‘An order, within which there’s room for chaos’

The Poetry of M. Vasalis

‘Do not be misled by what
you see on the surface;
deep down everything has
a meaning.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

The poetic oeuvre of M. Vasalis (1909-) is admittedly modest in size (only around 100 poems in total, spread over three collections), but her poetry has nonetheless acquired a position all its own in Dutch-language literature of the twentieth century. It could even be argued that her poems were already classics when they appeared.

When she made her debut in 1936 with a number of verses in the journal Groot Nederland, there was general consensus among critics that here they were looking at a completely new and authentic talent. One of the most strikingly positive opinions came from Menno ter Braak, editor and figurehead of the influential journal Forum (1932-1936), which campaigned ‘against the idolisation of form at the expense of human creativity’. Vasalis’ poems caused a ‘poetic shock’ in Ter Braak because, as he put it in his own distinctive terminology, ‘this poetry was something completely different from the murmuring of the innumerable epigonistic little volumes which slither gently down from the tops of the great glaciers’.

When Vasalis’ first collection Parkland and Deserts (Parken en woestijnen) appeared in December 1940, it caused something of a literary sensation, in spite of the extremely unfavourable political conditions of the time. Indeed, reactions were so enthusiastic that reprints followed each other in rapid tempo. The collection was also awarded the Van der Hoogt Prize in 1941, an important prize awarded by the Society for Dutch Literature as an encouragement to new literary talent. Within a year Parkland and Deserts had gone to its tenth impression, with a total print run extending to tens of thousands of copies – an unprecedented phenomenon in Dutch-language literature.

Above it all

The fascinating thing in all of this is that Vasalis remained above it all right from the very beginning. She could not easily be pigeonholed among others of her own generation – the poets of the ‘Romantic Realism’ school – because what intrigued her above all was the mystique of reality in itself. Within such an earthly metaphysical system, reality needs no romanticisation. This is perhaps expressed most strikingly in the poem ‘The Idiot in the Bath’ (‘De idioot in het bad’; tr. James Brockway), in which Vasalis (who was a psychiatrist in daily life) created a spiritual X-ray, as it were:

His worried face grows handsome, blank, at ease,
his slender feet stand up like palest flowers,
his long and pallid legs, where aging lowers,
rise out of the green water like the trunks of trees.

In all this green he is as one unborn,
he does not yet know that some fruits are but rind,
he has not lost the wisdom of the body
and does not need the wisdom of the mind.

The penetrating directness of Vasalis’ poetry also unintentionally caused a revolution in the world of literary criticism, in which the old dogmatic schisms simply no longer seemed important. Protestants, Catholics and Humanists alike had to abandon their own ‘spiritual pigeonhole’ in the face of Vasalis’ unconditional surrender to the holiness of the everyday – ‘reverence for the most ordinary things’ as she referred to it in ‘Fanfare corps’ (‘Fanfare-corps’). In essence this ability of Vasalis’ poetry to break down barriers always remained intact.

Although later – following the appearance of her second collection The Phoenix (De vogel Phoenix, 1947) – she did have to sustain an attack from the experimentalist Fifties’ Movement, this attack was intended more to support the experimentalists’ own manifesto and proved to have no effect whatsoever on general literary opinion. Later on, in a polemic essay, Rudy Kousbroek attempted to relegate Vasalis to the traditional gallery of a dusty past and, starting from that basis, posed the question of what standards the new poetry ought to meet. What follows is an extremely suggestive summary: ‘That we no longer walk vaguely in parkland and deserts. That the flight of dreams is cast aside as unusable. That if it is necessary to fly, this flight takes place in reality. That the poet looks beyond the walls of his own attic. The heavenly verse in the earthly living room must make way for the very earthly verse in the very earthly world.’

