Tear Down This House

The Poetry of Tonnus Oosterhoff

Where the origins of modern poetry lie is something that you can philosophise about for a long time, but few would dispute that the compact oeuvre of Stéphane Mallarmé constitutes a benchmark. He was not the first poet to apply himself to writing largely incomprehensible poems, but he attracted more of a following than anyone else in the nineteenth century. While Rimbaud sometimes gives you the feeling that he is just messing around, Mallarmé’s poems are firmly and solidly constructed, so that every interpretation – no matter how ingenious – simply glances off their superior impassivity. There is no way of shifting them.

In his collected poems there are three poems about fans: ‘Éventail’, of which the poet has stated that it has to do with a fan belonging to his wife, ‘Autre éventail’, this time about one of his daughter’s, and lastly ‘Eventail’, dedicated to his friend Méry Laurent. The first and last of these were written by the poet on an actual fan, which he presented to the dedicatee. They are extremely complex poems, but one thing is clear: in each case the fan is an image of the poem. This is the first verse of the wife’s fan: ‘Avec comme pour langage / Rien qu’un battement aux cieux / Le futur vers se dégage / Du logis très précieux’. Poetry is no more than the displacement of air. Precisely this comparison of poems that stand immovable as houses with the most volatile object imaginable is one of the great paradoxes of modern literature.


Where does modern poetry end? You can discuss this for a long time too, but I suspect that if we look back in 2050, we shall find that modern poetry in the Netherlands ends with Tonnus Oosterhoff (1953-). Ever since his debut in 1990 he has gone his own way with steely consistency, which has resulted in the strangest and wittiest poetry of the past decade. And he has also published prose that testifies to the same wilfulness.

His collection We saw ourselves turn into a small group of people (Wij zagen ons in een kleine groep mensen veranderen, 2002), contains the poem ‘Possibly’ (‘Eventuele’), which begins as follows: ‘Isn’t that the amazed Madame sitting there on the deep-red tub chair? / How does red ink write on silver paper? Is a New Year fan / a useful present?’ In the last verse we see Mallarmé standing opposite Madame. ‘Has he brought something / into motion, into being, to a standstill?’ Anyone who looks at the poetry of the last century will answer in the affirmative. Mallarmé has set something in motion, he has brought something into being, but his poetry is certainly also that of stasis. His poems are things. And it is possible, with a slight exaggeration, to describe modern poetry as a collection of things.

Over the past ten years it has become increasingly clear that Tonnus Oosterhoff takes a less static view of poetry. When you read his work, the first thing that strikes you is that he never gives you anything to get hold of. On one occasion he writes a melodious gem, the next time a crazy tale, and the third time a typographical experiment. Some of his poems are mysterious and unsettling in an elusive way, others excel in Alzheimeresque ellipses, and yet others seem to be constructed like Bach fugues. Many poems contain dialogue and in a great many poems language seems to derail in a way that can be compared with what happens when a poorly educated madman translates an instruction manual. Whereas the poetics of such consistent poets as Baudelaire, Brodsky and Szymborska can be reconstructed from their published work without much trouble, in Oosterhoff’s case that is a hopeless task, since each time he does something different. He wants to surprise not only the reader but also himself.

In his debut collection Country Tiger (Boerentijger, 1990) we see how just under the thin veneer of civilisation and rationality that makes us human an animal madness crouches waiting to pounce on us. This is how the very first poem begins: ‘The leopard at the brainstem / listens to the radio wind / knowing, not knowing.’ Man is a beast, but has forgotten that fact. It is typical of Oosterhoff that in the very first line of his oeuvre he makes a play on words: ‘brainstem’. (Dutch ‘stam’ = stock, race, clan, but also trunk). Plays on words have the disadvantage that, apart from being usually untranslatable, they seem to result from chance and therefore do not say much for the poet’s inventiveness. But the core feature of Oosterhoff’s work is derailment, dislocation, and in that context the short-circuiting caused by word-play can work miracles. Oosterhoff makes effective use of coincidences of sound and tugs – sometimes subtly, sometimes destructively – at Dutch syntax. No surprise, then, that Oosterhoff’s poems abound in madmen, deranged artists, people whose powers of speech have been destroyed by a tumour.

The poet’s pneumatic drill

One of the great philosophical questions of the twentieth century concerns the exact nature of our identity. Rimbaud already stated that the I is another person; nowadays it is even claimed that the I comprises an enormous collection of others. That is grist to Oosterhoff’s mill, since he has no desire to write a consistent, monolithic oeuvre but has raised the lack of identity to a programme. Not only does he seem to formulate a new poetics with each poem; the poems themselves are as multi-voiced as a schizophrenic’s brain. Oosterhoff gains that effect by quoting from newspapers, ads, world literature – but also by making frequent use of dialogue. A poem from (Robust Reed Stops,) A Brilliant Assemblage ((Robuuste tongwerken,) een stralend plenum, 1997) – the title is a quotation from an article about a church organ – begins with a question within quotation marks: ‘Wally, may we write / about what you look like? Completely, that is?’ Wally approves, until ‘we’ write: ‘Wally is really well-stacked. She stands / naked in front of the window. Indisposed for the last time.’ That was not the intention, of course, and Wally then insists that her name is changed. This is the last verse: ‘We do what she says; it’s no longer concocted. / Wally’s dead-honest face lights up once more. She finds / this poem good, to-the-point, personal.’ The poem is as artful as the paradox of the lying Cretan, for if what it says is true, the woman’s name cannot be Wally. The poem makes itself impossible.

For Oosterhoff, then, the poem is not a static construction but a continuous process. That is why for years now he has been experimenting on his website with changing poems. His latest collection is accompanied by a CD-rom on which the reader can see how the poems gradually blur and dissolve, even to the extent that sentences turn into their opposites. The collection too constantly contradicts itself, for Oosterhoff deploys all manner of typographical means to emphasise the multi-voicedness of his poems – he has even written over the typed texts in his own handwriting. While we tend to regard someone’s handwriting as inalienably personal to them, its purpose here is precisely to problematise the identity of the poet.

Who is Tonnus Oosterhoff? In The Landholder (De ingeland, 1993) he had already written:

‘You’re so incorruptible, so modest.’
‘For the fun of it.’
It is a pleasure
to be Tonnus Oosterhoff.
‘I’d like to be that too.’
Of course, but that’s not on!

That’s not on. 

Because even the poet himself doesn’t quite know how you set about being Tonnus Oosterhoff.

New poetry always calls for new metaphors that can characterise it. In 23 BC, Horace ended his three books called Carmina with the proud – or ironic? – conclusion that he had built a monument that would survive the centuries. The last poem in Oosterhoff’s most recent collection begins as follows:

tear down this house
pneumatic drill
The ornamental well goes down metres
six tons of granite

In the poet’s handwriting the open space at the beginning of the first line has been filled with the word ‘Do’, in front of the second line there is ‘Use my’. The word ‘ton’ probably refers to the first name of the poet. Oosterhoff has not built a monument, but torn down a house. We shall await with curiosity the ultimate consequences of the demolition process with which Oosterhoff has held us spellbound for more than a decade.

By Piet Gerbrandy
Translated by John Irons

First published in The Low Countries, 2005