bank of the ego, the self rests,’ runs a line from the collection Mythologies (Mythologieën, 2000), which speaks of a kind of ‘knowing that blinds me’, of a ‘foretaste’ of the ‘other’, which remains invisible until it is suddenly revealed in the late sunlight at the mouth of the River Scheldt, ‘brilliantly broken on Vlissingen’s roadstead / and with a sweetness we cannot attain’.

Nevertheless, in Ouwens’ later collections the imploding formulations, the fractured verse forms, the line breaks, the white spacing, the fragmenting typography and the ‘dismissive’ quality constantly give the impression that this is poetry that seeks to negate itself, strives to dissolve into the inimitable, like scaffolding that is no longer required.

By Kees van Domselaar
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 2005