The paradox of this attack is that the poetry of Vasalis meets all these criteria. Vagueness has no place in her poetic idiom. The sound of crickets, for example, is portrayed in a very tangible, visually acute manner: ‘the crickets’ hoarse and creaking voices, / so many billion tiny brakes / scraping the night’. And the dream, too – the number one trade mark of the romantic – functions in the poetry of Vasalis not as an escape route, but as a complex, shocking reality. The opening lines of the poem ‘Time’ (‘Tijd’), for example, have since become a classic: ‘I dreamed that I was living slowly, / slower than the oldest stone. / It was fearful, around me everything / I had known as still, shot up and shook.’ This is no romantic vision, but a dreamed, hallucinatory reality.

The collection Vistas and Visages (Vergezichten en gezichten, 1954) once again emphasised that Vasalis is the author of ‘the very earthly verse in the very earthly world’. She does, however, entirely in accordance with the advice of Rilke, try to avoid being misled by the appearance of things. She concentrates on the deeper layers, where other laws apply: ‘Tracks of birds’ feet in the snow, / an undertone of laughter in a voice. / Strange, that life should be coming back like this, / backwards, / in shadows, echoes, faintest traces.’

In the ensuing years the majority of experimentalists from the Fifties’ Movement also came to realise that there was no doubting the status, classical and vital in equal measure, of this poetry.

The breath of mystery

The poem ‘Time’ is an outstanding example of Vasalis’ method of working: via a dream we are immediately placed in a different reality, where laws apply which we are normally unable to observe. It also becomes clear that Vasalis’ fascination with time has everything to do with the relationship between dream and reality. Vasalis is not so concerned with the time-bound notion of mortality, but more with the question of what effect time has on our powers of observation.

Within our usual hierarchical order, in which stones are dead and the human eye is incapable of observing the growth of trees as movement, we lose sight of the cosmic turbulence which is constantly swirling around us. In the reality of the dream this safe perspective is abandoned, to make way for an inverted hierarchy: ‘I dreamed that I was living slowly, / slower than the oldest stone.’ This tilted perspective results in a totally different perception of reality, in which life and death alternate in a gigantic, accelerated tempo. The I-figure, who is the only observer placed outside this dizzying scenario, only now sees ‘The eloquence, the despairing will in the gestures of the very things’. The effect of this personifying phraseology is that a sort of ‘solidarity’ arises between the I-figure and the things, which after all are ultimately embroiled in the same ‘breathless, (…) bitter fight’.

The end of the poem implies that the dream may be at an end, but not the understanding which dawned within it: ‘How am I ever to forget?’ For Vasalis, therefore, the dream does not function as a romantic escape mechanism; on the contrary, it results in an intensification of reality. The revelational nature of the dream has given things an inner dimension, as it were, so that the observer can no longer experience spring, for example, as a period of ‘gentle dreaming’ or ‘silent blossoming’; in the vision of the world as corrected by the dream, we are henceforth confronted with ‘vehement growth, / fine and passionate beginning, / starting up out of deep slumber, / dancing off without a thought.’

In a letter to the writer Gerard Reve, Vasalis once declared her longing ‘to hear (or feel) mystery breathing’; this is in fact a mystical longing in which the boundaries between subject and object become blurred and there is no longer any past or future. The reverse side of this is a feeling of fragmentation. Both elements feature prominently in the poem ‘The Sea Dike’ (‘Afsluitdijk’). The I-figure, during a night-time bus journey over the long dike – through the sea – which joins the province of Friesland with the province of North Holland, is suddenly confronted with a double reality:

Then dreamily there drifts into my ken
The ghost of this bus, transparent glass
Riveted to ours, now clear, and then again
Half drowned in the misty sea. The grass
Cuts straight through the sailors. (…)

Briefly, a perspective is opened up of a reality in which land and water, spirit and substance, time and space coincide. The I-figure, too, is at once both subject and object: ‘(…) Then I see pass / Myself as well. (…) / (…) a mermaid distressed.’

Here, then, we are again dealing with an interaction between dream and reality, though now in the reverse direction, in which the instantaneous nature of time is extended: ‘There is to this journey, I feel somehow, / Neither start nor finish, only at best / This strangely split unending Now.’ Vasalis expresses herself in similar terms in The Phoenix, in which she says: ‘There was no clock, no time, only continuance.’

