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Review: I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, by Remco Campert

The volumes I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, by Remco Campert, and Kill the Radio, by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, are numbers 18 and 19 in Arc's 'Visible Poets' series, and two more contrasting books it would be hard to imagine. This contrast is signalled by the titles; Dutch poet Remco Campert's I Dreamed in the Cities at Night is predicated firstly upon community that is often, but not always, urban, and a community that is rooted in family and relationships. There is, as is noted by both the translator, Donald Gardner, and the book's introducer, Paul Vincent, a dead-pan humour to much of his poetry. Vincent goes so far as to align Campert with the Liverpool poets, which is possibly an alignment too far, but the sardonic quality of much of the writing should appeal to a British audience.

The phrase Kill the Radio, Dorothea Rosa Herlainy's translator tells us, is a literal translation of an Indonesian phrase meaning 'turn off the radio'. The translator, Harry Aveling, tells us that 'kill' here, is a dead metaphor, similar to the word used in the theatrical phrase, 'kill the lights'. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper! There are plenty of other poems in the collection to choose a title from, so why this? As Linda France makes clear in her introduction, Herliany may well be killing the radio because of the consistently bad news it brings, but the affect is to shut out that wider world and concentrate resolutely on the personal. For Herliany, the personal is always the political. Herliany's poetry is not of the confessional kind in the Western tradition of Sexton and Plath - the disturbance and conflict that these poems describe is embedded in the lives of all Indonesian women. As such, it is a shocking rejoinder to any implied 'western' sense of emotional indulgence.

For these poems are often very direct. They are direct about the oppression that women endure in her society, and they are absolutely direct about Herliany's response to that. She writes about adultery. She writes about the violence she would like to inflict on me in return for the violence directed not only towards her but to all Indonesian women. And she certainly writes with poetic personality, which steers her poetry and poetics in quite the opposite direction to that normally seen in the British islands.

rest in my orchards, little man.
before you curse a corner of your cold mirror,
before i hunt you down: before i kill you
with my arrow soaked in the poison of hundreds of snakes.
then, with a flick of my finger, throw your body
into the smiling hole of my most stupid pleasure.

Secret Sex Telegrams

Not all the poetry in this book is quite this explicit. But there is a great deal that is. Her translator, Harry Aveling, is a professor of translation studies, so we have to assume that he knows what he is doing in presenting the surface of her poetry as quite so unflinching. And the absence of capitals at the beginnings of sentences, and the lower case 'i's, are there in the original.

There is a lyricism about much of the writing in this book, and the 'Kill the Radio' sequence itself, is a both bruised and loving examination of a love affair; and that ambivalent tenderness does underlie much of the other, more stringent writing. However, the reader soon comes to realise that this lyricism is hard-earned. This is a very unusual book, and if the reader has the stomach for it, then it offers great rewards and a unique insight into a very different consciousness.

Campert's book, I Dreamed in the Cities at Night is, as I suggested above, quite opposite in tone to Herliany's. In Donald Gardner's rhythmic and subtle translation, Campert's dominant tone is one of urbanity and understatement. That is not to say that there isn't real emotion going on in these poems. Campert, born in the Hague, in 1929, writes poignantly and vividly about his father and mother who were both resistance workers in the Second World War. Technically, though, Campert offers somewhat more standard poetic fare; Ode to my coat, for example, uses the coat as an aide memoire for meetings and lovers, and House in Antwerp offers a location for a family that's now a memory.

Although this is to point up a difference with Herliany, Campert locations and props are also often used to reflect on the war between the sexes. Campert is capable of anger at betrayal, but his note is usually one of regret:

on a day like that
i wished we lived on the waterfront
or that we were water
or could sail across the water
like two white ships
to a place where the world has not yet been discovered

Like Two White Sailing Ships

The finest poems in this collection are those in which he remembers his parents and his sense of childhood failure. The adult who writes these poems seems to have forgiven the child he was, but the poems themselves are a vivid testament to a time when loss was final. Writing of the day, when he and his mother were informed of his father's death at the hands of the Nazis, Campert writes:

I felt nothing then but knew
there was something I should feel

I looked past my mother's sleeve
towards the deep enticing wood

when I got the chance I told her all
about the things that interested me

January 1943