Within the Mythic & Archetypal: Kurt Brown on Cees Nooteboom’s The Captain of the Butterflies

The Captain of the Butterflies, Cees Nooteboom, translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr, Sun & Moon Classics, 1997

Some poems are unreadable. Others, one reads out of a sense of duty, and therefore with some effort. But some are irresistible. They compel you to stop whatever else you are doing, and pay attention. This is the case with The Captain of the Butterflies, the first collection of poetry by Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, translated into English by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr. Though published more than a decade ago, the book is worth revisiting, as any fine book of poetry is. Re-reading it is a lesson on how good poetry never ages.

A clear-eyed surrealist, Nooteboom sees the everyday physical world with one eye and the hidden, mysterious, abstract world with the other. This double-vision serves him well in poem after poem, reminding us of how divided consciousness really is, or may become. The firm, sparkling, manifest world of order and quotidian ritual floats perilously on an ocean of impenetrable depths, an abyss the human mind cannot possibly fathom. Nooteboom peers through the surface-sparkle of phenomena, again and again, to apprehend the movements of this indistinct, shadowy world, a world both threatening and beautiful where intuition and hunch are better guides—and more reliable guardians—than reason. The ancient role of poetry has always been just this: to glimpse the sacred through the profane and bring news of that other existence back to us in oracle and song.

One of the first poems in the book, The Poem of Death, demonstrates this admirably. It is a poem many poets might aspire to write, but few succeed with such eerie and evocative precision, and in such short order:

Along the cold thought of the moon
the light drifts
the wings of the birds are brilliantly painted

this is the poem of death
which begs and tumbles
in the long drawn arches of the evening,
nobody hears it.

nobody hears it, such winged sounds
fly right by the saints
silent, and stuck in the sand,
they are immobile in the drought.

on the hollow path
the painted birds.
in the carved white night
the enchanted voice.
among the swaying trumpets of the angels
those in masks whisper

a house is no house
a thing is no thing
life does not exist.

Among other things the poem restores an imbalance between the two primary realities we actually know: life and death. As far as death is concerned, life hardly exists; it is so tentative and short. How can life—with its frail houses and hallucinatory things—make any claim towards ontological value or importance? On the contrary: viewed from the perspective of death, life is illusory, fleeting, utterly negligible. A thing of little substance and staying power flickering across the dying mind. Death, on the other hand, is eternal. Life withers to a “cold thought” drifting across the face of the moon. The poem of death, the “enchanted voice,” cannot be heard by human beings, not even by those entrusted with our spiritual welfare. Religion is a human “thing.” The saints are “silent, and stuck in the sand” of limited human perception. “they are immobile in the drought” of human ignorance and error. And even when we get to see the angels, those who really know, they are wearing masks—so we can’t see them completely either. The poem both reveals and discreetly obscures final knowledge, which after all can never be apprehended.

The poems in The Captain of the Butterflies are haunted by the reality of death and night and our impotence in the face of them. Another poem, “In Memoriam Leo L.,” opens with a startling image of Nooteboom’s friend, to whom this elegy is addressed, curled up in a hospital bed awaiting his end:

Only a week ago
like a fetus in bed.
Real eyes. Real nails…

The smile of this dying invalid is “a lock,” something which cannot be accessed or deciphered. When the dying turn fully towards death, the living may no longer communicate with them. Whatever expressions their faces wear are enigmatic to those who stand around their beds, mourning. Again, the ineffectuality of religion for Nooteboom is stressed in no uncertain terms:

Tomorrow the dance
of the odd priest
Latin shaman
without magic

Once the forms and rituals that console those left behind have been accomplished, the dying may truly leave this world of houses and things, saints and ghostly insubstantial moons:

only then the fire
of inaudible voices,
the eternal tracks

toward home.

