The Flemish poet Jos de Haes (1920-1974) left a modest, idiosyncratic, body of work that stubbornly eludes all pigeonholing in movements and fashions. His work combines elements from traditional poetry with the achievements of modernism. His study of Classical languages and associated travel to Greece left a clear mark on his poetry. De Haes translated work by Pindar and Sophocles and in his poetry constantly refers to Classical mythology (Delphi, Medea, the Sibyl, Plato …).
The principal motif in his work is an experience of physicality laden with feelings of guilt and impotence. This all-pervading sense of sin leads to a longing for self-abasement and sacrifice. Death and transience are central. On the one hand death manifests itself in motifs of decomposition, crumbing to dust, fragmentation, rotting and rasping. On the other hand, it presents itself as petrifaction and hardening: fossils, glass, metal and ice are important elements. Sometimes death acquires a cosmic and escatological dimension, becoming a purging movement towards whiteness and light. In the cycle ‘the pole’ from the collection Gedaanten (Shapes, 1954), for instance, we find: ‘Till we wretches driven in all directions, / are fozen by the Pole that chokes screams in its vice, /and we are purified of life’s infections, / drifting floes towards eternal ice’.
In the mannerist language and the condensed, physical, earthy and concrete imagery of his last collection, Azuren Holte (Azure Hollow, 1964), which in1965 was awarded the prestigious triennial State Prize for Poetry (1965), these themes reach a supreme pitch. The longing for purity through self-destruction is expressed in the cycle ‘Delphi’ in a ritual sacrifice of the self: ‘The last thing I heard before night / was my larynx crack like a pod, / as it was first pierced in the rite / and then praised as the work of God’. Another high point in this collection are the erotic poems in the cycle ‘La Noue’. The poet’s aversion to his own physicality and the urge towards self-abasement are here charged with sexual desire. The woman who in Gedaanten was a vengeful Medea, is elevated in Azuren Holte to a cruel Sybil to whom the ‘I’ masochistically submits: ‘Sibyl, name me. Find me dissolved in the juice/ of all your tissue, a pile of teeth and hair. / Plant that cancer. Or as a joke let me loose:/ A male sea worm that in your gut you bear’.
Azuren Holte is regarded as a peak but is at the same the conclusion of De Haes’ oeuvre. Only four more poems were published by the poet. The imagery has become even more concrete and sensual. For the first time the poet jettisons rhyme, so that the feelings of impotence are also reflected in the verse form. In the now classic poem ‘A Kiss in Ter Kameren’ each stanza abruptly breaks off (in Dutch) with the word ‘I’. The poem concludes as follows: ‘moving lip flesh against bone, / it pushes all ways, / your spittle I suck, / if it starts to ferment I shall, / it can’t be that I’.
Jos de Haes died at a young age in 1974, but his poetry retained its cultural value for a small group of disparate poets in Flanders and the Netherlands. In 2004 an critical reading edition appeared of his collected poems.