The Poet and the Monkey – Sonnet by CO Jellema
The poet Ko Jelema (1936-2003) expressed a preference for the sonnet form in movie image which Coen Peppelenbos and Hans Sprakel wrote about him in 1992: ‘For me, the poem that keeps form, the sonnet in particular, but also the ballad, is itself an inspiration, as it were. The fact that you have to say what you want to say in a certain formal setting, the structure of the sonnet as such, and also the poem, are inspiring aspects as well. The limitations it imposes and that you can apply all kinds of variations within those limited possibilities. This is inspiring. Here you can hear an echo of Goethe’s famous line “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister”. Gelema was German.
Of all the sonnets written by Jellima, the following is undoubtedly one of the most striking.
It bears the caption, “In Matisse Rowling’s painting.”
“The Poet and the Monkey” is a typical Jlima poem, in which the relationship between the individual and reality is central. And this is already evident in the first line: “So self-restraint became an image in him:”. In this way, the poet becomes aware of the world around him. It does so from the need to record what is observed in a particular form. In his poems, Jélima often touches on the “separation” between the outer world and the inner world. With poetry he tries to remove this chapter. In this case, it is through the painting described in this sonnet as a “constraint” of reality. This restriction is stored as an image in memory.
In painting, objects lose important features and gain different traits in return. The bronze statue of a horse has no weight, but gets leather. In the second quatrain, a person appears. It also loses in the picture much of what distinguishes it in reality. The head and hands are present, but the rest of the body has become a suit and shirt of starch. There is no body under it. The monkey was introduced into Alterzin. The lifeless bronze horse and living monkey surround the living man and seem to belong to different classes, but in the end they are composed of strokes of paint. Picture becomes picture. Reality cannot be customized. Dismissal cannot be cancelled.
The painting that Jellima is referring to is a self-portrait painted between 1975 and 1985 by Matisse Rowling. The painting depicts the poet on a 19th-century couch in a bright room with large windows. He put his right arm on the back of the sofa. His left arm rests on his legs. He wears a brown suit, with a tie over a white shirt. He looks carefully through a window outside the frame of the painting. Behind the poet there is a piece of land on which a bronze horse is depicted. Next to it is a bed with a striped bedspread. The monkey is sitting in front of that bed, on the shiny wood floor. The beast sits slightly, looking at his toes and arms around his knees, as monkeys can sometimes sit while they are being groomed.
Both the painting and the sonnet are unclear how that monkey ended up in that room. Gelema said the following about this in the aforementioned film: ‘Originally I was sitting in this room in the company of someone else, but that picture was such a flop, Mathis also thought, and he got rid of that shape and then the problem. Growing up: How am I supposed to fill that empty space.
Who is the mysterious figure drawn there? And why should he give way to the monkey? The answer to these questions can be found in Gerben Wynia’s Jellemabiography. It appears that the history of the painting actually began on June 10, 1966, with an encounter during a discussion group meeting for gay men and women in Amsterdam. Two years after Gerard Reeve suggested in one of his letters: “Well: after much worrying, I suddenly understood that it was not a homosexual, but society that abused him, the disease.” In conversational circles, people seek each other out to find an answer for themselves to the traditional rejection as passed up until then.
At the meeting, Jellima meets Hans Stolp. He immediately falls on the heels of this divinity student six years younger. This initially leads to much heartbreak as Stolp already has an affair with another man. Jelima writes many poems in which the pain of love is allowed to resonate more fully and all of which ultimately remain unpublished. Gelema will send them to Hans Stolpe. In October of the same year, this seemed to bear fruit. It is the poem “Clairvoyant” that convinces Stolp to leave his former partner. In this poem there is talk of “a prince coming to take me”. Stolp decides to accept the role assigned to him.