Again and again, we are reminded of the failure of religion in dealing effectively with absolute reality—or perhaps, a plurality of realities. In another poem, the gods simply sleep “in their gold-lacquered beds…wild and useless in their loneliness.” These are the old gods, the gods of the Greeks and the Romans, the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia. But they represent any gods, really, from any civilization at any epoch. The poem ends, “…a thousand years the gods sleep and then, another thousand / dreaming the merciful salt of death.”

For Noteboom’s Captain of the Butterflies, “Reality is the greatest contagion.” The self is “…established in its solitude / like a shipwreck cast in bronze.” “There is nothing pretty about these poems” Noteboom asserts, and we understand he is referring to their otherworldy, non-human character. No sentiment. No easy consolation. Only the self-alienation of human consciousness without its customary mask, without the protective layer of myths, rituals and fond dreams with which we surround ourselves in order to survive. It’s as though the blanket of ozone around our planet was burned away, once and for all, and we stood naked in a deadly stream of solar rays: the final illumination.

All religions prohibit looking directly at the gods. Rilke knows that he couldn’t survive even in the presence of an angel, he would “shrivel…next to [its] greater existence.” Even everyday reality, if we could truly apprehend it, would probably drive us mad. Nooteboom describes the shattered self in clear, unsettling terms: “someone, somebody scattered, / the uncollected persona / in converse with himself, dreaming and thinking / present, invisible.” In many ways, then, these are troubling poems. At least those in the first section, “Self and Others,” that depict the dissolution of identity, the very core of the individuated personality: “Midday of glittering hours / that will not fit together, / and himself cut up by himself / sitting in various chairs / with almost everywhere a soul or body.” Nooteboom observes that “no hand…controls all this,” emphasizing the chaotic nature of such an existence, akin to the harrowing pathology of schizophrenia.

The poems in section II, “Travels and Visions,” extend Nooteboom’s method of intense penetration to cities, sites and landscapes around the world. Nooteboom sees, not what the tourist sees, but the inner reality of a place, the ethos of a landscape, its hidden character compacted of history, culture, nature and geography. So in Arcadia, Greece he senses “the shepherds of noon” and hears “crickets argue for death / urns of annihilation.” In Bogotá, “the rooster is beaten a third time / because in the dark he saw the light.” At Mt. Fuji, Nooteboom observes that “all of Japan hangs on it like a gondola full of dreams / which it lifts and cherishes and carries along / through the sky / beyond the tract of time.” The least successful poems in this section are anthropomorphic persona poems in which the speaker is a rock, a plant, the sun, the sea. Perhaps this is because personification is too familiar a poetic technique to draw the reader in easily.

Section III comprises a number of poems that meditate on the nature of poetry and the poet’s art. In a poem entitled “The Page on the Lily,” the poet

…sits there posturing on the edge of his grave
and listens to the gulping of time
in the poem across from him,
the never-to-be-grasped.

In “Golden Fiction,” Nootebom refers to the poet as a “traitor,” ostensibly because he doesn’t live life, but merely sits apart in his study to record it:

The traitor sits in his room and writes it down.
Out of which lives does he write? Which time?
Will the real life ever come to him
and take him with it?

No it will never take him with it.
The traitor sits in his room and writes
what the voices tell him to write.

In “Homer on Ithaca, ” the essential poet is described—separate, dreaming alone, eyes blind to anything but the inward drama of Imagination. The poet is steward of memory, time’s amanuensis, slave to the Muse which bids him “Sing!”

Section IV of the book, the final section, includes poems about the mind’s ability, or non-ability, to grasp ultimate truth. Throughout the book, Nooteboom’s poems are seeded with references to locks, seals, distances, space, blindness and invisibility, all terms that indicate our inadequacy for discovering what is hidden or secret, what cannot be easily revealed—or revealed at all. The attempt to illuminate even a tiny fraction of reality requires Herculean imaginative and intellectual effort over years, often centuries, and by the most perspicacious minds available. This is best presented in Nooteboom’s poem, “Grail,” which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Remember the time
that we were searching for something,
something quite precise,
a concept, paraphrase, definition,
a summa of what we did not know,
something we wished
to assume or measure or tally
between all things obscure?

