In Martinus Nijhoff’s 1934 poem ‘Awater’, the poet-narrator trails his mysterious neighbour, Awater, through the city night. But who was Awater and what did he represent? Jane Draycott, who has recently made an audio piece exploring this story and mysterious ‘others’ elsewhere in poetry, joins the trail
That’s why tonight I’ll be Awater’s shadow
and bide my time until I have his measure […]
I hesitate. Five-thirty sounds and time expands.
The street becomes a stream of passers-by
In Martinus Nijhoff’s 1934 poem ‘Awater’, the poet-narrator trails his mysterious neighbour – Awater – through the city night, stalking him like a spy as he leaves work, following him into a barber’s, a bar, a restaurant and finally to a train station where a member of the Salvation Army addresses a crowd and the Orient Express prepares to depart. In the poem’s strange and dreamlike world, the narrator keeps his distance:
Preserve me as I am, unseen, unheard […]
I do my best to match my steps to his
so he won’t hear that he is being followed –
it’s quiet out and streets round here are narrow.
Nijhoff’s elegiac 300-line narrative is considered the great Dutch modernist poem, in part an allusive response to The Wasteland. But despite Brodsky hailing it as “the future of poetry”, it is still barely known outside the Netherlands. I first came across it in David Colmer’s echoing 2010 translation for Anvil (from which all of the quotes here are taken). Drawn to it after translating the dream-elegy Pearl, I went to talk to some of the poem’s admirers for a short audio piece I was making: After Awater, which was supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
Commentators have been on Awater’s trail for years. The narrator tells us he is searching for a substitute for his late brother (Nijhoff’s own brother had died not long before), but who was in Nijhoff’s imagination was Awater?
The cigarette that he’s forgotten glows
and grows a stem that blossoms on the ceiling.
He sits aloof and perfectly alone.
He has a deeply moving inner force,
like that within a planet or a flower.
The poem is reminiscent of other modernist city narratives, but also of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator tails a man overnight in the city of London (“Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view – to know more of him”). There are echoes too of Weldon Kees’s ‘Relating to Robinson’: “walking in the twilight toward the docks / I thought I made out Robinson ahead of me”, as well as Simon Armitage’s tracing of them both in Kid: “Robinson… / was back in town / and giving me the runaround.”
The epigraph to ‘Awater’ reads ik zoek een reisgenoot – wanted: a travelling companion. But as the poem progresses we wonder if the narrator might not simply be pursuing a version of himself. In Nijhoff’s ‘Pen to Paper’ (1927), the Pied Piper explains, “For everyone, there comes a time when a man sees himself walk away out of his own life” – “robinsonner” as Rimbaud so beautifully termed it, the writer at their table roaming the imaginative streets, filling “some other body” in the way Keats exhorted. Indeed Nijhoff’s first collection was called The Walker (De wandelaar).
If the figure of Awater is an alter-ego, leading rather than being chased, might he even be a kind of achieved other self, related in some way to Iago’s “In following him I follow but myself”? In one of the poem’s many hallucinatory moments the narrator tails Awater into a barber’s:
The barber does his job and I pretend
to be the next in line and take a seat.
I’ve never seen Awater closer by
than in this mirror: never has he appeared
so absolutely inaccessible.
Like Pessoa’s “other” (“I dream of the other’s presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define”), this may not be so straightforward. At a key moment in the poem Awater turns to face his stalker:
Awater, who has slowed and stopped, turns back
and studies me as if he knows my face.
I see a look in his eyes that seems to ask,
A similar scene occurs in Kees’s ‘Relating to Robinson’,
Just as I passed,
Turning my head to search his face,
His own head turned with mine
And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes
But Awater’s eyes are fixed “on some remote horizon / where constant bolts of lightning charge the sky”, like Robinson who, “like an echo in the dark”, says, “I thought I saw the whirlpool opening”. What have these characters seen that their narrators have not?
Most mysterious of all, just at the moment of ‘catching’ this ‘other’, Nijhoff’s narrator abandons him. While Awater stands listening to the Salvationist, the poet-narrator “hurries on / as if he has a train he has to catch.” This is the point at which international Nijhoff scholar Wiljan van den Akker argues that Awater (the quiet accountant whose machine autotypes beautiful elegies, who performs Petrarch like a cabaret-singer in the restaurant, who is fascinated by the Christian message) might be a figure for Eliot himself.
Everyone has their own ‘Awater’ reading: it’s a poem about the imagination, the unconscious mind, about bereavement, about the existential hollow in the wake of the First World War, about Eliot, about religion and the old world, about the future. But who are the characters writers follow into the night, deliberately keeping their distance, piggy-backing on their energy, drawing on their power? Let the last word be Nijhoff’s in James Holmes’s translation of his 1935 lecture ‘Poetry in a Period of Crisis’: “The pursuit of Awater, and the love I developed for him, made the desert habitable, or at least travellable, for me. The journey began in his shadow, but the love did not generate into attachment. Rather, it gave me the strength to continue the journey.”