Personal involvement

In 1935 the cultural historian Johan Huizinga published his study In the Shadows of Tomorrow (In de schaduwen van morgen), in which he presents a sombre analysis of the crisis in which West-European culture has landed. In his well-known opening passage he states: ‘We live in a possessed world. And we know it. No-one would be surprised if the madness were suddenly to break out into a frenzy from which this poor European humanity would emerge diminished and bewildered, the motors still running and the flags still fluttering, but the spirit broken.’

It is no surprise that the poet who has experienced this frenzy at first hand will leave traces of this in her work. Moreover, it is known that during the Second World War Vasalis used her profession as a psychiatrist to protect a number of Jews from deportation. And yet the word ‘war’ appears only once in The Phoenix, and even then it is in the context of a dream: ‘During the war I dreamed that there was war.’ (‘Phoenix I’)

It is no coincidence that this poem is placed at the start of the collection. The Phoenix motif, the dying bird which arises in flames from its own ashes and thus becomes the symbol of vitality and creativity, is also a symbol of approval for the poet’s work: ‘And when I looked down at my own two hands, / I saw the finger that he clutched was blue / and while the bird was burning wrote a verse (…) / Then he looked round, as giving me his blessing.’ In the second Phoenix poem, Vasalis adds an extremely specific, personal dimension to this ancient myth. The motif of the burning bird turns out to be linked to the death in 1943 of her own small son, to whom the collection is also dedicated: ‘Oh little phoenix, who possessed me for too short a time’. This makes the following exhortation all the more poignant: ‘Take your time, do not scream with pain, oh hand. / Write on till every finger is consumed.’

For Vasalis, then, the point of writing lies primarily in a personal involvement with one’s own fate. It is this, and only this, that makes possible a meaningful relationship with the outside world. In one of her talks Vasalis put it this way: ‘The outside world is also inside us. For the most part, we are unknown, and certainly uncomprehended, even to ourselves. No theories, no introspection, no loving mothers can help this. We are constantly active, however, weaving in our innermost selves highly precise, transparent webs from the thinnest, toughest material, with which we create order and briefly tame the chaos over and over again, and in which we capture that which at such a moment can perhaps be called “meaning”. An artist must also feel at home in regions unknown to him, whatever he may find there, whether he likes it or not, even if he is forced to accept that he doesn’t feel at home there (…). In the moments of his creativity he is both his own Delphi and the mortal soul who visits the grotto.’

It is this total honesty which makes the poetic landscape created by Vasalis so irresistible. In all the attempts to create enclaves of order within the poetry, there is still room for doubt and chaos. For example, the I-figure, confronted with stars, which exist ‘guiltless and free’ (!) within their ‘proud laws’, declares: ‘I do not know what my true laws may be, / I seek a far, inhuman, certain sign / from out of this wilderness of pain.’ There is also doubt about the poet’s own poetic powers: ‘How strong reality, how weak / my instrument.’

We can therefore conclude that in the second collection the poet has turned inwards to some extent. As a result, many of these poems have something of a monologue interieur, in which the I-figure subjects herself to a critical evaluation of her position as a person and as a poet. Vasalis is only too aware that this is a risky undertaking, and in the poem ‘Cannes’ causes the 19-figure to attain a sudden insight into ‘the only true sin’: ‘that I, scarce touched by what’s most marvellous, / (…) and barely harmed by the most harmful things / have moved far distant from reality.’

Poetic creation and reality

The collection Vistas and Visages can be seen as an attempt to restore the inspired contact with reality: ‘for the first time I feel in all its fullness / in my own person what completeness is: an order, within which there’s room for chaos.’ The vistas constantly derive their visionary power from the fact that they are embedded in day-to-day reality: the skeleton of a leaf, a waterside, an old woman. It is precisely these uncompromising realities which shape a person experiencing pain, separation and isolation: ‘So many varieties of pain – / I’ll name them not. / Just one: the letting go, the parting; / and not the severing but the state / of being severed chills the heart.’

