– On Hans van de Waarsenburg’s poetry –
For I gave to your blood / the ebb tide of the world’s twilit ages, / but in your hearts the cry of gulls / above the final flood.
(A. Roland Holst)
#1 Hans van de Waarsenburg is quietly working on an impressive œuvre. He possesses great technical skills, which he uses to vary and intensify his standard themes and motifs. He is no innovator, nor does he slavishly follow the latest fads. Neither is he a poet who forces himself on our attention in that loud entourage which more and more replaces literature itself.
Loyalty is the key to Hans van de Waarsenburg’s work. His poetry expresses a loyalty to the people around him, loyalty to their motives and desires. He has an eye for their vulnerability, their futility and their restrictions. It is first of all expressed in the earnest and careful way in which he uses language. Thus a careful listener hears an individual and unmistakable voice rising from the poetry.
Zuidwal (South Wall, 1995) confirms the image of Hans van de Waarsenburg as a melancholic. One is aware of gloomy tones, tones of sadness and nostalgia. Again and again the poems point out that man is transitory and all his efforts in vain. It would be an injustice to this work if I left off with this characterization. In these poems there is no hint of inertia or resignation, so often associated with melancholy. Here melancholy rather frees the way for an active, pugnacious attitude. His awareness of transitoriness intensifies life both in sadness and in pleasure. His awareness of man’s vulnerability encourages comfort. For us comfort lies in how Van de Waarsenburg strives not to use language as a means of (self-) deception. It is equally found in the intensification and recording of our desires.
This process is well illustrated in the cycle ‘The thirst of harbour towns’ from the collection of the same name (1990). The harbour town is a region of transition, just as evening or dusk in other collections. Not yet at sea, about to leave the shore, now the desire to be elsewhere is strongest. Already adrift but not yet cast off. Regular time is already out of joint, so near the hour of departure. The unquenchable thirst of life makes itself felt. Van de Waarsenburg has turned the utopian longing for the unknown into a bodily property, thus giving it a firm and promising basis. One that cannot be drowned in booze. But poetry is good at arousing thirst: that is what these poems maintain, even when reality has shattered the illusions about other places. ‘Antwerp’ ends in disillusion yet also relies blindly on that inner space from which the future may be visualized again:
Once you have started on thirst
Water will follow you around
Now silently taking shape
Lip service rendered to the glass
Sham feasts, the entire life
Until the sunlight is cast out
The glass, the dream broken
The eyes now useless and glazed.
There are many examples of the melancholy vitality of these poems. One of them is found in ‘Since all must pass’ from South Wall:
I shall lift the tears from your eyes
Kiss the salt from your cheek
Be silent about the death of day
And dusk against your skin
Since all must pass
I shall allow the wood and the fires
Steal a feather from your head-dress
Reach for the beaker and leave the smoke
Till water burns and wait.
Because life is transitory it must be fully embraced and lived to the full. There is comfort in the first stanza, devotion and love. The ‘death of the day’ is a formula with several connotations. It refers to nightfall: a day is closed at dusk, creating a feeling not unknown to melancholics. The formula also opposes the temporal trivial occurrence to the all-embracing ‘all must pass’. His beloved addressed here need not feel paralysed by the short-lived moment. Since all must pass this daily death loses its supreme power.