Lifesaving Poems: Tonnus Oosterhoff’s ‘Middle Ages’


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.




  1. that list of poets unknown to me brought tears to my eyes as well as the poem….the rest of my muddled thoughts on loneliness and helplessness morphed into `would you do a poetry workshop at `The Mardon Neuro-rehab Centre?`I run a group there. I could only offer you a cuppa and a cake.

    Sent from Windows Mail


  2. I may have misread this, but I think the sense of era is so nicely understated. The matter of distance in a world before Early Modern/Renaissance perspective and proportion, saints or burial places in walls, perhaps, rather than in the ground, the whole thing is delivered wonderfully ‘flat’ but hieroglyphically deep, like a church carving. No one escaping is perhaps also a reference to illiteracy and the inability of named creative individuals to leave their work in the world. It’s like a moment waiting for the light of Vermeer – but then it has so much modern resonance too.


    1. Thank you so much for this. I don’t think you are missing anything at all, far from it.
      I think your evocation of church carvings and illiteracy is great. Thank you. Great insights, which have helped me read the poem with fresh eyes.
      As ever with thanks


  3. Dear Anthony,

    Thanks for this. I’m an admirer of his poems (and he’s a very nice man). His work is currently being translated by Karlien van den Beukel, who I forwarded your post to.

    If you ever get the chance to go to Poetry International Rotterdam, go! It’s great.

    Hope you are well and best wishes, Astrid

    Awarded Wellcome Trust Fellowship Clore Leadership Programme 2013/14 Royal Society of Arts Fellow 2014


    1. Dear Astrid
      How wonderful to hear from you.
      Thanks so much for getting in touch.
      I thought this one might appeal to you. I’d love to get hold of more of his work.
      I had a hunch he was a nice guy. I’m glad.
      As ever



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