Poem notes

From 'The Occupant'

By Jane Draycott

Shortly after completing a translation of the medieval dream-elegy Pearl, I discovered Martinus Nijhoff’s 1934 poem Awater in David Colmer’s recent translation for Anvil, and was struck by the consonances between the two. In Nijhoff’s echoing and enigmatic poem the narrator, searching for a substitute for his late brother, stalks a mysterious figure named Awater through the city streets at night. Elegiac and allusive, the two narratives six centuries apart pursue their different fugitive dream-guides only to each discover the impossibility of joining them, although they are powerfully drawn to follow them.

Deliberately invoking an old European form to explore the very modern existential questions at the heart of Awater, Nijhoff takes as his model the Chanson de Roland’s ‘laisse-monorime’, playing on only 8 different vowel-rhymes across nearly 300 lines. The effect is haunting and hypnotic, and it’s a form I found propelling as ‘The Occupant’ came into being while I recorded interviews with Awater admirers as part of a recent Netherlands residency hosted by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. These recordings can be heard online on the Poetry Society’s Soundcloud site.

Hailed by Brodsky as ‘the future of poetry’, Martinus Nijhoff’s Awater is the great Dutch modernist poem, yet it is hardly known outside the Netherlands.

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