The tone is set by the opening piece, "The Poet at Forty." If it were the Middle Ages, the poet at forty would be either aged or already dead; in either case he would be without teeth. The poet who speaks here, since it is the twentieth century, is a poet with teeth. This self-awareness hakes the poetry self-reflexive. One poem compares a poem to an "echo-pit," where an ego sits trembling. The problem is to be able to climb out line by line.
A further complication is that the poet's language is Afrikaans. As a child, Hugo heard his parents speak of barricades and barbed wire, and he now realizes that they were referring to the massacre at Sharpeville. The Afrikaans language is compared to a hand grenade plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. The longest poem in the collection amusingly imagines F. W. de Klerk presenting himself before Saint Peter for admission into heaven. Satan argues that de Klerk should not be admitted because he has betrayed apartheid. Isn't the moral system of he universe based on a strict separation between heaven md hell, God and the devil? A prominent Afrikaans woman poet living in the Netherlands is summoned to defend de Klerk, and in the confusion caused by her lengthy recitation of her own poetry, he sneaks in. The modern world is one in which we have the choice of trifling with love and meeting Madonna in hell, or being "moral and wise" and chattering with Calvin in heaven.
Hugo's collection is very much concerned with love. Here two pairs of figures are important: Adam and Eve and, since this is monk's work, Abelard and Heloise. The story of these medieval lovers is retold in a cycle of seven poems. Abelard, "monk, sailor, and lover," shuttles between two beds: his own, where he tosses and turns in attempted prayer; and hers, where "they sweat and laugh and gasp." This pendulum motion is stopped by the shears which castrate him. Heloise writes to ask if he didn't know that love is a sacrament in which blood is shed.
Each love affair is a reenactment of the primal love affair of Adam and Eve, and an attempt to return to that "unworthier paradise" where "only God can read." But that paradise cannot be recovered, cannot be written again. In the second of two poems on the poisoned apple, the lovers, both experienced, both hurt in previous affairs, must pretend that their love has no prehistory, that this is the first time for both. In this lie they symbolically repeat the sin of Adam and Eve.
At the end, the poet who had rejected his father's faith is alone, without God or his beloved and "without fruit or dream." He must leave the "short and mournful" Eden they had shared. The last few poems locate the poet in Amsterdam, distant and damp, but the smell of apples makes him think of her in spite of all. The final poem, "Monk's Scratchings," finds the poet in bed returning to a primal language, as the very first words of poetry in Dutch, an eleventh-century fragment of a love poem, run through his head.
Fred J. Nichols Graduate Center, CUNY