You know, don’t you know
how we always wandered off, dividing
the concept and the quest,
Augustine the brothels, Albert the Numbers,
Jorge the mirrors, Immanuel home, Pablo the forms,
Wolfgang the colors,
Teresa, Blaise, Friedrich, Leonardo, Augustus,
always tallying and measuring between words and notes,
among nuns, soldiers and poets,
breaking, looking, splitting,
till the bones, the shadow,
a glimmer, a narrowing down
in senses or images,
until in a glass or a number
but always so briefly
a hiccup of a thought, of a way,
so endlessly vague became visible.

All that vast effort to arrive finally at the mere “hiccup of a thought,” something so small and frail that—once again—human effort is portrayed as negligible, the entire history of ideas as insubstantial as a flicker of light. All things remain, essentially, obscure. The human mind is continually defeated in its effort to grasp even the edges of ultimate truth.

Throughout this review I have used phrases like “absolute reality,” “the sacred and the profane,” “ultimate truth,” and so forth. I have referred to “the hidden, mysterious, abstract world” as if such a thing were to be taken for granted. But many will find such ideas merely romantic, a naïve throwback to obsolete theories about poets and the poetic art. In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the editors describe the poet, in part, in the following way:

Some cultures make a formal distinction between the
sacred and the profane; others do not. In those that
do, the poet has a public and sacral status as the conveyor
of wisdom and knowledge of a very high order. In those
that do not, however—which includes all modern Western
industrial societies—the poet can present only knowledge
that is personal and private, appealing to his or her readers,
in essence, to judge for themselves whether or not the
knowledge and experience described is not also their own.

Not many people, at least those who wish to be taken seriously, would argue with such an assessment of poetry and poets in contemporary society. That there has been a diminishment of value, a contraction of cultural caché and influence with regard to the poet, is hardly deniable. Confessionalism, with all its limitations, is the result of a thoroughly discredited Romanticism. Yet, a poet like Nooteboom gives us pause: is it possible that, regardless of how the contemporary world views them, poets of real vision and insight, poets who can speak with ancient, oracular authority, continue to exist and do their work uninhibited by an almost universal disregard? This idea in itself may seem romantic, a kind of Harry Potter idea of poets operating secretly within the stifling milieu of suburban, bourgeuois society.

Yet here, at the opening of the 21st century, it is not so clear that the sacred has been so easily defeated, so completely relegated and cast side during the 19th and 20th centuries. Seemingly endless, festering religious conflicts—with more and bigger ones on the horizon—make us question whether the sacred might not be staging a comeback, whether the ascendancy of the profane in a scientific and rational age may not ultimately prove a chimera, something which seemed undeniable for a time until time reversed itself. No one would welcome back an age of superstition. But the poet’s otherworldliness is not religious, so much as intuitive, imaginative, psychological. What has been “sacred” to the poet of the modern era is not the received doctrine of organized religions, but the realm of the subconscious, and even deeper—the unconscious—where important human truths and realities may lie. More than personal, but less than absolute, such truth involves the very meaning of human consciousness and being. It all depends on how you define the sacred, and what we can possibly know—or guess at—with the limited instrument of the human mind.

Poets like Nooteboom operate within this area, within the territory of the mythic and archetypal. It is almost impossible to read Nooteboom and feel that he is presenting “only knowledge that is personal and private.” The images cast up and examined feel more universal than that, more unsettling but familiar, more like our own shadowy imaginings and doubts, our own fears and dreams. It has been said “A myth is a public dream, while a dream is a private myth.” Nooteboom, it would seem, is someone with a powerful enough imagination to dream for us all. To confine the substance and meaning of his poems to personal and private knowledge would feel not only like a misjudgment of his real achievement, but a betrayal of his gift—the gift of these penetrating, revelatory poems.