A man standing in a winter garden becomes aware of something not quite right—a cloud that seems too heavy, bare branches against an ancient wall, the refusal of neighbouring geese—an unspoken uneasiness that carries his thoughts back to the war:
The war that never stopped coming back,
a guest who’s known to all, a toothless
kiss, the language of intimate betrayal
around him now again, remembering a past
he couldn’t share with anyone.
This is how Dutch poet and writer Cees Nooteboom’s Leaving begins, its speaker in his garden thinking about family, war, times past. About those images that fail to fade. But as this three-part sequence of poems was coming into being, another guest, unexpected and uncertain, arrived and shifted the focus. His work would, in the end, acquire a subtitle: A Poem from the Time of the Virus. Without ever mentioning the virus itself outside of his Afterword, the shifting currents of the early months of its spread cannot be ignored even within the poet’s green refuge, for “Whimpering at the garden gate is the world, the / fuss of a newspaper.”
Heads and faces—remembered, imagined, dreamed—form a key motif throughout these poems, complemented by German artist Max Neuman’s series of drawings of abstract figures with spare features, completed in advance of news of the pandemic, for this, their second collaboration. The man in his garden is haunted by heads:
I saw heads, countless heads,
field marshals, lovers, travellers
from star to star. Each head its
own story, hidden in the folds
of the brain, alongside narrow streams
of blood, reeds on the banks, secret
landscapes no one can reach,
except for a lonely traveller
This leads into the second sequence, where the poet, the lonely traveller, wants to make sense of the darkness and strangeness of his visions that surface from memory. All these heads. Who are these people, he asks, these creatures, these voices? As spartan as Neumann’s drawings, these poems propose questions that the poet cannot or does not want to answer. Can one look for meaning in life if, when looking back, one is confronted with forms, shadows, faces without mouths? The past seems intent on revisiting the man who knows that the end is nearing:
Life, the song of songs? Sure,
but underneath there is that other truth,
the truth of night and fog,
the test that lasts
until the end.
The third and final sequence, or movement if one wishes to read this poem as a musical composition, moves into a space of quiet and melancholy. Others—friends, brothers, lovers—have left the path once shared, one by one, “disappearing like ghosts.” The silence descending on the world is like a nothingness the poet has never heard before: “contradiction / surrounds me, an organ, / no keys, a song // whose sound has been sealed.” Yet, where the poet is troubled by the images that confront him in the second sequence, he is now coming to a place of peace with himself and others in the silence and isolation, and finds he is ready to take the road ahead and let the past be:
Now my feet are counting the road, I know,
looking back is not allowed. My steps measure time,
a dark and peerless poem, a beat
that can’t be slowed.
In the Afterword, Nooteboom who is not a writer to shy away from contemporary issues, talks about how a poem comes to be, how influences enter and make themselves known, changing the direction in which the poet thought he was headed. It would be strange, he says, if the arrival of a mysterious virus were to be completely ignored; sometimes reality intervenes to help one write. And so we have this thoughtful, timely work, one that invites rereading and lingering on the words and the drawings.
Leaving: A Poem from the Time of the Virus by Cees Nooteboom with drawing by Max Neumann is translated by David Colmer and published by Seagull Books.