The Captain of the Butterflies

Cees Nooteboom’s Poetry

After the international success in English translation of Cees Nooteboom’s fiction — including Rituals (Rituelen, 1980), In the Dutch Mountains (In Nederland, 1984), A Song of Truth and Semblance (Een lied van schijn en wezen, 1981) and The Following Story (Het volgende verhaal, 1991) and travel writing (Roads to SantiagoDe omweg naar Santiago, 1992) —, The Captain of the Butterflies, a selection of seventy-seven poems — roughly a quarter of his output between 1955 and 1989 — opens a less familiar but important aspect of his work to a wider readership.

The translations appear in the adventurous and wide-ranging Sun & Moon Classics series, which already included two Flemish prose titles (Stijn Streuvels’ Flaxfield (De vlaschaard, 1907)) and Maurice Gilliams’ Elias (Elias of het gevecht met de nachtegalen, 1936). They are the product of more than a decade of collaboration between Leonard Nathan, an American poet and academic, and Herlinde Spahr, a US-based Dutch native-speaker with a doctorate in comparative literature, who contributes a brief introduction. Spahr’s introduction also acknowledges the close involvement of the poet himself (who adds a succinct author’s note) in the translation process, which had its beginnings in his year as a visiting lecturer at UC Berkeley in 1986. Nooteboom’s ‘own comments and elucidations’, she writes, ‘often proved helpful in selecting the right alternative’. Beyond that, his ‘final grouping of the poems along thematic lines’ (‘Self and Others’, ‘Travels and Visions’, ‘Poems and Fictions’, ‘Thoughts and Theses’) provides the reader with signposts and to a large extent determines the ‘shape’ of the collection, overriding other possible ordering criteria such as chronology. If such a label is applicable to the translation of poetry, this anthology bears all the marks of an ‘authorised version’.

In striving for maximum representativeness, covering ‘as many periods and styles as possible’, the translators confess that the constraints of language led them to favour poems ‘which survived best that shattering transfer from Dutch into English’. It would be fascinating to know what poems failed this test, just as translators at least would be interested in the translation strategies and tactics underlying particular choices, for example, the neutral rendering ‘coat’ rather than ‘cloak’ for Dutch ‘mantel’ in ‘Traveller’, which loses the period feel of the Japanese print evoked at the beginning of the poem, while easing the transition to the vision of nuclear holocaust, ‘the firestorm of blisters’ in its conclusion. But perhaps it is unfair to ask for such detail in this unassuming, engaging volume, whose notes are confined to a single page, and take the reader on a lightning tour of Nooteboom’s imaginative world, both starker and darker than his fiction, of which it nevertheless bears many of the thematic and stylistic hallmarks: rootless wandering, isolation, time, death, and dense allusiveness and a lapidary quality that is arresting in individual images and poems, but can seem unrelieved. The tone of the Dutch writing is for me powerfully conveyed, for example, in the opening section of the title poem:

There is the captain of the butterflies!
All days hang under his bituminous wings.
The look of the air is vacant.
No one flies so noiselessly as this chieftain.

Haze over the great ovens.
The water consumed.

Suddenly the wind stirs
A sound between his insignias,
He alters direction.

Observed from the ground:
He is a black and plumed machine
With weapons and teeth.

Perhaps this teeters on the brink of portentousness (a common charge levelled by critics of Nooteboom’s writing), but it is nonetheless visually compelling, resonant and consistent with his prose. No one, least of all the writer I think, would claim for Nooteboom the status of poetic ‘heavyweight’, on a par with such contemporaries as Hugo Claus or Hans Faverey. But his voice is undeniably a personal one, and this sampler adds a valuable dimension to his oeuvre for non-Dutch readers.

By Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 1999

Cees Nooteboom, The Captain of the Butterflies (tr. Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr). With an Introduction by Herlinde Spahr.