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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Captain of the Butterflies

Cees Nooteboom

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Title: The Captain of the Butterflies
Author: Cees Nooteboom
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1955-96
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Captain of the Butterflies - US
The Captain of the Butterflies - UK
The Captain of the Butterflies - Canada
  • Translated by Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr
  • Introduction by Herlinde Spahr
  • Also includes a note by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good short but broad overview and introduction to Nooteboom's poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Cees Nooteboom is well-known and admired as a poet, but in the English-reading world he is still known almost exclusively as a novelist. This collection, which includes poetry selected from four decades worth of work, is the first to introduce his poetry in English.
       The poems are grouped thematically, rather than chronologically. While one misses being able to follow his development as a poet -- and while there are occasionally jarring transitions in tone and style from one poem to the next --, there is something to be said for the unity such an arrangement creates.
       The groupings fairly sum up Nooteboom's major interests: Self and Others, Travels and Visions, Poems and Fictions, Thoughts and Theses. A number of these subjects crop up in his fiction (and travel writing) as well, but it is interesting to see his approach to them in poetic form. Conveyed in short bits and bursts, the ideas and images in the poems present themselves differently than in his fiction.
       "I fold myself in a poem and wait" is one line, and indeed there is much of Nooteboom himself in these poems. The best poems from Self and Others find new expressions and twists in describing the self -- often with an emphasis on time and its passing -- while in the other sections the self also often plays a significant role, frequently in the guise of writer or poet.
       It is, often, "embalmed air," Nooteboom writes of "poetic poetry", and most of his verse avoids those "cheap perils." Direct, succinct, pared down, Nooteboom makes his points fairly quickly. Still, the poems are multi-layered, dense even in translation (though surely layers are lost in the process).
       In the excellent Bait he maintains "Poems can never be about me,/ Nor I about poetry," imagining then "Squadrons of poems in search of their poets." He is willing to explore poetry and writing from all angles, looking for the poem both within and without, accepting the contradictions of these approaches.
       The Captain of the Butterflies is a varied selection of poems, better suited for slow and selective perusal than read straight through. Certainly, there is a great deal that is of interest here, and Nooteboom's imaginative expression is, as in his fiction, always a treat to follow.
       A useful introduction to his poetry, this volume will hopefully pave the way for further translations into English.

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The Captain of the Butterflies: Reviews: Cees Nooteboom:
  • Other books by Cees Nooteboom under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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    About the Author:

           Dutch author Cees Nooteboom was born in 1933. He is a poet, novelist, and travel writer.

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