Stolp and Jellema would live together, something the vast majority of the population would not have agreed to in the 1960s. If a man and a woman start living together without being married, that is indeed something wrong in many eyes, but for two men, that was not possible at all. Jellima first lives in his student room in Utrecht for a while, then leaves for Groningen, then moves to Tull en ‘t Waal and finally settles in 1971 with Stolp in a beautiful old presbytery in Kerklaan in Zuidhorn, Groningen.
The young couple, who ostentatiously break the traditional pattern right there in the heart of the old village, meet resistance from the start. Jellima takes this more seriously than he would like. He seeks contact with open-minded people who have also settled in rural areas, mostly artists and intellectuals, who are described as “imported” by the natives. Mattis Rowling is one of the creative minds. Jellima had been introduced to the wild figurehead painter a few years earlier. They get along well from the start, in part because Jellima has an opinion on art that aligns with Rowling’s. He describes it in the aforementioned portrait as follows:
If you can distinguish between abstraction and photography, I prefer op art. This fine art may have a high degree of abstraction, but it may not turn out to be abstract. I can feel the aesthetics of a particular conceptual art or lyrical expression, but I don’t really experience much of it. Maybe because I also experienced the visual arts primarily in a literary way, or because I want to see a story in it.
In 1975, Jelima asked Rowling to make a double portrait of himself and his lover. One by one, Jellima and Stolp report to Rowling’s studio in Essing to sit as a model. When the picture is done, it seems that both Jelima and Stolp are not very happy with the way Rowling painted it. Stolp in particular is deeply dissatisfied. He finds himself portrayed as a submissive servant to his partner who ignores him on the couch. On April 16, 1977, Jellima and Stolp organized a church in the old presbytery. They invite family and friends. When the painting is revealed, it turns out that a good portion of the guests also find it rather special. It gives Stolp in particular a very bad feeling. For the first time he realizes that his relationship with Jelima has an expiration date.
It would take until 1982 before the expiration date would actually expire. That year, Jellima falls in love with someone else. It heralds the eventual end of the relationship with Stolp. In order to finally sanction the divorce, the poet removed the image from the old priest’s attic in 1984, where it has been gone ever since. He takes her to Matthijs Röling with the task of removing his ex-wife from the board. Röling scrapes off paint remover, then removes the remaining paint residue and covers the resulting hole with a fresh coat of primer. There is an empty space that needs to be filled with something else.
But with what?
In the film image, Jillema explains that it was Matisse Rowling who chose the monkey: `I left it up to him. He asked me what I would wish there, but I said, “So think about it.” And there was a traditional proposal to put a beautiful bouquet there. But he didn’t think this was a successful idea. At one point he said, “The painting is over again.” It has now been nearly ten years. Then it turned out that he had drawn a monkey on it. Rowling himself had an earthy explanation for his choice. He had seen such a monkey in a Chinese painting and was impressed by it.
Although Rowling’s choice seems somewhat haphazard, it fits perfectly with Jelima’s poetics. Therefore, it is not for nothing that the monkey in the end also gets a place in one of his sonnets. Animals are closer to nature than humans. They do not encounter the segregation, which plays an important role in the works of Jellima. So the monkey in the sonnet is there as a better observer of reality. The painting, or “Beautiful Birth,” is for the monkey a foolish attempt to make sense of the world. But it is not the monkey who realizes this, but the poet. They are united in the painting, but remain separate as a result of the viewer’s interpretation of them. Even the monkey is attributed to grief. But who suffers from this gloom? In order to answer this question, the line between the poet and the monkey must be lifted for some time. That’s what Jelema is doing here.
The painting can be viewed in the gallery until June 4 Looking inside at Matthijs Röling In the Wierdenland Museum in Ezinge.
Ko Jelema – Poems, poems, sonnets. Queredo, Amsterdam.
Gerard Reeve – Letters to Josen M. 1959-1975. Van Aorschoot, Amsterdam.
trypin winia – I think of roses in winter. Biography CO Jellema. University of Groningen Groningen. The public version is published by Querido and costs 45 euros.