May 28, 2023

Belgian poet’s memories haunted by her father’s work with Nazis

THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF, by Laure-Anne Bosselaar, BOA Editions Ltd., Brockport, N.Y., May 1997, 95 pages, $12.50.

Laure-Anne Bosselaar and I met as presenters at last fall’s Voices From the North Country literary conference in Presque Isle. A small, serene woman with a wonderfully gentle accent, she read a few well-chosen poems that rocked a roomful of experienced poets and poetry-phobic prose artists such as myself back on our emotional heels.

Those same poems are part of the Belgian poet’s first English language collection, “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf,” published by BOA Editions this month. In one of my personal favorites, “The Cellar,” Bosselaar draws on her childhood in postwar Antwerp, where she grew up haunted by her father’s past as a Nazi collaborator at nearby Breendonck concentration camp. Through the eyes of a child, she creates a chilling parallel.

I want my father to stop sending me down there

to fetch his daily gin, and potatoes for supper.

But there’s no saying no to him, and no more places to hide:

he’s found them all. Outside, the cellar’s rusted door

stains my hands as I yank it open, scraping a branch

that whips back, grabbing at me — like he does.

Six stairs stop by a second door, with a hasp

and a slit between two thick planks. I press my face to it,

whisper to the bottles and potatoes: Go away, I’m coming!

But how can they? We’re all damned in this big

brick house in Antwerp, and I’m the Kapo,

I have no choice: it’s them or me.

I kneel in the cellar, pray: Don’t let me separate

families, don’t let me kill a child … then inch

toward the shelves — and reach. Sometimes

I think I hear a moan, a sob; sometimes it’s a child’s wail

so exactly like mine I think it comes out of me — so I quickly

put the thing back: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Whole bodies of work could be built on such memories. What gives “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf” its transcendence, however, is Bosselaar’s choice to explore a life not hung upon a single point.

“I once had a vinegar-faced, very PC, ultrafeminist, Marxist-theorist poet ask me, `So, in a few words, Laure-Anne, what’s your story?”‘ Bosselaar said. “I remember smiling my best smile and answering: `Nazi father, Flemish nuns, rape, work, sex, marriage and happiness!’ She didn’t like my answer. Oh well.”

The book’s title comes from an old Flemish saying about dusk, when one cannot tell a dog from a wolf. Bosselaar’s poems are infused with this same ambiguity, giving shades of meaning to experiences that could too easily be relegated to black-or-white interpretation.

If breadth of emotion makes these poems luminous, Bosselaar’s clarity of language makes them accessible. Like novelist Joseph Conrad, Bosselaar learned English as a third or fourth language. Like Conrad, she makes better use of it than many native speakers.

In “English Flavors” she writes:

I love to lick English the way I licked the hard

round licorice sticks the Belgian nuns gave me for six

good conduct points on Sundays after mass.

Love it when `plethora’, `indolence’, `damask’,

or my new word: `lasciviousness,’ stain my tongue,

thicken my saliva, sweet as those sticks.

Her work embodies the concept that poetry springs from moments of intense emotion recalled at leisure. As a child in the early 1950s, Bosselaar grew up in the aftermath of the second World War, so different in Europe than here. She was frequently sent to live at a convent where the nuns practiced a mix of religious fervor and mental cruelty, and where Jewish orphans waited in silent confusion for relatives who never came. Some childhood friends had numbers tattooed on their arms. As a young woman, Bosselaar knew love and loss in the nights of Antwerp, traveled Europe, worked for the Belgian and Luxembourg Radio and Television, and published a collection of French poems, “Artimis.”

Many of the poems in “Dog and Wolf” capture the lives of “lost souls roaming” — Belgian whores who woo sailors in six different tongues, bitter old men recalling dead German soldiers they buried secretly in Flemish fields. Others encompass her personal odyssey — an emotionally distant mother, the deaths of two of her children and her father, and finally, renewed life in America with her husband, poet Kurt Brown. They span the emotional scale, but the underlying theme is the struggle to come to terms with one’s past.

Of the 40-odd poems, only a few fell short for this reader, veering a few degrees off the beam from the overall intensity of the work. Though not bad in themselves, they pale by comparison to their more remarkable litter mates. This has not prevented the collection from attracting significant literary attention. “Dog and Wolf” was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, the National Poetry Series, the Ohio State University-The Journal Poetry Prize, the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, and the Four Way Books Intro Series.

Bosselaar holds a master of fine arts degree from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, edits poetry anthologies, and teaches an advanced poetry workshop at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Spoon River Poetry Review and NIMROD and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. “English Flavors,” won first prize in the 1996 National Poetry Contest.

Bosselaar will teach poetry writing at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Writer’s Conference in Freeport this summer and is translating contemporary American poets into French, and Flemish poetry into English. She also co-edited “Night Out: Poems about Hotels, Motels, Restaurants and Bars” (Milkweed: April 1997) with her husband.

Lynn Flewelling works as a novelist and free-lance writer in Bangor.

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