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Middle Ages

(Translated by Paul Vincent)

 

Folk from the past jostled for a place in the wall

with distant and here the same size

In the dark digestions battled with bone splinters and dried cod.

 

The bishops rubbed their hands at windowlets,

whispering discerningly, archly ineffective.

In empty wine casks our mothers exploded with mirth,

but at fourteen they died in their first childbed.

No one escaped from that time.

 

Tonnus Oosterhoff

I came across the stunning time-bomb of this poem in the Poetry International programme of 1996. I see the author took part in an evening of readings with Esther Jansma, Rutger Kopland, James Brockway and Maura Dooley on Wednesday 30 October of that year. Of course, I did not go. I had just moved to Exeter with my young family and felt like I had dropped off the end of the earth. Then this arrived on my doormat, tempting and out of reach, yet at the same time a kind of lifeline.

Everyone seemed to be there. Bill Herbert, Kathleen Jamie, Gillian Clarke, Piotr Sommer, Geoffrey Hill, John Burnside, Sharon Olds, Edwin Morgan, Peter Redgrove, Mark Doty, Anne Stevenson, Michael Longley, Mimi Khalvati, Wole Soyinka.  I wondered what on earth I had done.

The booklet seemed to fall open at this poem. I had not heard of its author (this was pre-Google: can you imagine what that was like, falling in love, wanting more, and having nowhere to go with it?). There was nothing on the page which took me even an inch further into the life and work of the poet, except for a list of his Dutch-only books which I knew I would never be able to read.

Middle Ages. Translated by Paul Vincent. Wednesday 30 October, 1996. With Maura Dooley. In a way it was perfect. A reduction of circumstances on and off the page forcing an effort of concentration. The best of times.

I’ve travelled round the back of this poem a thousand times since then and still don’t know how he pulls it off, that telescoping distance and visceral immediacy. The oddness. The freshness. Its oddness: ‘With distant and here the same size’. There is a great filmic sweep to it, but it is in close-up, too.

From its cracks at diet and organised religion to its glimpses of the horrors of childbirth, the poem’s deadpan evenness of tone presents not so much luminous details as those which appear to crawl with bacteria. It almost escapes the temptation to offer commentary, but for its final throwaway line, which mirrors the lives it describes.