A poem like the one above makes clear that the attraction of Vasalis’ poetry does not lie in her spectacular use of language, but in its totally pure composition. It is after all exceptionally difficult to express such basic emotions without ever resorting to cliché or rhetoric. Another Dutch poet, J.C. Bloem, – like Vasalis the creator of a small but unchallenged oeuvre – once referred to ‘purity’ as the only property which he wished to claim for his poetry. And he added immediately: ‘This is by no means false modesty, because what I was seeking to achieve is no small thing. By purity I mean something which could perhaps also be termed personality (…): expressing a few essential things from life in a way that could be only mine, and no-one else’s.’

In his quest for purity, the poet sees himself confronted with a specific dilemma. Vasalis (in one of her rare reflections) once defined this dilemma as follows: ‘Between conception and birth, the word loses so many of its potential forms, it becomes transformed from a heraldic bird into the familiar “domestic fowl”, and only seldom do we see in the short, busy movements and in its staring, bright eye the flight, the gaze which was after all, so we thought, the intention. In this respect the poet lives his whole life between the devil and the deep blue sea, between the danger of stuttering immature, unrecognisable words or of expressing things too clearly in a language which has become an out and out jargon. In both cases his verse dies: either as an abortion or as a domestic fowl.’

It is only from this tension that a poetry can arise in which the words – as the poet Martinus Nijhoff (see The Low Countries 1996-97: 213-219) put it – ‘sing themselves free from their meanings’. There is yet another tension, however, which is even more unavoidable than the former, but much less palpable: the relationship between poetic creation and reality. Social changes can force a poet to re-evaluate his own position and poetics. Nijhoff experienced this in the 1930s, when he characterised the general crisis as a definitive bankruptcy of ideals. Nijhoff then went on to reappraise his autonomist poetics, in which the poem above all represented an immanent world of language. ‘Poetry has to work for the future, in other words imagine that that future already exists and create quarters for the human soul there, as it were’, said Nijhoff. And thus, inspired by Huizinga’s In the Shadows of Tomorrow, Nijhoff wrote his splendid sonnet cycle Before Daybreak (Voor dag en dauw, 1936).

Vasalis experienced something similar in the years following the Second World War, but her response to the spiritual crisis was totally different. When she was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize (the Dutch State Prize for Literature) in 1982, she looked back on this period in her acceptance speech: ‘I cannot possibly say that the 1940-45 War passed us, the elderly, by. But for us that War was an exceptional circumstance: we had already lived an entire life which still had much in common with that of the previous generation. We thought that, following that storm, we would be able to continue living much as before, though better, with greater insight. But what we gradually came to realise was that that storm had become a permanent climate, a climate in which we did not belong.’

For Vasalis this resulted in a new dilemma: ‘shouting’ or ‘remaining silent’. The former strategy would boil down to the creation of a ‘domestic embryo’, something which she observed in much experimental poetry after the Second World War and which in her view was even worse than the ‘domestic fowl’. As a poet she decided to adopt a position of silence, though the term ‘powerlessness’ to escape from the impasse is perhaps a better description. Because the post-war climate brought about a mental sea-change in Vasalis. ‘What happened to me after the War’, she said, ‘comes down to the following: my own faith, my own happiness or unhappiness, my views, opinions, knowledge and commentary, were all rigorously put into perspective. I had a sense of futility, of my inability to apply that increase in scale (…). I was constantly forced to the conclusion that my commentary was completely superfluous and that there was no point in striking my match alongside the raging fire’.

One can of course regret the poetic silence of Vasalis, and many readers and critics have done just that. And yet one can feel nothing but respect for the radical honesty of her position. A poet after all needs sustenance, something for which I can still find no better word than ‘inspiration’. If this inspiring force is no longer active, then only artificiality remains. Vasalis was not willing to make this concession – in which she would have become an epigone of herself – and that does her credit. Her small oeuvre is a sparkling witness to the condition humaine: ‘an order, within which there’s room for chaos’.

By Anneke Reitsma
Translated by Julian Ross

First published in The Low Countries, 1997